The East Tennessee Unionist Rebellion

[Cover of Harper’s Weekly, March 29th, 1862]

Tennessee was admitted to the Union on June 1st, 1796.  The history of the region prior to statehood was one of vicious independence, self-reliance and individual liberty.  From the foundations of the Watauga Association in 1770 to the defeat of Ferguson at King’s Mountain during the Revolution, the settlers of East Tennessee seemed to be perfectly willing to take care of their own business whenever the situation presented itself.

Statehood found two major cities growing out of the freshly minted State of Tennessee.  Knoxville had become a central point in East Tennessee and was designated the Capital of the State.  Nashville originally settled in 1779, experienced explosive growth at the astounding rate of 273% due to proximity to river transport and plentiful fertile land.  East Tennessee struggled to reach 20% after an 18% loss of population in 1810.  This massive growth in Middle Tennessee brought with it a swing of political influence.  The Capital was moved from Knoxville to Murfreesboro in 1817 and again to Nashville in 1826.

The fertile lands of Middle and Western Tennessee were tended and the slave population grew as a percentage of the overall population from 13% in 1800 to 21% in 1830.  Slavery was growing concern for the people of East Tennessee.    As early as 1815 Abolitionist societies were forming in the region.  The noted abolitionist Reverend John Rankin joined the local society in his native Jefferson County and an Abolitionist newspaper, the Manumission Intelligencer, was published weekly in Jonesboro.  “That there was a strong anti-slavery feeling in East Tennessee, about 1820, is proven by tradition as well as by such historical facts as we have bearing on the question.  In 1826, there were 143 anti-slavery societies in the United States, of which number 103 were in the South.”[1]  The state of relations between East Tennessee and the rest of the state began to deteriorate during this period.  In 1838, after several pleas by East Tennessee leaders, the General Assembly in Nashville passed a bill for building rail roads in East Tennessee.  Before the project was hardly started the bill was repealed by the Tennessee legislature.  Robert Tracy McKenzie writes in “Lincolnites and Rebels”, “The repeal of the 1838 internal improvements act generated enormous resentment in much of East Tennessee, and more than any other political event prior to the secession crisis, it prompted East Tennesseans to question their attachment to the rest of the state. ”  East Tennessee sought separation from Nashville three times between 1840 and 1843.[2]  By the eve of the Civil War, leaders of East Tennessee were willing to do about anything to free themselves from the calamitous albatross they felt they were attached to in Nashville.

The election of President Lincoln triggered secession votes across the south.  Successful votes to secede by South Carolina, Mississippi, Florida, Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, and Texas led up to Tennessee and their vote on February 25th 1861. Secession failed by almost ten thousand votes with East Tennessee leading the opposition with overwhelming margin of 33,000 to 7,000.  Governor Isham Harris promptly called for another vote in June.  The Unionists of East Tennessee met in May at Knoxville in an effort to unify their voice and offer a single platform to the people of Tennessee firmly in opposition to the idea of secession.   Thomas Amos Rogers Nelson was selected as President of the Convention and was the primary author of their final report.[3]   The initial report submitted by Mr. Nelson reflected the anger and frustration felt by unionists.  This report was referred to committee as the only purpose served by publishing these first resolutions would be to further drive a wedge between themselves and Nashville.  Oliver Perry Temple, who was a delegate to the convention from Knox County, said of Nelson’s initial report, “It was fortunate that Mr. Nelson’s resolutions were referred, for if they had been acted on at once, they would have been adopted by an overwhelming majority.  The committee did not get ready to report on the mass of matter submitted to it until the afternoon of the third day.  By that time, much of the heat and excitement at first existing among the delegates had spent its force in speeches and resolutions.  Their minds had somewhat sobered down and reason had resumed its rightful supremacy.”[4]    As the convention drew to a close, Temple and Nelson had toned down the original resolutions and making arrangements for them to be published in Tennessee as well as in Kentucky and Ohio.  Nelson adjourned the convention with the promise that he would call them back at a later date.

