Alvis Duncan Hicks in the Civil War

Garry D. Nation.

2010,  All rights reserved.

***

Chapter V

Burning Bridges

Part 2:

Flames of Rebellion

November 8, 1861 and its Aftermath



Once all plans were in place and personnel assigned to carry them out, W. B. Carter retreated to a safe house near Kingston and waited to hear the results of his labors.  Amazingly he had kept authorities, who were on high alert, unaware both of his movements and his purpose as he traversed the eastern third of the state.  It did not hurt that the main body of Zollicoffer’s army was occupied in Kentucky, leaving few regular troops to patrol the East Tennessee roadways.

Confederate statesman Landon C. Haynes of Knoxville had no specific knowledge of any plan, but remained dreadful and apprehensive of the uneasy calm presently prevailing.  On the morning of November 8 Haynes wrote to Jefferson Davis of his worries:

If a force shall be thrown into East Tennessee or on the line, which now seems probable, and which General Zollicoffer is unable to defeat, the flames of rebellion will flash throughout East Tennessee; the railroad shall be destroyed, the bridges burned and other calamities not necessary to mention will follow.

On the afternoon of that same day Carter’s agents summoned their respective task forces and made last-minute decisions and preparations for their tasks.  They would use dried pine, split and feathered for kindling; wads of cotton wick for fireballs; and turpentine as the accelerant to spread fire on the wooden spans.  Some had recent intelligence regarding their targets, but others knew little about whom or what might be guarding the bridge they were to hit.  Apart from the leaders, most of those involved found out only a few hours before the attack what specific bridges they were going to burn. 

In Carter County Colonel Daniel Stover gave a last minute briefing to his squad, some of whom had joined only this day and were not fully aware of what they were getting into.1  At dusk they set out.  Their primary target was the bridge over the Holston at Carter’s Station, but a whole company of Rebel infantry guarded it and they had to let it go.  Turning their attention to the smaller one at Zollicoffer/Union, they overpowered the two privates guarding the bridge. One of them turned and ran.  The other, Stanford Jenkins, was caught and surrendered his weapon.  He knew some of Stover’s men, and there was discussion as to whether they should let him live.  At length Christian charity won out over the harshness of war, and accepting his solemn pledge of secrecy they returned his life to him as they finished burning the bridge.

H. Crowder and W. T. Cate destroyed two small bridges in Marion County with little difficulty.  Cate’s brother, Alfred “A. M.” Cate, led a crew that had to dodge Rebel troops on the way to the Hiwassee River Bridge, but which completed its task and made a spectacular blaze of the wood-roofed span.



Now back in his home territory in Greene County, David Fry led a large party—upwards of 60 men—that destroyed the Lick Creek Bridge fifteen miles west of Greeneville.  Fry, a dashing fellow with jet black hair and beard and a flair for the dramatic, surprised and overpowered in a flamboyant fashion the handful of troops guarding the bridge, and exulted as he watched it go up in flames.  He did nothing to conceal his identity—in fact he made it a point to announce it.  Those who were with him, however, were private citizens with local homes (even if he did swear them in as soldiers in the 2nd Tennessee).  One of the captive guards heard someone say, “Who has

Capt. David Fry

Henry Harmon’s gun?” It was a careless revelation that later proved fateful.

Captain William Cross found the Tennessee River Bridge at Loudon too heavily guarded to risk an attempt on it and withdrew his men silently into the darkness.  Likewise Robert Ragan and James Keener decided it was hopeless to attack the one at Bridgeport, Alabama.  Thus three of the four high priority targets escaped the night of burning bridges untouched.

That left the Holston River Bridge at Strawberry Plains fifteen miles east of Knoxville.  Spanning 1600 feet—2100 feet including the trestlework—it was the single most important target of the operation, both for its size and its central location.  Astonishingly, it stood guarded by a lone Confederate private.  This was the only one of the major bridges that was so lightly defended.  The opportunity here was great, and it was bungled spectacularly in a scene worthy of a violent comedy.

The leader of the 10-man squad attacking this bridge was William C. Pickens, former High Sheriff of Sevier County.  Pickens was a bold, devil-may-care fellow.  Audacity was his strong suit, and forethought evidently was not.  Leaving their horses with two of the men, Pickens led his party through the pitch-dark night along the riverbank.  Arriving at the bridge Pickens and one other man climbed the bridge abutment.  Why only these two went up and no others we do not know—apparently Pickens felt that two could do the job. When they reached the top Pickens struck a light. 

Suddenly a shot rang out and a bullet struck him in the thigh.  As he fell the sentry rushed out of the guardhouse, jumped on him, and began to grapple with him.   He was a smallish man, about 130 pounds, but he made a ferocious attack and was armed with a homemade dirk.  Pickens’s companion drew his own foot-long, homemade bowie knife and began slashing away in the darkness, likely giving as much injury to Pickens as to his assailant.  Pistol shots were fired.  After a very confused fight in which no one really knew who landed what blows to whom, the Rebel guard fled leaving Pickens and company to proceed with the bridge burning.

When the bleeding, would-be arsonist reached for the matches, however, he discovered that he had lost them in the melee.  For this the pitch black, moonless night was no advantage, and there was no hope of recovering them—and they were all he had.  The expenditure of energy and blood had come to nothing, and Pickens’s team had to abandon their mission and seek medical attention for their gashed and bullet-wounded leader.

