Wednesday, June 27, 2007

More on the bridge burners

A few days ago I advanced a theory on the bridge burnings in east Tennessee as being an impetus behind the formation of the Mitchell Rangers. I spent some time at the library reading through North Carolina newspapers trying to find a public reaction to the event. I found almost none, mostly just reprints from out of state newspapers.

The burning of the railroad bridges in east Tennessee was the idea of Rev. William B. Carter, a Tennessee native. Carter took the idea to the commanding generals in Kentucky, including Sherman and Thomas, and then on to Washington, where he received the blessings of McClellan, Cameron, and Lincoln. Carter then returned to Kentucky, and then east Tennessee.

The idea was to organize small bands of east Tennessee loyalists into groups that would burn nine railroad bridges between Bristol, on the Virginia-Tennessee line, to Bridgeport, Alabama. Then, a Federal force would march to Knoxville and capture the city and gain control of the railroad, a vital link between Virginia and the deep South.

November 8, 1861, was the date set for the attacks. Just hours before the attack, Gen. William T. Sherman, whose support for the operation had been tenuous, pulled his support and ordered General Thomas not to advance. Of course, word could not be sent to Carter and his bridge burners. They proceeded to destroy five of their nine targets.

Unaware that the Federal soldiers had abandoned them, large numbers of loyalists turned out in different counties. At Elizabethton, not too terribly far from Mitchell County, an estimated 1,000 loyalists gathered, organized themselves into companies, elected officers, and stockpiled supplies. Confederate re-enforcements quickly arrived and the loyalist bands dispersed. Several of the actual bridge burners were arrested, tried, and hanged.

On November 18, 1861, North Carolina Governor Henry T. Clark sent a note to Secretary of War J. P. Benjamin, stating that he had two regiments on hand that were asking to be sent to the area to protect their own families. One of those regiments was the 29th North Carolina Troops, under the command of Col. Robert B. Vance.

As far as North Carolina reaction, there was an article in the newspaper from Asheville, stating that Confederate forces in east Tennessee had driven 500 (or 1,000) loyalists out of Tennessee and into Madison County, North Carolina. The folks in Asheville were obviously concerned, even though the loyalist figures were greatly exaggerated.

So, while I have no hard proof that the Mitchell Rangers were organized as a direct response to the bridge burning episode, I do think that there is a substantial circumstantial case.

Your thoughts?


Drew W. said...
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Drew W. said...

I recently read the Judd book "The Bridge Burners" published by Overmountain Press and was planning on posting my very brief thoughts next week. I wouldn't recommend it as a work that will help you with your research, but it's a pleasurable read.