As the East Tennesseans waited for the outcome of the secession vote on June 8th, Chatham Roberdeau Wheat was busy along the wharfs and docks of New Orleans recruiting.  Wheat was a natural charismatic leader.  A West Point graduate, Mexican War veteran, and leader in the Cuban “filibuster” of 1849, he was a man with plenty military experience as well as a love and deep respect for the Southern Cause.  He published an announcement in the New Orleans Daily Crescent on April 18th 1861 and immediately began recruiting the hard men of the docks.  Thomas Cooper De Leon described these as a “splendid set of animals; medium sized, sunburnt, muscular and wiry as Arabs; and a long, swingy gait told of drill and endurance.”[5]  By June 5th ,  this “splendid set of animals” were armed and equipped and ready for their orders to Richmond by then Confederate Secretary of War L.P. Walker. [6]  The rail line would take them through a small village about 20 miles northeast of Knoxville called Strawberry Plains.

Shortly after the June 8th secession of Tennessee, a group of Unionists gathered at Strawberry Plains to discuss the election results and what could be done about it.  The discussion almost certainly was one of anger at the “tyranny of the military power and the still greater tyranny of a corrupt and subsidized press”[7] that led to the successful secession vote.  As they met, a train began to roll by.  Not an uncommon occurrence and likely didn’t draw much attention from the far more important topic of discussion.  That is until rifles poked through the rails of the cars and fired.  These rifles were likely held by some of Wheat’s Louisiana Tigers having just been ordered to Richmond from New Orleans.  William Randolph Carter, a veteran of the 4th Tennessee Volunteer Infantry(US), wrote:

“During the progress of the meeting a regiment of ‘Louisiana Tigers’ passed by on the cars.  They had been notified of the meeting before leaving the station, and under a full head of steam and with loaded muskets on they came.  When opposite the place where these patriots were quietly discussing the action of Governor Harris they opened fire.  The fire was promptly met with volleys from all kinds of firearms and a rush for the train.  Several men who were near the track attempted to wreck the train by placing cross-ties on the rails.  There were no casualties on the Union side, and as the train kept moving there was no means of knowing whether any of the ‘Tigers’ were hurt or not, but the sides of the cars were perforated with bullets.”[8] 

Later, as the Convention was reconvened on June 17th 1861, another group of Wheat’s Tigers rolled into Greeneville.  They “cut down the National flag, made threats, committed some minor outrages, and, after a few hours, departed for Virginia.”[9]  These “minor outrages” did not prevent the Convention from completing its work however.  There were two main proposals brought forth.  The first proposed by Convention President Thomas Nelson, was a scathing list of resolutions similar in fervor to the May Resolutions that would have resulted in open civil war between East Tennessee and the rest of the state and, due to the recent vote, the entire Confederacy.  The second proposal submitted by Oliver Temple was much less adversarial and considered far too moderate for Reverend William Blount Carter who strongly supported Nelson’s proposal.  Horace Maynard, Congressional Representative for the 2nd District which included Knoxville, supported Temple’s proposal.  Both men were strong leaders in the region and the lines were clearly drawn.  The debate was heated and at times very personal.  Nelson and Carter’s supporters seemed to be arguing for taking the fight to Governor Harris while Temple and Maynard’s supporters were arguing for trying to find a way out of this mess with some degree of honor and safety for their families.   After four days of discussions Temple’s proposals were adopted.  The proposals, while not as vitriolic as Nelson’s, still carried the same spirit of independence that led to the settlement of East Tennessee. There were three main points made in the proposals[10]:

  • “That we do earnestly desire the restoration of peace to our whole country, and most especially that our own section of the State of Tennessee shall not be involved in civil war.”
  • “That the action of the State Legislature in passing the so-called ‘Declaration of Independence,’ and in forming the ‘Military League’ with the Confederate States, and in adopting other acts looking to a separation of Tennessee from the Government of the United States, is unconstitutional and illegal, and therefore not binding upon us as loyal citizens.”
  • “and it was further resolved, ‘That in order to avert a conflict with our brethren in other parts of the State, and desiring that every constitutional means shall be resorted to, for the preservation of peace, we do, therefore, constitute and appoint O.P. Temple, of Knox, John Netherland, of Hawkins, and James P. McDowell, of Greene, commissioners, whose duty it shall be to prepare a memorial and cause the same to be presented to the General Assembly of Tennessee, now in session, asking its consent that the counties composing East Tennessee, and such other counties in Middle Tennessee, as desire to co-operate with them, may form and erect a separate State…”

The fathers and grandfathers of these men faced threats from the Crown of England and the Chiefs of the Cherokee but never from their own countrymen on the scale that presented itself in the summer of 1861.  There fellow Tennesseans in middle and western Tennessee were actively preparing for war.  Before, during, and after the Greeneville Convention, Governor Harris was acting to organize a Confederate military presence in the state.[11]  The people of East Tennessee were preparing for the inevitable reaction of the General Assembly in Nashville to the proposals.  Samuel Tate, President of the Memphis and Charleston Railroad, wrote to Georgia Senator Robert Toombs on the 28th of June saying: [12] 

 “I came through East Tennessee yesterday. Saw some of our friends, but many more of our enemies. There is truly great disaffection with those people. It is currently reported and believed that Johnson has made an arrangement at Cincinnati to send 10,000 guns into East Tennessee, and that they have actually been shipped through Kentucky to Nicholasville, and are to be hauled from there to near the Kentucky line and placed in the hands of Union men in Kentucky on the line to be conveyed to Union men in Tennessee. They openly proclaim that if the Legislature refuses to let them secede they will resist to the death and call upon Lincoln for aid. Nelson, Brownlow, and Maynard are the leaders.”

The notion of 10,000 weapons flowing into East Tennessee from Cincinnati would be quite the surprise to General Sherman, then in command of Federal troops in Kentucky.  There was no small amount of rumor included in the message to Senator Toombs.  As Mr. Tate travelled the length of East Tennessee, and considering the level of frustration among the people, he likely had empirical evidence for another bit of intelligence he relates to the Senator.  “A number of Union companies are forming and drilling daily in the disaffected districts for the avowed purpose of resistance. Let the Government look closely to this movement. Unless nipped in the bud it may become very troublesome.”[13]   Within six months Mr. Tate’s message to the Senator from Georgia would seem prophetic.

The last half of July saw active recruitment of Federal regiments in Kentucky at Camp Dick Robinson.  Simon Bolivar Buckner had called up the Kentucky State Militia and essentially took it to Tennessee to form Camp Trousdale.  This sudden appearance of Confederate troops on Kentucky’s southern border led Kentucky Unionists to demand some kind of defense in that area of the state which resulted in a growing collection of recruits around Nolin Creek.  This growing presence of Federal troops in Kentucky led Confederate General Leonidas Polk to cross the river and occupy Belmont, declaring Kentucky’s Neutrality a sham.