Meanwhile the intrepid guard who put up such a plucky resistance before being forced to flee emerged from the darkness to become a regional hero.  Pvt. James Keelan had no way of knowing how many men he had fought in the pitch black night, but he felt like it must have been a dozen or more.  He was sure that he had killed the man he’d shot with his single-shot pistol.  He himself had received treatment for three gashes in his scalp, two gunshot wounds—one of which was inoperable but not critical—and a left hand so badly sliced that it had to be amputated. 

Thereafter Jimmy Keelan became the man who repelled a mob of no less than fifteen rabid Lincolnites bent on mayhem (a number probably inferred from the number of footprints and hoof prints in the vicinity), and single-handedly frustrated their dastardly project while gladly losing one of his own hands in the struggle.  His story was sensationally retold, with signs of evident exaggeration to the point of fiction, by promoter Radford Gatlin (after whom the town of Gatlinburg, Tennessee is named) in a book whose shortened (!) title is The…Exploits of the Immortal Hero James Keelan, Who Defended Successfully the Bridge at Strawberry Plains... (Atlanta: 1862).

In all five bridges were torched, two in the north and three further south.  They were all minor spans.  Their destruction would be a nuisance, but they could be repaired or replaced in weeks. The successful demolition of the major bridges may or may not have been a significant tactical blow to the Confederacy, but we will never know: not one of them was touched at all.  Several telegraph lines were cut, but the network remained intact.  It is significant that, apart from the fracas at Strawberry Plains, there were no casualties. No one was killed in the bridge burning.

After they had done all that they could do, Carter’s commandos faded into the night and looked to see what the result would be.  Meanwhile throngs of hopeful partisans were beginning to gather in various places to ready themselves for the army of deliverance that even now was surely on the march.  Throughout East Tennessee hundreds of Unionist men dug out their old shotguns and squirrel rifles and flintlock pistols and whatever else could pass for a weapon, and began gathering at rendezvous points for the support of federal troops that they expected to come any day if not hour. 

The most significant of these hopeful assemblies took place in W. B. Carter’s hometown of Elizabethton, an episode that came to be called “The Carter County Rebellion.”  Fully a thousand had gathered there by noon on Saturday the 9th, and hundreds were still arriving.  They were coming not only from Carter County but also from the surrounding counties and from across the North Carolina border.  All of them expected to be auxiliaries to a large army already on the march.

Capt. David McClellan, commander of the 125-strong company of Rebel troops guarding the Carter’s Station crossing, had already begun arresting suspected bridge burners.  One of Stover’s men, young S. H. Hendrix, holds the dubious honor of being the very first of these arrests.  He was also the first to escape.  He had presented a credible alibi to his captors and was permitted some limited liberty, enabling him to sneak away to Elizabethton to warn his fellows that Pvt. Stanford Jenkins had gone against his word, and had exposed the identities of the people he recognized at the bridge.

Hearing of these arrests and seeing their own numbers swelling, these men felt confident that they could easily beat the Rebels and rescue the prisoners.  It did not matter to them that they had no training and no competent officers to direct them.  Half of them were not even armed.  They scoured Elizabethton for butcher knives, pitchforks, and other implements that might be used for weapons, and at about 3 p.m. set off for the Rebel camp.  Chroniclers of this episode acknowledged that “they were really an unorganized mob, without leaders, discipline or any knowledge of what war meant.”2

Apparently, however, once they drew near to the camp, the sight of Confederate pickets dampened the mob’s enthusiasm enough to let them listen to Daniel Stover and a few other cooler heads.  These men persuaded them to withdraw back across the Watauga River to camp at a farm for the night.  The men elected Col. Stover to be their leader, gathered together enough food for supper, selected some men to stand the first watch, and curled up around the fires with their blankets. 

Their rest was interrupted by shots from Confederate rifles.  Capt. McClellan led an after-dark assault against the disorganized army of civilians, doubtless expecting that a surprise attack would disperse the mob and net him some prisoners.  Perhaps to McClellan’s surprise the ragtag group returned a lively resisting fire and inflicted some damage on the attackers.  After a while McClellan withdrew into the night.  The Unionists suffered no casualties, but a number of them fled when the shooting started (although many returned the next day).  Eventually they all returned as a group to Elizabethton, some 1500 of them, where people had to open up their winter stores of meat in order to feed them.

On the morning of the 12th they sent out one of their leading men to discover news of the progress of the invasion.  Like Noah’s raven he returned that evening with no encouraging word.  There was yet no sign of “Sherman’s Army.”

***

Over Saturday and Sunday the impact of the bridge attacks rippled throughout the South.  Gen. Zollicoffer immediately dispatched a regiment to Knoxville, and civilian authorities called out posses to round up anyone and everyone suspected of treason. The Confederates of East Tennessee were in a panic and the whole state was in high alarm. By Monday morning, November 11, that sense of alarm had spread throughout the Confederacy.  Exaggerations, rumors, and false reports abounded as information began to crackle over the telegraph wires (that is, the ones that the bridge burners failed to cut). As Oliver Temple remembers it, the bridge burning panic was not confined to the State of Tennessee:

The Southern Confederacy was startled and stirred from end to end.  Men awoke frightened as if by a horrible dream.  Universal consternation prevailed in East Tennessee.  Other and greater calamities were expected to follow immediately.  The military authorities and railroad officials were thrown into a wild and unreasonable panic. They hastened to and fro, and stormed and issued orders, as if they had just lost a decisive battle.

