Battle of Blountville monument located in front of the historic courthouse in downtown Blountville. Photo by Ned Jilton II
September 3rd, 1863, Gen. Ambrose Burnside rode into Knoxville to the cheers of many of its pro-Union citizens. After clearing the Cumberland Gap of Rebel soldiers and sending a detachment of Cavalry to Gen. Rosecrans in Chattanooga he received the following order from Washington.
“Hold the gaps of the North Carolina mountains, the line of the Holston River, or some point, if there be one, to prevent access from Virginia, and connect with General Rosecrans, at least with your cavalry.”
With this order and using the trains captured in Knoxville Burnside begin to move into Northeast Tennessee, quickly arriving in Morristown and Greeneville. “We were now in possession of all the important points in East Tennessee, and in the midst of friends” reported Gen. Burnside. “We found the people generally loyal and disposed to do all in their power for our comfort and welfare.”
Burnside’s forces were advancing on both sides of the Holston River. On Sept. 18, the forces on the north side clashed with Rebels along the north fork of the Holston River where the Battle of Kingsport would be fought a year later. The next day those Union troops attacked Bristol before turning south along the railroad toward Zollicoffer, now known as Bluff City.
Rev. David Sullins, Chaplain of the 19th TN Infantry and a preacher in Blountville before the war, had been in Knoxville acting as quartermaster for the regiment and was preaching in one of the local churches when the Union army arrived there. Sullins and his wife left on the last train out, leaving most of their possessions behind, stopping in Jonesborough before approaching Yankees forced them to flee to Wytheville, VA.
Sullins was traveling through Bristol heading back to Jonesborough to get his wife’s mother in Jonesborough when the Yankees arrived.
“We stopped at Bristol on our return, and while walking about the streets we saw a Confederate coming from toward Blountville riding as for dear life, whipping his horse with his hat, and screaming at the top of his voice, “The Yanks are coming just this side of Blountville.” This information concerned us vitally” said Sullins.
Sullins and his friend took quick action. “We saw at the depot an engine and tender, but no other cars. At double-quick we reached the depot, and found the engineer watching the road toward Blountville. We said to him “You had better get out of here.” He answered carelessly: “Oh, I am not afraid of them; when they come in sight I’ll skedaddle.” But, we said, “They are not coming in sight; they will take the old stage road, which passes a mile back of the town and crosses the railroad a mile above here; they will tear up your road and get your engine. You had better go at least beyond the crossing, and then you may make faces at them if you want to.”
“He called for the fireman, we climbed in and he “pulled out;” but we did not feel altogether safe till we had passed the crossing.” said Sullins. “This done we sent a flagman ahead while we crept after him. A passenger train was due in a few minutes. Telegraphs were interrupted just then; a flagman was sent ahead for safety. When the passenger train came up, we gave them the report. They turned back, and we went with the, heading for Wytheville.”
The Yankees destroyed the track two miles out of Bristol towards Wytheville before turning towards Zollicoffer.
Col. John Foster reported to Burnside “A large force of rebels is stationed at Zollicoffer. They are reported as about 6,000 strong, and are commanded by Major-General Jones. From best information, I am satisfied their force is about as reported, mostly infantry. I will attack tomorrow unless the force is greater than reported. I think I can hold them till you can send sufficient force to capture them. Please bring up re-enforcements as speedily as possible. I will try to hold the railroad and rear till re-enforcements arrive. No time should be lost.”
Those reinforcements were running late. After being repulsed by Rebel soldiers at Limestone Station and Telford in Washington County, the forces south of the Holston River fell back to Greeneville, regrouped, reinforced and on Sept. 21 fought their way through Jonesborough and were also heading for Zollicoffer by way of Blountville to join in the destruction of the railroads to cut off East Tennessee from Virginia.
Confederate Major-General Sam Jones, who had just taken command of Rebel forces in East Tennessee, was quickly consolidating his forces in Zollicoffer and hoping for reinforcements from Virginia. To slow down the Yankees approaching from Jonesborough he ordered the defenders from Kingsport to fall back and take up strong positions in Blountville. At the same time he stationed cavalry at Hall’s Ford where the road from Jonesborough to Blountville crossed the Watauga River.
Today Hall’s Ford is under Boone Lake somewhere near the dam.
“We met the enemy at Hall's Ford, on the Watauga, this morning at 9 o'clock, where our passage over both rivers was disputed by a heavy picket force of cavalry” Col. Foster reported on Sept 22. “After considerable skirmishing, the enemy was driven back and near to town, where we found the enemy posted in a chosen position with four pieces of artillery.”
