Elliott: The Unionism of Soddy's Col. William J. Clift

Elliott: The Unionism of Soddy's Col. William J. Clift

January 12th, 2014 By Sam D. Elliott in Opinion Columns

William Clift was one of Hamilton County's most prominent citizens in 1863. Born in Greene County, Tenn., in 1795, Clift was raised in Knoxville. He and his wife, Nancy Brooks Clift, and her sister, Jane, and brother-in-law, Robert C. McRee, moved to Hamilton County in the 1820s, settling at Soddy.

In the years that followed, individually and in partnership, Clift and McRee bought large tracts of land, operated a sawmill and built a steamboat called the Black Hawk.

Originally a Whig, Clift became a Democrat in the 1850s and owned a relatively modest five slaves in 1860. Although a slaveholder, Clift voted for Northern Democrat Stephen A. Douglas in the presidential election of 1860.

As the secession crisis deepened into civil conflict, Clift remained a stalwart supporter of the Union and was a delegate to Unionist conventions in Knoxville and Greenville in 1861.

While these efforts did not keep Tennessee from becoming a member of the Confederacy, the strength of Unionist feeling in East Tennessee initially led the Confederate government to treat those loyal to the United States with leniency.

During this period, Clift, the recognized leader of the Unionists in this region, concluded an agreement with the local Confederate commander "to let each other alone." This lasted until November, 1861, when the abortive Unionist attempt to burn railroad bridges across East Tennessee brought a harsher policy. Confederate forces converged on Clift and the loyalists he led, scattering them.

Making his way to Flat Lick, Ky., Clift was commissioned on Feb. 29, 1862, as colonel of the 7th East Tennessee Infantry. Clift spent the summer and fall of 1862 in Scott, Morgan and Anderson counties recruiting men for his regiment and fighting small bodies of rebel troops in the area. On Aug. 13, 1862, Clift fought a prolonged engagement with a superior force of Confederate troops near Huntsville, Tenn., and was forced to retreat "in good order."

On Aug. 21, 1863, Clift was ordered to report to Brig. Gen. J.M. Shackelford, who commanded a brigade of cavalry in the forces of Union Maj. Gen. Ambrose E. Burnside.

Burnside occupied Knoxville early in September 1863 as Federal troops under Maj. Gen. William S. Rosecrans occupied Chattanooga. After his defeat at Chickamauga, Rosecrans was relieved and Maj. Gen. George H. Thomas placed in command of the Union troops here.

In October, Clift was dispatched to Chattanooga by Burnside as a courier. Bearing a message from Thomas reporting his relief of Rosecrans and Maj. Gen. U. S. Grant's appointment to overall command, Clift was captured on his way back to Knoxville in Rhea County on Oct. 24, 1863. While some accounts indicate Clift's son, Moses, was among the party capturing the colonel, contemporary records and Clift's own account of the incident indicate such was probably not the case.

Clift was spirited across the Tennessee River to Charleston, then to Bragg's headquarters on Missionary Ridge, then to the Confederate military prison at Atlanta.

Remarkably, the 68-year-old Clift escaped in early January 1864 and "after 20 days travel and extreme suffering and privation," he reached Federal lines in Tennessee by way of the mountains of North Carolina, hiding at day and traveling at night.

He was sent to Federal headquarters, then allowed to go to his home in Soddy, "very much worn out and crippled" from his experience, having suffered frostbitten feet and losing the sight in one eye. By July 1864, he had recovered from his ordeal but was deemed no longer fit for service as a result of his age and afflictions.

Two of Clift's sons served in the Union army with their father, and two, including Moses, who later became a prominent lawyer in Chattanooga, served in the Confederate army along with the husbands of three of his daughters. Moses' grandson was the famous actor Montgomery Clift.

Col. Clift died in 1886 at age 91 and was laid to rest in Soddy's Presbyterian Cemetery. The fierce old patriot's land holdings were so vast and his descendants so numerous that his estate was not settled until 1956, 70 years after his death.

Sam D. Elliott is a local attorney with Gearhiser, Peters, Elliott and Cannon. He is on the board of the Friends of the Chickamauga Chattanooga National Military Park and the author or editor of three books on the Civil War. For more, visit chattahistoricalassoc.org or call LaVonne Jolley at 423-886-2090.