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Guests of Honor

Weird Tales of the Fourth

by Jack Neely

There was a time, in the years just after the Civil War, in the Reconstruction South, when the Fourth of July appeared to be a dying holiday, known mainly as a day when boys could get away with blowing off a firecracker or two. Irish immigrants boasted that, in Knoxville, St. Patrick's Day was much noisier than the Fourth of July.

Editorialists remembered the Fourth nostalgically, as one of those things we used to do before the war. A time of "ginger cakes and ciders" and public fireworks. "It will take a long time to forget," mourned an editor for the Knoxville Press & Herald in 1873. "But there is no more Fourth. Its glory has departed."

That all changed suddenly at the dawn of July 4, 1874, when university cadets fired 12-lb. Napoleons from old Fort Sanders, a 38-gun salute to the sunrise. It woke the whole city, although "the newspaperman especially thought it was the best thing to turn over and sleep again."

One of the thousands awakened by the volley was a visitor to town, a middle-aged man with graying sideburns who was sleeping at Perez Dickinson's Main Street mansion. Later that day he admitted that he woke up thinking he was back in the war.

Col. Dickinson's distinguished guest was the former governor of Rhode Island. Ambrose Burnside was a celebrity many Knoxvillians recognized because he'd lived on Gay Street for a few months a decade before, when he was commander of the Union occupation force here. The tonsorial innovator made time to spend the Fourth back in Knoxville; Burnside's successful defense of the city in 1863 may have been the high point of his military career.

A grandiose Fourth of July parade took Burnside's carriage, a barouche drawn by four white horses, through downtown Knoxville. Later he boarded the train to Inskip, where a cornet band greeted him with "Hail To the Chief" and he and thousands of Knoxvillians played croquet, danced to a string band, and generally enjoyed "a happy day in the woods." Back downtown that evening, at the old baseball grounds on Gay Street, they sent up the fire balloons, followed by a rocket show. One editor offered his highest praise: "Everyone says it was a real ante-bellum Fourth of July."

The Fourth was a very big deal every year after that, but everyone expected the national Centennial to be the biggest of all.

On the Fourth of July, 1876, Knoxville planned bigger parades, bigger picnics, and louder fireworks, than ever before. Now a U.S. Senator, Burnside couldn't make it, but Knoxville was to have an especially unusual substitute. It wasn't to be an old Civil War general this time, but a veteran of the Mexican War: General Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna.

Santa Anna has a peculiar place in the history of America, and of Tennessee. In 1836, his troops defeated the garrison at the Alamo and slaughtered all its soldiers, including Tennessean Davy Crockett. A few weeks later, onetime Knoxville-area resident Sam Houston defeated Santa Anna at San Jacinto. Tennessee President Andrew Jackson entertained Santa Anna in the White House, perhaps appreciative of the fact that in killing Crockett, Santa Anna had removed one of several painful thorns in Jackson's hide. A decade later, as president of Mexico, Santa Anna led the Mexican forces against the United States invasion led by another Tennessee president, James K. Polk. Santa Anna's erratic political behavior had brought about his fall from grace in Mexico. But somehow, in 1876, the octogenarian had admirers in Knoxville.

After some questioned Santa Anna's appropriateness as a guest of honor, a letter published in the Knoxville Tribune defended the Mexican cause and praised "the courage and skill with which Santa Anna fought for his country." It was signed, "Tennessee."

Santa Anna was said to be on his way from Mexico to the Philadelphia exposition. Correspondence with Santa Anna's secretary, Don Miguel Estellaro, was published in the Knoxville Chronicle on June 29: from a way station in Alabama, "Gen. Santa Anna expresses his gratitude for the invitation and opportunity offered." He expected to be here by the morning of July 4.

A committee of prominent businessmen requested that "a number of our oldest and most respected citizens be appointed a Committee of Reception; that a cavalry escort be sent down the road to meet him and that an artillery salute be fired in his honor."

