Bridge burning showed division in Tennessee

Bridge burning showed division in Tennessee

November 8th, 2011 by Andy Johns in News

Union sympathizers burned two railroad bridges across South Chickamauga Creek on Nov. 8, 1861, including one at this location where the greenway now ends near Lightfoot Mill Road.

Photo by John Rawlston /Times Free Press.

A century and a half ago tonight, two Ooltewah brothers were part of a plan to destroy bridges from Greeneville to Bridgeport, including two spans in East Chattanooga.

And when a wave of Union troops didn't swoop into the region as the conspirators expected, several hundred East Tennesseeans from Soddy to Greeneville were rounded up by some of their own neighbors and sent to Confederate prisons.

Historians say the Nov. 8, 1861, uprising that has become known as the "Little Rebellion" illustrates the division in the Chattanooga area when North and South went to war.

"This is probably the most overt symbol of the divided sentiment," said Jim Ogden, historian at the Chickamauga-Chattanooga National Military Park.

Daryl Black, executive director of the Chattanooga History Center, said merchants and lawyers in Chattanooga with business ties to the Deep South favored secession, but rural farmers in Hamilton County favored staying with the Union.

Farms in the flat plains of Alabama, Georgia, Mississippi and even West Tennessee were often sprawling plantations worked by slaves, Black explained. Plantations didn't make sense in the mountainous areas of East Tennessee and farmers worried the wealthy plantation owners would not represent their interests.

"Once you got across the river, or south of what is now Martin Luther King (Boulevard), you were in pretty heavy unionist territory," Black said. "The secession didn't support the interests of the farmers."

There was even short-lived talk, Ogden said, about East Tennessee breaking away from the rest of the state the way mountainous West Virginia separated from plantation-rich Virginia.

Jim Ogden, historian for the Chattanooga-Chickmauga National Military Park, talks about events that occurred 150 years ago when Union sympathizers burned two railroad bridges across South Chickamauga Creek on Nov. 8, 1861, including one at this location where the greenway now ends near Lightfoot Mill Rd.

Jim Ogden, historian for the Chattanooga-Chickmauga National Military...

Photo by John Rawlston /Times Free Press.


After Tennessee seceded from the U.S. in June 1861, East Tennessee unionists and Union officials developed a plan to burn 10 rail bridges in East Tennessee, North Georgia and Northeast Alabama to isolate the region from Confederate reinforcements. Once the rail links were severed, the plan was for Union troops to rush down from Kentucky and seize the Union-leaning territory.

The bridges were along a major rail line linking Eastern Virginia and the North with the Deep South. The spans were chosen based on importance to the rail network, but also for their vulnerability, Ogden explained.

The saboteurs chose two crossings on Chickamauga Creek between what is now the Chattanooga Metropolitan Airport and the Tennessee River, one span in Charleston, Tenn., and others bridges in Bluff City and Greeneville. Historians say the men also planned attacks on critical rail links in Bridgeport, Ala., and Resaca, Ga., but the attacks were never carried out.

Two of the men at the center of the plot were brothers Alfred and William Cate from the Ooltewah area. Under the cover of nightfall on Nov. 8, the bridge burners, including the Cates, descended on the spans and ignited the wooden timbers supporting the train tracks. They also cut telegraph lines at key junctions to wipe out communications.

In a letter to Brig. Gen. George Thomas dated Nov. 16, acting Brig. Gen. S.P. Carter relayed the news that several bridges, including "two bridges of the Chickamauga" had been burned.

"Consternation among the secessionists of East Tennessee is very great," wrote Carter.

The operation was not flawless. Bridge burners at Strawberry Plains, Tenn., got into a scuffle with a bridge guard, Ogden told a history class at Chattanooga State Community College on Friday. After the guard was wounded and escaped, the men rigged the bridge with fuel to start their fire only to discover they had dropped their matches into the Holston River during the fight.

Unfortunately for the men involved, Ogden explained, messages calling off the invasion force did not reach them in time, sending them fleeing to Union states or prisons in Alabama.

After Ogden's talk, Ooltewah resident Robert Thomas said he was surprised to learn one of the masterminds behind the bridge burning lived not far from his home. Thomas previously attended Carson Newman College in Jefferson City, Tenn., and said he always assumed the wartime residents in that area as well as Chattanooga all favored the Confederacy.

"I would have never thought that area there was Union," he said.

Documents show Union sympathies were strong in Hamilton, Bradley and Marion counties, where the majority of voters voted against secession.

In his letter to Thomas, Carter said "the Union men are waiting with longing and anxiety for the appearance of Federal Forces."

"And such a people as are those who live in East Tennessee deserve and should be relieved and protected," he wrote.

Black said it's important to study these internal conflicts the region faced to understand what was going on at the time. It's easy to "paint over the issues" he said, but East Tennesseans were clearly split into sides and then divided further into factions. The region had both slave-holding Unionists and anti-slavery Unionist.

"I think people tend to want to see thinks simply," Black said. "There's not just one unified Unionist attitude that you can point to. They had different reasons to support one side or the other."

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