Daniel Stover burns Zollicoffer Bridge

Daniel was born on 14 November 1826 in Elizabethton, Carter County, Northeast Tennessee, to William Ward Stover and Sarah Murray Drake. In 1852 Daniel bought five tracts of land from his father for $1, with the understanding that his parents will continue to live there for the rest of their lives. Daniel’s dollar also buys him the farmhouse, the barns, and other outbuildings on the land. Luckily, the property is adjacent to the Watauga River just outside the town of Elizabethton. 

In he vicinity of Elizabethton, Northeast Tennessee

Isaac Lincoln is born on 5 March 1750 in Berks County, Pennsylvania, son of John Lincoln and Rebecca Flowers, who migrated to the Watauga area of Northeast Tennessee in 1773 or 1774. Isaac is the great uncle of Abraham Lincoln—yes, the Lincoln who would become president—who was born on 12 February 1809. Isaac married Mary Ward in Carter County on 29 August 1780. They had only one child, a son, and he died.

Indeed the Lincolns welcomed two orphan children among their extended family into their home and raised them: William Ward Stover, son of Mary Ward Lincoln’s sister, and Phoebe Williams, daughter of Mordecai Williams [died 1848] and Elizabeth Stover [died 1851]. Isaac and Mary Lincoln raised William and Phoebe as their own children. Mary Ward Lincoln left the bulk of her estate to Daniel’s father William Ward Stover when she passed in 1834.

I did not expect to find members of the Lincoln family in Northeast Tennessee. It is a distant link, true. But if you think about Daniel’s father and Mary’s nephew, William Ward Stover, and his relationship with Isaac and Mary Ward Lincoln—that makes Daniel related to Mary by blood. Then think about how Daniel’s father-in-law, Andrew Johnson, became Abraham Lincoln’s running mate in 1864 and advanced to the presidency when Booth assassinated Lincoln a few months later—well, my head is spinning right now.

Daniel Stover meets Mary Johnson while she is studying to become a teacher. She is the daughter of Andrew Johnson of nearby Greeneville, who will eventually become president. Daniel and Mary marry on 27 April 1852, and they live on Daniel’s land in Carter County. They have three children, Andrew, Eliza, and Sarah. An article in the Watauga Democrat states, “Their home was the scene of many brilliant parties and many prominent people were entertained in its walls.”

Carter County native W.B. Carter comes up with a plan to hinder Confederate operations by burning four railroad bridges in Northeast Tennessee. He places great trust in Daniel Stover when he assigns him to destroy two of the four railroad bridges. Stover swears to keep the operation secret until the day set for burning the bridges, 8 November 1861. On that day, Stover selects about thirty men to be his assistants and explains their mission.

Stover tells his men that in addition to doing a great service for their country, they will receive a small payment from the Federal government. He assures them that they should not fear any repercussions against them by the enemy. USA General George H. Thomas and his army are waiting on the Tennessee/Kentucky border, ready to move in quickly and protect the bridge burners from Confederate retaliation.

Colonel Daniel Stover

The little town in Sullivan County where the ET&VA railroad bridge crosses the Holston River has had several name changes. It was called ‘Middletown’ when it was platted, but after the East Tennessee and Virginia [ET&VA] railroad was completed in the late 1850s, the town adopted the name ‘Union.’ That’s confusing because of everything else we call ‘Union.’ The residents took back the name ‘Union’ after the Civil War, but it became ‘Bluff City’ on 1 July 1887 and still has that name today. But I’ve decided to use ‘Zollicoffer’ as the town’s name because it was the most used during the war. It comes from CSA General Felix Zollicoffer, a native of Middle Tennessee who was killed at the Battle of Mill Springs on 19 January 1862. Yes, you heard me right, a town in Northeast Tennessee was named after a Confederate general. But this is Sullivan County; they had a strong Confederate following there. I know, the town wasn’t called Zollicoffer when the bridge was actually burned—just bear with me.

Daniel Stover and his men mount their horses and begin the journey to Carter’s Depot, to destroy the bridge over the Watauga River there. Upon their arrival, they discover that a regiment of Confederate cavalry under the command of Capt. David McClellan is guarding the Watauga bridge. Stover quickly abandons that operation; he and his small band of Unionists would be no match for those well-trained soldiers on horseback.

