Just two long lives ago, as 1860 wound down, those living in the mountains of East Tennessee were well aware of the growing national contention over the issue of slavery. Their leaders had threatened to withdraw from the Union if Abraham Lincoln was elected.
Few, however, expected actual hostilities. In the words of Captain Daniel Ellis "Little did I then imagine that the period was rapidly approaching when I, my neighbors, and my relatives, would be hunted and shot at like the wild beasts of the mountains."
News of the firing on Fort Sumter quickly dispelled this illusion. The war had begun, and Tennessee seceded.
The men of East Tennessee defied their new government, and remained loyal to the Union.
When they burned the bridges of the East Tennessee and Virginia Railroad in November of 1861, to impede the movement of Confederate troops, authorities responded with a brutal campaign of indiscriminate arrests and hangings. Homes were invaded, searched and ransacked, and hundreds of men were compelled to hide while their houses were plundered and their families abused.
Scott & Angel recorded "no protestation of innocence was of any avail ... to be a Union man was, in the eyes of a good many Confederates, to be a criminal of the deepest dye". Northeastern Tennessee, Union in its sympathies (but lying so near Virginia, with its strong Confederate sentiment), may have been the scene of more tragedies in proportion to its population than any other part of the country. Ellis claimed that "gangs of murderous desperadoes ... destitute of mercy, and and without remorse of conscience" prowled the area. He was referring to the paramilitary Confederate "Home Guard".
After the dreary winter of 1862, the Confederate Congress passed the "Conscript Act", taking into the Confederate Army all able-bodied male citizens between the ages of 18 and 35 years. This had the effect of sending more men from East Tennessee into the Federal Army than the Confederacy, as they fled their homes to join Union forces.
In the fall of 1863, some 500 or 600 men (a full 200 of whom were under the age of 18 years) from Johnson and Carter counties met a few miles from Knoxville, at Strawberry Plains. Originally planning to join the Union 12th Tennessee Cavalry, they instead formed the "Thirteenth Tennessee" volunteer cavalry regiment.
Theirs was the unit which (along with the Ninth Tennessee and part of the Tenth Michigan Calvary, and while supported by two sections of the First Tennessee Light Artillery) cornered and killed General Morgan - the "Grey Ghost" - at Greeneville in September of 1864. The regiment was at Bull's Gap when they were informed of Morgan's whereabouts, at around 10 p.m. They immediately mounted, riding all night through a rainstorm, to arrive at Greeneville just after daylight. A squadron from the Thirteenth surrounded the General, and a private shot him when he tried to escape. It was a brave deed for these men, who were inexperienced soldiers at that time, to dash into a town in the face of Morgan's superior command and attack him.
The Thirteenth also fought at Lick Creek, in Morristown, at Bull's Gap, and in many other unnamed and now dimly recalled or forgotten (but neverthless deadly) skirmishes. In December of '64, when General Stoneman stormed Fort Breckenridge and captured the salt works at Saltville, Virginia, he stated that "the Thirteenth Tennessee Cavalry is due the credit of having acted the most conspicuous part". The Saltville saltworks were considered vital to the Confederate war effort because the salt was used to preserve meat for Confederate soldiers. Their loss was a major blow to the Confederacy's dwindling resources.
A resident of Salibury, North Carolina - with its notorious prison - recalled their raid on her town (see Storie) " ... a surging mass of mounted soldiers and rampant horses, spurred to breakneck speed. It was frightening ... to see the capless cavalrymen standing erect in their stirrups as they rode, brandishing bared sabers in hand as they let out earsplitting yells." General Stoneman liked to call them his "Cossacks".
After the rebellion collapsed, the Thirteenth was "mustered out" in September of 1865. The men of the regiment estimated that they rode over 3,300 miles during their period of service.
General Oliver Howard had a conversation with Lincoln in 1863, during which the president expressed a desire to help the loyal people of East Tennessee. Recalling this, he was instrumental in raising the funds to create Lincoln Memorial University, a four year liberal arts college on a 1,000 acre campus in Harrogate, TN. Chartered in 1897, it still proudly reminds us of the bravery and courage which the men of the area exhibited.