In the cold dark of night, small groups of men at the direction of President Abraham Lincoln undertook a secret, one-night guerrilla operation to burn nine railroad bridges in Confederate-occupied East Tennessee.
The mission 152 years ago this month was half a success -- five of the nine were destroyed-- but it cost some of the bridge burners their lives, at least five of them at the end of a rope.
And none of them got word that Union Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman had issued orders at the 11th hour to call the whole thing off.
So on Nov. 8 and 9, 1861, three of the four targeted bridges in the Chattanooga area -- one over the Hiwassee River and two over Chickamauga Creek -- were destroyed, while the most southern target at Bridgeport, Ala., escaped unscathed. Bridges at Lick Creek in Greene County and on the Holston River in Sullivan County also were set ablaze, according to East Tennessee historians.
East Tennessee in 1861 was occupied by Confederate forces but had strong Union loyalties in some areas. That was especially true along the railroad corridor that ran from Bristol to Chattanooga and southward, according to Dr. William E. Hardy, an instructor at Tennessee Technological University who has researched the bridge burners' story and works closely with the East Tennessee Historical Society in Knoxville.
In 1861, Lincoln was desperate to get Union help to East Tennessee's loyalists living under Confederate occupation.
Hardy said many people label Tennessee an early secessionist state, but it actually took two votes to get the number needed to withdraw from the Union. Some communities in the mountainous east, like Cleveland, still held onto their loyalties, while more rural areas often supported secession. And some East Tennesseans had long felt overlooked by state leaders in more Confederate-friendly Middle Tennessee.
Before Nov. 8, 1861, most of the people of East Tennessee had not yet drawn lines to delineate their feelings. Unionists kept quiet and most supporters of the Confederacy had adopted a "live and let live" attitude toward their neighbors.
But Lincoln was determined to push into the East Tennessee foothills to trigger a Unionist uprising. He authorized William B. Carter, a Northeast Tennessee minister, to organize the strikes, providing at least $2,500 to support the initiative.
Carter started recruiting in the fall of 1861, according to historians.
Teams were assigned to burn the Lick Creek, Loudon, Union, Watauga and Strawberry Plains bridges in Northeast Tennessee. Daniel Stover was assigned the two bridges in the Northeast corner of the state, and William Pickens was assigned to the bridge at Strawberry Plains. Recruit David Fry chose Jacob and Thomas Harmon, Jacob Hensie, Alex Haun and Harrison and Hugh Self for the Lick Creek Bridge mission.
Farther south, Carter recruited Alfred Cate of Bradley County to lead the assaults on bridges at the Hiwassee River and the two bridges over Chickamauga Creek near Chattanooga.
Cate assigned his brother, William Cate, and W.H. Crowder to the Chickamauga Creek bridges. According to Cleveland State Community College history professor Bryan Reed, Alfred Cate led the attack on the Hiwassee River bridge at Charleston with help from another Cate brother, Thomas, and Adam Thomas and Jesse and Eli Cleveland.
The Cate brothers were at odds with their father, Elijah Cate, who refused to speak to his Unionist sons, much like many families were torn apart by divided loyalties, Reed said.
The Hiwassee span, a covered wooden bridge with windows, was left unguarded that night in 1861.
"They poured kerosene on top of the bridge to ignite it," Reed said, drawing on information from Alfred Cate's testimony in a later court hearing on some property claims.
In Chattanooga, meanwhile, William Cate, Crowder and their team struck their targets early Nov. 9.
Chickamauga and Chattanooga National Military Park historian Jim Ogden said it's hard to find information on most of the successful bridge attacks because the participants were sworn to secrecy and the mission had been compartmentalized to control knowledge of the details.
The two wooden truss bridges over South Chickamauga Creek were on the Western and Atlantic line immediately upstream and downstream from the East Tennessee and Georgia railroad bridge, Ogden said. The two sites today are not far from the Tennessee Valley Railroad Museum and the path of its modern-day excursion line.
"They were carefully selected for the disruption that would result from their destruction," Ogden said.
At Bridgeport, Ala., plans to burn a huge bridge over the Tennessee River were stymied because a group of Confederate troops was camped nearby, he said.
Ogden said a 10th bridge, usually not included in the story of the bridge burners, was targeted over the Oostanaula River at Resaca, Ga.
"That is only mentioned by a couple of the participants very briefly and no one involved in that potential effort was ever named," he said. The bridge didn't burn and no one knows why, he said.
The attacks triggered a Confederate reaction, including arrests and weapons seizures.
"In Bradley County, they began to take all the guns away from civilians and anyone they suspected they began arresting," he said. "Most of the people they arrested were not involved, actually."
At least 17 people were rounded up and accused as participants, or "Lincolnites," including bridge burner Thomas Cate.
"They were sent to Tuscaloosa but were never tried," Ogden said. They later were freed.
So Cate's team got away, but the local Union sympathizers were driven to silence or even from their state. Some of the 17 arrested were shipped to prison where some, like Bradley Countian Levi Trewhitt, died of disease.
The bridge burners in Chattanooga also escaped the Confederates. Those in the Northeastern corner didn't fare so well, particularly those arrested in the burning of the bridge at Lick Creek.
Henry Fry and Jacob M. Hinshaw were hanged by Confederate authorities at Greeneville. Jacob and Henry Harmon, father and son, respectively, were hanged at Knoxville.
The bridge raids ultimately were a "complete failure," despite getting five of the nine bridges, Hardy said. The Union didn't act on the uprisings in Northeast Tennessee and others elsewhere were put down quickly by the Confederates.
"Now they're going to come down harder on them. They're going to face persecution," Hardy said. Guerrilla violence "ratchets up in East Tennessee after November 8, 1861."
"These bitter divisions do not heal," he said. "It's a war at home, families even dividing over this issue."
Ogden said the hazy division among East Tennesseans before Nov. 8, 1861, became infinitely clear in its aftermath.
In late 1861 and early 1862, "the extent of the oppression of East Tennessee increases," he said.
"Chattanooga became one of the bases for Confederate response to the attacks on the railroad in East Tennessee and the uprising of East Tennesseans," Ogden said.
"Chattanooga then will start to become increasingly a Confederate garrison town," he said. "In response to this event in 1861, Chattanooga's importance takes another big step up."
Contact staff writer Ben Benton at firstname.lastname@example.org or 423-757-6569.