What horrified them most was that the attack had come from within.  Support for secession was never unanimous, and there were identifiable pockets of Union support in every Southern state (with the possible exception of South Carolina, the only state that did not contribute volunteers for the federal army).  Suddenly now every neighbor who was not an ardent Confederate was a potential insurgent.  To add insult to injury, the attack had taken place in the midst of celebrations of the election of the new government.  Richmond was in as much consternation as Nashville, if not more. The whole incident was seen not as a military attack but as a dire internal threat, an insurrection against a legitimate government, and a personal affront to President Davis.

Colonel W. B. Wood put Knoxville under martial law and began arresting people under the narrowest of suspicions.  The writ of habeas corpus, “so sacred to freedom,” was set aside indefinitely.3

Among those swept up in the dragnet were notables such as Judge David T. Patterson (another son-in-law of Andrew Johnson), Congressman Thomas A. R. Nelson, Senator Samuel Pickens, and “Parson” William G. Brownlow.  Anyone remotely considered to be connected to the bridge burning was brought in—including stampeders’ pilot Benjamin “Tolliver” Staples, who was suspiciously absent from his home on the evening of November 8.  Some of those arrested had personal connections with the Tennessee troops stuck helplessly in London, Kentucky, the most significant being Levi Trewhitt, father of Lt. Col. Daniel C. Trewhitt of the 2nd Tennessee. 

Anticipating a major uprising of Unionists, Col. Wood on November 11 sent a lengthy message to Adjutant and Inspector General Samuel Cooper apprising him that “the whole country is now in a state of rebellion…. A mild or conciliating policy will do no good; they must be punished….”   The War Department in Richmond agreed, and on that same day dispatched Col. Danville Leadbetter to East Tennessee with a brigade of Floridians and South Carolinians, and with orders to take charge of protecting and rebuilding the railroad bridges.  The real mission, unwritten but plainly understood, was to put down the Unionist uprising.  A West Point-trained engineer, Leadbetter was by birth a Maine Yankee. Stationed in the South before the war and married to a Southern woman, he identified with the Southern cause and abandoned his U. S. Army commission for a Confederate one. 


Whether his Northern roots put a chip on his shoulder is arguable.  What is clear is that he did not consider mercy and compassion to be part of his job.  He took on his assignment with a zealous ferocity that earned him an infamous name among Tennessee Unionists.  Daniel Ellis would later write, “A more bloodthirsty and infamous scoundrel never set his foot upon the soil of East Tennessee.”4 
His hard line policy was backed by Secretary of War Judah P. Benjamin.  Benjamin had already given Col. Wood directions to treat those involved in the bridge plot as prisoners of war to be interned until the end of the war. He soon took a harder line, and gave the infamous order to put the bridge burners themselves to

Col. Danville Leadbetter

drumhead court martial, followed by immediate hanging in the vicinity of the bridge they burned.  Their bodies, he directed, should be left to rot as a deterrent to traitors.

On the 15th Leadbetter arrived in Johnson City with his brigade of infantry and two mountain howitzers.  Stover’s little army finally never intended to face a force like this, only to be a support for the Army of the Cumberland which never arrived.  They prudently dispersed a few days later and the Carter County Rebellion was over ten days after it began.  Leadbetter’s troops picked up some of the stragglers, but most of these men ended up going north to join new volunteer regiments, while some stayed behind to conduct a partisan guerilla war.  One of those was Daniel Ellis.  Ellis was captured as a bridge burner and his captors were preparing to execute him by firing squad.  He audaciously broke away and ran. In a manner befitting a good adventure story, he escaped pursuers who chased him both on foot and on horseback, and disappeared into the mountain forest.

As the initial shock of the attack faded, outrage and indignation took its place.    The ensuing investigation was methodical and ruthless.  Now all the leaks, loose talk, and overheard conversations came back to haunt the bridge burners as they were identified and apprehended.

***

Days before, Andrew Johnson had asked accusingly whether Thomas was about to pull back his forward brigade and the question clearly annoyed the general.  As it turns out, Johnson’s rumors were better than Thomas’s sources in Sherman’s camp.

Sherman was already persuaded that Buckner’s army at Bowling Green consisted of 45,000 men, three times larger than its actual size. Apparently he reasoned that if Buckner had 45,000, then Zollicoffer must also have at least 20,000 at his South Kentucky stronghold—three to four times more than his true force. On November 11 he ordered Thomas to withdraw north of the Kentucky River to Somerset.  His anxiety increased as he pondered the next step.  In his own mind he determined that Johnston was preparing to drive a wedge between Thomas and Gen. McCook at Nolensville, with a view to taking Louisville and finally pressing toward Cincinnati.

