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Bridge-burning part two: Union men take action but where is the army?

Ned Jilton • Jan 1, 2020 at 8:30 PM

Late in the summer of 1861, William Carter of Elizabethton had come up with a plan to liberate East Tennessee from the Confederacy. He hoped that by burning the bridges of the East Tennessee & Virginia railroad from Bristol to Chattanooga and then seizing key points to disrupt Rebel reinforcements, the Union army could come down from Kentucky and secure the region.

Union Gen. George H. Thomas liked the plan and had passed it on to Washington, D.C., where it had been approved by President Abraham Lincoln.

In November, Carter set his plan into motion and placed Andrew Johnson’s son-in-law, Daniel Stover, in charge of burning the bridges in Sullivan and Carter counties. Carter then left for Kingston, Tennessee, the mid-point of the railway, to oversee the entire plan.

On the night of Nov. 8, the plan went into effect. Stover left Elizabethton and headed for Watauga, recruiting men along the way. All who joined were sworn into the Union army and received a small payment.

Upon arriving at the Watauga bridge, Stover’s men ran into their first problem. The bridge was guarded by a large contingent of Confederate cavalry from Tennessee under the command of Capt. David McClellan. Seeing that his small force was no match, Stover moved his men along Indian Creek to their next target, the bridge over the Holston River.

This bridge at Union was lightly guarded and was quickly captured and set to the torch. But then came the problem of what to do with two prisoners taken in the raid.

The first impulse was to shoot them. But after the men pleaded for their lives and promised not to reveal the identity of the bridge burners, Stover let them go.

They, of course, immediately informed on Stover and his men.

Messages from panicked Confederate officials along the ET&V railroad begin flying in every direction as bridge after bridge burned.

John Banner, president of the ET&V railroad, sent a message to then Secretary of War, Judah P. Benjamin: “Two large bridges on my road were burned last night about 12 o’clock; also one bridge on the East Tennessee and Georgia Railroad at the same time and an effort made to burn the largest bridge on my road. There is great excitement along the whole line of road and evidence that the Union party are organizing and preparing to destroy or take possession of the whole line from Bristol to Chattanooga.”

Not every bridge targeted by Carter was burned. At the Strawberry Plains bridge, the attackers lost their matches while fighting with the guards and were unwilling to ask for help from nearby houses due to the fear of being caught.

As dawn broke, hundreds of Unionists armed with shotguns and rifles turned out to seize key positions and delay Confederate reinforcements while waiting for the arrival of Gen. Thomas and the Union army from Kentucky.

But the Union army seemed to be late in arriving.

William Carter, trying to find out the reason for the delay, met with his brother, Gen. Samuel P. Carter, in Kentucky. Gen. Carter sent the following message to Gen. Thomas.

“My brother William has just arrived from East Tennessee, and the news he brings I think of so much importance, that I will dispatch a special messenger to convey it to you,” wrote Williams. “He reports that on Friday night, 8th instant, of last week, he succeeded in having burned at least six and perhaps eight bridges on the railroad.

“The consternation among the secessionists of East Tennessee is very great,” continued Gen. Carter. “The Union men are waiting with longing and anxiety for the appearance of Federal forces on the Cumberland Mountains.”

But there would be no Federal forces.

Gen. Thomas sent a report of his readiness to advance into Tennessee to Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman, commanding Union forces in Kentucky, on Nov. 5, and was waiting for the order to advance. However, Sherman had changed his mind and canceled the planned attack. The movements of Gen. Felix Zollicoffer’s Confederates had convinced him an attack toward Louisville was about to happen, so he ordered Thomas to hold and be ready to move in that direction.

With no reinforcements, it was only a matter of time before the Unionists were overwhelmed and the bridge burners caught.

Stover and his men fought for a week in Carter County before they made their escape to Kentucky.

For those who were caught, retribution was swift. Secretary of War Benjamin sent the following order to all Confederate officers in East Tennessee.

“All such as can be identified as having been engaged in bridge burning are to be tried summary 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. All such as have not been so engaged are to be treated as prisoners of war.”

A month later, Col. Danville Leadbetter, commanding Confederate forces in the Northeast Tennessee area, reported to Adjutant Gen. Samuel Cooper in Richmond that “Capt. McClellan, of the Tennessee cavalry, stationed by me at Elizabethton, reports that Carter County is becoming very quiet, and that, with the aid of a company of infantry, he will enter Johnson County and disarm the people there.”

Col. Leadbetter then closed with, “The execution of the bridge burners is producing the happiest effect. This, coupled with great kindness towards the inhabitants generally. Inclines them to quietude. Insurgents will continue for yet a while in the mountains, but I trust that we have secured the outward obedience of the people.”

The truth was that the men of East Tennessee had slipped away through the mountains into Kentucky, where 30,000 of them were organizing into regiments and brigades of infantry, cavalry and batteries of artillery for their return.

One last note

The map of East Tennessee on President Lincoln’s office wall that I wrote about in part one would stay there until 1863. It was then that Gen. Oliver O. Howard stopped by to visit the president before joining Gen. U.S. Grant in Chattanooga.

The president and Gen. Howard were looking at the general’s map of East Tennessee and talking about what was to be done when Lincoln realized that his map on the wall was better than Howard’s.

Without hesitation, Lincoln took down his map and gave it to Howard and put the general’s map on the wall.

So Lincoln’s map helped to fulfill his wish for the liberation of East Tennessee. It was just a couple of years later than he had hoped.

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.

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