Cherokee County boys fought the bridge burners in the Civil War
by Rob Neufeld
See Terrell Garren's Civil War Research blog.
Many young men from Cherokee County had joined the Confederate Army at first call in the summer of 1861 in response to the war’s start at Fort Sumter. Even though they lived very far away.
Past the Nantahala Mountains, in Indian country, practically in north Georgia and East Tennessee, the residents who spread out in small patches along the creeks running down to Valley River just wanted to farm.
After the Confederate loss at Shiloh—in which over 23,000 men on both sides died or were wounded in a battle over an east-west railroad, the Confederacy enacted a draft. Mountain farms, tended by brothers who stayed behind, got scoured of men.
Many men—including early volunteer Sam Watkins of the First Tennessee Regiment under General Braxton Bragg—became disenchanted with the Confederacy. (Watkins, a Shiloh veteran, and later a war memoirist, is a favorite source in Ken Burns’ film documentary, “The Civil War.”)
“From this time on till the end of the war,” Watkins said about conscription, “a soldier was simply a machine, a conscript. It was mighty rough on rebels. We cursed the war, we cursed Bragg, we cursed the Southern Confederacy. All our pride and valor had gone.”
Nonetheless, from Sept. 1862 through March 1863, forty-two men who wrote down “Cherokee Co.” as their residence enlisted in Company E of Walker’s Battalion, Thomas’ Legion. The first wave was forty men whom Stephen Whitaker had brought with him on Sept. 25, seventeen days after he’d been given the authority to recruit a company.
Eight weeks later, Whitaker’s nephew, James M. Whitaker, arrived in Murphy with five other Cherokee County boys, including Levi Graham, whose great-great-granddaughter writes on historian Terrell Garren’s blog on “”The Read on WNC.”
“My cousin just received a copy of what we believe to be our gr gr grandfather's Civil War record stating that he was captured at Strawberry Plains TN June 20, 1863,” Kathi Bobb began her online exchange. Later, she noted that Pvt. Levi Graham was designated “Musician.”
“Musicians in the Army,” Garren noted, “were not much different than any other job in the Army. Men are often listed as ‘teamster,’ ‘forager,’ ‘nurse,’ or some other occupation. In the end all of them were soldiers under arms, and were expected to be combatants.”
William Thomas’ troops, designated a legion just as Whitaker was forming a new company to fight for Thomas, had previously been a battalion. The Union’s Tennessee campaign had created the need to strengthen Thomas’ force. Into it, he brought Cherokees and Whites with the understanding that they would fight only in the East Tennessee-North Carolina districts.
On March 25, 1863, Capt. Whitaker wrote his parents in Cherokee County that nothing much was going on yet, but Gen. Alfred Jackson had taken over command of Thomas’ Legion, and Whitaker was chasing down deserters.
“I bought today 3 tombstones,” Whitaker also reported, “2 for my litel children & 1 for mother.” His mother must have been ailing. His children, Harriet, age 3; and Jefferson Davis, age 1, had died.
On May 18, Whitaker wrote his parents again. “We are still under Gen. Jackson & I think we will be ordered back to the railroad.” The most important link on the East Tennessee & Virginia Railroad, according to Union General Ambrose Burnside, was the 1,600-ft.-long bridge at Strawberry Plains, Tennessee.
In Confederacy-controlled but Unionist-rife Jefferson County, Unionists were becoming increasingly bold about destroying Confederate supply lines in anticipation of a major Federal offensive. Cameron Judd, the popular historical novelist from Tennessee, memorialized these Unionists in a 1996 book titled, “The Bridge Burners.”
After a single Confederate, James Keelan, had foiled an attempt to burn the bridge down on Nov. 8, 1861—the lead Unionist had gotten shot and dropped the matches—Confederate Col. William Wood sent more men to the bridge and promised he’d hang any locals he found complicit in bridge burning.
It wasn’t until June 14, 1863, that Union Gen. Burnside finally sent a large force—under Col. William Sanders—to raid Strawberry Plains. On June 20, Sanders’ troops overcame a Confederate force one quarter its size. It captured 139 men, took food and ammunition, and burned the bridge.
Levi Graham, Bobb’s ancestor, was one of the captured men. As Sanders’ men began to retreat east away from Confederate reinforcements, Sanders paroled his prisoners—without taking the time to write up papers. Still, the soldiers were sworn to remain non-combatant unless exchanged for Union prisoners.
Many in Graham’s company went home to Cherokee County.
Graham was sick and delayed in his return. On Aug. 2, 1863, Whitaker wrote his parents that Privates Henry Weatherman and Levi Graham were “both on the mend.”