In Tennessee, Felix Zollicoffer was appointed as Brigadier General to command East Tennessee, and regiments of varying readiness were ordered to the region. Confederate commanders seemed to be growing forth from trees.  The Confederate situation in East Tennessee was sufficiently muddled that Zollicoffer wrote to Confederate Adjutant General Samuel Cooper with some frustration, “I am here to comprehend facts.  Under great confusion of orders from Nashville. … Which regiments shall I assume command of for East Tennessee Service?”[14]  To frustrated Unionists these movements were cause for great concern no matter how disorganized.  As Confederate troops attempted to block the passes of the northern Tennessee border, many unionists fled the region.  The plight of the East Tennessee refugee began with the dreadful passage of Roger’s Gap, Wilson’s Gap, Cumberland Gap, and many other bridle paths crossing the Cumberland Mountains.  Temple provides a colorful description saying, “…men fleeing for freedom were alert and lynx-eyed.  Darkness would creep over the mountains, and while the Confederate soldiers slept, or dozed at their posts, cunning guides, wide awake and soft of tread as panthers, were leading the refugees in silence along some unexpected way, or scaling beetling steeps, impassable except to men whose lives depend on present strength, coolness and daring.”[15]  Convention delegate, and supporter of T.A.R. Nelson’s radical proposals, Reverend William Blount Carter left East Tennessee for Kentucky during the first weeks of July along with so many others.  In September Reverend Carter would make his way first to Camp Dick Robinson where he met with his brother, then a Navy Lieutenant but would soon become Army General, Samuel Powhatan Carter, Senator Andrew Johnson, Congressman Horace Maynard and General Thomas.  A plan was hatched during this conference and the group sent Reverend Carter on to Washington DC.[16]   He met with President Lincoln, Secretary of State Seward, and General McClellan around mid-September and presented to them the audacious plan to bring relief to East Tennessee.  The plan consisted of Unionist attacks on eight railroad bridges from Bristol on the Virginia border to Bridgeport Alabama with the goal of destroying them, severing the supply lines from the heart of the Confederacy to the eastern theater.  As the smoke was still rising from the burning bridges, a Federal column would descend on Cumberland Gap and seize East Tennessee.   The President and Secretary of State were reasonably convinced of the plan.  Enough so that Secretary of State Seward gave Reverend Carter $2,500 for the purposes of the destruction of the bridges.  General McClellan “promised to aid in the movement by sending an army into East Tennessee as soon as possible”.[17]  Lincoln would write an order for the campaign but, perhaps more foreshadowing of what was to come, this handwritten order was not entered into the Headquarters of the Army books until the end of October.[18]   It seems apparent, however, that the plan was communicated to Secretary of War Cameron.  On October 10th Adjutant-General Lorenzo Thomas instructs both Sherman and Mitchell to prepare for “an outward movement, the object being to take possession of Cumberland Ford and Cumberland Gap, and ultimately seize the East Tennessee and Virginia Railroad”.[19]  General William Tecumseh Sherman had been appointed to the command of the Department of the Cumberland just two days prior in the wake of the resignation of General Robert Anderson, formerly the Major Anderson of Fort Sumter fame.  Sherman was aware of the situation in Kentucky so when Reverend Carter returned to Camp Dick Robinson from his successful discussion with President Lincoln and friends there was very little to catch the commander up on.  At first, Sherman was opposed to the idea.  Too few available men and fewer weapons available for those too few men was likely Sherman’s argument.  General Thomas convinced Sherman who gave the order to proceed. [20] Reverend Carter had to be ecstatic as he picked a few officers from the few East Tennessee Infantry regiments to be leaders in the endeavor.     His brother now a Brigadier General with the 1st and 2nd East Tennessee Regiments under his command, the Reverend surely felt the nucleus of the relief force was already in place at Camp Dick Robinson as he left for home on October 18th.[21]   He couldn’t possibly know that the events to transpire over the next two weeks would scuttle any effort to send a military force into East Tennessee.  In fact, as he was leaving Camp Dick Robinson the first nails in the coffin of the military relief effort were being driven as Confederate General Zollicoffer threatened Colonel Theopholus Toulman Garrard  and his small force of Federals at Camp Wildcat.  The defeat of Zollicoffer at Wildcat three days later compelled him to fall back on Cumberland Ford and then on to Cumberland Gap resulting in a force of around 3,000 men plus artillery holding the primary gap from which any Federal military relief column would have to cross.  Further complicating matters was Confederate General Albert Sidney Johnston in western Kentucky.  Sherman was very concerned about the prospect of Johnston moving in concert with Buckner or Zollicoffer and attacking Thomas at Camp Dick Robinson. Sherman’s likely fear was by extending Thomas’ small force against Zollicoffer at Cumberland Gap he would be leaving McCook at Nolin Creek as the only force to stop Johnston and Buckner from occupying Louisiville.  He wrote in his Memoirs concerning Johnston, “Had he done so in October, 1861, he could have walked into Louisville, and the vital part of the population would have hailed him as a deliverer.” [22] The reason for Johnston not making this move may have been a lack of a clear command structure.  That would be resolved on October 28th with the publication of Special Orders No. 51 assigning Johnston “immediate command of the army corps of Central Kentucky.”[23]

