James Keelan and the Civil War

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Tennessee Civil War History

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  Fort Apache
James Keelan: Defender of the Strawberry Plains Bridge

Jim Keelan eyed the clouded, dark November sky. The evening chill carried the threat of a killing frost. It made no difference though; tonight was his turn to guard the railroad bridge.  But as he stood there listening on the Strawberry Plains side of the crossing, he heard only the wind above and the river below.

On the far side of the bridge, just one other sentry stood guard.  Months of rumors and warnings that the bridge would be burned had kept nearly a dozen men detailed to guard it. But the bridge had remained uncontested. Finally, two days earlier, with soldiers badly needed at other points, the bridge guard was suddenly reduced to a single sentry at each end.  Had the threat to destroy the bridge lessened?

Keelan climbed down beneath the bridge to the "box or bunk" that served as his post. Here, secreted behind the supporting timbers and just above the abutment, he could remain hidden yet hear and observe anyone approaching. In case of trouble, a musket, single-shot pistol, and Bowie knife lay nearby.

Slowly, the hours passed. As he had little contact with his distant counter-part across the river, he was essentially alone in the dark, captive to the dull and lonely vigil of his post, a watch interrupted only by the occasional thunderous passage of a locomotive overhead.

Was it midnight yet?  From his dark, silent watch post beneath the bridge, Jim Keelan peered into the gloom of what promised to be another boring, sleepless night.  He had learned from earlier experiences that night sounds coupled with a healthy imagination often produced an army of marauders, when instead the rustle of leaves and sound of steps proved nothing more surprising than a sudden breeze or a solitary buck.

But what was that?  Footsteps?  Somebody was coming!

The definite sound of boots tramped closer, not just one man but perhaps dozen! Through the darkness and around the abutment of the bridge, figures moved swiftly into view!

 Jim Keelan watched in silence, straining to hear their talk. Suddenly a form mounted the pier just feet from his hiding place and in the next instant struck a match and ignited some pine splinters! Intent to thrust the burning kindling into the scantling and weatherboards of the bridge supports, the saboteur never saw the quick hand with the single-shot pistol that flashed from the shadows.

With his gun just inches from the right breast of the would-be bridge burner, Jim Keelan pulled the trigger. The blast killed the man instantly and extinguished his torch, sending him tumbling down on the startled crowd below.   In the pitch dark, Keelan drew back to the protection of his bunk as cursing men fired wildly in his direction. Frantically, in order to defend himself, he grabbed for his musket, but in the chaos found only his knife.

Dark forms scrambled toward him, some striking and slashing with heavy knives, others shooting as they mounted the wooden beams. Holding his left hand up to protect his head and face against the multiple blows of his closest attackers, Jim Keelan swung his Bowie knife in a wide arc. Again and again he made them feel his steel, a fact made certain by their screams and curses and the wrenched tugs on his blade.

But he was hopelessly outnumbered. Combating so many, this became a fight for life as well as for a bridge, one desperate man against many. And already he knew he was hurt; the salty taste of blood was on his tongue.

They came, shooting, slashing, hacking, and cursing. "At him again," came a voice from the dark. "Let me at him and I can fetch him," swore another.

But for at least one, overconfidence proved fatal. When one of the closest attackers missed Keelan's head and instead buried his knife into a support brace, Jim grabbed the man, pulled him close, and thrust his blade deep into the attacker's side.

As this foe tumbled in death to the ground, another lunged out of the dark. A sudden blow knocked Keelan backward and a second strike sliced his scalp to the bone.  Desperately Keelan grappled with the figure, blinded by his own blood. With a sudden parry; he lost his balance, crashed hard against the weather boarding and nearly fell from his perch. Blocking his opponent's knife with his left hand, he felt a searing pain cut deep through his wrist. Yet in this moment, he made good his own thrust and as he would remember years later, "I poked it into him and he got the steel good."

"Let me up there, boys, I'll fix the damn rebel!" bellowed a voice from the dark. They were coming again!

But Jim Keelan was badly hurt. Frantically he grabbed again for his musket. But there was no time for the gun, especially with his limp, numb left hand. He locked his right hand around the knife and as yet another dark form surged out of the gloom, he wielded his blade with renewed defiance, deeply cutting the man. Staggering, this last assailant fell back and screamed for his men to shoot the rebel down.

Perhaps a dozen shots smashed into the beams and planks around Jim Keelan; three of them found their mark.  Badly hurt by his wounds and cuts, faint with loss of blood, and stunned by the brutal and overwhelming attack, the sentry pulled himself up and finally grabbed his musket from the rack in his bunk. Frantically he fought to shoulder the weapon, to brace in on a beam, but found he "could not lift it."

It made no difference. The bridge-burners had had enough. Lights in the windows of a nearby house warned that the alarm was out. Confederate reinforcements would soon be near.

Keelan, much closer to death than life, tumbled into a bloodied heap from his bunk beneath the bridge and crawled up to the tracks. In his desperate state, believing that he was mortally wounded, he might have inched toward the house with the lights, the Stringfield residence. But with incredible presence of mind--fearful of alarming its two female occupants--the badly wounded private crawled on to William Elmore's place. There, he pulled himself up at the gate and called for help.

When Elmore reached Keelan, he recoiled in horror. "Jim, you've been drunk or asleep and let the train run over you."

But Keelan replied, "No, Billy; they have killed me, but I've saved the bridge."

And so he had! Three men were found shot to death or butchered in the bloody ground below Keelan's post the next morning.  Various accounts at the time stated that another six to eight had been carried away badly cut.

