We Volunteer!

The internal debate started almost as soon as I hit the SEND button on last week’s column. I’d promised to explain to why University of Tennessee teams are called “Volunteers.” But might offering up such information be insulting? Did everyone in Putnam County, and from Memphis to Mountain City for that matter, already know why the words “Tennessee” and “Volunteer” go together?

As it turns out, no. Several random “person on the street” conversations convinced me that lots of people have only a vague notion about the connection, if they have any notion at all.

The short answer is that, following a University of Tennessee football game against Georgia Tech way back in 1902, a sports reporter for the Atlanta Journal referred to UT as “the Volunteers.” The name stuck and was made official by the university in 1905.

But what made that sports reporter use the nickname in the first place?

To answer that question, we need to journey back more than 200 years to the War of 1812. As the fledgling United States of America battled British forces once again, it was apparent that the army needed more men. To encourage enlistment, Tennessee soldier Jacob Hartsell wrote the poem “The Brave Volunteer,” which I share with you here, original spelling intact:

Our Countries Invaded o hare the alarme
Turn out Sons of Tennessee and gird on your armes
We air Sons of columbia and Straingers to fear
Sure heaven will smile on the brave Volunteer
The blood of our fathers has bought Liberty
And raised up a nation proud hearted and free
Their sons will maintain its freedom so dear
And to meet their invaders turn out Volunteer

Governor William Blount sent out a request for 3,500 soldiers. More than 25,000 Tennesseans answered the call. They fought in battles from the Canadian border to the Gulf of Mexico, where they helped Tennessee’s own General Andrew Jackson defeat British forces at the Battle of New Orleans in 1815.

Two decades later, volunteers from Tennessee joined Davy Crockett and Sam Houston as Texas battled Mexico for independence. And in 1847, when President James K. Polk—also a proud Tennessean—asked Tennessee governor Aaron V. Brown for 2,800 additional soldiers to aid in the Mexican War, 30,000 Tennesseans (perhaps with Davy Crockett’s ultimate sacrifice at the Alamo still fresh in their minds) swelled the ranks of the militia.

Many complained of being turned away even after they offered to purchase a spot.

Tennesseans, widely admired for their bravery and marksmanship skills, have proudly served in every war since, from the Civil War (120,000 soldiers to the Confederacy and 30,000 to the Union), the Spanish-American War, both World Wars, Korea, Vietnam, to the continuing conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan.

As to why, in 1953, the University of Tennessee chose a bluetick coonhound named “Smokey” to be the official mascot for the University of Tennessee, that answer will have to wait for another time.

(April 30, 2014)

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