Sherman’s apprehensions about the current state of affairs were not felt by the East Tennessee Unionist he had agreed to relieve earlier in the month.  The news of the defeat of Zollicoffer at Wildcat had many of them expressing their joy against Colonel William B Woods’ 16th Alabama in the streets of Knoxville on the same day as Johnston’s command announcement.  Colonel Woods with several companies of his 16th Alabama Infantry were at Knoxville in the Headquarters of General Zollicoffer’s army.  In a report to Zollicoffer detailing movements of supplies he wrote:

The news of your falling back to Cumberland Ford has had the effect of developing a feeling that has only been kept under by the presence of troops. It was plainly visible that the Union men were so elated that they could scarcely repress an open expression of their joy. This afternoon it assumed an open character, and some eight or ten of the bullies and leaders made an attack on some of my men near the Lamar House, and seriously wounded several. “…” The Southerners here are considerably alarmed, believing that there is a preconcerted movement amongst the Union men, if by any means the enemy should get into Tennessee. J. Swan told me to-night that he heard one say this evening, as Captain White’s cavalry rode through town, that “they could do so now, but in less than ten days the Union forces would be here and run them off.”[24]

It has been said that the best way for two people to keep a secret is if one of them are dead.    Reverend Carter wrote to Thomas at Camp Dick Robinson on the 27th saying, “Men and women weep for joy when I merely hint to them that the day of our deliverance is at hand.”[25]  Those “mere hints” along with the defeat of the Confederates at Wildcat had emboldened the Unionists of Knoxville enough that they felt no concern whatever of talking about their coming relief openly.  Clearly Reverend Carter’s plan had become the subject of gossip in Knoxville.  Unfortunately for the Unionists, there were events working against the plan discussed with President Lincoln in September.   Johnston’s promotion to Corps command probably confirmed in Sherman the threat from the Western Confederates.  Sherman tells Thomas to halt his pursuit of Zollicoffer on the 29th and consolidates Schoepf’s brigade at London and supply hub at Crab Orchard.[26] Over the next week there was much hand wringing on the part of the Federal commanders as they tried to plan for the Confederate’s next move.  Sherman’s concern over the Confederate presence in south central Kentucky comes to a boiling point as Colonel Hoskins of the 12th Kentucky reports 20,000 Confederate troops around Monticello on November 2nd[27]  Hoskins report was wildly exaggerated but soon enough, as if answering  the Colonel, General Zollicoffer would take the bulk of his command toward Jacksboro leaving the 11th TN, 34th TN, and a battalion of the 16th AL under Lieutenant Colonel Harris along with seven companies of Cavalry at Cumberland Gap.[28]   Sherman was paralyzed.  Over the next week he shuffled troops east and west before finally settling on the advance by Zollicoffer on south central Kentucky but by then it would be far too late for Reverend Carter’s men.


