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.”
In early November, word spread among the eastern Tennessee Unionists that Federal forces were advancing to liberate them from Confederate rule. On the night of the 8th, Presbyterian Minister William Carter led Unionists in burning five railroad bridges. This would supposedly deprive Confederate forces of the bridges needed to receive reinforcements once the Federals moved into eastern Tennessee via Cumberland Gap.
The panicked Confederate commander at Knoxville reported that “the whole country is now in a state of rebellion.” John R. Branner, president of the vital East Tennessee & Virginia Railroad, warned Secretary of War Judah P. Benjamin that the Unionists could “destroy or take possession of the whole line from Bristol to Chattanooga,” and “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.” A commissary officer wrote that the Unionists were gathering in such numbers that “there is no telling how much damage they may do.”
But the Unionists were unaware that the Federal forces slated to move into eastern Tennessee had been recalled to instead defend Kentucky against General Albert Sidney Johnston’s Confederates. Confederate authorities seized six of the bridge burners by the next day, and Johnston 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 G. 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 President Davis, “The burning of railroad bridges in east Tennessee shows a deep-seated spirit of rebellion in that section. Union men are organizing.” 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 added, “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 Pensacola command 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 Abraham 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, and both agreed that coming to the aid of loyal east Tennesseans should be a top priority. McClellan wrote to Major General Don Carlos Buell, commanding the Department of the Ohio from Louisville, Kentucky:
“It so happens that a large majority of the inhabitants of eastern Tennessee are in favor of the Union. It therefore seems proper that you should remain on the defensive on the line from Louisville to Nashville while you throw the mass of your forces by rapid marches by Cumberland Gap or Walker’s Gap on Knoxville in order to occupy the railroad at that point and thus enable the loyal citizens of eastern Tennessee to rise while you at the same time cut off the railroad communication between eastern Virginia and the Mississippi.”
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 benefit in trying to enter such a geographically forbidding region as eastern Tennessee, continued to resist 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 a different railroad bridge.
- Catton, Bruce, Grant Moves South. Boston: Little, Brown, and Company, Inc., 1960.
- Foote, Shelby, The Civil War, A Narrative: Fort Sumter to Perryville. New York: Vintage Books, 1958.
- Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day. New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971.
- 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.