I don’t do many speeches because of my work schedule, but last Saturday I had the privilege to speak at the Confederate Flag Day event in Blountville.
If you weren’t there — maybe you were at the Civil War Camp of Instruction at Rocky Mount or the Overmountain Institute at Sycamore Shoals — here is my speech on the civilian perspective of the Battle of Blountville.
Many times when we tell the stories about a battle, we use the words of the officers in command or the soldiers doing the fighting. But with the Battle of Blountville we have the words of the civilians to add to the story of that September 1863 fight.
Our story starts on Sept. 3, when Gen. Ambrose Burnside and his Union army arrived in Knoxville. Almost immediately, Burnside turned his forces in the direction of Northeast Tennessee in an effort to drive out the Confederates, take control of the railway and possibly reach Saltville, Virginia, to cut off the supply of raw material from there.
But the Federals faced opposition along the way. They were turned back in actions around Limestone Station and Telford in Washington County and had to regroup and push forward there again. On Sept. 18, the Federals marching on the north side of the Holston River were delayed in a skirmish at Kingsport.
But on Sept. 22, Union Col. John Foster reported the following to his superiors as he reached Blountville: “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 around noon, and the Battle of Blountville was about to start.
Mrs. Walter E. Allen, who lived in Blountville at the time, later recalled the preparation and start of the battle.
“Col. James Carter, commanding the Confederate forces, decided to engage the enemy and stationed his battery on the plateau east of town,” she said. “The Federals took a stand on the opposite side near the graveyard.”
I would like to point out here that in addition to the cannons noted by Mrs. Allen, Carter had stationed men in a strong position in the schoolyard of the Masonic Female Institute.
But now, with all the soldiers in place, comes the first boom of the cannon and confusion gripped the citizens of Blountville.
Mrs. Allen recalled, “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. Mothers became separated from their children. Finally they found a safe retreat beyond the hills, fleeing through Brown’s meadow.”
As the battle progressed, Federal sharpshooters took up a position in a nearby belfry and begin causing problems. Mrs. Allen remembered how that problem was efficiently handled.
“As an example of marksmanship for which the American soldier is renowned,” she said, “Capt. 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”
Unfortunately for Blountville, not every artilleryman had the marksmanship of Davidson.
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.”
Years later, Mrs. Josephine Evans Massengill also told about when the town began 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.”
After four hours of fighting, Foster decided that the Federal battle plan wasn’t working, so he sent part of his command around to attack the Confederate right flank while he ordered the rest to charge straight ahead.
Foster later reported, “It was with difficulty that we could dislodge them after four hours fighting. 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.”
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. 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 Federals occupied Blountville. Burnside was then on the scene and resumed the push toward Zollicoffer the next day.
In that next day’s fight, the Confederates in their strong position on Hamilton’s Hill successfully repulsed the advance by the Federals, sending them back into Blountville.
Mrs. Massengill remembered an exchange she had with a Federal officer as the troops marched to and from Hamilton’s 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?’ ”
She was a plucky little 11-year-old, wasn’t she?
Mrs. Massengill then recalled a sad scene. “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.”
Before Burnside could launch another attack, word reached him of the Federal defeat at the Battle of Chickamauga and he began falling back to consolidate his forces in Knoxville for fear of a Confederate attack in his rear.
Much to the dismay of Mrs. Massengill, when the Federals 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” she said. “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.”
When the Confederates regained Blountville, they also found a mess much the same as on Mrs. Massengill’s father’s farm.
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,” she added. “The Institute and the Methodist church were used as temporary hospitals, Dr. Nat T. Dulaney Sr., and Dr. J.J. Ensor, aiding the Federal surgeons with the wounded.”
Because of the stand made by Confederate soldiers here in Blountville, the destruction of The East Tennessee and Virginia Railroad, a major supply line for the South, was avoided, although one bridge was damaged. And any move towards Saltville was stopped.
Plus, with Burnside falling back to Knoxville, and Gen. William Rosecran’s Federal army routed at Chickamauga and fleeing back to Chattanooga, hopes for Southern independence, which had been so badly dashed only a couple of months earlier at Vicksburg and Gettysburg, were again on the rise.