Villains and heroes: Guerilla troops, marauders plagued East Tennessee during war
“I have heard of no single neighborhood within the bounds of East Tennessee, whose green sod has not drunk the blood of citizens murdered.” - N.G. Taylor, 1864
The Civil War was in its second year when Tennessee military Governor Andrew Johnson took aim at “marauding bands” of Rebels.
Johnson’s May 1862 proclamation warned Rebels who “banded themselves together, and are now going at large through many of the counties in this State, arresting, maltreating and plundering Union citizens wherever found.”
Confederates would pay, he cautioned. For every Union man “arrested and maltreated by the marauding bands,” five or more prominent area rebels would be “arrested, imprisoned and otherwise dealt with ”
But guerrilla war among soldiers and citizens on both sides worsened. In 1864 Unionist Horace Maynard begged Johnson for officers to suppress East Tennessee’s “petty villainy robbing & murder crime not war.” Fiery Unionist newspaperman William G. Brownlow charged that July that Rebel guerrillas possessing “the spirit of demons” roamed upper East Tennessee “robbing and murdering” indiscriminately. He warned Union soldiers “will pay them back in their own coin.”
Who were such demonic guerrillas? They could range from organized partisan military units to opportunist thieves. Despite Brownlow’s prose, not all were Rebels. When Confederates controlled East Tennessee in the war’s first half, Federal supporters were termed marauders. When the Federals later held the area, Confederates were the bushwhackers.
East Tennessee’s first bold guerrilla war act was likely Unionist citizens’ November 1861 effort to torch nine railroad bridges from Bristol to Bridgeport, Ala. Five bridges burned but supporting Union military force never came. Then in-charge Confederates authorities hanged five bridge-burners; martial law was declared in Knoxville.
Throughout the war foraging soldiers or raiding marauders might focus on property of people considered the enemy. By 1864 the region had been battlefield and breadbasket for both Rebels and Federals.
One side’s villain was the other’s hero. In 1864 Greene County native and ex-Confederate George W. Kirk organized Tennessee and North Carolina men into a Union regiment on orders of Maj. Gen. John Schofield. Schofield ordered Kirk and his 3rd Mounted North Carolina Regiment to harass Confederate troops, destroy their supplies, damage and burn railroads. Kirk acted with vigor and force; his men were called “Kirk’s Raiders.” To Unionists Kirk was a brave hero. To Confederates he was a notorious bushwhacker.
Politics factored in regional guerrilla war. Neighbors turned against neighbors who thought or fought differently. People died not on the battlefield but in their homes. Newspapers and military records were filled with reports of bushwhackers, thieves and marauders terrorizing communities or attacking enemy soldiers.
In November 1863 Confederate cavalrymen killed nine Union civilians in the “Limestone Cove Tragedy” in today’s Unicoi County. Union guide Daniel Ellis in his 1867 memoir “The Thrilling Adventures of Daniel Ellis” said 57 men from North Carolina waited outside Dr. David Bell’s home for breakfast. They were to meet Ellis so he could get them to Kentucky to join the Federal army. Then Col. W.A. Witcher’s cavalry attacked. Eight men were killed. Soldiers also killed Bell’s brother James Bell and set fire to the Bell home.
Area Rebels led the Virginia soldiers to Bell’s home, wrote Ellis in a 1903 “History of the 13th Regiment Tennessee Volunteer Cavalry.” The history of the Federal regiment scorns the Rebel civilians as men “so lost to justice and human sympathy as to go and point out their neighbors as victims.”
The mountains were marauders’ hiding places. Confederate bushwhackers moved from the Tennessee-North Carolina mountains to raid Union-supporting Cades Cove. Unionist raiders from the same hills hit western North Carolina’s Confederate areas. An 1862 “Greeneville Banner” story declared “property and live (sic) is unsafe” while 150 “marauders” hiding in the western North Carolina mountains raided East Tennessee. The “land pirates” committed “depredations of pillage and plunder, robbing smokehouses, money drawers and cutting up in general.” They were “renegades from Tennessee, and North Carolina, who have fled, some of them from Justice, some for fear of being drafted into the Southern army, and others no doubt for the purpose of plunder,” the paper said, urging both states’ authorities to break up the “den of thieves and robbers.”
Confederate cavalryman William E. Sloan battled two dozen Scott County Union “whackers” in 1863 on the Tennessee-Kentucky line. Mountains with deep ravines let bushwhackers, he said, “conceal themselves in good rifle range of a road and fire into a column of cavalry with perfect impunity, as it would often require one hour of hard climbing on foot to reach them, and by that time they can be miles away and they are as fleet-footed as a deer.”
