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Wagner Cemetery brings Johnson County history. civil war to mind

I considered it an honor to participate in the Johnson County Middle School seventh grade hike last week. The hike, sponsored and organized by the Johnson County Trails Association, has taken place for several years. The students’ hike included a mountain trail in Northwest Mountain City. The Wagner Cemetery was near the trail and one of the stops for the students on the hike. There were about 12 students in each group.
As each group stopped at the cemetery, I had an opportunity to mention some of the interesting and unique history of Johnson County and Mountain City that is tied to some of the people that are buried there. The Wagner Cemetery is one of the oldest cemeteries in Johnson County.
A section of the cemetery is enclosed with wrought iron fencing and is obviously a family cemetery. But, there are a few graves located outside the fenced-in area — among those graves are two soldiers who were members of the Union Army in the American Civil War.
In the fenced in area the memorial stones of M. M. (Matthias Miller) Wagner and Joseph H. Wagner, one of his sons, are most prominent in size. M. M. Wagner was a very successful farmer and businessman. He was Johnson County’s first Trustee, serving from 1836 when the county was formed from Carter County until 1852. He was born February 15, 1801 and died June 30, 1887.
M. M. Wagner built a two-story, white-framed house located on what is now North Church Street. That house is thought to be the oldest house in Johnson County still standing. His son, Joseph H. Wagner, was a major in the Civil War. He built the stately brick home on West Main Street that is now Prospect Hill Bed and Breakfast. Using local labor, the bricks were fired on the site.
In my remarks, I told the students how Johnson County was carved from Carter County in 1836, and Mountain City came shortly after. Mentioning the fame of M. M. Wagner was a good lead-in to tell them that Johnson County was named in honor of Thomas Johnson another prominent citizen of the area. I explained that the county seat was originally named Taylorsville in honor of Colonel James P. Taylor, a respected citizen of the area. Of course, the name of the town was changed to Mountain City in 1885. What better name was there for what was then a sleepy little town in the shadow of these mountains.
The two Union soldiers whose graves were there were H. H. Thompson who was in Company E. of the 13th Regiment, Tennessee Volunteer Cavalry and W. E. M. Roberts who served in Company 1 of the Second West Virginia Calvary.
Mentioning to the students those men who served in the Union Army during the Civil War led up to me telling them of the uniqueness and historical significance of Johnson County and much of East Tennessee during that difficult conflict. Most of the residents of Johnson County were opposed to seceding from the Union. In a vote taken in 1861 just before the War, only 111 voted to secede, a whopping 787 voted to stay in the Union.
Leaders in the pro-union faction of East Tennessee made an attempt to form a new state but the attempt failed. During the war, East Tennessee and Johnson County has been described as an island of Union sympathizers amid a sea of those whose allegiance was to the Confederacy. Tension between those very diverse allegiances led to difficult times in East Tennessee and Johnson County was no exception.
Anyway, if my brief remarks created in the young people even a spark of interest in local history, it was worth the effort on my part. I recently spoke with Mrs. Emogene South, Johnson County Middle School Principal. She says she really appreciates the Johnson County Trails Association for organizing the hike. “It takes a lot of time and effort,” she said.
The JCTA was formed in 2001. According to the organization’s website, members are currently focused primarily on trail development. JCTA is partnering with the National Forest Service to develop the 6.0 mile Laurel Creek Trail as a multi-use, non-motorized trail through the Laurel Creek Gorge.
I join Mrs. South in thanking JCTA for sponsoring the Seventh Grade hike each year as well as for all the other beneficial work it does.