That thought alarmed him as he realized how spread out his own army was.  His anxiety was aggravated by his personal conviction (contrary to fact) that the vast majority of the population of Kentucky was Rebel at heart and would turn on the Federal troops like jackals if the Confederate army went on the offensive.  On November 12 he revised his orders and directed Thomas to move the bulk of his troops to the rear of Danville, although he let him leave a couple of regiments at London to guard the Wilderness Road.  His purpose, he explained years later, was to concentrate his dispersed forces. His orders did not in fact achieve an effective concentration, but rather expended a great deal of energy in unnecessary movement to confront a phantom.

Thomas tried to argue that there was no evidence that Johnston had any such purpose to attack. He pointed out that all his intelligence indicated that the enemy was in fact withdrawing from his front.   Sherman had made up his mind however, and rejected out of hand all information that might contradict him.  Always the good soldier, Thomas unhappily obeyed his orders and began the pullback.   The main body of Schoepf’s force withdrew to Crab Orchard.  Thomas Van Horne, a staffer and later biographer of George Thomas, describes the immediate effect of the move, both on the army and on the general:

The withdrawal of Thomas' forces caused great suffering and loss of men and material. Sickness was prevalent and the march was a hurried one. As it was not generally known at the time who was responsible for the movement, censure was heaped upon him. Correspondents and critics depicted the sufferings of the men, and the loss of material, and discerning no compensative results, attempted to balance accounts with abuse of Thomas. Under this abuse and misrepresentation he was silent, waiting as at other times for "time and history to do him justice." 5

The 1st and 2nd Tennessee remained at the London camp under their own general, Samuel P. Carter.6  The fact that they did not have to evacuate with the rest did not improve the Tennesseans’ mood.  It now began to sink in on them that they were not going to march south any time soon, and their restlessness turned into disappointment and anger.  Neither did they know anything about the reasons for the orders they were given, nor about the new command shakeup that was even now going on in the army headquarters.

The officer that Secretary Cameron had left as an observer at Sherman’s headquarters wired him a report detailing the decisions that Sherman had made and his rationale for making them, but he also suggested that the general was becoming unraveled under the pressure of his situation.  Cameron was now faced with the dilemma of whether he should sack the newly appointed commander. 

Before he could make the call, on November 13 Sherman himself requested to be relieved of command and reassigned to a subordinate role. Cameron promptly granted his request.  He transferred the general to the western command of Henry “Old Brains” Halleck where he would be reunited with his friend U. S. “Sam” Grant.  Halleck, saying he looked “stampeded,” immediately granted Sherman indefinite leave.  Sherman left the war zone directly for a reunion with his wife, and the weeks they spent together at home in Ohio were sufficiently rejuvenating to save his career—indeed perhaps his sanity.

To replace Sherman the secretary appointed Don Carlos Buell, effective November 15.  Though small in stature, Buell was renowned for his upper body strength, and the way he carried himself made him appear to be a larger man. A highly competent but flatly uncharismatic officer,  he was one of the few top generals who did not have a distinguishing nickname among either his peers or his soldiers—at least in part because no one was sure there was a personality behind his soldierly manner.  On the other hand, he was as balanced and steady as Sherman was mercurial.  Buell did not share Sherman’s panic over the tactical situation in Kentucky, and seems to have come in with a more realistic assessment of A. S. Johnston’s

Gen. Don Carlos Buell

manpower, capabilities, and intentions.


S. P. Carter observed the change of command and was certainly aware of its potential implications for operations in East Tennessee.  It was perhaps with the hope that the change would bring also a renewed impetus for a push into East Tennessee that he wrote to Thomas (with a view that his letter would make it to Buell and strengthen Thomas’s hand) on Saturday November 16.  His brother William had just emerged from his hiding place near Kingston and returned safely to Kentucky to meet his older brother in London.  As far as he knew at the time, at least six and maybe eight bridges had been successfully destroyed.  Carter wrote these details into his letter, and added:


The consternation among the secessionists of East Tennessee is very great.  The Union men are waiting with longing and anxiety for the appearance of Federal forces on the Cumberland Mountains and are all ready to rise up in defense of the Federal Government…. General, if it be possible, do urge the commanding general to give us some additional force and let us advance into East Tennessee; now is the time.  And such a people as those who live in East Tennessee deserve and should be relieved and protected.  You know the importance of this move and will, I hope use all your influence to effect it.  Our men will go forward with a shout to relieve their native land.

Thomas remained tethered, however.  Although Buell was not rattled by Johnston’s constant minor movements, neither was he inclined to change the course set by Sherman.  More critically, Buell did not agree with any plan that gave priority to the liberation of East Tennessee.  To his mind Middle Tennessee and the city of Nashville in particular were the key to control both of that state and of Chattanooga, the gateway to the Southern heartland.

Of course Buell now happened to be in command of the Federal army best disposed to move toward that objective.  At this point there was competition between the commanding generals to determine the course of the war in the west.  George McClellan favored an incursion into East Tennessee because he thought it would take pressure off his pending campaign in Virginia.  Henry Halleck, however, believed that it was critical first to seize control of the Mississippi.  In each general’s case it would appear that his wisdom and his ambition ran along parallel tracks. 

