November 30, 1861 – Confederate officials hanged two men as part of an effort to stop Unionists from sabotaging the Confederacy by burning bridges in eastern Tennessee.
Although Tennessee was a Confederate state, the people of the mountainous eastern region remained largely Unionist. To prevent uprisings within Tennessee, President Jefferson Davis had issued orders for all citizens in the region to swear loyalty to the Confederacy, otherwise they would be considered “alien enemies,” subject to losing their property to Confederate military forces.
Recently, Confederates stationed in eastern Tennessee had observed an increase in Unionist activity. Brigadier General Felix Zollicoffer and other regional commanders reported to Richmond that the Unionists were “as hostile to it (Davis’s loyalty oath) as the people of Ohio and will be ready to take up arms as soon as they believe the Lincoln forces are near enough to sustain them.”
On the night of November 8, Presbyterian Minister William Carter led Unionists in burning five railroad bridges. This was part of a larger plan in which Federal forces would enter eastern Tennessee through Cumberland Gap and Confederate troops, deprived of the bridges, could not be reinforced. Unionists began assembling, unaware that Federal commanders had withdrawn their support by shifting their focus to central Tennessee.
Confederate authorities seized six of the bridge burners by the next day. With the Confederate supply line threatened by such destruction, East Tennessee & Virginia Railroad President John R. Branner wrote Secretary of War Judah P. Benjamin that “unless the Government gives us the necessary aid and protection at once transportation over my road of army supplies will be an utter impossibility; it cannot be done.”
General Albert Sidney Johnston, commanding Confederate Department No. 2 (the Western Theater), asserted that the sabotage “cannot be the work of the enemy’s troops but of the disaffected in North Alabama and East Tennessee.” As such, he called on Tennessee Governor Isham Harris “to use every exertion to ascertain the extent, power and organization of this insurrection,” and to “put arms into the hands of your unarmed levies.”
Meanwhile, Unionists continued organizing, primarily in Carter, Johnson, and Sevier counties. Neither they nor the Confederates knew that no Federals were coming to help them. The Unionists openly assembled, confident that they would be liberated, while the Confederates panicked at the thought of a mass uprising in eastern Tennessee.
Harris wrote to President Davis about the “deep seated spirit of rebellion” in the eastern part of his state. He informed Davis that he would dispatch 10,000 men to the region and asked for Davis to send all the Tennessee troops in western Virginia to him. Harris stated, “This rebellion must be crushed out instantly, the leaders arrested, and summarily punished.”
Attorney A.G. Graham also wrote to Davis, declaring, “Civil war has broken out at length in East Tennessee,” and the Unionists “look confidently for the re-establishment of the Federal authority in the South with as much confidence as the Jews look for the coming of the Messiah.” Graham recommended that if Davis deported the Unionists to northern states, “the Southern men can then enter the Army, because they know that their families are safe at home.”
By mid-November, Zollicoffer had sent detachments into the countryside to round up the bands of Unionists, while Colonel Sterling A.M. Wood’s 7th Alabama arrived from General Braxton Bragg’s command at Pensacola as reinforcements.
The Confederates cracked down on the mischief by declaring martial law and arresting several suspected Unionists, including William G. Brownlow, editor of the Unionist Knoxville Whig. Brownlow’s printing offices were converted into an arms factory. However, President Davis ordered Brownlow released, saying that it was better for the “most dangerous enemy” to escape than the honor of the Confederacy be “impugned or even suspected.”
With relative order restored, the question of what to do with the bridge burners in Confederate custody lingered. Wood wrote to Benjamin on the 21st, “Tories (Unionists) now quiet, but not convinced. Executions needed.” Colonel William B. Wood (no relation to Sterling A.M. Wood) also wrote to Benjamin: “It is a mere farce to arrest them and turn them over to the courts… instead of having the effect to intimidate it really gives encouragement and emboldens them in their traitorous conduct.”
Four days later, Benjamin directed that non-violent Unionists be detained as prisoners of war. Those who had taken up arms against the Confederacy would also be detained, even if they had since sworn allegiance. Regarding the bridge burners:
“All such as can be identified as having been engaged in bridgeburning are to be tried summarily by drum-head court-martial and if found guilty executed on the spot by hanging. It would be well to leave their bodies hanging in the vicinity of the burned bridges.”
Meanwhile in Kentucky, many eastern Tennesseans in the Federal army deserted when they learned that they would not be marching into their home region as originally planned to help their families and friends. Local officials asked President Lincoln to order the Federal commanders in Kentucky to focus on eastern, not central, Tennessee.
Lincoln forwarded the matter to General-in-Chief George B. McClellan. McClellan reiterated to Major General Don Carlos Buell, the new commander of the Department of the Ohio, that his forces should move immediately into the region. McClellan added, “If there are causes which render this course impossible, we must submit to the necessity; but I still feel sure that a movement on Knoxville is absolutely necessary, if it is possible to effect it.” Buell, who saw no military gain in entering eastern Tennessee, continued resisting urgings from Lincoln and McClellan to do so.
On the 30th, Confederate Colonel Danville Leadbetter wrote to Benjamin: “Two insurgents have to-day been tried for bridge-burning, found guilty and hanged.” The two men were Jacob M. Hensie and Henry Fry, convicted by court-martial for burning the Lick Creek bridge. Although Benjamin had expressed hope that the Confederates hang the offenders at the bridges they burned, the men were hanged from another railroad bridge.
CivilWarDailyGazette.com (multiple dates); Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 94; Foote, Shelby, The Civil War, A Narrative: Fort Sumter to Perryville (New York: Vintage Books, 1958), p. 132-33; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 81, 85; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 137-38; McPherson, James M., Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era (Oxford History of the United States Book 6, Oxford University Press, Kindle Edition, 1988), p. 305