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The Tennessee Volunteer Spirit

Monday, June 12th, 2023 | Uncategorized | No Comments

By Joseph Rose

If you’ve been in Tennessee long, then you’ve heard a lot about our Volunteer Spirit. It’s everywhere. Not only are we called the Volunteer State, but, as you know, the University of Tennessee’s football team is even named the Volunteers (GO VOLS!). But where does that name come from? What is our Volunteer Spirit? And why is it such a big deal around here?

Tennessee’s volunteer spirit comes across in numerous ways. For as long as we’ve been a state, we have consistently put ourselves forward to help others in any way we could, even if we didn’t receive anything in return. Throughout our history, Tennesseans have consistently displayed a willingness to fight and even die, not just in defense of their own freedoms, but in the defense of others too, no matter how far away they might be. That sense of determined selflessness has defined Tennessee as a state, and it has also defined us as a people for over two hundred years.

During the War of 1812, after President James Madison declared war on Great Britain, and when British and American forces were about to battle on American soil, the General Assembly sent out a call for volunteers to fight. Soon, over 3,500 Tennesseans answered the call. And as the war went on, even more joined the fight, reaching an estimated 28,000 Tennessean volunteers before the war was done. These men had a huge impact on the remainder of the war. Most importantly, many of them went on to serve under General Andrew Jackson at the last major battle of the war, known as the Battle of New Orleans. Jackson himself later said that his experiences commanding his men, including the volunteers from Tennessee, were some of the proudest moments in his life. Instrumental to American victory in New Orleans, Tennessee had earned the title of “The Volunteer State”.

Years later, when Texas sought its independence from Mexico, again the call went out for volunteers. And again, Tennessee answered. Shortly after the fighting broke out, the famous Davy Crockett, along with numerous other men from Tennessee, rode from their homes to fight for Texas. These men went on to join the defenders of the Alamo, where they held out against over 2,000 Mexican soldiers for thirteen days before they were finally overrun. Though nearly thirty Tennesseans gave their lives in that battle, the whole country holds them and their sacrifice in high honor to this day. With Tennessee men in key positions of authority (including Sam Houston, a native Tennessean himself and a prominent figure in the fight for Texan independence), it could be said that Texas owes her freedom to the proud state of Tennessee.

As if that wasn’t enough, ten years later, when President James K. Polk honored his promise to annex Texas as a state, tensions flared between Mexico and the United States. Eventually, it was clear that the two nations were firmly set on the road to war. When hostilities began, President Polk (a resident and former governor of Tennessee himself) considered his options. At the time, the regular standing army of the United States had only 8,000 men, not nearly enough to prosecute a successful war against Mexico. With no other options, the President called upon each state for between 2,600 and 2,800 volunteers to join the war effort.

When the President’s call for aid reached Nashville, it was followed by stories of Davy Crockett’s heroic last stand for Texan Independence, along with the awareness that fellow Tennessean Sam Houston was fighting in Texas even then. The Battle of the Alamo was still fixed in the minds of most Tennesseans, and before the week was out, President Polk got far more than he asked for. Instead of the 2,800 men he had requested, over 30,000 men had volunteered, eager to finish the fight so many of their fellow Tennesseans had died for a decade before.

In the war that followed, the Tennessee volunteers proved their worth time and time again, earning a reputation as excellent soldiers and marksmen and becoming highly sought after as a result. More than that, their sheer numbers increased the size of the United States Army to such an extent that other men, trying to volunteer themselves, often complained that they weren’t even able to buy their place in a militia unit. The army was simply too full to take any more men.

Propped up by Tennessean volunteers, the United States Army took the fight to Mexico. Even under inexperienced or even incompetent commanders, the skills and courage of the men from Tennessee won the day again and again. Even when General Scott decided to march directly towards Mexico City, heedless of supply lines or backup, his quick thinking and the dedication of the Tennessee volunteers under his command again emerged victorious. Despite being vastly outnumbered and finding themselves deep in foreign territory without supplies or reinforcements, they were able to win the war decisively, even with all the world telling them it was impossible. And without the involvement of volunteers from Tennessee, the world might well have been right!

This volunteer spirit has defined the history of Tennessee for as long as we have been a state, demonstrating an eagerness to serve our fellow man without regard for ourselves. Despite being nicknamed the Volunteer State since 1812, Tennessee never officially adopted the name. Until recently. In 2020, to commemorate the spirit and heritage that has long made us what we are, the state finally passed a resolution officially declaring Tennessee to be “The Volunteer State”. That legacy, and our volunteer spirit, will go on to define us for generations to come.

Joseph Rose is a freelance writer and frequent contributor to East Tennessee’s Mountain Views. Joseph can be reached at pyrose17@gmail.com.

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