William "Bill" Crutchfield was born in Greenville, Tennessee, on November 16, 1824. His family moved to Chattanooga in the late 1830s, but William left home in 1840, moving first to McMinnville, Tennessee, then in 1844 to Jacksonville, Alabama, where he established a grain farm and became a captain in the local militia.
William's father, Thomas, a successful brick contractor and land speculator died in 1850, and William moved back to Chattanooga to help his younger brother, Thomas Jr., manage the estate and the large hotel their father had built, the Crutchfield House. Crutchfield was elected alderman in 1851 and again in 1854. He was instrumental in establishing the town's police and fire departments.
Although the family owned slaves, many of whom worked as cooks, housekeepers and laundry workers in the hotel, William Crutchfield, a Whig, became more and more outspoken in his opposition to secession as the war approached. Crutchfield gained regional fame and notoriety for his confrontation with Jefferson Davis as chronicled in my previous post.
Crutchfield was hardly alone in his Unionist leanings. East Tennessee was a bastion of Unionist sentiment (more on that in a later post); while most Chattanoogans leaned toward secession, Hamilton County was overwhelmingly Unionist. The attitude in the very early days of the war, especially before Tennessee finally seceded in June 1861, seemed to be live and let live. That all changed in November.
In connection with a planned Union attack from Kentucky through the Cumberland Gap into East Tennessee (which General William Tecumseh Sherman cancelled at the last minute), East Tennessee Unionists burned a series of railroad bridges throughout the region. Only five of nine targeted bridges were destroyed and they were quickly rebuilt, but the Confederate authorities came down hard on the region. Several bridge burners were executed, martial law was declared in some areas, and dozens of Unionists, including William Crutchfield, were arrested. The 7th Alabama Infantry Regiment, led by Colonel S. A. M. Wood, was sent to Chattanooga to keep the peace.
Crutchfield escaped his imprisonment and fled the area. Although he never joined the Union army he served as a scout and guide throughout the Chattanooga Campaign. In 1862, he led General James Negley to a spot opposite the town on the Tennessee River on Stringer's Ridge where he could shell the town. In 1863, he led Colonel John Wilder to the same spot. Wilder also shelled the town there, opening the Chattanooga Campaign. Crutchfield also fought at Chickamauga, assisted Generals William Hazen and John Turchin at the Battle of Brown's Ferry, and Ulysses S. Grant and George Thomas at the Battle of Missionary Ridge, and James Steedman in the post-campaign Union occupation of the town.
Phil Sheridan wrote in his memoirs that Crutchfield's "devotion to the Union cause knew no bounds." Oliver Perry Temple, in his Notable Men of Tennessee, described Crutchfield as "eccentric and peculiar beyond description. He was vehement in manner and impetuous in action. Yet, with all his violence of manner, his heart was as kind and true as ever beat in the human breast. And he was brave, too, to the verge of desperation."
In April 1864, Crutchfield was a part of Hamilton County's three-man delegation to the East Tennessee Convention in Knoxville. The convention was called to discuss Lincoln's ten percent plan in which states would be readmitted to the Union if ten percent of their prewar voting populations took the Oath of Allegiance and pledged to support emancipation. The convention quickly devolved into infighting and disbanded without accomplishing anything.
In October 1865, Crutchfield was elected alderman in Chattanooga's provisional civil government. In December, he was reelected for a full term.
In 1872, Crutchfield ran for the 3rd District seat in the U. S. House of Representatives. He edged his Democratic opponent, David Key, 10,041 to 8960. In Washington, he gained widespread attention for his eccentricities and manner of dress. A Washington Star correspondent noted that...
Since the days of Davy Crockett, Tennessee has always managed to have one mountaineer character in Congress, and Crutchfield, the latest, is said to resemble Crockett more in originality and style than any of the intervening line. He is a sunburnt, wiry little man, with foxy hair and whiskers, and though, by report, of considerable means, wears the cheapest of homespun suits, a good deal frayed at the edges, and with a pair of heavy, well-greased brogans that were the perpetual despair of the Pullman boot-blacks. He is not only a mighty hunter, like Crockett, but is moreover a shrewd business man.That same correspondent, in the same article, used eye dialect to record a speech that Crutchfield gave, mocking his thick Southern accent.
While in Congress, Crutchfield managed to obtain a $600,000 appropriation to make improvements in the Tennessee River watercourse. He also obtained smaller amounts for the Little Tennessee and Hiwassee Rivers, but the money was never spent.
Crutchfield struck up a bit of controversy when he attached an amendment to a civil rights bill "that any white lady refusing the attention of a negro, on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude, shall be fined for each and every offense not less than five hundred nor more than one thousand dollars, and imprisoned not more than six months." He added, "Tack on this amendment and I'll vote for the whole thing."
Crutchfield said he was testing the devotion of Ben Butler and other Republicans to the social equality of the negro, and would have twenty of the choicest beaux from his plantation at each session of Congress so that those congressmen with daughters of marriageable age could take their pick.
He was bitterly denounced by his Republican colleagues, but he said he really didn't understand what they were so upset about. He was sure that Butler and his allies thought negroes were equal to themselves. "What's sauce for the goose isn't sauce for the gander. Civil rights are very fine for southern, but won't do for northern society."
His constituents back home in Tennessee were also outraged. He did not seek reelection in 1874.
After his time in Congress, he spent most of his time on his 500-acre fruit orchard south of Chattanooga in what is now Flintstone, Georgia. He died in Chattanooga on January 24, 1890 and is interred in Chattanooga's Citizens Cemetery. His epitaph reads, "The noblest work of God, an honest man."