The bridge burners leave immediately for the town of Zollicoffer, where the East Tennessee and Virginia Railroad runs straight through the little village and crosses the Holston River. Only two guards are keeping watch at the Zollicoffer bridge that night, and they are quickly subdued. The men immediately work on setting fire to the bridge, and it is soon ablaze.

Now Daniel has to decide what to do with the guards. They beg pitifully for their lives and promise not to say anything about the men who burned the Zollicoffer bridge. A man named Jenkins is particularly vocal. Keen, a bridge burner, has been Jenkins’s neighbor for some time and does not believe the man would ever betray him. On his word, Jenkins’s life is spared. On his word, they spare Jenkins’s life. However, as soon as he is free, the man reports Keen and others he recognized to Confederate authorities. 

I am giving you several different accounts of the burning of the bridge at Zollicoffer, which will give you a better understanding of these events. Nobody tells the whole truth, and even their version of the truth is filtered through their own life experiences during these traumatic events.

J.G. BURCHFIELD’S VERSION: Burning the Zollicoffer Bridge
Although he is only 15 years old, Burchfield actively participates in burning the bridge across the Holston River at Zollicoffer. He wrote:

We all rode to the [railroad] station, dismounted, and rushed to the bridge. It would be impossible to describe the haste with which each man did his part. A guard was captured at the bridge, and in five minutes from the time we reach it, the flames were driven from the south end to the north end of the bridge. All re-mounted and returned by the way we came.” He slept that night and “felt that death would be visited upon any of the men who participated in that night’s fearful work.

DANIEL ELLIS’S RENDITION: Burning the Zollicoffer Bridge
This is Daniel Ellis’s version of burning the bridge—he calls the town Union. In this excerpt from his book, The Thrilling True Adventures of Daniel Ellis, he makes perhaps the most insightful statement about the bridge burnings. In this short passage, he mentions twice that Federal troops would soon be arriving in Northeast Tennessee—emphasizing how much these men are relying on the Union Army to aid and protect them.

In the month of November 1861, the troubles of the Union people in the upper portion of East Tennessee began in earnest. Orders had been received from the government of the United States to burn all the bridges … It was to be done at night, secretly, and every true-hearted Union man that was advised of this design readily engaged in a combination to assist in this contemplated work of destruction. It was generally believed by all who had been advised of the project, that if this destruction could be accomplished there would then be nothing in the way to prevent the Federal troops from coming to East Tennessee to stay; and consequently, we all joined heart and hand in the business.

Being a citizen of Carter County, I united with the company which had been selected to burn the bridge over the Holston River at the town of Union in Sullivan County, Tennessee. The bridge over the Watauga River at Carter[‘s] Depot, six miles from Elizabethton … escaped destruction, owing to the fact that a company of Rebel soldiers were stationed there.

The bridge at Union not being thus guarded, was destroyed without any trouble as the few guards who were stationed there were suddenly captured, and their lives spared as they avowed most solemnly that they would never reveal the names of any of the party concerned in burning the bridge. But their solemn asseverations [declarations of the truth of a statement] soon proved to be “as false as dicers oaths”* for so soon as they met with their partners in rebellion, they immediately disclosed the name of every man with whom they were acquainted, and guessed remarkably well in regard to those with whom they were not personally acquainted. This was not very hard for them to do, for up to this time there were not very many who had disclaimed their principles, but … openly declared themselves as firm and steadfast friends of the Union.

The injury which was thus done so enraged the Rebels, that the Union citizens, in order to insure their self-protection, assembled together in a body of some several hundred men, and armed themselves as best they could, believing all the time that the Federal forces would soon visit this portion of East Tennessee, and relieve them from the dangers which surrounded them.

Daniel Ellis, The Thrilling True Adventures of Daniel Ellis: 1861~1865, (Independently published (November 5, 2016), 13-20

“as false as dicers oaths”*
(See quotation above.) The most popular game among dice-players was liar’s dice. In this game, each player rolls the die, but only they can see what they’ve rolled. Then they lie about their roll so other players will guess incorrectly and the best liar wins.

