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Did Union soldiers ever camp in Church Hill?

Ned Jilton • Apr 15, 2020 at 8:00 PM

I received an interesting e-mail from a reader asking about Union troops camping in Church Hill.

The man and his wife enjoy metal detecting and had recently read an article about the Canton Plantation in Church Hill. They were given permission to detect a nearby property that reportedly had Union campsites on it. They didn’t find any evidence of a camp, but are still curious as to who the Union troops they read about might have been.

He provided a link to the article on the “New Canton Plantation.”

The story told of the Hord family hiding their valuables as Union troops descended on the Kingsport area and how Union commanders allowed the family to remain in their home while the soldiers utilized the plantation’s facilities.

Then the article told of a dispute between a blacksmith and a Union corporal who demanded to have his horse re-shoed. According to the article, things didn’t go well for the blacksmith, who required medical treatment.

From these paragraphs we can get a couple of clues.

The first clue is “descended on Kingsport.” This gives us some dates to look at. There are three fights noted in the official records as having taken place in Kingsport. They occurred on Sept. 18, 1863; Oct. 6, 1864; and Dec. 13, 1864.

The fact that this much fighting took place in Kingsport is not surprising to me. While everything moving east-west on the south side of the Holston River followed the railroad, everything north of the Holston followed the Old Stage Road and had to cross the ford in Kingsport. The bridge had been seriously damaged in a flood at the start of the war.

The ford was a strong defensive position at which a smaller number of troops could more easily hold off a larger number.

The second clue is the fight between the corporal and the blacksmith. True or not, the story implies a mounted corporal, which has me leaning toward cavalry, mounted infantry or artillery. This makes sense to me because a large part of the fighting done in this area was by cavalry, which could move quickly along the Old Stage Road.

Now let’s check the dates. In 1863, there were two Union corps in East Tennessee: the Ninth and the Twenty-Third. The Sept. 18 fight shows up in the Twenty-Third Corps’ itinerary, where it states “Foster drove Carter’s rebel regiment from the ford above Kingsport after a severe fight.”

Col. John W. Foster was commanding the Union forces moving into our area at that time and would eventually be in charge at the Battle of Blountville on Sept. 22. His infantry, the 100th Ohio Volunteers and the 9th Ohio were moving along the railroad with the 9th Ohio Cavalry coming up from Greeneville in support. The 100th Ohio would be badly beaten in a fight at Limestone Station in Washington County and what was left would fall back to Greeneville.

That leaves us with the other part of Foster’s command: the 65th Indiana Mounted Infantry, the 5th Indiana Cavalry and the 8th East Tennessee Cavalry, which would be moving along the Old Stage Road and possibly stopping in Church Hill before the fight at the ford in Kingsport on Sept. 18.

The next possibility is the Oct. 6, 1864, fight. This took place after the defeat of Union forces attempting to capture Saltville. When the retreating Yankees reached Sullivan County, they were greeted by Confederate Gen. John C. Vaughn, who attacked them at several different points before finally driving them out of the county.

On the morning of Oct. 6, Vaughn reported to Gen. John C. Breckinridge, commanding officer of the East Tennessee-Southwest Virginia District, “Enemy in some force at Kingsport this morning. Skirmishing going on at 10 a.m. I hope to be able to drive them back.”

Vaughn later reported, “The force sent by me to Kingsport met the enemy at that point and drove them across North Fork of Holston at 12 midday. The enemy in full retreat toward Rogersville.”

Once across the ford, Church Hill might have been far enough back from the river for the Federals to safely set up camp for the night. But they wouldn’t be there long. By Oct. 8 Vaughn reported, “My forces overtook the enemy at Rogersville; killed 10 and wounded several.”

I couldn’t find any reports listing the forces that were in this fight. The closest clue I could find was the casualty report by U.S. Army Surgeon James G. Hatchitt, who listed all the forces involved in this Saltville campaign, not just the ones in Kingsport. They were the 13th and 11th Kentucky Cavalry, the 35th, 45th, 40th, 26th, 30th, 37th and 39th Kentucky Mounted Infantry, the 12th Ohio Volunteer Cavalry, 11th Michigan Cavalry and the 5th United States Colored Cavalry.

Any of those outfits might have camped for the night in Church Hill after the fight in Kingsport.

This bring us to the third date, Dec. 13, 1864, otherwise known as the Battle of Kingsport.

Right off the bat I can tell you that East Tennessee Unionists were leading the way in this raid toward Saltville. The 8th, 9th and 13th East Tennessee Cavalry were out front with the 5th and 6th United States Colored Cavalry, 10 and 11th Michigan Cavalry and the 11th and 12th Kentucky Cavalry following.

I don’t think anybody camped, or even stopped, in Church Hill, as this was a very fast moving raid.

On Dec. 12, Union forces advanced from Bean Station and skirmished at Big Creek near Rogersville. By the morning of Dec 13, the East Tennessee cavalry was already on the banks of the North Fork of the Holston River in Kingsport. On Dec 14, the cavalry was fighting in Bristol and on Dec. 15 it was skirmishing in Abingdon.

This is what I have found so far. While I can’t give a definite answer to the reader’s questions at this time, I was able to find some possibilities for him to work with. I will keep looking because you never know what kind of fun facts you might find. Perhaps some infantry was stationed in the fortifications at Bulls Gap and marched this way. That might be worth a look.

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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