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Local history tour tells how to burn bridges

By Ned Jilton II • Dec 18, 2019 at 9:30 PM

I had the chance last Saturday to explore some of our local history thanks to the Tennessee Civil War Preservation Association.

The TCWPA came to town with Jim Ogden, historian at the Chickamauga-Chattanooga National Battlefield Park, to conduct one of its Three Star tours. The topic was “Bridge Burnings and Railroad Raids” and covered the 1861 East Tennessee Unionist efforts to disrupt Confederate rail service and touched on the 1862 Samuel “Powhatan” Carter raid and the 1863 action by Gen. Ambrose Burnside.

If you’re going to talk about bridge burning, you need a bridge. Our first stop after gathering at Tipton-Haynes Historic Site in Johnson City was the covered bridge in Elizabethton.

Although Elizabethton’s covered bridge is post Civil War and wasn’t involved in any raid, it uses the Howe truss design. Developed by architect and bridge builder William Howe in 1840, his truss system was used throughout the war and up to the beginning of the 1900s when metal bridges replaced wooden ones.

Using the bridge to illustrate his points, Ogden explained how the mix of diagonal wooden beams and vertical metal rods worked together to support the load. He also pointed out that the railroad bridges were covered, much the same as Elizabethton’s bridge, to protect the timber from weather. He then explained how the raiders planned to start the fires.

From the covered bridge, we walked a short distance over to the Carter house on East Main Street. The house was more recently the Carter on Main restaurant, but during 1861 it served as headquarters for the bridge burning operations in this area.

It was at this stop we learned about pre-war activities in Elizabethton and the Carter family. William Carter was in charge of the entire bridge burning operation of 1861, placing Daniel Stover in charge of the attacks in our region. Samuel Carter led the 1862 raid that destroyed the bridges in Zollicoffer (known today as Bluff City) and at Carter’s Depot (now known as Watauga).

From the house, we drove the short distance to the Carter Mansion Historic Site to visit the grave of William Carter and learn more about the family.

Leaving Elizabethton, we headed to Bluff City to the site of the bridge burning there. We didn’t take the quickest route. Instead, we tried to follow the route along Indian Creek taken by the men led by Stover to get a feel for what they went through.

When we arrived in Bluff City, Ogden told us how Stover gathered volunteers on the way. Then while we stood on the swinging bridge nearby, he told us about the attack, the burning and the debate about what to do with a prisoner afterwards.

Ogden pointed out something that had never occurred to me. The Bluff City bridge was burned three times during the war. First by the bridge burners in ’61. Then by Samuel Carter during his ’62 raid, followed by forces under the command of Gen. Burnside in ’63.

Because the Howe truss design was standardized, the bridge was quickly rebuilt in ’61 and again in ’62, but after ’63, resources were running low, so soldiers and supplies had to be ferried across the river and loaded onto trains on the other side.

From Bluff City, we went to the bridge in Watagua.

Stover and his bridge burners had headed in this direction in ’61, but a large Confederate cavalry force present there spared the bridge from destruction. However, Samuel Carter’s raid in ’62 did burn the bridge.

The East Tennessee and Virginia Railroad was very important to the Confederate war effort. Because of the efforts of the bridge burners, supplies were slow getting to Robert E. Lee in Virginia, and the Battle of Stones River may have turned in favor of the Union because Confederate reinforcements were late in arriving due to railroad delays in our area.

It was an enjoyable morning despite the drizzle. I find that while reading books on subjects and listening to lectures can be interesting, you have to “walk the ground,” so to speak, to get a feel for things. By driving the back roads along the creek we got an idea of the distance and difficulty faced by the bridge burners. By standing at the bridges while hearing the details of the action, you see the lay of the land and understand how it contributed to the strategy.

There are several organizations that offer battlefield walks and history tours that are well worth checking out. Among them are the TCWPA I rode with Saturday, the Tri Cities Civil War Roundtable has events from time to time, and then there is the American Battlefield Trust, which offers tours and events all year.

To learn more, check out www.tcwpa.org for the Tennessee Civil War Preservation Association, e-mail Wayne Strong at trustwrks.aol to learn about the Tri Cities Civil War Round Table, and check out www.battlefields.org for the American Battlefield Trust. The Trust website is also a good source for information and videos on the American Revolution, the War of 1812 and the Civil War.

In next week’s column I hope to get into the actual story of the bridge burners.

Ned Jilton II is a page designer and photographer for the Times News as well as the writer of the “Marching with the 19th” Civil War series. You can contact him at njilton@timesnews.net.