9 NOVEMBER 1861: First bridge burner arrested
S. H. Hendrix of Carter’s Depot, who actively participated in burning the Zollicoffer bridge, is the first man arrested, and the first to tell Keen and others that Jenkins has betrayed them. Hendrix writes this letter:

On Saturday morning when the excitement was at its highest I was arrested and carried to the headquarters of Capt. McClellan and ordered placed in the guard house with six guards over me. I was the first man arrested for bridge burning, but proved such a conclusive alibi by Mr. and Mrs. A. M. Brown (my uncle and aunt) and Miss Bettie Bishop, daughter of James Bishop, that I was sent home under guard, and under promise to remain inside the Confederate lines and report to headquarters twice a day.

 Through my anxiety to get with the Union forces so as to inform Lafayette Cameron, Jonas H. Keen and Landon Carter that they had been betrayed and reported by Jenkins and were in great danger, I made my escape on Monday and went up the river through the pines and brush to the bend of the river below Buck’s Rock, crossed the river at what was then called the “Devil’s Stairs,” and made my way to Elizabethton and told Cameron, Carter and Keen what I had learned while a prisoner at Carter’s Depot.”

 General George H. Thomas’s troops do not arrive to protect the people of Northeast Tennessee; the men who risked their lives to burn the bridges are left on their own. Realizing there may be no protection from the Union army, the Unionists are overwhelmed. They create a small regiment and elect Daniel Stover its colonel. Knowing that heavy Confederate reinforcements are on their way, the bridge burners retreat to Elizabethton, near Stover’s home, but they feel very exposed there and move farther south.

In the valleys of the mountains along the Doe River in Carter County there are fertile coves—a cove in the Appalachian mountains is defined as a small valley between two ridges that is closed at one or both ends. Six miles south of Elizabethton, the bridge burners encamp at Doe River Cove—now the town of Hampton. Unionist farmers in the neighborhood furnish the men with cattle, sheep, flour and cornmeal and feed for their horses.

This excerpt about Daniel Stover is from a biography of Eliza McCardle Johnson, his mother-in-law:

On November 8, 1861 Daniel led the burning of the Holston River [bridge]. For this he was hunted down, and targeted for capture by Confederate troops. This forced Daniel and his men to seek refuge in the caves [coves] of the nearby mountains during the subsequent winter months and that is where he contracted tuberculosis. Most of the other men were among the working poor with families unable to provide their own sustenance. Daniel’s wife Mary [daughter of Eliza McCardle Johnson]directed that her farm’s livestock be slaughtered to keep the poor families fed. Not wanting to tip off the Confederates searching for the militia in the mountains, however, often inhibited her from smuggling the food baskets she and her mother prepared for them. Many often starved or froze to death in the mountains, a fact which weighed heavily on Mary.

Miller’s Cove

Stansberry, Brian. Miller’s Cove in the Foothills of the Great Smoky Mountains of East Tennessee [Similar to Doe River Cove]. User:BrineStans, 3 September 2007. commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/User:BrineStans. GNU Free Documentation License, gnu.org/licenses/fdl-1.3.en.html.

Colonel Danville Leadbetter arrives at Johnson City, Northeast Tennessee, with a large Confederate force and moves out on the Taylorsville road towards the Union camp. The Confederates have sent Leadbetter to arrest the bridge burners and rebuild the bridges. Constant rumors about the enemy circulate through Stover’s camp, and the men expect them to appear at any time.

16 NOVEMBER 1861
Realizing the hopelessness of taking on Leadbetter’s force, the bridge burners disband their little army and leave Doe River Cove on 16 November 1861. Many of these men are caught and sent to prison, where they endure all kinds of abuse. Most of Stover’s men hide in the mountains until Daniel Ellis feels it is safe enough to lead them across the mountains to Camp Dick Robinson in southeastern Kentucky, where many enlist in the Union Army. Still others remain in the mountains for almost two years—until September 1863—when General Ambrose Burnside marches his Federal army into Northeast Tennessee and takes Knoxville.

CSA Secretary of War Judah P. Benjamin and Col. Danville Leadbetter correspond about the bridge burners:
19 NOVEMBER 1861
JOHNSON STATION, November 19, 1861.
Honorable J. P. BENJAMIN:
“Yesterday we dispersed the insurgents, 300 strong, at Doe River. Took thirty prisoners in the neighborhood; none very prominent. What shall be done with them! Are those not known as criminals to be released on their oath of allegiance! Those known to have been insurgents I recommend be sent to Richmond and kept there. Please telegraph to Jonesborough, Tenn.”