Regardless, Buell had no interest in pursuing an immediate advance toward Knoxville, which he perceived to be a tactical nightmare with almost no strategic benefit. Federal troops invading East Tennessee would have to slog it out in the winter rains over narrow mountain roads that were scarcely more than wilderness trails in many places.  Light infantry might be able to make it with effort, but their mules, wagons, and artillery would get hopelessly bogged down and be perilously exposed.  The probability of failure was high, but success carried its own perils.  If the mission should succeed the Union gain would surely be heavily contested by the Confederates who still controlled the other two thirds of the state.  The political benefit of regaining a strongly pro-Union territory would come at the military price of posting a large army of occupation in order to keep it, draining precious resources while bringing victory over the Confederacy no closer. 

W. T. Carter traveled to Louisville to make a personal appeal to the new commander for a change in policy.  Buell apparently heard him out with sympathy and deference but still did not change his mind.  Any movement of the army into East Tennessee at this time would from his view be a distraction at best, and more likely a fool’s errand.

On November 20 Buell ordered Thomas to move his command to Columbia, and shortly afterward to Lebanon, effectively continuing Sherman’s policy of “concentration.”  The 1st and 2nd Tennessee were still stationed in London, sullenly guarding the “back door.” 

S. P. Carter continued to write to both military and civilian leaders, including President Lincoln, to press for an advance into East Tennessee.  It was to no avail.  Regardless of his sympathies and personal opinion, Lincoln prudently declined to use his authority as commander-in-chief to make tactical field decisions (he later often deviated from that principle, to the detriment of the war effort).  George McClellan also favored a swift invasion, but as general-in-chief he was more like a committee chairman than a supreme commander, having no direct authority over the armies of other generals. He who had been so bold to promise the backing of the entire U. S. Army for the mission could do little more than urge Buell “to devote all your energies toward the salvation of men so eminently deserving our protection.”  December arrived, and whatever opportunity there may have been to recover East Tennessee quickly was lost.

***

Col. W. B. Wood sent a dispatch from Knoxville to Secretary Benjamin on November 20.  In it he expressed his confidence that “the rebellion in East Tennessee has been put down in some of the counties and will be effectually suppressed in less than two weeks in all counties.”  He summarized the results of their interrogations:

The prisoners we have tell us that they had every assurance that the army was already in the State, and would join them in a very few days, that the property of Southern men was to be confiscated and divided amongst those who would take up arms for Lincoln.

Five days later the Confederate States District Attorney for Tennessee, J. C. Ramsey, wired Benjamin the question: "The military authorities in command at this post have determined to try the bridge-burners and other men charged with treason by a court-martial. What shall I do? Answer."  Benjamin immediately shot back, "I am very glad to hear of the action of the military authorities and hope to hear they have hung every bridge-burner at the end of the burned bridge."

On November 30 Col. Leadbetter sent Benjamin a terse wire from Greeneville: “Two insurgents have to-day been tried for bridge-burning, found guilty and hanged.”  The condemned men were 22 year-old Jacob Madison “Matt” Hinshaw and Henry Fry.  Hinshaw was taken from his pregnant wife and their 18-month old son William. Two months later another son was born, whom his wife named Jacob after his father.    After the hanging, Matt’s father William Hinshaw found his way out of Tennessee to enlist in the 2nd Illinois Light Artillery—at the age of 53.

Henry Fry left a widow and five children.  His 17 year-old son was forced to watch the execution.  It was passed down in Fry’s family that, before he was hanged, Henry was told that he would be spared if he would pledge allegiance to the Confederacy.  His last words were, “When there ceases to be fleas in a hog pen and rebels in hell is when I will pledge allegiance to the Confederacy.” 

There was not enough of the bridge structure left to hang them on, so they were hanged from the great branch of a large tree near the old depot in Greeneville, Tennessee.  Their bodies were left there in public display.  It was Leadbetter’s original order to leave them for four days, but the stench became such a public nuisance that they were cut down after twenty-four hours (or thirty-six, by another account).

Hugh Self, a lad of sixteen, was apprehended along with Hinshaw and Fry, but was pardoned.  Struck by his youth, Leadbetter decided on clemency also because he was “not very intelligent and was led away on that occasion by his father and elder brother both of whom I learn have now been captured by General Carroll's troops."  In fact it was the son who had led the father.  An older man, Harrison Self would not have gotten involved in the affair but to watch over his young son.   On December 21, after four days of testimony, Harrison Self was convicted by a court martial of the charges of burning the Lick Creek Bridge and of bearing arms against the Confederacy.  He was condemned to be executed by hanging on the day after Christmas.  Immediately his family and friends began making appeals all the way to Jefferson Davis.  A presidential pardon was at last granted only two hours before the sentence was to be carried out.


Christopher Alexander Haun, a renowned potter, was tried and convicted on December 10.  Brig. Gen. William H. Carroll, now

Christopher Haun goes to the gallows

from Brownlow’s Sketches of the Rise, Progress, and Decline of Secession

commanding in Knoxville, telegraphed Benjamin for permission to execute him.  Benjamin wired back, “The law does not require any approval by the President, but he entirely approves my order to hang every bridge-burner you can catch and convict.”  Christopher Haun fell on the gallows in Knoxville on the 11th, leaving a pregnant wife and four young children.  His body was shipped home for burial in Greene County.  His descendants continue to the present day to preserve and cherish the U. S. flag that draped his coffin.

