November 25, 1861 (Monday)
The near-permanent smile upon the face of Confederate Secretary of War Judah P. Benjamin could be misleading. When it came to those who rebelled against the Rebels’ rebellion, he had nothing but disdain. Some of the Unionists of East Tennessee who had burned five important railroad bridges had been captured. Col. William Wood had written to Benjamin asking what to do.
It was Wood’s opinion that typical Unionists should be kept in prison for at least six months. The bridge burners, on the other hand, should be tried at once.
Benjamin addressed both classifications of prisoners. The nonviolent Unionists were to be treated as prisoners of war and escorted to Alabama to serve out the remainder of the conflict. The Secretary warned that leniency must not be shown to those who had taken up arms against the Rebellion. They should not be released, even if they swear an oath of allegiance to the Confederacy.
He took a much harsher stance concerning the bridge burners:
All such as can be identified as having been engaged in bridgeburning are to be tried summarily by drum-head court-martial and if found guilty executed on the spot by hanging. It would be well to leave their bodies hanging in the vicinity of the burned bridges.
The bridge burners and, especially, those with Unionist sentiment were not officially in the Union army. These were, technically, citizens and would normally fall under the jurisdiction of a civil court. The CS District Attorney, J.C. Ramsey, heard that the prisoners were to be tried in a military court martial and telegraphed Benjamin to see if it was so and asked what he should do.
Secretary Benjamin replied curtly, “I am very glad to hear of the action of the military authorities and hope to hear they have hung every bridge-burner at the end of the burned bridge.”1
Union Col. Samuel P. Carter, a former Naval officer, still near London, Kentucky, wrote again to Horace Maynard, Congressman from East Tennessee who was instrumental in planning the bridge burnings. In his previous letter, he had written that he was heartbroken that he and his regiment of East Tennesseans were barred from entering East Tennessee to help the Unionists. General Thomas’ entire brigade had originally been sent, but were halted by General Sherman in the fear of an attack from central Tennessee. Sherman was now out, transferred to Missouri, and General Don Carlos Buell was in.
There was, however, a sliver of hope. Carter’s regiment had been ordered to stay put, which was much better than being ordered to fall back. He hoped that the next order would be to invade Tennessee. “If something is not done, and that speedily” worried Carter, “our people will be cut up and ruined.” He asserted that the Unionists “deserve protection and should have it at once, and independently of all outside considerations.”
Carter then pleaded with Maynard, “If it be possible, have it so arranged that the Eastern Tennesseeans shall not again, except in case of urgent and pressing necessity, be ordered back towards Central Kentucky. Many would sooner perish in battle than turn their backs towards the Tennessee line again.”
Maynard then collected both letters and got them into the hands of President Lincoln. After a few days, Lincoln forwarded the letters to General George McClellan, commander of all the Union Armies, with the endorsement: “Please read and consider this letter.” on each. Lincoln acted swiftly upon the letters because of his “feelings for the Union men of Eastern Tennessee.”2
General McClellan, however, was already on it. Writing to General Buell, he reiterated that he was “was still firmly impressed with the great necessity of making the movement on Eastern Tennessee with the least possible delay.”
McClellan saw no credence in Sherman’s idea that an attack upon Louisville was coming from central Tennessee and promised Buell reinforcements.
“Of course Louisville must be defended,” wrote McClellan in conclusion, “but I think you will be able to do that while you move into Eastern Tennessee. If there are causes which render this course impossible, we must submit to the necessity; but I still feel sure that a movement on Knoxville is absolutely necessary, if it is possible to effect it.”3