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Bulls Gap: The fight for control of East Tennessee

Ned Jilton II • Jan 26, 2019 at 8:30 AM

In November 1864, Northeast Tennessee was disputed territory with both sides moving in to take control.

From Greeneville, Union forces under the command of Alvan Gillem, including Company D, 13th East Tennessee Cavalry, which contained men from Johnson County, fell back to a strong defensive position along the railroad in Bulls Gap after learning from scouts that a large Confederate force was approaching.

Those Confederate troops were from Southwest Virginia and under the command of Gen. John C. Breckenridge. Included with these soldiers was a reserve company from Sullivan County.

The Sullivan County reserves were six companies that were supposed to be organized in June 1863, under the command of unassigned officers or officers from the Invalid Corps.

Although the organization was never completed, the companies that did form had names such as the Jackson Home Guard; the Zollicoffer Mounted Rifles, which was a mounted unit that was never mounted; and The Harris Guards, who formed at Double Springs.

The first 1,100 Confederates had arrived by train at Jonesborough and were marching through Leesburg under the watchful eyes of scouts who alerted the Federals falling back from Greeneville to Bulls Gap and digging in for a fight.

The next day, men who in peacetime lived across a county line from each other would face one another across a line of battle.

The Confederates launched a minor attack on Nov. 11, which was easily repulsed by the Federals. But on Nov. 12, Breckenridge was up in force and launched an all-out attack with Gen. Basil Duke’s command attacking from the front while Gen. John C. Vaughn’s forces attacked from behind.

William L. Rhea, a member of the Sullivan County reserve, later described the start of the battle.

“An officer came along the line and picked men to go out as skirmishers,” Rhea wrote. “As we marched perhaps one hundred and fifty yards from the main column, Will Hicks and I espied two Yankees coming out of a wood-land on horses not more than fifty yards from us. We should have captured these two Yankees, and we could have done so; but as we had no experience in warfare, we thought it our duty to fire at them, which we did, but we noticed that they made their escape.”

It was at this very moment the artillery on both sides opened up and the men of the Sullivan County reserves found themselves caught in no-man’s land between the two sides.

“We were immediately between our guns and those of the enemy. At once our lines were ordered to lie down, and there we stayed in that position all the morning,” wrote Rhea. “While in the position, one of the Reserve Corp boys, Jacob Slaughter, was wounded in the heel by a piece of shell.”

The Federals held. As Gillem would write, “The enemy, led by Generals Breckinridge and Duke, assaulted with great fury, many of them actually entering the rude works behind which our troops were posted, but every man knew that if these hills were taken all was lost, fought with desperation and finally repulsed the enemy.”

Things were getting desperate for the Yankees now. Starting from the time they left Greeneville, Gen. Gillem had been requesting food, ammunition and re-enforcements. So far none had arrived.

Now with the food gone and ammunition low, Gillem sent a rider to Russellville to see if a train with supplies was coming. The rider returned with the bad news. There would be no train.

With no hope left, Gillem begin to withdraw from Bulls Gap. He would leave the 13th East Tennessee behind to hold the position and buy time for the Yankee escape.

The next morning before sunup, the Confederates struck with full fury. Among the attacking rebels was a company of the 60th Tennessee commanded by Kingsport’s Rev. Jonathan W. Bachman, who was lucky enough to escape injury when his horse was shot out from under him.

The 13th East Tennessee held out until ammunition was gone, and then it was every man for himself. Some fought hand-to-hand while others rode in a desperate effort to catch up with the retreating Yankees.

With the 13th East Tennessee gone, the defense of the rear of the Union column fell upon the 8th East Tennessee Cavalry commanded by Kingsport’s Col. Samuel K. Patton. It would be a running battle through Hamblin County.

“They were driven pell-mell to Strawberry Plains,” wrote Rhea, “the Confederates charging continually, shooting and cutting them right and left. The road from Russellville to Morristown was strewn with dead mules and horses, over-turned wagons and ambulances, barrels, boxes, saddles, and papers. Six pieces of artillery and their entire wagon train were captured. Many were killed, wounded, or captured.”

Among the captured were Cpl. Isaac A. Shoun and his brother, C.A. Shoun, both with Company D, 13th East Tennessee Volunteer Cavalry.

The two were among the men left behind to hold Bulls Gap and cover the Federals’ escape. Now they were being marched to Jonesborough, where they would be placed in railcars and sent to prison at Richmond.

At least that was the plan.

As the train rolled through Bristol, the brothers jumped from the cars, ran through a hail of bullets and made their escape. Through the cold weather, they made their way over Holston Mountain to their home in Johnson County, where they got fresh horses and rejoined the regiment.

Bulls Gap was a major Confederate victory in the area and the 13th and 8th East Tennessee (Union) Cavalry suffered in the battle.

But those two cavalry regiments would be back a month later as part of a much larger force under the command of Gen. George Stoneman. And they would win several Union victories, including a battle fought on the North Fork of the Holston River at Kingsport.

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 [email protected] .

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