The Civil War and the Smokies

During a time when most Southerners were eager to flex their muscle and show the Union Army how they were capable of leading their own sovereign nation, the inhabitants of the Great Smoky Mountains had a more divided reaction to secession. As a result, the Smokies became a hotbed of controversy stemming from differing opinions that fell along the state divide. Residents were successfully able to avoid major conflicts, but like so many other places in the Confederate South, the Smoky Mountains saw their share of hardship during the Civil War.

Civil War

Mountain Man Perspective

Unlike many who were in the thick of political party lines at the time, the Smoky Mountain communities had little to gain from throwing their allegiances either way. These downtrodden farmers were concerned about how war would affect their livelihoods and communities, not to mention the fact that they would most likely be the ones to lay down their lives for what some called a rich man’s war but a poor man’s fight.

Without slaves, wealth or even glory at stake, many of these mountain families preferred to keep out of the conflict. When the question of secession came to a vote, less than 20% of East Tennessee residents were in favor, while around 46% of the Smoky Mountain counties in North Carolina were in favor of seceding. Regardless of any one town’s wishes, both states seceded in May, 1861.

The Old Mill

One of the most iconic landmarks related to the Smoky Mountains and its inhabitant’s stance on the Civil War was The Old Mill. It was owned by John Sevier Trotter, who was a supporter of the Union cause. He had looms installed inside to make uniforms for the volunteer soldiers and used the third floor as a makeship hospital for the wounded.

The Old Mill

“Keep Your Powder Dry”

Another Smoky Mountain site that fell under Confederate interests was Alum Cave. A rich source of saltpeter, the cave could provide ample source minerals to create much-needed gunpowder as well as Epsom salts. A Major William H. Thomas along with a legion of local guerrillas, Cherokees and Confederate soldiers held the caves and conscripted local forces to help him build roads and mine the valuable saltpeter. Provisions were acquired from Jefferson City to sustain the forces during this time.

Civil War

Battle Of Burg Hill

In order to unroot the Confederates from Alum Cave near Pigeon Forge, two companies of Union soldiers were dispatched in December of 1863. A skirmish broke out on Burg Hill, and the outnumbered Confederate forces under Major Thomas quickly retreated along Dudley Creek. The surprise attack lasted about an hour. Few casualties were had, and no deaths, according to record. The battle effectively ended the Confederate occupation of Gatlinburg.

Alum Cave remains a popular hiking destination within the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, and the Battle of Burg Hill is often commemorated by a more momentous albeit fictitious reenactment of a Civil War clash for the entertainment and historical edification of spectators.

Radford Gatlin

While there is no actual record of how the town of White Oak Flats officially changed its name to Gatlinburg, the change happened just before the Civil War when the not-so-popular resident Radford Gatlin opened a store and post office bearing his name in the area. The disliked man was present for an event on November 8, 1861 when about 10 Unionists tried to burn the railroad bridge across the Holston River around Strawberry Plains. Their attempt was thwarted by Confederate guard James Keelan.

Never a boring character, Radford Gatlin wrote an extremely exaggerated and falsified record of the acount in which James Keelan was portrayed as a great hero who killed three Unionists (Gatlin referred to them as Lincolnites) with his dagger. The story was published (The Immortal Hero-James Keelan) by an Atlanta newspaper in 1862 as Confederate propaganda. It’s said that the pro-Confederate Gatlin left (or was run out of) Sevier County the following year.

Cades Cove & The Civil War

Blount County was full of abolitionists before the Civil War had even begun. Quakers were also numerous, and despite their total pacifist agenda, they were so opposed to slavery that they fought with the Union army. Another abolitionist and the founder of Maryville, Rev. Isaac L. Anderson, often gave sermons in Cades Cove. It is even rumored that Cades Cove was a stop on the underground railroad.

Cades Cove Facts

Primitive Baptist Church in Cades Cove
Primitive Baptist Church in Cades Cove

Russell Gregory

In the middle of the war, Federal forces occupied Knoxville, but Confederate raids plagued Cades Cove. Russell Gregory (for whom Gregory Bald is named) wanted to remain neutral even after his son defected to the Confederate side. But he had had enough of the raids and organized a small militia of the Cove’s men to ambush the marauders near Abrams Creek.

Gregory Bald

While they succeeded in pushing their forces back and put an end to the raids, the event ultimately resulted in Gregory’s death two weeks later when a small band of Confederates snuck back in and shot him. Russell Gregory was buried in the cemetery at Primitive Baptist Church in Cades Cove. His gravestone reads: “RUSSELL GREGORY, 1795-1864, FOUNDER OF GREGORY BALD ABOUT 1830, MURDERED BY NORTH CAROLINA REBELS”.

You can discover more about historical sites in the Smoky Mountains on our Smoky Mountain history page, and you can also find out how to stay in the midst of history with our guide to hotels and cabins near the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

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