Jacob and Henry Harmon, betrayed by the thoughtless remark of one of their fellows, were tried by court martial on December 17 and went to straight to the gallows the same day.  Though they protested their innocence till death, Jacob the father and Henry the son were deeply involved in the attack on the Lick Creek Bridge. The company had assembled on Jacob’s farm, and he served as “Captain” under “Col.” David Fry. Their “not guilty” plea doubtless rested on the ground that they acted under lawful military orders and what they did was not treason. There would be no clemency for them.

The Harmons were tried in Knoxville, miles away from the Lick Creek Bridge, so a gallows was set up in the railroad yard.  The woodcut in Brownlow’s Sketches shows two men standing together on a platform as nooses are placed around their necks.  According to observers Jacob Harmon, old and sick, had to sit on the scaffold and watch his son drop before he was made to climb the stairs himself.  No last words were recorded.

The Execution of Jacob and Henry Harmon

from Brownlow’s Sketches of the Rise, Progress, and Decline of Secession


In all six bridge burners were condemned and five hanged.  It must have been galling to Col. Leadbetter, Gen. Carroll, J. P. Benjamin, and all the Confederate leadership that all their investigations, arrests, and threats could yield no more convictions than these.  Hundreds were taken on suspicion, many imprisoned on a variety of charges of disloyalty. With all their expenditure of energy and desire to be avenged, it is surprising that only five finally faced the hangman’s noose.

All five of the hanged men were posthumously enrolled in Company F of the 2nd Tennessee by a special act of Congress passed in 1862.  Soon after the end of the war Captain David Fry confirmed in affidavits that he had in fact enrolled them into the 2nd Tennessee before the bridge burning took place.

***

There is something powerfully metaphoric about the burning of bridges.  Those who planned and endorsed the clandestine mission of sabotage in East Tennessee conceived it as a strategic military strike.  They thought it would shorten the war and mitigate its impact upon their cherished home region.  They could not have been more wrong.

Until now relations between the Unionist majority and Confederate minority in East Tennessee were raw, but not overtly violent.  A veneer of civil respect for the rights of those who disagreed with secession had remained.  That veneer of civility was torched along with the bridges.  The backlash was more severe than anyone expected.  The bridge burning and its aftermath inaugurated a nasty domestic war behind the lines between “raiders” and “home guards” that was waged more like a blood feud than an insurgency.  It was a bitter and vicious war-within-a-war that acknowledged no law but retaliation, no rule but savagery.

It took time for the news of the secret operation, with its mixed results and unhappy consequences, to trickle back to the Tennessee men in London.  The first report they heard was that some of their own officers had led patriots back home to prepare for a war of liberation.  That word brought cheers to their mouths and exhilaration to their hearts.  General Carter urged his men to be ready any moment for orders to march.  Then as day after perplexing day of delay passed, the men felt their frustrations return—along with anger toward their commanding officers and toward the United States Army itself.  When word of the imprisonments and the hangings reached them, anger turned to outrage.  Many of the men had kinfolk and neighbors who were directly affected by the Rebel retaliation. 

Lt. Col. Daniel Trewhitt was particularly alarmed and grieved at the arrest of his father.  An attorney by profession and one of the best speechmakers among the Tennesseans, Trewhitt was a popular officer who contributed much to the morale of the troops. The stress of worrying about the old man noticeably affected the colonel’s health and countenance. His 64 year-old father Levi did not have a strong constitution, and Trewhitt’s anxiety for him was a burden shared by the whole camp. 

For the men of the 2nd and all the other volunteers from East Tennessee, the bridge burning and its aftereffects brought home the terrible reality of this civil war.  Unlike many in those early days who answered President Lincoln’s call to arms, the men of East Tennessee—Unionist to the core—did not sign up for an abstract goal of preserving the Union.  Still less did they enlist for the sake of a grand and noble adventure. Their patriotism was personal, the object being to protect the peace of their own homes.  They had thought they would go up to Kentucky, gather in force, and march back to their hometowns and counties and take them back from the Rebels, and then the war would be over for them.

Alvis Hicks and his brothers and comrades could have little idea how great would the war become, or how vast the sweep of it, or to what insignificance their local issues would shrink in comparison.  It was now clear, however, that the storm would not be over soon.  The tempest would rage.  It was not a fight that they started and they could not stop it even by walking away.  And now the home to which they would have retreated was deep in enemy territory, and they could not return until the enemy was defeated.  They would have to play their part.  Bridges had been burned.

Epilogue

W. B.  Carter did not attempt any further paramilitary operations, or any other personal participation for the rest of the war.  He continued for a while to lobby General Buell for the East Tennessee invasion, but it soon became obvious that the war west of the Appalachians would take a different course.  He apparently retired to private life, joined in Kentucky by Elizabeth and their children (who were expelled by the Confederate authorities).  After the war he returned to his farm in Elizabethton to raise his family, increasing it by a daughter born in 1867.  His enemies, not content to let him live in peace, spread ludicrously slanderous rumors and published letters in the Knoxville paper accusing him of receiving from Washington, not $2500 cash, but $25,000 in Federal gold that he had hoarded for himself. 

