Memorial Day has been celebrated in Knoxville for about as long as the holiday has existed.
Originally known as Decoration Day, it was a day for decorating the graves of war dead with flowers. A day to remember Union soldiers killed in the Civil War, it was ignored in most of the South, but not in Knoxville, where it was celebrated with parades and cemetery observances.
According to a generations-old story that may be unprovable, a Knoxville woman started a national tradition. During an unusual spring season in the 1870s when few flowers were available, Laura Richardson, who had been in charge of decorations, introduced the tradition of planting tiny U.S. flags on the graves of soldiers. According to the story, she was inspired when she saw an overstocked toy flags on display in a Knoxville store window, and got her friends at the Burr and Terry Sawmill – in what’s now the Old City – to make appropriate miniature staffs for the flags. She and her comrades then planted them in the National Cemetery.
Knoxville’s National Cemetery is on Tyson Street, north of downtown, near Old Gray. Established during the Civil War, it’s older than most national cemeteries, a little older even than the famous Arlington National Cemetery near Washington. The East Tennessee campaigns of the Civil War resulted in hundreds of soldier deaths, and called for the establishment of a national cemetery under the terms suggested by new wartime legislation in Congress.
It has one very strange bit of history. The marble monument, surmounted by a statue of a Union soldier, replaced a previous monument topped featuring an iron eagle perched upon an iron cannonball. The original, paid for by local donations, was destroyed when struck by a lightning bolt in 1904. Federal funds secured by Knoxville’s Republican U.S. Congressman Henry Gibson, who was himself a Union veteran, provided for a new monument that would not attract lightning.
The East Tennessee Veterans Memorial was established in World’s Fair Park in 2008, after several years of preparation and fundraising from public and private sources. It’s located between the L&N STEM Academy and the Court of Flags area, well-known for its fountains.
The memorial, designed by Knoxville architect Lee Ingram, is composed of 32 granite slabs, or pylons, each nine feet tall, an American flag on a 50-foot pole, and a 27-foot bell tower celebrating the Four Freedoms as enumerated by President Franklin Roosevelt at the beginning of World War II: Freedom of Speech, Freedom to Worship, Freedom from Want, and Freedom from Fear.
Its location near the L&N station is appropriate, because it was one of the two stations from which trains full of new recruits, especially during World War I, left for training and service overseas. For some soldiers, the L&N may have been their last glimpse of their hometown.
Knoxville has been home to veterans of every war fought by or for the United States. Several of Knoxville’s founders were Revolutionary War veterans, and Knoxvillians have participated in the War of 1812, the Mexican War, the Civil War, and the Spanish-American War. However, in inscribing names, planners chose to concentrate on war deaths beginning with World War I because records of 20th and 21st century wars are more complete and accurate.
Inscribed on granite slabs are the names of 6,230 East Tennessee soldiers who were killed in battle since 1917. About 850 of them were from Knox County.
Given special attention are soldiers awarded the Medal of Honor. Among them are three Knoxvillians: James E. Karnes, who served in France in World War I, and Troy McGill and Alexander Bonnyman, who died in the Pacific Theater in World War II.
Most of the dead were from one war that lasted less than four years: World War II. A total of 3,900 East Tennesseans died in that conflict, 557 of whom were from Knox County.
The monument also includes a quotation from Brigadier General Lawrence Davis Tyson, who was a veteran of the Spanish American War and World War I. In a 1921 speech he gave at the dedication of the memorial “doughboy statue” on Fifth Avenue in front of Knoxville High School, he said the following:
These men have paid the last full measure of devotion to mankind, and it now remains for us to be worthy of the great sacrifices they made for us. It is for us, the living, to consecrate ourselves to carry on the work they died to accomplish, which was to make the world a safer and better and more peaceful place in which to live.
Tyson’s own son, Navy Lt. McGhee Tyson, was killed in an airplane crash on a mission over the North Sea in October, 1918. Gen. Tyson and his wife Bettie donated a park to the city–Tyson Park–with the understanding that Knoxville’s airport would always be named for their son, as a memorial.