A local physician, Dr. Sneed of Strawberry Plains, worked on Jim Keelan throughout the night to save his life. He found three severe sabre cuts to the scalp, a gunshot wound in the right hand, right arm, and an inoperable bullet in the left hip.

Yet it was Keelan's left hand that proved the greatest loss. Seeing the hand hanging by a mere sliver of flesh, Dr. Sneed knew the hand could not be saved. Grimly, he offered to remove it and neatly stitch the stump.

Jim shook his head and in his matter-of-fact-fashion, replied, "No, no, I can rest a gun against that stump."

In the years after the war, most of the local folks in the Holston Valley-in Bristol, Kingsport, or Knoxville-heard of the one-handed man who had alone repulsed the bridge-burners that November night in the first year of the war. Yet somehow, Jim Keelan slipped into obscurity, scratching a hardscrabble existence from farming, wood cutting, and an assortment of odd jobs.

His story might have been forgotten had it not been for a reporter from the Louisville Courier-Journal who heard of the escapade and sought an interview. There in Bristol, Tennessee, on January 6, 1894, he found his subject and heard first-hand the incredible story.

After the reporter had completed his notes, he urged Jim Keelan to pursue a soldier's pension as offered by the State of Tennessee. Then he closed the interview with one last question.

When asked why he did not run away with his companion when he saw the overwhelming force of the enemy, he modestly replied that he had been put there to defend the bridge, and save it from destruction if he could, and he did not think it right to give it up without at least making some show of fight for it; and when he got into it, there was no way to get out except to fight out, as he put it. He seemed to have very little idea that his deed deserves to rank with the bravest...
James Keelan received his soldier's pension, but on 12 February 1895, just 13 months after his newspaper interview, he passed away and was buried in East Ridge Cemetery, Bristol, Tennessee.

On August 20, 1994, Pvt. James Keelan was posthumously honored with the Confederate Medal of Honor for his stalwart one-man defense of the bridge at Strawberry Plains.  His Confederate Medal of Honor is on permanent public display in the UDC Confederate Museum in Knoxville, Tennessee.

Confederate Medal of Honor Citation

Private James Keelan
Thomas' Legion, CSA

Skirmish at Strawberry Plains, Tennessee
8 November 1861

"With instructions to guard the railroad bridge at Strawberry Plains against all marauders, Private Keelan single-handedly defended his post against an overwhelming enemy force intent on burning the bridge. Armed with but a single shot pistol and a Bowie knife, Private Keelan killed the first sapper at point-blank range. In the desperate hand-to-hand fight that followed, Private Keelan was shot in the left elbow, the right arm, and the right hip, suffered three sabre cuts to the neck and scalp, and had his left hand severed at the wrist. Despite these wounds, Private Keelan slashed to death two of his attackers and seriously wounded an undetermined number of the enemy before they fled the bridge."

Adapted from this outstanding book, Valor in Gray: The Recipients of the Confederate Medal of Honor, by Gregg S. Clemmer.

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. Continued below...

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. 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’.

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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. Continued below...

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: Mountain Rebels: East Tennessee Confederates and the Civil War, 1860-1870 (240 pages) (University of Tennessee Press). Description: In this fine study, Groce points out that the Confederates in East Tennessee suffered more for the ‘Southern Cause’ than did most other southerners. From the first rumblings of secession to the redemption of Tennessee in 1870, Groce introduces his readers to numerous men and women from this region who gave their all for Southern Independence. Continued below...

He also points out that East Tennesseans were divided in their loyalties and that slavery played only a small role. Groce goes too great lengths to expose the vile treatment of the Region’s defeated Confederates during the Reconstruction. Numerous maps, pictures, and tables underscore the research.


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. 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: 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: Courage in Blue and Gray: Tales of Valor from the Civil War. Description: This is a rich sampling of Civil War stories - tales of courage and valor - culled from letters, diaries, newspapers, periodicals, battle reports and pamphlets, which feature some well known and not so well known people who faced danger and uncertainty and showed great courage throughout this difficult time in our nation's history. Continued below…

Collected in this volume is the story of how Walt Whitman was drawn to the Civil War; the tale of George Armstrong Custer's life-long friendship with a far less famous Confederate general; the drama of America's greatest amphibious assault prior to World War II; the contrast between the post-war fate of Confederate Generals James Longstreet and Turner Ashby; the excitement of the Battle of Mobile Bay; the hardships faced by the new Confederate Post Office; the chronicle of a neurosurgeon's pioneering techniques that were later used in World War I; the adventure of a Prussian nobleman who fought with JEB Stuart; and the mystery of how a copy of the Bill of Rights stolen during Sherman's march to the sea was finally recovered by the FBI nearly one hundred and forty years after the Civil War. Here, in vivid detail and with a dramatic flair, are the voices of soldiers and sailors, friends and enemies, doctors, correspondents, generals and politicians, all told in a way that only history from the heart can tell. These tales convey the vitality, the humor, the courage and the valor of a people and their volatile era. These colorful stories offer a glimpse into the personalities, attitudes and events that at once enhance our understanding of the Civil War, a conflict that claimed more than 620,000 lives. About the Author: Ken Kryvoruka is a Washington, D.C. lawyer and a professor at the George Washington University Law School. Although born in New Jersey and a graduate of Rutgers College, he has spent most of his life in Northern Virginia, the major theater of the Civil War. Courage in Blue and Gray is his first collection of essays about the War. He lives in Falls Church, Virginia with his wife, two sons and their cairn terrier, Rudy.

Private James Keelan, Thomas Legion, awarded received honored Confederate Medal of Honor Strawberry Plains Bridge, List of Confederate Medal of Honor Winners, Recipients, Knoxville Tennessee Civil War

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