He had more defenders than detractors, however, and those who knew him considered the accusations unfounded and scurrilous.  They did not blame him for the failure of the bridge-burning endeavor, but looked upon him rather as one who was betrayed by generals and undone by the vicissitudes of war. He lived to the age of 82, honored by family, friends, and neighbors for his secret service to the Union.  To his dying day he never betrayed the names of those who were involved with him in the mission, even though many were already publicly known and several had personally revealed themselves and others.

Captain William Cross made his way back to Kentucky, possibly accompanying W. B. Carter, and assumed the role of company commander in the newly formed 3rd Tennessee Volunteer Infantry.  He soon attained the rank of Major, ascended to command of the regiment, and eventually was promoted to Colonel.  His record includes honorable service in the battle of Nashville and in Sherman’s Atlanta campaign.

A. M. Cate made it to Kentucky early in 1862, enlisting in the 6th Tennessee Infantry as a lieutenant and eventually becoming a captain.  William Pickens recovered from his wounds to become the colonel of the 3rd Tennessee Cavalry. One of the key members of his bridge burning company, Daniel Ray, became the colonel of the 2nd Tennessee Cavalry.

The railroad bridge at Strawberry Plains that survived their attack would eventually be burned—twice.  The first time was in June 1863 by a tactical unit of mounted infantry led by Col. William P. Sanders.  The purpose of that operation, which included troops from the 1st Tennessee Volunteers, was to disrupt the Confederate supply line so as to cover the Army of the Ohio’s advance into East Tennessee under Gen. Burnside.   Union troops rebuilt it that summer after Knoxville came under federal control.  In the late fall it was captured and used by Gen. Longstreet during the siege of Knoxville.  In January 1864 an Indiana regiment, the 80th, burned it again in

The Rebuilt Bridge at Strawberry Plains

under Confederate control during Longstreet’s siege of Knoxville

order to keep it from falling back into Confederate hands.  That same regiment marched over a newly (and finally) rebuilt bridge on April 22, 1864.

The plucky (and lucky) Pvt. James Keelan survived his wounds and the loss of his left hand, but his notoriety was as short-lived as the Confederacy.  After the war he eked out a living through hardscrabble farming and odd jobs.  In 1894 a reporter from the Louisville Courier-Journal heard about his legendary exploits and sought an interview, and thus the immortal James Keelan’s story was told once more to a new generation of Southerners seeking an unlikely hero.  He died a year later and was buried in Bristol, Tennessee.  Almost a century later, on August 20, 1994, Jimmy Keelan was posthumously awarded the Confederate Medal of Honor, which is on permanent display in the UDC Confederate Museum in Knoxville.7


After biding his time in the mountains for a week after the bridge burning, Captain David Fry finally got word from Andy Hall, a mountaineer from F Company who had been sent as a scout to recall him: the army was not coming down.    Fry was now, however, in command of nearly a hundred men, all of whom he had personally sworn in to service in the 2nd Tennessee.  He did not think he could presently lead them all back to Union lines in Kentucky, so he resolved to stay with them and conduct a war behind the lines.  According to one source, within a couple of weeks his band swelled to become a small regiment of 672.  He piloted many north, and led the rest as a guerilla force for some time,

A grizzled Capt. David Fry with Sgt. John McCoy

surviving three gunshot wounds and creating great havoc behind Rebel lines until he was captured around April 1.

This time he was sent down to Atlanta, imprisoned and tried as a spy—against the written protest of Brig. Gen. S. P. Carter, who sent a message across the lines to Confederate Gen. Kirby Smith pleading that Fry was a U. S. Army officer and had acted within the rules of war.  Fry was sentenced to hang, but once again he escaped. (His partners in the escape were men who were part of a later scheme to burn Confederate railroad bridges. They had made off with a locomotive called The General and came close to succeeding. Their improbable adventure is a notable Civil War story in itself, known as “The Great Locomotive Chase.”)  Fry’s frontier experience and incredible wilderness survival skills served him well in his harrowing journey through enemy occupied territory.  Eventually he made his way back to the 2nd Tennessee a long year after he had departed on his mission with William Carter.  He resumed command of his company and continued his service, avoiding recapture when the regiment was surrounded at Rogersville. 

Seven years after the war David Fry was killed—in a train accident.


Daniel Ellis escaped into the mountains to become one of the war’s most renowned pilots for Unionists, Rebel deserters, escaped slaves, and other fugitives headed for the North.  He gathered a group of men around him and became a guerilla leader of great skill and cunning known as “the Old Red Fox.”  Between the time of his escape from a firing squad and the days when East Tennessee was controlled by the Union army he is said to have led over 4000 across the border, and after the war was awarded back pay and pension equal to a captain’s wages. His memoir is one of the leading sources for Charles Frazier’s award winning novel Cold Mountain (New York, 1997), which was made into a major motion picture.  He is also a source and inspiration for Cameron Judd's "Mountain War Trilogy" of novels (New York, 1997): The Phantom Legion; Season of

Daniel Ellis

Reckoning; and The Shadow Warriors.



Danville Leadbetter may have been despised by the Unionists of East Tennessee, but he certainly did not disappoint his superiors.  On February 27, 1862 they promoted him to brigadier general.  Eventually he became the Chief Engineer for the Army of Tennessee.  In that role he designed and supervised the layout of that army’s defensive lines for the siege and battle of Chattanooga.  He also assisted Longstreet in the siege of Knoxville in late fall of 1863.  When the war ended Leadbetter did not wait around to apply for a federal parole, but escaped directly to Mexico and from there sailed to Prince Edward Island, Canada—not terribly far from the Maine home of his youth.  He died there of “apoplexy” in late September 1866, much to the disappointment of Parson Brownlow, Daniel Ellis, and others who would like to have seen him prosecuted and hanged for war crimes.