It was 12 noon, and the Battle of Blountville was about to start. Mrs. Walter E. Allen told of the moment when the cannons opened fire.
“Col. James Carter, under General Jones commanding the Confederate forces, decided to engage the enemy and stationed his battery on the plateau east of town” said Mrs. Allen. “The Federals took a stand on the opposite side near the graveyard.”
In addition to the cannons noted by Mrs. Allen, Col. Carter had stationed men in a strong position in the school yard of the Masonic Female Institute.
With the first boom of the cannon confusion gripped the citizens of Blountville.
“The women and children fleeing for their lives through a storm of shells while cavalrymen dashed across their paths, their lives being in great danger” recalled Mrs. Allen. “Mothers became separated from their children. Finally they found a safe retreat beyond the hills, fleeing through Brown’s meadow.”
As the battle progressed, Yankee sharpshooters begin causing problems from the belfry of a near-by church. Mrs. Allen recalled how that problem was handled.
“As an example of marksmanship for which the American soldier is renowned Captain Davidson, whose battery had distinguished itself in the battle of Manassas, was participating in this battle and being told that Federal sharpshooters were in the belfry of the Methodist church decided to fire upon it. He was asked not to hit the bell and its location was pointed out to him, he then sent one ball just above and one just below the bell although the church was a quarter of a mile away” said Mrs. Allen.
Not every artilleryman had the marksmanship of Captain Davidson and soon shells had hit the court house setting it on fire. Soon other parts of the town were burning. Mrs. Allen recalled, “A shell from the Federal guns entered the courthouse setting it on fire, and soon all the best portion of the town was destroyed. “
Mrs. Josephine Evans Massengill also remembered when the town begins to burn.
“I was eleven years old when the battle of Blountville was fought and remember distinctly many of the events” she said. “I stood on a high knob about a half mile back of the Confederate line of battle, which was formed east of the town. I was with my father and mother and two sisters and others. John Rhea realized that his house was burning and soon it was evident that the town also was burning.”
Col. Foster decided that the current battle plan was not working so he sent part of his command around to attack the Rebel right flank while he ordered the rest to charge straight ahead.
“It was with difficulty that we could dislodge them after four hours fighting” said Col. Foster “I at last effected it by a charge of the Sixty-fifth Indiana Mounted Infantry, Fifth Indiana Cavalry, and Eighth Tennessee Cavalry, which was made just before dark. Our loss is not heavy, about 6 killed and 14 wounded, mostly of the Sixty-fifth Indiana Volunteers. We captured about 50 prisoners and 1 piece of artillery.”
Gen. Burnside fully expected his troops to push through Blountville and attack Zollicoffer and Carter’s Station, (Bluff City and Watauga), later in the evening and in an effort to avoid civilians being caught-up in the fighting as had happened earlier in Blountville he sent the following message through the Confederate soldiers falling back from Blountville.
“Major General S. Jones, Comdg. Confederate Forces, Carter's Station, Tenn.: GENERAL: In the course of the movements of this army I may find it necessary to fire upon the villages on the line of the railroad occupied by your forces, In order to avoid accidents to non-combatants, I have the honor to request that you will cause immediate notice hereof to be given to all such residents of these villages, that they may remove themselves to place of safety. No one of the villages will be fired upon before 5 p.m. to-day, and the flag of truce bearing this will terminate one hour after my officer arrives at your pickets. He is authorized to wait there that long for any message from you. I have the honor to be, general, very respectfully, your obedient servant, A. E. BURNSIDE, Major-General, Commanding.”
Burnside’s message was first received by Gen. J.S. Williams commanding the troops falling back from Blountville and he quickly sent a response.
“Major General A. E. BURNSIDE. Commanding Army of the Ohio: GENERAL: I have received your communication in the temporary absence of my superior officers, and the limited time set for the return of your flag prevents me from referring it to them for a reply. The short space allowed for the removal of non-combatants from the does not seem to me consistent with the usages of civilized warfare, and particularly when you intimate that you are prepared to fire on a number of villages and claim the right to do so after 5 p.m. to-day. I will ask you most respectfully how information can be conveyed to them when it is now 4.30 p.m.? I have the honor to be, general, very respectfully, your obedient servant, J. S. Williams, Brigadier-General.”
Gen. Sam Jones, in overall command of Confederate forces in the area was not happy with the lateness of the message and the fact that it did no good for the citizens of Blountville.