What followed will constitute the next column. It will explain why Graham was listed as a deserter in the official records; and why he is found as a soldier in Thomas’ Legion when Whitaker surrendered Walker’s Battalion to the Union in Franklin on May 12, 1865.
Cherokee County men witnessed madness at the end of Civil War
When we had left Cherokee County farmer Levi Graham at the end of last week’s column, the Confederate private had just been captured and paroled at the Battle at Strawberry Plains, Tennessee. He was thirty-five years old, and a father of six at that point.
He had enlisted in a second wave of recruitment. The Confederates had felt weak in the west after Shiloh, and were concerned about their railroad connections. Confederate General Edward Kirby Smith agreed with Col. William Thomas, leader of Cherokees and Whites in Cherokee country, that Thomas’ battalion should be bumped up to legion status. It needed to defend the Virginia border and the Tennessee passes; and to put down insurgencies.
Levi Graham went with a group to Murphy and enlisted in Company E of Walker’s Battalion of Thomas’ Legion.
A half year later, on June 20, 1863, Union Col. William Sanders ended his hesitancy and went after the East Tennessee and Virginia Railroad. His 1,500 cavalry men overtook and destroyed the bridge in Strawberry Plains. They captured 139 men, including Graham.
Only a fraction of Thomas’ forces had been there, the rest having been positioned around Greenville to stop an advance from the north.
Following Sanders’ successful strike and a short night, Sanders made haste to retreat east. Rather than be encumbered by his prisoners, Sanders paroled them, without taking the time to write up papers.
“ Next morning very early,” Cherokee County soldier John H. Stewart recalled in a 1913 letter to Thomas’ former officer, Major William W. Stringfield, “we were carried before Col. Bird and paroled by promising not to fight any more till exchanged.” Stewart had been irritated by Bird’s attitude toward parole. Bird, after staying in Stringfield’s house, located above the bridge, and sleeping in Stringfield’s feather bed, had the bed moved to the yard so that he could execute his office from it.
Many parolees, sworn non-combatants, went home. Graham’s departure was delayed by illness.
Nonetheless, on Sept. 18, 1863, Graham was listed as a deserter. Still later—on an unrecorded date—he was returned to action. Thomas, concerned about morale, was rebuilding his legion by making new contracts with his former men, whose other options were worse.
Graham ended up serving in Thomas’ Legion until the surrender of the region’s troops in Waynesville, May 6, 1865. Six days later, in Franklin, Graham was paroled for a second and final time. He went home, and he and his wife, Mary, had five more children. His two former slaves stayed on as employees.
Capt. Levi’s four cannons had fired the first shots at Sanders when he had come up the Holston River with his 5th Kentucky Cavalry.
Yet, eight months later, after an awful period—deserters being shot; raids and assassinations increasing—Levi found himself court-martialed and cashiered, dishonorably discharged.
Levi’s crime seems to have been that he sided with Col. Thomas and against the man put in charge of Thomas in 1863, Brig. General Alfred E. Jackson. Thomas’ method of maintaining his troops involved honoring their wishes as much as possible. He’d figured he’d enlist more men that way.
Jackson’s method was to root out dissidents; and Levi, reporting to Jackson after an absence with Thomas, was apparently one.
The trouble that Jackson’s method caused led all of the top officers in Thomas’ Legion, including the by-the-book Col. James R. Love Jr., to sign a petition for Gov. Zebulon Vance to present to Jefferson Davis.
The petition asked for the reunification of the legion under Thomas. The cover letter stated that Jackson “has tried to destroy our organization.” He arrested Thomas “on trumped up charges.” He’d supervised captains, ignoring their colonels and majors; he’d reprimanded officers in the presence of privates.
Jackson, the letter explained, had “an irritable temper intensified by diseased nerves and aggravated by being in a position for which the man is morally and physically unfit.”
So, here’s another reason for continuing to study and talk about the Civil War. At every turn, men and women were tested in new ways.
In the midst of what Wilma Dykeman had called “the Civil War within the Civil War” in the mountains—in the last stronghold of the Confederacy, Cherokee boys witnessed a kind of “Mutiny on the Bounty.”
Vernon H. Crow’s 1982 book, “Storm in the Mountains” and research by Levi Graham’s descendant, Kathi Bobb, were useful in writing this article. Communicate with Bobb on “The Read on WNC” at TheReadonWNC.ning.com, where she is a contributor to Terrell Garren’s “Civil War Research” blog.
Capt. John T. Levi, commander of a light artillery unit attached to Thomas’ Legion.
John Stewart and the Whitakers are my ancestors. Where can I find a complete copy of the letter written by John Stewart mentioned in the article. I am in pocession of many of his letters, but none written during the War.
Denise Stewart Saunders