After languishing in a dank, filthy jail cell in Knoxville for several weeks, William Brownlow was released in late December under the parole of Jefferson Davis—and exiled from Tennessee.  Ever defiant, Brownlow crossed the state line proclaiming (appropriately to the Christmas season), “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward all men, except a few hell-born and hell-bound rebels in Knoxville.”  He returned to Knoxville in 1863 along with Gen. Burnside’s army and resumed publishing his paper under the feisty name The Knoxville Whig and Rebel Ventilator.  Following the war he became the first governor of Tennessee under Reconstruction, serving two terms, and then was elected to one term in the U.S. Senate from 1869-1875.  His retirement from politics brought him back to newspaper publishing for the remaining two years of his life.

Jacob and Henry Harmon were buried at the Harmon family cemetery at Pottertown in Greene County.  The other executed men were buried in church cemeteries in the area.  It has already been noted that they were posthumously recorded on the roster of the 2nd Tennessee by act of Congress, and thus officially serve as the first fallen of that regiment.  A full recognition and ceremonial honor of their wartime sacrifice, however, would wait 135 more years.  On October 19, 1996 about 150 folks braved the chilly morning at the Pottertown grave site to participate in the first formal memorial service for all five men.  The service was held with full military honors and a 21-gun salute by troops from the 8th Tennessee Volunteer Infantry Regiment (USA) reenactment group.  About half of those present were descendants of those commandos.  Bronze markers provided by the Department of Veterans Affairs Office of Memorial Programs have been placed at each grave, and a historical marker set in the area of Jacob Harmon’s Pottertown farm where Davy Fry mustered his troops for an attack on the Lick Creek Bridge—an attack that succeeded, but ultimately failed.


Notes

  1. 1.One of the members, a wagon maker named Daniel Ellis, published an eyewitness account in his memoir titled The Thrilling Adventures of Daniel Ellis.  The title is no exaggeration, and the bridge burning was only the beginning of his adventures.

  2. 2.Samuel W. Scott and Samuel P. Angel, History of the Thirteenth Regiment, Tennessee Volunteer Cavalry, U. S. A. (Philadephia, 1903).

  3. 3.The strictures of martial law began to ease by February as the crisis subsided; but it was not until August 1862 that Judah Benjamin would explicitly inform Confederate commanders that they had no authority to suspend habeas corpus. In September he revoked all declarations of martial law that were made without presidential authorization.  Significantly he still reserved for President Davis the right to declare martial law and to suspend habeas corpus—the very powers for which Davis and the Confederate government had charged Lincoln with tyranny.  See David P. Currie, “The Bridge-Burners,” Green Bag (Winter 2004).

  4. 4.The Thrilling Adventures of Daniel Ellis (New York: 1867), 29.

  5. 5.Van Horne, Life of George Thomas (1882).

  6. 6.This apparently enabled the resolution to a looming conflict in the chain of command.  Before Thomas assumed command, Carter focused on recruitment while Gen. Bull Nelson set up the camp.  After Thomas took over he seems to have used Carter as a roving, interim aide-de-camp.  One of his tasks was directing reconnaissance to keep up with Zollicoffer’s movements prior to the battle of Camp Wildcat.  Carter not only directed, but also took an active part in the field and sent regular dispatches to Thomas regarding the enemy’s advance.  After Schoepf took command of the brigade that included Carter’s Tennessee volunteers, it was not clear what Carter’s role actually was.  Carter was often out on some assignment, but whenever he was in the camp Colonels Carter and Byrd reported to him instead of to Schoepf.  On November 3 Schoepf wrote to Thomas, “I am somewhat at a loss as regards the position of General Carter, who claims a kind of command of the Tennessee brigade. Although no inconvenience has so far arisen from this claim, it is certainly liable to produce clashing at any moment. Please advise me in the matter.”   Sherman’s orders actually required the splitting of Schoepf’s command, heading off the potential power duel between the brigadiers.  By November 12 Carter was signing letters “Acting Brigadier General, Commanding East Tennessee Brigade,” an epithet that Thomas certainly authorized.

  7. 7.Not everyone will agree with my summary and conclusions regarding the episode at Strawberry Plains—the venerable United Daughters of the Confederacy among them.  There are two very different renditions of the story, each built on its own set of alleged facts: the bridge burner side as presented by Oliver Temple, and Pvt. Keelan’s side presented by Radford Gatlin and (somewhat more moderately) by the Louisville journalist and the UDC Confederate Museum.  One problem is that all the testimony we have is second-hand, and another is that we cannot cross-examine the witnesses/participants.  We can, however, weigh the evidence and compare the testimony to verifiable facts.  It is best to start by assuming that all eyewitnesses are telling the truth as they perceive it, and then try harmonize the different versions to the extent possible.  Overall and with some amendments that take Keelan’s experience into account (as I have done), the version told by Oliver Temple is by far both more probable and more plausible than its counterpart.

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