While the generals contemplated and moved troops around the map of Kentucky and Tennessee, the men in the ranks of Federal General Thomas’ camps around London Kentucky gnashed their teeth.  Particularly the East Tennesseans under now Brigadier General S.P. Carter, the rumors of the much wanted advance into their home country, and quite likely the efforts to burn the bridges as well, were running rampant through the camps.  Rumors are and likely always will be a staple in any large group of people and perhaps more so with an army in the field.  Those rumors are fertilized with the passage of notable people through the camps.  Senator Andrew Johnson and Congressman Horace Maynard passed through the camps in London regularly.  Whether in person or in the print or words of reporters it made no matter, they fueled the rumor mill with fact and fiction alike.  Both types of annoyances were so prevalent in the camps of General Schoepf’s Kentucky Brigade that he wrote to General Thomas saying:[29]

                “With importunate citizens on one side and meddlesome reporters for papers on the other, I can scarce find time to attend to the appropriate duties of my position. By the way, cannot something be done to rid our camps of this latter class? I have really reached that point that I am afraid to address my staff officer above a whisper in my own tent. My most trivial remarks to my officers are caught up, magnified, and embellished, and appear in print as my “expressed opinions,” much to the surprise of myself and those to whom my remarks were addressed”

The lack of movement, rumors and reporters, and the continued desire to relieve their countrymen became so extreme that on November 7th, General Thomas  urged General Schoepf to start “dealing decidedly with such people, and you have my authority and orders for doing so.  We must learn to abide our time, or we shall never be successful.”[30]  Sadly for the Tennesseans, time was about to run out for their countrymen.

By November 8th Reverend William Blount Carter had his men in place.  The men returned to their own sections of the country to gather their teams.  They were set and by dawn their work would be complete.


The morning of November 9th found Confederate telegraph wires ablaze with traffic.  Everyone from Confederate sympathizing citizens to Rail Road owners, to the Governor and Military Commanders were panicking, unsure what was coming next.  John Branner, President of the East Tennessee and Virginia Railroad, sent the following to Secretary of War Judah Benjamin:[31]

KNOXVILLE, November 9, 1861.

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 and Chattanooga, and unless the Government is very prompt in giving us the necessary military aid, I much fear the result. The only hope for protection must be from the Government. 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. We have arrested four of the individuals engaged in burning one bridge, and know who burned another, but for want of the necessary military force fear we cannot arrest them.

President East Tennessee and Virginia Railroad.


In Bristol, local authorities had lost communication with Nashville and appealed to the Governor of Virginia, John Letcher, for aid:[32]

BRISTOL, November 9, 1861.

DEAR SIR: Upon the oath of J. H. Rudd, conductor of the East Tennessee and Virginia Railroad Company, and news received from A. M. Millard, the representative of Sullivan County, Tennessee, by note, whose handwriting was testified to by George Pile and Jos. R. Anderson, I do hereby inform you that the bridge across the Holston was burned last night by about 50 Union men, and that a Union force is now assembling near Watauga Bridge, reported to number about 500, for the purpose of attacking Captain McClellan’s troops, now stationed at the bridge, and burning the bridge, and ask aid, as we are unable to form any idea of the result of this, and furthermore state that all communication between this place and Nashville by railroad and telegraph is cut off, and ask that you appeal to President Davis to call out the militia of East Tennessee to suppress rebellion.

J.P., Washington County, Virginia.

Of the nine bridges targeted, the bridges at Union, Lick Creek near Pottertown(present day Moshiem), Charleston, and the two spans across the Chickamauga near Chattanooga were destroyed.  The other four bridges were likely well-guarded and the attempts to destroy them were abandoned.[33]  As Confederate authorities struggled to get a military response in play, Unionists came out in droves across East Tennessee.  Colonel Wood in Knoxville reported 1,000 Unionists gathering at Strawberry Plains and another 500 gathering at the Loudon bridge.[34]  With growing reports of heavier and heavier turnout of unionists across the region, high level Confederate Authorities began taking control.  On November 10th Colonel Daniel Leadbetter was ordered to the region by Secretary of War Judah Benjamin along with a battalion of infantry and some artillery to “keep up the line of communication by rail between Bristol and Chattanooga.”[35]  Governor Isham Harris called on Confederate President Jefferson Davis on November 12th for assistance:[36]

NASHVILLE, November 12, 1861.

