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Why is Tennessee Known As the Volunteer State?

By Cathy Rogers
Updated May 17, 2024
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Due to its natural resources and products it manufactures, the state of Tennessee has had many nicknames, including the "Big Bend State" and "Hog and Hominy State." At one time it was even dubbed "The Mother of Southwestern Statesmen" due to its preponderance of government leaders throughout the years. But the "Volunteer State" is by far the longest-lasting nickname for Tennessee.

By most accounts, Tennessee first earned its nickname as the volunteer state during the War of 1812 due to the large numbers of Tennesseans who volunteered to serve in battle against Great Britain. Although the men never faced battle, General Andrew Jackson brought the soldiers home at his own expense. Later, Jackson led 2000 Tennessee volunteer soldiers in a successful battle against the British in 1815 at the Battle of New Orleans. Following such success, as many as 30,000 Tennesseans again volunteered in the Mexican War.

As years passed, Tennessee residents have been called "Big Benders," "Butternuts,"and "Volunteers." The name "Butternuts" referred to the color of the uniforms of Tennessee soldiers during the Civil War. "Big Benders" references the area of the Tennessee River, called the Big Bend River by Native Americans. In reference to the volunteer state, the nickname volunteer is often shortened to “vols.”

Davy Crockett is one of one of the most famous volunteers from the volunteer state. Known as the “King of the Wild Frontier,” Crockett was a politician and a soldier. He first enlisted as a rifleman in 1813. Later, Crockett entered politics. In the first quarter of the 19th century, he served two terms in the United States House of Representatives. Another famous resident from the volunteer state is Alvin York, who was influential in World War I. York was responsible for capturing and killing many enemy troops.

Tennesseans continued to be avid volunteers in World War II, both at war and on the home front in nearby Oak Ridge, Tennessee, where the Manhattan Project produced the first atomic bomb. One of the earliest known references of the volunteer nickname is by Jacob Hartsell, a captain in the 2nd East Tennessee militia. He wrote a poem, The Brave Volunteer, based on his experience alongside fellow Tennesseans in battle.

In addition to the volunteer state nickname, the athletic teams of The University of Tennessee are also known as the Volunteers. The student yearbook of the university was first named The Volunteer in 1897. The football team was first identified as the Volunteers by the Atlanta Journal-Constitution in 1902 when referring to a game between the University of Tennessee and Georgia Tech. By 1905, Tennessee announced the Volunteers as its official sports team name. The female sports teams are dubbed the “Lady Volunteers.”

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Discussion Comments
By Logicfest — On Mar 05, 2014

What was the nickname of the University of Tennessee's football team prior to 1905? The blanks?

Seriously, though, the willingness of Tennessee residents to take up arms is impressive. "Volunteer State" fits that bunch quite well.

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