Strawberry Plains Bridge, Tennessee: A Civil War Battle History

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Railroads and Railroad Bridge Battle History

Spanning the Holston River approximately 15 miles from Knoxville, the 1600-foot-long Strawberry Plains Bridge was crucial to railroad transportation through East Tennessee during the Civil War. It escaped burning on the night of November 8, 1861, when five of the nine bridges in the area were destroyed. Led by Union Colonel William P. Sanders, a band of mounted infantrymen would eventually burn the bridge in June 1863, disrupting Confederate supply lines in advance of the Army of the Ohio's move into East Tennessee.

TN Civil War Railroad Bridge
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Strawberry Plains Railroad Bridge on the Holston River

(About the Photograph) Introduction: A George N. Barnard photograph showing the railroad bridge over the Holston River at Strawberry Plains, Tennessee, with a Union sentry on the right, ruins of a house on the left, and a fort in the background. Title: Knoxville, Tenn., vicinity. Military bridge at Strawberry Plains and a fort in the distance, seen from north bank of the Holston. Date Created / Published: March 1864. Barnard, George N., 1819-1902, photographer. Summary: Photograph of the War in the West. These photographs are of the Siege of Knoxville, November-December 1863. The difficult strategic situation of the Federal armies after Chickamauga enabled Bragg to detach a force under Longstreet which aimed to drive Burnside out of East Tennessee and did shut him up in Knoxville, which he defended successfully. These views, taken after Longstreet's withdrawal on December 3, include one of Strawberry Plains, which was on his line of retreat. Here we have part of an army record; Barnard was photographer of the chief engineer's office, Military Division of the Mississippi, and his views were transmitted with the report of the chief engineer of Burnside's army, April 11, 1864. Reproduction Number: LC-DIG-cwpb-02145 (digital file from original neg. of left half) LC-DIG-cwpb-02146 (digital file from original neg. of right half) LC-B8171-2668 (b&w film neg.). Source: Library of Congress. Notes: Unretouched photograph was scanned for highest resolution at LOC by webmaster. It is perhaps the highest resolution of the event now available online.
While guarding what was considered the most important bridge in East Tennessee, Confederate Private James Keelan (also spelled Keeling) found himself in a life and death fight as he engaged and repulsed a contingent of determined bridge burners.
Under a plan presented to President Lincoln by Union Generals William Sherman and George Thomas, the nine bridges of East Tennessee would simultaneously be burned during the guise of night on November 8, 1861. As five bridges were destroyed by Unionists, known as bridge burners, four escaped the fate. Private James Keelan, Thomas' Legion, was 15 miles from Knoxville and guarding the mammoth 1,600-foot Strawberry Plains Bridge on November 8, 1861, where he single-handedly met, fought, and repulsed the determined saboteurs. Although Keelan was seriously wounded during the melee, the superstructure continued to span handsomely across the splendid Holston River on the morning of the 9th. Keelan was posthumously awarded the rare Confederate Medal of Honor.

Tennessee Civil War Railroad Map
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East Tennessee Railroads and the Civil War

Strawberry Plains Bridge, Tenn. (ca 1860s)
Strawberry Plains Bridge.jpg
Photograph Library of Congress

East Tennessee Bridges in 1861.jpg

(About) The nine bridges of East Tennessee targeted by the bridge burners on the night of November 8, 1861. The red squares indicate bridges that were successfully destroyed.

June 1863

Whereas the 1,600-foot Strawberry Plains Bridge stretched beyond the width of the Holston River, it would be destroyed on June 20, 1863. Because the bridge was the only structure supporting the rail lines for the area, it was considered the most important bridge in East Tennessee, making it a priority target for Union forces. It exchanged betwixt the Union and Confederacy several times as one side would destroy it and the other rebuilt it. In Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies, 23, I, p. 388, referring to the Strawberry Pains Bridge, Union Colonel William P. Sanders, Army of the Ohio, reported that his army had "destroyed the splendid bridge over the Holston River, over 1,600 feet long, built on eleven piers. The trestle-work included, this bridge was 2,100 feet in length." Once destroyed, fellow General Ambrose Burnside, a United States Military Academy graduate, pleasurably stated that “It will take months to rebuild it." (Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies, 23, I, 385.) See also Tennessee and American Civil War Railroads.