 His Excellency JEFFERSON DAVIS:

The burning of railroad bridges in East Tennessee shows a deep-seated spirit of rebellion in that section. Union men are organizing. This rebellion must be crushed out instantly, the leaders arrested, and summarily punished. I shall send immediately about 10,000 men to that section; cannot arm larger force at present. If you can possibly send from Western Virginia a number of Tennessee regiments to East Tennessee, we can at once repair the bridges and crush out the rebellion. I hope to be able very soon to collect a large number of sporting  guns in the State to arm our volunteers, and will co-operate with the Government to the fullest extent of my ability in all respects. If a part only of the Tennessee troops in Western Virginia shall be sent, I would prefer Anderson’s brigade.


Confederate troops and citizen militias spread out through the country in an attempt to quell the rebellion.  If the situation of the unionists wasn’t bad enough in July after secession it would get far worse after the bridge attacks as no federal column materialized to support the effort.  Over the next two weeks the Confederate Government and that of Tennessee became more and more aggressive in the actions against the rebelling Unionists.  On November 25th the situation was so intense that Secretary Benjamin issued the following order to Col. Wood in Knoxville:

Richmond, November 25, 1861.

 Col. W. B. WOOD,  Knoxville, Tenn.:

SIR: Your report of the 20th instant is received, and I proceed to give you the desired instructions in relation to the prisoners taken by you amongst the traitors in East Tennessee:

1st. All such as can be identified as having been engaged in bridge-burning 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.

2d. All such as have not been so engaged are to be treated as prisoners of war, and sent with an armed guard to Tuscaloosa, Ala., there to be kept imprisoned at the depot selected by the Government for prisoners of war. Wherever you can discover that arms are concealed by these traitors you will send out detachments, search for and seize the arms. In no case is one of the men known to have been up in arms against the Government to be released on any pledge or oath of allegiance. The time for such measures is past. They are all to be held as prisoners of war, and held in jail till the end of the war. Such as come in voluntarily, take the oath of allegiance, and surrender their arms are alone to be treated with leniency.

Your vigilant execution of these orders is earnestly urged by the Government.

Your obedient servant,

Secretary of War.

Whether by official action or the acts of mobs, unionists and anyone thought to be supporting the union throughout east Tennessee were arrested and sent to Knoxville.  Some of these individuals would eventually find themselves in the Prisoner of War prison at Tuscaloosa Alabama where they were left in such harsh conditions that many never returned.  Benjamin’s execution order was promptly carried out by Colonel Daniel Ledbetter with the hanging of Jacob Hinshaw and Henry Fry on November 30th.[37]  Their bodies, as defined in the Secretary of War’s order, were left hanging by the Lick Creek bridge they had attacked just three weeks earlier.   There were two primary forces of Confederate military authority working in East Tennessee in the early winter of 1861.  Colonel Daniel Ledbetter was originally from Maine but married a southern bride.  His “Yankee” heritage brought with it some suspicion which he strived to allay by zealous obedience to orders.[38]  Brigadier General William H Carroll was a native of Nashville and unlike Colonel Ledbetter had no bonafides to establish as to his loyalty.  His treatment of unionists associated with the bridge attacks were according to orders from his superiors but his offer of release in exchange of an oath and bond for Union prisoners would seem to indicate a certain liberality with his countrymen at least compared to Secretary Benjamin and Colonel Ledbetter.[39]  Benjamin would have none of General Carroll’s oath and bond and corrected this behavior immediately.[40]

