Shouts and Signs, But No Violence at Fort Sanders Rally

Aug 26, 2017

Knox County deputies line 17th Street between opposing demonstrators at a rally in Fort Sanders, Saturday, August 26, 2017.
Credit Molly Mullin

Supporters and opponents of a Civil War memorial marker in Knoxville's Fort Sanders neighborhood shouted at each other across 17th Street on Saturday afternoon. Dozens of law enforcement officers stood between them. Mayor Madeline Rogero and Police Chief David Rausch watched from a command center. Streets were blocked and passersby were told to avoid the area. But the three-hour demonstration came and went without major incident, and the neighborhood began to return to normal before 5:00 p.m.

About an hour after the event began, a group of counter-protesters ventured into the pro-monument side of 17th Street and shouted at supporters. Police escorted the group away. Later in the afternoon, a woman tried to get into the anti-monument side with a Mason jar, an object banned by protest rules. She refused to give the jar up, and was arrested.

But that was it, so far as disturbances were concerned. Video shot on-site showed the demonstrators were noisy but peaceful. The majority of both groups respected the boundaries set earlier in the week by Knoxville's police department. Late in the afternoon, Police Chief David Rausch estimated three dozen monument supporters and roughly 2,800 counter-protesters showed up.

"At least to this point, what could have been a bad day turned out about as well as could be expected," Bill Lyons, deputy to Rogero, wrote on Facebook after the demonstration ended.

Blocks away, in Krutch Park, an estimated 400 people turned out for a broader demonstration emphasizing unity and civil disagreement. The event was termed a "kindness rally." Speaker Daryl Arnold, a pastor at Overcoming Believers Church in Knoxville, implored the crowd to "fly above the storm" of bigotry and animus.

Erected in 1914, the pink limestone monument on 17th Street commemorates the Battle of Fort Sanders, a Confederate assault on Union-occupied Knoxville. Union forces, led by Gen. Ambrose Burnside, prevailed, and the Confederate troops suffered heavy casualties - 129 were killed, compared to 8 Union soldiers. The marker that sparked today's demonstration memorializes the Confederate dead, and includes an elegiac poem. The Union monument, carved from the same pink limestone, stands about a block away.

After violence erupted in Charlottesville, Va., earlier this month, some cities began to consider the future of Civil War monuments. In Knoxville, competing petitions sought to either remove or protect the Fort Sanders memorial. The decision may ultimately lie with the Tennessee Historical Commission, a state board that has the authority to keep or remove historical markers, statuary and other monuments.