Bridge-burning part one — Developing the plan to liberate East Tennessee

Ned Jilton • Dec 25, 2019 at 7:00 PM

Pres. Abraham Lincoln always believed in the loyalty of East Tennesseans to the United States. He kept a map of our region on the wall of his office and when asked he would point to it and say that he knew those people were loyal.

Lincoln worried about the Unionist, and was always looking for ways to liberate East Tennessee and bring the state back into the Union.

But Lincoln wasn’t the only one worried. In Haynesville (modern day Johnson City), Confederate sympathizer and former Speaker of the Tennessee House of Representatives Landon C. Haynes was also worried about the Unionist. So much so that on July 6, he wrote a letter to the then Confederate Secretary of War L.P. Walker.

“Sir: I regard the peril of Civil War in East Tennessee as imminent. Things are growing worse daily. … Mr. Brownlow, in his paper, says civil war is inevitable, and that the Union men have 10,000 men under drill and armed with rifles and shotguns.” wrote Haynes. “Mr. Thomas A.R. Nelson made a speech, I am informed by a gentleman now here, on Monday last, at the circuit court in Carter County, in which he incited the crowd to resist the actions of the States, and promised assistance to the Union men of the Lincoln Government.”

A side note here, Nelson, a pro-Union congressman from Jonesborough, had attempted to speak to a gathering in Blountville in May but the people there refused to allow him into the town.

Haynes’ letter to the secretary of war ended with a prophetic statement. “I am looking every moment also to hear that the bridges have been burned and the East Tennessee and Virginia Railroad torn up. Nothing can save it but a sufficient guard,” he wrote.

The East Tennessee and Virginia Railroad, finished in early 1859, was known as the Grand Trunk Railroad because it linked the lower southern states to the northern United States. Any soldiers and supplies from Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana and parts of Northern Georgia heading to Virginia came through our area on that railroad.

At the same time Haynes was writing his letter, a Presbyterian minister from Elizabethton, William B. Carter, was putting together the very plan Haynes feared.

Carter proposed that bands of Unionist in East Tennessee could destroy the bridges on the ET&V railroad and then seize some of the key towns along the route to disrupt the flow of soldiers and supplies. At the same time the Union army could stream across the border from Kentucky and capture the entire railroad and liberate the region.

On Sept. 30, 1861, Carter presented the plan to Gen. George H. Thomas. Thomas liked the plan and sent the following message to Gen. George B. McClellan in Washington D.C.

“General: I have just had a conversation with Mr. W.B. Carter, of Tennessee, on the subject of the destruction of the Grand Trunk Railroad through that State. He assures me that he can have it done if the Government will entrust him with a small sum of money to give confidence to the persons to be employed to do it. It would be one of the most important services that could be done for the country, and I most earnestly hope you will use your influence with the authorities in furtherance of his plans, which he will submit to you, together with the reasons for doing the work.”

The plan was the very thing Lincoln was looking for and the president heartily approved it.

Carter returned to Elizabethton in mid-October with $2,500 and Union officers and fellow Tennesseans William Cross and David Fry. At the Carter house, not far from the Doe River, he laid out his plan.

Carter selected Andrew Johnson’s son-in-law, Daniel Stover, to lead the men who would attack and burn the bridge at Union (present day Bluff City) in Sullivan County and the bridge at Carter’s Depot (present day Watauga) in Carter County. Carter then headed to Kingston, a central location between Bristol and the Georgia state line below Chattanooga from which to direct the overall plan. Along the way he assigned the destruction of other bridges such as the Lick Creek Bridge in Greene County and the Strawberry Plains bridge and the Loudon Bridge in the area of Knoxville. Even a bridge as far away as Bridgeport, Alabama was targeted.

Just as Carter was about to leave for Kingston on Oct. 27, he sent a message to Gen. Thomas in Kentucky.

“The Union men of East Tennessee are longing and praying for the hour when they can break their fetters. The loyalty of our people increases with the oppressions they have to bear,” he wrote. “I have not seen a secession flag since I entered the state. I beg you to hasten on to our help, as we are about to create a great diversion in Gen. McClellan’s favor. It seems to me, if you would ask it, he would spare you at once 5,000 or 10,000 well-drilled troops. Will you not ask for more help?”

Then, perhaps fearing he had overstepped his bounds, Carter wrote “I know you will excuse a civilian for making suggestions to a military man, when you remember that I am risking my life and that I am about to ask my people to do the same.”

On Nov. 5, Gen. Thomas sent a message to Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman, who was now commanding in Kentucky, giving his disposition and closing with “With me headquartered at Somerset I can easily seize the most favorable time for invading East Tennessee, which ought to be done this winter. I shall not need for that purpose more than four additional regiments, but they should be well organized and drilled, and prepared to take the field on their arrival.”

With everything falling into place, the time for the Unionist to strike was drawing near.

In next week’s column, the burning of the bridges and the aftermath.