Panic, Politics and Rebellion Against Rebellion

November 12, 1861 (Tuesday)

“Civil war has broken out at length in East Tennessee,” wrote the eccentric attorney from Jonesborough, A.G. Graham, to Confederate President Jefferson Davis. Writing in a panic over the recent spat of bridge burnings undertaken by local Unionists, Graham was sure that they were just as strong as the Unionists in Western Virginia.

“They look confidently for the re-establishment of the Federal authority in the South with as much confidence as the Jews look for the coming of the Messiah,” Graham went on.

But he had a plan. This rebellion against the Rebellion could be squashed in as little as two weeks. The deportation to the North of all Unionists and their families was all that needed to be done to achieve peace in the region. With peace, “the Southern men can then enter the Army, because they know that their families are safe at home.”1

Unionists from Carter, Johnson and, more recently, Sevier Counties were taking up arms and gathering against the Rebel army. Prior to the bridge burnings, they expected a Union brigade under General Thomas to swoop down and join them. This was the original plan, but General Sherman had recalled Thomas before it could happen. The Unionists were now cut off and abandoned. The Confederates, still in a panic, believed they had a full scale revolution on their hands.

This affair was bigger than Confederate General Zollicoffer, in command of the Rebels in the region. It was even bigger than General Johnston, in command of all troops in Tennessee. The Confederate Secretary of War was personally ordering regiments into Eastern Tennessee to quell the new rebellion. He also spent much of the day telegraphing the presidents of the railroads, whose bridges were burned, assuring them that the Unionist rebels would soon be crushed.2

Tennessee’s Governor Isham Harris also wrote Davis of the “deep seated spirit of rebellion” in the eastern portion of his state. “This rebellion must be crushed out instantly, the leaders arrested, and summarily punished.” Harris informed the President that he was sending 10,000 armed troops into the region to deal with it and asked Davis for more, asking for the Tennessee troops still in Western Virginia. 3

General Zollicoffer, a Tennessee congressman who was not in favor of secession at the start of the war, was displaying his skill as a politician. He assured Richmond that he was meeting the threat. Col. Wood, commanding a Confederate regiment in Knoxville, alerted Zollicoffer that “500 tories threaten movement on Strawberry Plains, and 1,500 from Hamilton County” were moving towards another railroad bridge. While he (Zollicoffer) told Richmond that their advance would be checked, he told Wood a different story.

Zollicoffer “thought it best not immediately to make any movement in reference to the reports you yesterday transmitted as to the 500 and the 1,500 tories.” He went on to admonish Wood for believing in rumors. “The tories will probably circulate the most exaggerated and baseless stories, with a view to distract and cripple our movements,” reasoned Zollicoffer. “Our friends will readily give credence to them in apprehension of danger. It becomes us, therefore, to investigate these rumors and act cautiously, to avoid useless and harassing marches.” 4

General Zollicoffer was uninformed and lucky. While dismissing the rumors of large bands of Unionists as false, he had no idea which bridges had been burned, where several of the towns Wood told him about were located, or whether his dispatches were even getting through. Being completely in the dark, he was fortunate that Sherman had recalled the Union advance into Eastern Tennessee.

The six bridge burners who had been arrested, however, would not be so fortunate.


Rosecrans Let Floyd Nearly Slip Away

Confederate General John Floyd had been warned that his position upon Cotton Hill was shaky. Col. Henry Heth had told him that while it provided a fine position for artillery to bombard the Union camp of General Rosecrans, it was also easy for Rosecrans to cut off the Rebels and bag the whole lot of them.

Heth was a career army soldier. Though he graduated near the bottom of his class at West Point, he had distinguished himself as an Indian fighter out west. Floyd, on the other hand, had been the governor of Virginia and Secretary of War under Buchanan.

Before General Lee left for South Carolina, Heth had confided in him that Floyd “was as incapable of taking care of his men or fighting them as a baby.”5

The previous evening, Floyd had spied 1,500 (or less) Union troops under General Benham at the mouth of Loop Creek, several miles away. Though they had been there for a week, he believed them to be 5,000 newly arrived Ohio troops. In light of this “new” development, he pulled his main force back, away from Cotton Hill. This wasn’t such a terrible idea, as, at any time over the past week, Benham could have marched a few miles and cut off Floyd’s retreat. Although Floyd believed Benham’s force to be much larger than it was, another force, under General Schenck, was also coming up, though Floyd could not see it.6

With Benham’s Brigade approaching, Floyd turned to Heth for advice. Having already burned the tents, he wished to assemble his men and tell them that they should keep their spirits up as reinforcements were on their way. That was, of course, a bold lie, and the men would figure it out fairly quickly. 7

Benham’s Brigade was late, which afforded Floyd some much needed time to escape. Overall Union commander, General Rosecrans, had dispatched Benham to cut off the Rebel retreat. Throughout the morning and the early afternoon, Benham slowly made his way up and over Cotton Hill to Warner’s Mill, along Laurel Creek.

Floyd had not yet pulled his rear guard out of their entrenchments, and they put up a solid defense, keeping Benham at bay while Floyd sent three regiments to meet them. The fighting was heavy, but casualties light, as Benham slowly drove the Rebels from their ground. He did not follow, however, fearing that Floyd’s main body was too large to tangle with so late.8

That night, General Floyd established a new defensive position and Benham wisely refused to attack it. However, throughout the night, the rumbling of wagon wheels could be heard. Unsure whether the Rebels were retreating or bringing up reinforcements, he ordered one of his Colonels to send out two additional scouts to see if the Rebels were retreating. Thinking the order a mere suggestion, the Colonel decided to ignore it.9

  1. Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 4, p242. []
  2. Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 4, p238; 240. []
  3. Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 4, p241. []
  4. Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 4, p242. []
  5. Memoirs by Henry Heth, Greenwood, 1974. []
  6. Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 5, p287; 257. []
  7. Memoirs by Henry Heth, Greenwood, 1974. []
  8. Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 5, p287. []
  9. Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 5, p279. []
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Panic, Politics and Rebellion Against Rebellion by CW DG is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 4.0 International


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