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Uncommon Times: A Civil War exhibit, open a few more days

One of the few things we know already about 2013 is that it's the big sesquicentennial year for Knoxville's experience with the Civil War. The city's two most dramatic battles both took place in 1863. The Battle of Knoxville in November, 1863, is the better known, the Confederates' major assault on Fort Sanders, the culmination of a weeks-long siege involving a daunting ring of fortresses, two famous generals and tens of thousands of soldiers. Less well known is then-Col. William Sanders Union assault on the city the previous June.

Did any other American city withstand unsuccessful assaults from both armies in the same year? It's an unlikely circumstance, and it's Knoxville's peculiar distinction.

So all that was 150 years ago this year. At this writing it's hard to tell if Knoxville's Civil War sesquicentennial will be something random civilians will notice unless they're looking for it. There are some interesting-sounding exhibits and lectures coming up; the Civil War Gateway will educate visitors on the Blount Mansion property, with interesting maps, etc., and there will be a big re-enactment of the siege in October (perhaps because it's nicer weather than late November).

Right now, though have a look at the temporary exhibit at the East Tennessee History Center, "Common People in Uncommon Times," the state sesquicentennial commision's small but densely comprehensive traveling exhibition, as interesting a Civil War exhibit of photographs and artifacts as you can cram into any one room. Included is a short, interesting film about Tennessee's role in the war.

It includes a few local artifacts, from pottery made by hanged Union saboteur C.A. Haun, to a handful of Confederate coffee beans. To some, it might be worth the price of admission just to get a good stare at Parson Brownlow's cane sword, a dangerous-looking concealed dagger the oft-threatened Reconstruction governor felt obliged to carry with him.

You can get a pretty good look at it in half an hour, but many prefer to pore over these things a good deal longer.

Hurry, because it closes Jan. 13. Hours vary, but it's open every day until at least 4, and free on Sunday. The $5 admission on other days will get you into the main museum, too.

The Knoxville version of the exhibit brings the war home with a fascinating addition put together by the East Tennessee Historical Society, "In Death Not Divided: Civil War Tombstones and the Stories They Tell." It's an arresting series of images and capsule stories about some extraordinary endings, during the war and after, as was the case with the disparate fates of Eldad Cicero Camp and Henry Ashby; the former, a Union veteran, shot the latter, a Confederate veteran, in downtown Knoxville in 1868. Though it was three years after he could legally have done so, he got away with it anyway and became a prominent local tycoon. There's the story of General Sanders' secret burial, and a discussion of the still-unsolved mystery of the lone Confederate commemorated at the federal cemetery. They're mixed with stories of hangings, assassinations, and other remarkable endings of a war that, here, lasted somewhat more than four years.  

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