Every mention of Santa Anna came in short items separate from the holiday coverage. "Knoxville may congratulate herself," one went, "on so rare an opportunity to see one of the world's greatest heroes."

Always ready for an opportunity, a couple of Knoxville entrepreneurs stepped forward to sponsor Santa Anna's visit. The Strong Brothers, who ran a grocery on Market Square, ran an open letter to Santa Anna on June 30: "We earnestly invite you to call, while in the city, and examine our stock of staple and fancy groceries....

Later, cigar merchant W.P. Tolson announced that Santa Anna himself had accepted an invitation to enjoy his stock of imported Spanish cigars and would, in fact, make Tolson's store his Knoxville headquarters.

"Santa Anna On Hand," one item was headlined. "Will Be Here In Time For the Procession / The Distinguished Soldier In Hands Of the Committee."

Exactly what they meant, and exactly what people saw on Gay Street on July 4, 1876, is unknown. But there were plenty of witnesses. Estimates ranged from 15,000 to 20,000 "men and women, foreign and native, white and colored" celebrants.

It was a parade like none seen before, and none seen recently. Proud of its remoteness, South Knoxville had styled itself "South America" for years; a mounted contingent of 200 "horsemen and infantry" crossed the river to accept a silk American flag emblazoned South America in gold.

Then there was a tradition from previous years, the mounted procession of the Ancient and Horrible Artillerie. The mystic brotherhood, apparently affiliated with the university, tried to outdo every other entrant in their extravagance. The Chronicle reported they wore "every whimsical and uncouth costume that could be imagined or devised." Some rode mules; others rode "poor and exceedingly rough-looking horses." The Tribune reported their appearance was "decidedly unique, not to say grotesque."

Several businesses entered extravagant floats, many of them featuring actual factory work on wagons: nailmakers, kegmakers, shoemakers, all practicing their craft on wheels. One of the most memorable was the Hockenjos Cigar wagon, which featured a seven-foot long cigar which weighed 45 pounds. "Many a lover of the weed looked with longing eyes at the mammoth cigar...." Perhaps to prove the mildness of a Hockenjos smoke, a "small boy" sat on the float smoking a foot-and-a-half long stogie.

The local German society Turn Verein featured a float with a boy acrobat performing on a pole. A 24-piece orchestra led by composer Gustavus Knabe provided the music.

As colorful as it is, the long, detailed Knoxville Chronicle accounts of the grand parade mentions nothing about the appearance of an ancient Mexican warrior. The Tribune did describe a unknown man riding with his secretary "in a hansom cab drawn by two horses tandem. The vehicle was for a while the center of attention, hundreds pressing to catch a glimpse of [his] features."

One witness later recalled seeing the man riding down the street "with all due pomp and solemnity," acknowledging the crowds "to the inexpressible joy of those in the street...."

News traveled slowly in those days. Three days after the parade, on July 7, 1876, both Knoxville papers reported that General Santa Anna was dead. Santa Anna had died in Mexico, in fact, back on June 20. His death came days before his secretary reportedly agreed that he would meet a delegation from Knoxville.

An old man who recalled the event for a newspaper article in 1922 recalled the Santa Anna visit as a hoax; he said someone stood in for the general in an official parade carriage. Its timing seems to have been a bizarre coincidence. The entire story played out during a period of two weeks when few, if any, North Americans knew that the real Santa Anna was dead.

Whether embarrassed or coy about their part in the deception, both the Chronicle and the Tribune dropped the issue. Neither appears to have commented on the hoax or the coincidence of Santa Anna's death.

But there are hints that some were wise to it. The Strong Brothers grocery ad closed their June 30 invitation with this weird sentence: "Hoping what little of you is still living and roaming and loose may never die, we are truly yours."

That's either a heartless greeting to an old general, or a wink.

June 28, 2001 * Vol. 11, No. 26
© 2001 Metro Pulse