Mayor James C. Luttrell: legacy of diplomacy

Jim Tumblin
History and Mysteries

Surely no other Knoxville mayor faced challenges equal to those of Mayor James C. Luttrell. His political skills and ability as a diplomat enabled him to serve as mayor through both the Confederate and the Union occupations of the city during the Civil War.

James Churchwell Luttrell Jr. was born in Knox County on March 3, 1813. He was the son of James C. Luttrell and the former Martha Armstrong, daughter of Robert Armstrong. It was Martha’s brother and nephew who built two of the Three Sisters Mansions still standing on Kingston Pike.

James Jr. graduated from the East Tennessee College (which later became the University of Tennessee) in 1832 when the iconic Dr. Charles Coffin was president. Luttrell became a trustee of the school in 1859 and served until his death.

On March 11, 1841, Luttrell married Eliza Carr Bell, the daughter of another former Knoxville mayor, Samuel Bell. The Luttrells became parents to four daughters and three sons.

Luttrell’s education, his magnetic personality and his native drive enabled him to serve in many public offices at the city, county, state and national levels.

From 1848 to 1856 he was register of Knox County and, for part of that time (1849-1853), he served simultaneously as postmaster. Under the administration of Gov. Andrew Johnson, he became state comptroller (1855-58). He was first elected mayor of Knoxville in 1854 and again from 1859 to 1867.

Col. James C. Luttrell Jr. (1813-1879). His superb diplomatic skills enabled Luttrell to serve as Knoxville mayor during both the Confederate and Union occupations of the city during the Civil War. Photo courtesy of the McClung Historical Collection
Col. James C. Luttrell Jr. (1813-1879). His superb diplomatic skills enabled Luttrell to serve as Knoxville mayor during both the Confederate and Union occupations of the city during the Civil War. Photo courtesy of the McClung Historical Collection

During the Civil War years (1861-1865), Knoxville was first occupied by Confederate forces. When Union Gen. Ambrose Burnside arrived on Sept. 3, 1863, he found that Gen. Simon B. Buckner and his Southern troops had abandoned the city and departed for the Chattanooga area where the battles of Chickamauga (Sept. 20) and Chattanooga (Nov. 23-25) would be fought. Historian Oliver Perry Temple reported that Luttrell unfurled a large American flag, which he had kept for the occasion, at the corner of Main and Gay streets when the Union Army marched into the city.

The incumbent postmaster had abandoned his post and Mayor Luttrell also assumed the position of postmaster and would remain in office until 1869. He had publically declared himself loyal to the Union as early as May 1861, when he was a representative from Knox County at the Union Convention held in Knoxville to decide whether Tennessee would secede.

In speaking of the divided loyalties within families in East Tennessee, R. Tracy McKenzie (“Lincolnites and Rebels: a Divided Town in the American Civil War,” 2006) says, “… the primary line of conflict was intergenerational, that is, between fathers and sons. The lone exception was the family of Knoxville’s mayor, moderate Unionist James C. Luttrell, who had sons in each army. When war broke out, John Luttrell left his studies at the University of North Carolina to enlist in the Confederate Army and ultimately died in the service. His younger brother, James Jr. (sic), likewise sided with the Confederacy. Enrolling in an artillery company in Knoxville in the summer of 1861, he rose to the rank of lieutenant and survived to surrender with (Gen.) Joseph Johnston in North Carolina in the spring of 1865. The youngest Luttrell brother, on the other hand, seventeen-year-old Samuel, initially stayed home but later joined the 12th Tennessee Cavalry (USA). Both surviving sons – Confederate Jim and Unionist Sam – eventually followed in their father’s footsteps to serve as mayor of Knoxville.”

Luttrell remained as Knoxville mayor after the end of hostilities and the surrender at Appomattox (April 9, 1865) and held the office until 1867. He continued to serve as postmaster until 1869. At the close of the war, Luttrell became a Democrat and was elected to the state Senate where he would continue from 1869 to 1871. He continued as a trustee of his alma mater, the former East Tennessee College, which became the University of Tennessee in 1879, shortly after his death.

Col. James C. Luttrell was in Nashville visiting his daughter and son-in-law, Dr. William Morrow, where his daughter could care for him. His health had severely deteriorated when his wife passed away months earlier. However, he had rallied until weeks before his death on July 6, 1878, at 65 years of age. He was buried in the Old Gray Cemetery beside his wife.

The Luttrell family distinguished itself by providing two other family members as mayors of the city. Samuel Bell Luttrell (1844-1933), hardware merchant, president of the Knoxville Real Estate Co. and president of the Mechanics National Bank, would serve from 1879 to 1880. James Churchwell Luttrell III (1841-1914), also a hardware merchant, president of Southern Hardware Association, director of the Chamber of Commerce and director of Mechanics National Bank, served as mayor from 1885 to 1887. Their maternal grandfather, Samuel Bell (1798-1882), had been mayor of Knoxville from 1840 to 1842 and from 1844 to 1846.

(Dr. Tumblin’s latest book, “Fountain City: Those Who Made a Difference,” is available at Kenton Page’s Fountain City Pharmacy, Pratt’s Country Store, the East Tennessee History Center, Union Ave Books and online.)

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