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Bleak House.
Snipers' nest tower is visible above the roof.

Bleak House: Confederate Shrine

Field review by the editors.

Knoxville, Tennessee

Bleak House was built in 1858 as the plantation home of newlyweds Robert and Lousia Armstrong. They loved parties and Charles Dickens, and named their residence Bleak House -- the title of a Dickens novel -- as a joke.

Bleak House.
Shrapnel hole in the wall, preserved for posterity.

It wasn't so funny five years later when Bleak House was commandeered as headquarters for the Confederate Army during the Siege of Knoxville. Rebel snipers picked off Union troops -- including a general -- from the house tower, and the Union responded with an artillery shell into Bleak House. The explosion killed three snipers, splattered a lot of blood, and left a shrapnel hole in the front parlor. An unknown hand drew pencil portraits of the three dead men in the tower, and the Armstrongs left the artwork, the parlor hole, and the bloodstains, for posterity.

The United Daughters of the Confederacy bought Bleak House in 1959 and turned it into a Confederate shrine. Its outdoor gardens are now a popular spot for wedding photographers, although they probably avoid the tombstone of hanged Private Dodd in the front entrance flower bed.

Bleak House.
Unknown artist drew these portraits with the message, "Men that were shot up here."

A visit to Bleak House is an odd mix of historic furniture, Lost Cause ideology, Antebellum gowns, and the bullet holes and bloodstains. While our tour guide pointed out the pink marble mantle and the chandeliers from Venice, he also told us that "all the Southern generals were against slavery" and that the Civil War was in fact The War of Northern Aggression. "A Civil War is when we say, 'We want what you got.' We didn't want what you got. We wanted to be left alone."

Oil portraits of Confederate heroes dominate the walls, and make you wonder what the fun-loving Armstrongs would have thought of their home's 21st century decor. A painting of an elegant woman caught our attention: was it Lousia Armstrong? No, it was Confederate spy Belle Boyd, ennobled in the South for shooting dead a Yankee soldier who had threatened her mom. "She would wine and dine the Union officers and they would divulge their plans," our guide told us. "And then she'd get on her horse that night and ride down to Stonewall Jackson and tell him what was going on."

Bleak House.
Southern Belle wears a leafy crown.

Lousia Armstrong does have one memorable exhibit in her own home; a large bullet hole in the staircase, fired by a Confederate sentry to warn her to stay upstairs. Visitors are encouraged to stick a finger in the hole and feel the ancient bullet, a rare thrill (The more famous Civil War bullet hole of Jennie Wade, for example, is just a hole).

Historical exhibits at Bleak House consist of rusty weapons and artifacts -- such as a button from the death coat of The Boy Martyr of the Confederacy -- and quirky Lost Cause souvenirs, a predecessor to sports memorabilia and fantasy collectibles. It was evidently a huge industry, churning out ready-made mementoes for the unrepentant Confederate home: inspirational posters, dolls, ribbons, clocks, badges, buttons. We wanted to try playing the "Loyalty to the Truth of Confederate History" card game, but it looked too fragile to touch.

Bleak House.
Portraits of Mary and Robert E. Lee in the front parlor.

Personal tributes on display abound: a woman's needlepoint version of the Confederate battle flag, a walking cane of welded Civil War bullets made by a disabled veteran, a Confederate Medal of Honor awarded to local Rebel Jack Keeling, "in defense of his homeland and its noble ideals." Our guide told us that Jack single-handedly repulsed an attack by Union loyalists on a railroad bridge -- literally single-handedly, since they chopped off one of his hands during the battle.

The awkward truth about Bleak House is that the Siege of Knoxville "was a slaughter," our guide confessed -- one of the most lopsided Federal victories of the entire war. Despite its Confederate bravado, Bleak House has always been a small Rebel island in mostly pro-Union Knoxville. Its relics are aging, and its contemporary caretakers, although defiant, seem to have at least accepted that cessation was not a very good idea.

"It ended up the way it should've been," our guide conceded. "One nation undivided."

Bleak House: Confederate Shrine

Historic Bleak House and Confederate Memorial Hall

3148 Kingston Pike SW, Knoxville, TN
1-40 East. Exit 383 (Papermill Drive). The exit will curve right, continue straight off of the exit through the red light at Papermill onto Northshore Drive. Turn left onto Kingston Pike. Travel about 2.5 miles. After going through the Cherokee Boulevard traffic light and passing the caution light, the Bleak House is located on the right side of the road just past Calvary Baptist Church.
W-F 1-4 or by appt. (Call to verify) Local health policies may affect hours and access.
Adults $10.
RA Rates:
Worth a Detour
Save to My Sights

Nearby Offbeat Places

Ephraim Dodd, Rebel MartyrEphraim Dodd, Rebel Martyr, Knoxville, TN - < 1 mi.
The TorchbearerThe Torchbearer, Knoxville, TN - 2 mi.
"Shake, Buddy!" Civil War Monument, Knoxville, TN - 2 mi.
In the region:
Giant Car Parts Pizza Guy, Pigeon Forge, TN - 24 mi.

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