September 1, 2012, marked a departure to what we normally do at the Carter Mansion in celebrating Revolutionary War history at the Sycamore Shoals Historic Site. This date marked the Third Annual Civil War event, celebrating the confrontation between John Carter and the Confederate rebels looking for famed local hero, Union pilot, Dan Ellis. It was a small event; I think there were more spectators than participants but it was totally sa-weet. On Friday, the school kids came to witness what happened in their hometown one-hundred- fifty years ago. I’m sure there were groans and some little girls saying “EEEEEEWWWWWWWWWWW” when Chad displayed his considerable collection of military surgical instruments and , acting as a Civil War surgeon, lopped off a limb or two. Jason Davis and his dad, JC, Tim Massey,Mike Mankin and others opened the camp to inspection. Saturday brought an addition of myself, Mike Coon, Dave Shook and John Large. On both days, there was a weaponry display, explanation of uniforms, both Confederate and Union, daily camp life, and of course cannon culminating with the load and fire! In the afternoon, the group celebrated an event which happened in November of 1861 and that was the hunt for the conspirators who were involved in blowing up a railroad bridge in what is now Bluff City, TN, and other places. These men were led through the mountains by Dan Ellis of Elizabethton (played by Tim Massey) , a farmer- turned- scout and later captain in the Union Army, known as the “Old Red Fox”, who knew the mountains better than any man in the region and was instrumental in moving hundred of Union sympathizers and soldiers through the Appalachians, into Kentucky and from there to Pennsylvania. This fellow had a bounty on his head but he and his guerillas put some serious hurt on the Confederate army and their sympathizers over time.
I have always known that East Tennessee was generally reluctant to support the Confederacy but until lately, I had no idea that East Tennessee was most decidedly Union. It makes sense when one thinks that this was a subsistence economy, slavery was a non-issue and East Tennessee was generally ignored by the rest of the state. They really didn’t have a dog in the fight and the “cause” was not their concern. Their resentments festered and the men protected what was theirs with pitch forks, knives and whatever they had. Further, these people had long memories. It had only been eighty years before that their grandfathers gathered at Sycamore Shoals to march to Kings Mountain to repel Furgeson and his men who threatened their very existence. The Carters and other prominent men, including their wives, were at the heart of a rather large conspiracy to blow up railroad bridges in order to aid General George H. Thomas’ Union Army who was moving into East Tennessee from Kentucky and to cripple the rebels in moving troops and supplied through the region. William Blount Carter had gone to Washington personally to meet with Lincoln, Simon Cameron, Secretary of War, and Andrew Johnson, Vice President and fellow East Tennessean, all who gave hearty support. The twenty-four conspirators, later known as “the Immortal Twenty-Four” were banking on protection by Union troops once they blew up the bridges but what they didn’t know was that Thomas backed out on the advice of Sherman who believed his troops would be logistically over extended. On November 8, 1861, the men were successful in simultaneously dynamiting the bridge in what was then called Zollicoffer, now Bluff City , and other bridges along the Holston and Watauga Rivers.
This stirred up a hornet’s nest, though, because bridge burning was a capital offence and these guys became marked men. Ellis, a conspirator himself and already a local legend, was instrumental in getting these men out of the area to safer ground. The skirmish at the Carter Mansion brought to life the confrontation between John Carter and Mrs. Carter (who helped to make masks for the blower-uppers) and the rebels who were on the hunt for Ellis. It was said that the Rebs were hot and heavy on his trail and he was nearly routed at the Carter Mansion. Brave to the n-th degree and quickly thinking, Mrs. Carter sent Ellis upstairs, hid him in her bed under the covers , hopped in pretending to be sick and swore to the Rebs as they invaded her room that “Ellis’s feet are not touching the grounds of the plantation.” Out of respect for her and believing her word, the men left and Ellis got away. Now that took GUTS!
In spite of the fact that the Civil War was also fought in East Tennessee, there are very few events in the area. I understand why now when I see Confederate flags and bumper stickers on trucks, in yards and on clothes. I think people would like to maybe forget which side many of their relatives were really on. Me, being a transplanted Jersey-girl, it doesn’t bother. Actually, I hide a grin and say “Carry on!”
Check out these links. We had some terrific coverage of the event. Also there are historical accounts of the conspiracy and a bio of Dan Ellis (copy the link and paste it into your address section)/ Pretty interesting reading!
News Coverage of the Third Annual Skirmish at Carter Mansion: http://www.johnsoncitypress.com/News/article.php?id=102174
The Bridge burning conspiracy in Upper East TN: http://www.tngenweb.org/greene/reghist-13/rh13-c07.htm
Dan Ellis’s biography : http://www.nku.edu/~ellisa/danielellis/biography.html
I actually ordered his autobiography and narrative of the Civil War in the Appalachians called The Thrilling
Adventures of Daniel Ellis.
(THANK YOU TIM MASSEY FOR THESE SPECTACULAR PICTURES)