Civil War soldier guarding bridge
Civil War Soldier guarding bridge.jpg
High resolution photo of Union sentry guarding Strawberry Plains Bridge

(About) High resolution photo of sentry at Strawberry Plains Bridge. This photo is a close-up, cropped of course, of the Union guard as seen in the above photo. He is armed with the Springfield Model 1861 rifle-musket, the most widely circulated Union firearm of the time. Although slow to load with a rate-of-fire of 2 to 3 rounds per minute, this rifle, in the hands of an experienced soldier, could be effective to beyond 400 yards, or the length of 4 football fields. Another reason for the rifle being preferred while guarding bridges and depots, was that its effective range could pin down a raiding party while allowing nearby reinforcements to arrive. The Confederate counterpart was armed with the Enfield Pattern 1853 rifle-musket, which was similar to the Model 1861 in both range and rate-of-fire. Photo scanned at LOC by webmaster and is believed to be the highest resolution of the sentry found anywhere online. See also Civil War Weapons.

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Recommended Reading: Bridge Burners: A True Adventure of East Tennessee Underground Civil War. Description: When the East Tennessee and Virginia Railway line was completed, dignitaries gathered in celebration as the final spike was hammered into the last tie in Greene County. Opening new doors of growth and economic development in the Region, the railroad would become a point of conflict only three years later. When the Civil War began, the line became a vital link in transporting Confederate troops and supplies into Virginia. The railroad was vulnerable since many hostile Unionists remained in the region. Confederate authorities were understandably worried about the rail lines and how to protect them. Continued below...

Inevitably the stage was set and on a cold Friday night, November 8, 1861, the Unionists proceeded with plans to burn the key railroad bridges of East Tennessee; President Abraham Lincoln had approved the plan. This thoroughly researched, easy-to-read narrative tells the incredible true story of the people and events in the ‘insurrection gone wrong’.

Recommended Reading: War at Every Door: Partisan Politics and Guerrilla Violence in East Tennessee, 1860-1869. Description: One of the most divided regions of the Confederacy, East Tennessee was the site of fierce Unionist resistance to secession, Confederate rule, and the Southern war effort. It was also the scene of unrelenting 'irregular,' or guerrilla, warfare between Union and Confederate supporters, a conflict that permanently altered the region's political, economic, and social landscape. In this study, Noel Fisher examines the military and political struggle for control of East Tennessee from the secession crisis through the early years of Reconstruction, focusing particularly on the military and political significance of the region's irregular activity. Continued below...

Fisher portrays in grim detail the brutality and ruthlessness employed not only by partisan bands but also by Confederate and Union troops under constant threat of guerrilla attack and government officials frustrated by unstinting dissent. He demonstrates that, generally, guerrillas were neither the romantic, daring figures of Civil War legend nor mere thieves and murderers, but rather were ordinary men and women who fought to live under a government of their choice and to drive out those who did not share their views.
Recommended Reading: Valor in Gray: The Recipients of the Confederate Medal of Honor. Description: Gregg Clemmer writes in detail about the events that occurred that caused these men to be remembered. He has spent countless hours researching the character of each recipient and their heroic-selfless actions. Includes the valorous actions of James Keelen. Continued below...
Whether a descendant of the North or the South, this book will make you feel the emotion that drove these men to risk their lives for their values and beliefs. Each chapter is devoted to a separate Confederate Medal of Honor recipient. Valor in Gray is destined to be one of the best books on Civil War history.

Recommended Reading: East Tennessee and the Civil War (Hardcover: 588 pages). Description: A solid social, political, and military history, this work gives light to the rise of the pro-Union and pro-Confederacy factions. It explores the political developments and recounts in fine detail the military maneuvering and conflicts that occurred. Beginning with a history of the state's first settlers, the author lays a strong foundation for understanding the values and beliefs of East Tennesseans. He examines the rise of abolition and secession, and then advances into the Civil War.

Early in the conflict, Union sympathizers burned a number of railroad bridges, resulting in occupation by Confederate troops and abuses upon the Unionists and their families. The author also documents in detail the ‘siege and relief’ of Knoxville. Although authored by a Unionist, the work is objective in nature and fair in its treatment of the South and the Confederate cause, and, complete with a comprehensive index, this work should be in every Civil War library.


Recommended Reading: Touring the East Tennessee Backroads (Touring the Backroads) (380 pages) (John F Blair Pub; 2 edition) (October 1, 2007). Description: The historical facts in the first edition of Touring the East Tennessee Backroads have not changed much since the book was first published in 1993, but highway construction and development has altered the routes of the 13 tours. For this second edition, the author drove over 3,000 miles to update the tours where people such as Daniel Boone, Davy Crockett, Sam Houston, Andrew Jackson, Sequoyah, Nancy Ward, and Clarence Darrow once traveled the same backroads.

Try the Search Engine for Related Studies: Tennessee Civil War Battles, Railroad Bridge Burners, List of Tennessee Railroad Bridges Burned, The Battle of Strawberry Plains Bridge Tennessee, Civil War Railroad History, Photo, Picture, Details, Facts

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