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 surprisingly divided reaction to secession. Poor mountain farmers who had to make a living by scraping together what they could were anxious at the idea of war coming to disrupt their already meagre existence.

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.

Mountain Men with a Different 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, only 20 percent of residents in Tennessee Smoky Mountain counties voted “aye,” while around 46 percent 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.

Some pro-Union demonstrations erupted in response to this move, including a violent attack on Gatlinburg’s namesake resident Radford Gatlin, but the efforts were to no avail. Tennessee had already entered the war, bringing the Smoky Mountain citizens with them.

Keep Your Powder Dry
One Smoky Mountains site that fell under Confederate interests was known as 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.

In order to unroot the Confederates from Alum Cave near Pigeon Forge, two companies of Union soldiers were dispatched in December of 1863. 150 Union soldiers led by Colonel William J. Palmer of the 15th Pennsylvania Cavalry marched through the Smoky Mountains and down Fighting Creek to the edge of Gatlinburg. A skirmish broke out on Burg Hill, and the outnumbered Confederate forces under Major Thomas quickly retreated along Dudley Creek. Few casualties were had, and no deaths, according to record.

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.

You can discover more about historical sites in the Smoky Mountains by clicking on the preceding link, 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.