In February 1861, 54 percent of the state's voters voted against sending delegates to a secession convention, defeating the proposal for a State Convention by a vote of 69,675 to 57,798. If a State Convention had been held, it would have been very heavily pro-Union. 88,803 votes were cast for Unionist candidates and 22,749 votes were cast for Secession candidates. With the attack on Fort Sumter on April 12, 1861, followed by President Abraham Lincoln's April 15 call for 75,000 volunteers to invade the rebelling States and restore the Union, public sentiment turned dramatically against the Lincoln government. On June 8, 1861, approximately 105,000 Tennesseans voted for secession, while only 47,000 voted against, but East Tennesseans voted more than two-to-one (33,000 to 14,000) to stay with the Union, indicating an enormous anti-secession and anti-Confederacy pocket east of the Cumberland Plateau,while West Tennessee returned an equally heavy majority in favor. The deciding vote came in Middle Tennessee, which went from 51 percent against secession in February to 88 percent in favor in June. Having ratified by popular vote its connection with the fledgling Confederacy, Tennessee became the last state to formally declare its withdrawal from the Union. At the Greeneville session (June 17–20) of the East Tennessee Convention, the region's Unionist leaders condemned secession and petitioned the Tennessee General Assembly to allow East Tennessee to become a separate state and remain in the Union. The legislature rejected the petition, and Governor Isham Harris ordered Confederate forces under General Felix K. Zollicoffer into East Tennessee.
EAST TENNESSEE'S BRIDGE BURNERS :
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Engraving from Harper's Weekly showing members of the East Tennessee bridge-burning conspiracy swearing allegiance to the U.S. flag. Originally entitled: "A Thrilling scene in east Tennessee—Colonel Fry and the Union men swearing by the flag."
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Union Colonel and "Bridge-Burner" David Frye (left), and John McCoy, 2nd TN Infantry and 8th TN Cavalry.
The bridge-burning operations, were planned by Carter County minister William B. Carter (1820–1902), and authorized by President Abraham Lincoln, they called for the destruction of nine strategic railroad bridges, followed by an invasion of the area by Union Army forces from southeastern Kentucky, led by George H. "Pap" Thomas, who had remained loyal to the Union, even though being from Virginia. Five of the bridges were destroyed, but the Union Army, over-all commanded by William T. Sherman, failed to move. The destroyed bridges were quickly rebuilt and there was little or no military significance. what did change, was the way the Confederate authorities went from a policy of "tolerating", and trying to win over the support of Unionists, to that of martial law. Dozens of Unionists were arrested and thrown in jail. Several suspected bridge burners were tried and hanged. There was no invasion of east Tennessee until September 1863.
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Isham G. Harris Confederate Governor Of Tennessee
Felix Kirk Zollicoffer
East Tennessee Confederate State Senator Landon Carter Haynes
The East Tennessee and Georgia (ET&G) and East Tennessee and Virginia (ET&V) railroads were vital to the Confederacy, since they provided a connection between Virginia and the Deep South that did not require going around the bulk of the Southern Appalachian Mountains. Both Union and Confederate leaders realized the railroads' importance. In July 1861, Confederate politician and East Tennessee native Landon Carter Haynes warned of the railroads' vulnerability, stating that at any moment he was "looking to hear that the bridges have been burned and the East Tennessee and Virginia Railroad torn up". William B. Carter revealed his plan to destroy the region's main railroad bridges to pave the way for a Union invasion to George Thomas and William Sherman at Camp Dick Robinson, a Union recruiting depot in Kentucky, where a number of east Tennessee Unionists had fled. Thomas liked the plan, and although Sherman was initially skeptical, he agreed after a short discussion, but later nixed the invasion, after the bridges had already been burned. Carrying a letter from Thomas, Carter travelled to Washington, D.C., to meet with President Lincoln, Commanding General George McClellan, and Secretary of State William H. Seward. Lincoln, under immense pressure from Senator Andrew Johnson and Congressman Horace Maynard to provide some sort of aid to East Tennessee's Unionists, agreed with the plan. He allotted $2,500 for the operation, and Carter returned to Camp Dick Robinson to begin making arrangements.
The nine bridges targeted were, from northeast to southwest: the bridge over the Holston River at Union (modern Bluff City); the bridge over the Watauga River at Carter's Depot (modern Watauga); the bridge over Lick Creek, near modern Mosheim in Greene County; the bridge over the Holston at Strawberry Plains; the bridge over the Tennessee River at Loudon; the bridge over the Hiwassee River at Charleston; two bridges over Chickamauga Creek in the vicinity of Chattanooga; and the bridge over the Tennessee at Bridgeport, Alabama. Captains David Fry and William Cross, two officers who had been assigned to the operation, were tasked with burning the Lick Creek and Loudon bridges, respectively. Alfred Cate (1822–1871) of Hamilton County, would oversee the destruction of the bridges in southeast Tennessee, and assigned the two bridges in northeast Tennessee to Daniel Stover, a son-in-law of Andrew Johnson. For the Strawberry Plains bridge, he recruited former Sevier County sheriff William C. Pickens. Each of Carter's "Lieutenants" in turn recruited reliable men to assist them. Cate assigned R.B. Rogan and James Keener to the Bridgeport bridge, William T. Cate (his brother) and W. H. Crowder to the Chickamauga Creek bridges, and personally led the attack on the Hiwassee bridge, with the assistance of Thomas Cate (another brother), Adam Thomas, and Jesse and Eli Cleveland. Fry chose Greene Countians Jacob and Thomas Harmon, Jacob Hensie, Alex Haun, and Harrison and Hugh Self. Pickens recruited several fellow Sevier Countians, among them David Ray, James Montgomery, and Elijah Gamble.
Union Colonel Daniel Stover