“If they had the courage and discipline of soldiers, they would be hard to conquer, but that is where they are lacking. The crack of a gun seems to inspire them with an irresistible inclination to run.” - Confederate William E. Sloan on bushwhackers
The terms partisans, bushwhackers, guerrillas and marauders often were interchanged in politicians’ speeches, soldiers’ diaries and citizens’ memoirs. Differences, though sometimes blurred and perhaps not important to those beaten or robbed, did exist. Bushwhacker was a particularly demeaning term that implied cowards hiding in the mountain or roadside shrubs. Sloan said Union bushwhackers usually “fire one round and then run.”
“There’s a whole range of definitions and terms — guerrillas, bushwhackers, irregular fighters,” says Maryville College Associate Professor of History Aaron Astor. “A lot of it has to do with their political purpose, how they are organized, who they take orders from, if anyone, what their internal value system is. You might look at it as a spectrum.”
At one end were partisan rangers, small military bands that often operated behind enemy lines, sometimes on military orders. At the other end were thieves who terrorized and robbed. In 1863 the Federal military set differences between uniformed partisan soldiers and lawless “armed prowlers,” spies, “war-rebels” or men who “commit hostilities without being part and portion of the organized hostile army and without sharing continuously in the war ” Only partisans would be treated as prisoners of war; others faced near-certain death or punishment as highway robbers.
The Confederacy encouraged partisans at the war’s start; its 1862 Partisan Ranger Act authorized the groups. “It allowed for these independent commands to go off independently and attack the Union Army or supply trains at their weak point,” Astor said.
But the rangers worried regular Confederate military. Stationed in Russellville in December 1863, Lt. Gen. James Longstreet saw “farms destroyed and forage and subsistence consumed and wasted.” The “partisan cavalry, having authority to keep and sell everything that they capture, do not always confine their captures to the enemy’s side. Horses, mules, cattle and, in some instances, negroes are taken and sent south and sold,” he reported. The Confederate Congress repealed the act in February 1864.
Independent local units might attach themselves to the larger army as it moved through an area, Astor said. But when the army moved on locals remained.
“In the early stages of the war, there was a lot of pressure to take to the bush, to hit and run. You would hide your identity in the day, not wear the official uniform. You’d be a farmer by day, a soldier by night. It was war among the people. If you were fighting among the larger conventional foe, you constantly would attack behind the enemy lines, sometimes to provoke them into a response,” Astor said. “There were guerrillas within the community and raiders from outside. They could be governmental units or maybe bandits and deserters.”
Third Indiana Cavalry Lt. Col. Robert Klein in 1864 described a “nest of guerrillas” stealing from Blount and Monroe homes as “absentees, deserters, and paroled soldiers of the rebel army, and rebel citizens.” The band sold their stolen goods in North Carolina, he reported.
William Sloan who battled bushwhackers also fought robbers at his southeast Tennessee home. In 1863 he helped Polk County neighbors ready for thieves who “call themselves ‘union men’ and were “terrorizing the people by their night robberies.” Sloan wrote the civilians were “armed and organized, and if they catch the outlaws they will not bother the courts with them.”
Sometimes desperate soldiers acted desperately. Confederates in Lt. Col. N.L. Hutchins Jr.’s brigade had no shoes, little clothing or blankets and “scanty rations” near Russellville in late 1863. “Some bad men would straggle and commit depredations on private people” as troops moved through Sweetwater and Knoxville to Hawkins County, he reported.
Some raiders’ identities were never certain. Erwin historian Christine Tipton, who wrote “Civil War in the Mountains,” recalls stories of marauders whose saddlebags carried a Union and a Confederate uniform so they could change into the attire that got them into an area or home. “When you don’t have a rule of law, you have chaos. People are pretty desperate by the end of the war in East Tennessee and the mountain area,” Tipton said.
“The robbers have come at last, they robbed my husband of his pocketbook, money and papers and pocket knife. Times get worse everyday. We know not what will come next. I feel this morning like nothing but destruction awaits us.” - Terressa Ann Lanning McCown, Sevier County, Oct. 30, 1864
In March 1865, Elisa Bolli, 23, felt that “it is awful, no one is safe, not even in their own house.” Renegades killed a young girl a few miles from Bolli’s Knox County home. “They were beating her father to make him give up his money and she tried to interfere, one of them shot her in the head and she fell dead,” Bolli wrote in her diary.
Saving what possessions residents had demanded wits. In his 1983 “Tales from the Civil War” Cocke County historian and author Edward R. Walker III lists stories from descendants of East Tennesseans who lived through the war. They tell of women hiding grain in house walls, attaching meat under a kitchen table and shoving it in an ash hopper. When bushwhackers piled food in one yard, the woman of the farm gathered her skirts to her knees and urinated on the food. The men left the food that the woman, the book says, “cleaned and stored away for her children.”
Raiders got a different shock at Moses Driskill’s East Tennessee home, according to the same book. Hearing Rebels coming, Mrs. Driskill put her son Benjamin in bed and built a big fire. When Confederates arrived she lied that there was smallpox in the house so “the intruders left more quickly than they came.”