The East Tennessee rebellion as it has come to be known was really an accident brought about by a failed military operation on the one hand and an emotional response by the unionists in the region on the other.  When Reverend Carter returned to Camp Dick Robinson in October, General Sherman was not overly impressed with the plan to burn the bridges and invade East Tennessee.  He knew his situation as he would later spell out for Secretary of War Cameron.  The Federal strength wasn’t strong enough to manage the threat already levied against it let alone any attempts at offensive operations.  General Thomas somehow managed to convince Sherman to accede to the plan.  Reverend Carter had to believe such a column was coming when he set his men on their unalterable course in early November.  The rumors of the impending invasion were clearly rampant throughout East Tennessee so when the bridges were attacked and some destroyed, the turnout of armed unionist citizens comes as no surprise.  The rumor had taken root and become fact in the hearts of the unionists.  Unfortunately for them their turnout resulted in the imprisonment of hundreds if not thousands of union supporting men across the whole of the region.  Whether they had an active role in the bridge burnings or not, the mere rumor of union sympathies was enough for husband, father, and son to be arrested and imprisoned in Knoxville if they were lucky and Tuscaloosa Alabama where many would never return.  The policies of Secretary of War Benjamin as carried out by the likes of Colonel Daniel Ledbetter drove the surviving unionists back to their homes in fear of summary execution or out of the state into Kentucky to join the Federal army.  So far as the coming Cumberland Gap campaign is concerned, the East Tennessee Rebellion fed the Union army with thousands of troops fleeing the Confederate response back home.  There may well have been no brigade for James Spears to command without these men.



[1] (Wilson, 170) & (Temple, 88)

[2] (McKenzie, 17-18)

[3] (Temple, 345)

[4] Ibid

[5] (DeLeon, 71)

[6] (Department, 368)

[7] (Fleming, 19)

[8] (Carter, 17)

[9] (Temple, 358)

[10] (Fleming, 27)

[11] O.R.–SERIES I–VOLUME LII/2 [S# 110] pg108  – 25 MAY 1861; O.R.–SERIES IV–VOLUME I [S# 127] pg376 – 13 JUN 1861; O.R.–SERIES I–VOLUME LII/2 [S# 110] pg114 – 22 JUN 1861

[12] O.R.–SERIES I–VOLUME LII/2 [S# 110]pg 116

[13] Ibid


[15] (Temple, 370)

[16] (Temple, 375)

[17] Ibid

[18] O.R.–SERIES I–VOLUME LII/1 [S# 109] p191


[20] (Temple, 376)

[21] (Temple, 377)

[22] (Sherman, 228)




[26] O.R.– SERIES I–VOLUME IV [S# 4] CHAPTER XII. p323 & p325







[33] (Temple, 379)




[37] O.R.– SERIES I–VOLUME 7 [S# 7] p726

[38] (Temple, 394)


[40] O.R. — SERIES I–VOLUME 7 [S# 7] p701


Bancroft, George. 1883. History of the Formation of the Constitution of the United States of America, Vol I. New York, New York: D. Appleton and Company.

Carter, William Randolph. 1902. History of the First Regiment of Tennessee Volunteer Cavalry in the Great War of the Rebellion. Knoxville, TN: Gaut-Ogden Co., Printers and Binders.

DeLeon, Thomas Cooper. 1892. Four Years in Rebel Capitals. Mobile, AL: The Gossip Printing Company.

Department, War. 1900. The War of the Rebellion: A Compilation of the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies. Washington: Government Printing Office.

Fleming, John M. 1861. “Proceedings of the E. T. Convention.” C.M. McClung Historical Collection, Knox County Public Library. May 30-31. Accessed August 11, 2013.

Sherman, William Tecumseh. 1913. Memoirs of General William T. Sherman. Vol. 1, in Memoirs of General William T. Sherman, Second Edition, Revised and Corrected Vol 1, by William Tecumseh Sherman. New York: D.A. Appleton.

Temple, Oliver Perry. 1899. East Tennessee and the Civil War. Cincinnati, Ohio: The Robert Clarke Company.

Wilson, Henry. 1872. History of the rise and fall of the slave power in America Vol 1. Boston, MA: J.R. Osgood and Co.

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