“On the 22nd , he addressed me a letter, which I received early in the night, requesting me to warn non-combatants to retire from the villages along the line of railroad, as, in the course of military operations, he would probably fire on the villages. He added that he would not fire on any village before 5 o'clock that evening. His letter was received at my advanced picket about 4.30 p. m., and before that time the enemy had, in an artillery duel with one of my batteries at Blountsville, fired upon and burned the best part of that
Village” Jones wrote in a report to Richmond.
Mrs. Massengill remembered when the Confederates retreated from Blountville.
“About this time father started for home, which was one and one-half miles east of Blountville on the Zollicoffer Road” said Mrs. Massengill. “Soon after we arrived the Confederate soldiers began to pass on their retreat, some following the road and others coming through the fields. I remember that their faces were blackened with powder and they wanted water. We placed our washing tubs and other vessels along the roadside and pumped water out of the well as fast as we could to keep them filled. The water was much appreciated.”
The Confederates fell back to Hamilton’s Hill while the Federal occupied Blountville. Gen. Burnside was on the scene and resumed the push toward Zollicoffer the next day.
Mrs. Massengill remembers when the Union soldiers moved out from Blountville next morning, past her house and toward Hamilton Hill. “We were standing on the porch, near the roadside watching them pass, when one of the Federal officers said to us: ‘We are going to give Southern chivalry hell today.’ A few hours later the Federals came back in hasty retreat and when I saw the same officer returning, I climbed on the fence and hollered to him: ‘You didn’t give Southern chivalry hell today, did you?’ He and others laughed and seemed to enjoy the thrust” she said.
Mrs. Massengill then recalled, “Later the ambulance with the wounded followed and I remembered the groans and moans of the wounded. One ambulance stopped in front of our home and the wounded were begging for water and my mother carried water to them. I still remember the expression of one of the Federals when he discovered that one of the wounded had passed away.”
Because the Union force from Bristol that had been attacking Zollicoffer for two days had pulled back Gen. Jones had been able to send reinforcements to Hamilton Hill and stop the Yankee advance toward Zollicoffer. However Yankee cavalry was able to slip around the Confederate line and damage the bridge at Carter’s Depot, (Watauga).
Massengill, had thought it great fun exchanging insults with the Yankee soldiers as they passed by her Blountville home. That all changed after the fight on Hamilton’s Hill when the unwelcome guest moved into her house.
“The Federals were expecting to be attacked and selected my father’s farm for the battle ground and located their artillery on a high hill in the rear of the house, but no fighting was done there” said Massengill. “One of the Federals advised us to vacate the house and we went to the near-by knobs.”
Not wanting to spend the night in the woods Massengill’s family returned to their house and found it occupied, and the Yankees were sitting down to eat at their table.
“When we returned we found the soldiers cooking in the house and the house ransacked. They gave us an invitation to have supper with them” said Massengill but at the time she was more interested to see what had happened to her, and her sister’s, belongings.
“I removed the contents of my trunk before leaving and for mischief locked it. I found the lock had been cut out, and I thought I had had a good joke” said Massengill. “They took, among other things, two fine shawls but my sister Maggie hunted up an officer and made a complaint. He succeeded in recovering one but the other could not be found.”
Before another attack on Zollicoffer could be planned, Burnside received orders to quickly consolidate his forces in Knoxville after a major Union loss near Chattanooga and the Yankee soldiers begin to pull out from Blountville.
Much to the dismay of Massengill, when the Yankees left they made an even bigger mess than when they arrived.
“The Federals camped on the farm for a few days and lived off our farm products” said Massengill. “When the army departed we had nothing left to eat except some apples. Also when leaving they collected all the fence rails and burned them in order to convey the impression to the Confederates that they were still in camp.”
After the Yankees had left Massengill’s mother realized she had left something behind when they first fled the house.
“When leaving home on account of the expected battle my mother placed a small bag of coins on the front porch and then forgot it. Friends ever afterwards joked her for her generosity. The only thing she saved was some silver spoons which she prized very highly and carried away in her pocket” said Massengill.
The town of Blountville suffered a similar fate as the Massengill’s home. Mrs. Allen recalled, “The returning citizens of the town found that the homes that were left had been looted and what had not been taken had been destroyed. There was little to eat and the women were compelled to secure meal from the soldiers. The casualties were not great on either side. The Institute and the Methodist church were used as temporary hospitals, also the officers at Medical Grove, Dr. Nat T. Dulaney Sr., and Dr. J.J. Ensor, aiding the Federal surgeons with the wounded.”
Because of the stand at Blountville the Union Army was unable to launch a combined attack on Zollicoffer and although there had been some damage to the railroad it was repaired and soon back in Confederate service.