19 NOVEMBER 1861
RICHMOND, November 19, 1861.
Colonel D. LEADBETTER Jonesborough, Tenn.:
“Send all the prisoners known to be criminals or to have born arms against the Government to Nashville to be tried for high treason. Discharge the others on their taking oath of allegiance. I have ordered a regiment from North Carolina to report to you at Jonesborough.”
J. P. BENJAMIN, Acting Secretary of War.

A month later, Col. Danville Leadbetter, commanding Confederate forces in the Northeast Tennessee area, reports to Adjutant Gen. Samuel Cooper in Richmond:
“Capt. McClellan, of the Tennessee cavalry, stationed by me at Elizabethton, reports that Carter County is becoming very quiet, and that, with the aid of a company of infantry, he will enter Johnson County and disarm the people there. The execution of the bridge burners is producing the happiest effect. This, coupled with great kindness towards the inhabitants generally inclines them to quietude. Insurgents will continue for yet a while in the mountains, but I trust that we have secured the outward obedience of the people.”

All that remains of the Zollicoffer bridge are the brick piers that once held the trestles.

On 27 February 1862 Edwin M. Stanton, Union Secretary of War, offers Daniel Stover a commission as a Colonel in the 4th East Tennessee Infantry USA for three years or the term of the war. The official certificate bears Stanton’s signature but states that the President of the United States appointed him. As part of his commission, the government authorizes Daniel to raise a regiment of volunteers from Tennessee. Many of the men who were with him during the previous months join his unit. Stover accepted the commission on December 3, 1862.

MAY 1863
In May 1863, Stover submitted a letter describing the progress in assembling a regiment of men. He concludes the letter by noting that since May 1862, more recruits have come into camps. The 4th is composed wholly of exiles from East Tennessee, who were brought out of the Confederate lines by officers and pilots sent in for that purpose. On May 29, 1863, Stover’s unit left Louisville and was mustered into service in June. They remained in upper East Tennessee until July when ordered to Nashville to be mustered out. Col. Stover saw no service in the field.

JULY 1863
Daniel’s service records show that he is frequently absent due to tuberculosis. The record states, “his lungs are very debilitated by frequent pneumonia, he is very dehydrated … and he is unfit to resume duty and won’t be for the next 30 days … he contracted a severe cold which affected very seriously his lungs …”

A letter written to Col. T.S. George in Nashville describes Daniel’s condition:
“I desire to call your attention to the case of Colonel Daniel Stover of the 4th East Tennessee Infantry. He has been for several months seriously indisposed – at times confined to his bed – and unable to perform the duties incidental to field service. As you are aware, this Regiment was recently captured at McMinnville and the other officers are now engaged in its reorganization. I therefore respectfully ask that leave of absence may be extended to Col. Stover until he shall be restored to health as to be able to take the command of his Regiment.”

R. Knoffe, Surgeon with the 10th Tennessee Regiment, reports that Daniel suffers from tuberculosis or what was referred to at that time as consumption. Knoffe adds, “he will never be fit for any service.”

1 AUGUST 1864
Service Records for Daniel for the remainder of 1863 and into 1864 show similar reports of illness. On August 1, 1864 Daniel submitted his letter of resignation:

I have the honor to tender my resignation as Colonel of the Fourth Tennessee Infantry. Exposure whilst lying out in the mountains of East Tennessee, to avoid the confederates who were seeking my destination, added to what I have undergone since my entry into the U.S. Service, and has destroyed a once vigorous constitution and rendered me totally unfit for service. I enclose the certificate of Surgeon Knoffe who has been my attending surgeon for many months.

18 DECEMBER 1864
Colonel Daniel Stover dies in Nashville, Tennessee, on December 18, 1864. The army returns his body to Carter County, where his family buries him next to his parents. After the war ends, Daniel’s widow Mary Johnson Stover returns to their farm near Elizabethton and finds the buildings destroyed and the food reserves depleted. She and her three children live with her parents in Nashville.


“Bridge Burning: Names of Men Who Burned the Bridge at Zollicoffer, “History of the 13th Regiment, Tennessee Volunteer Cavalry, USA, Chapter VII, accessed 20 February 2021, tngenweb.org/greene/reghist-13/rh13-c07.htm

“Burning of the Railway Bridges, “War of the Rebellion: Serial 114 Page 0844, The Ohio State University, accessed 20 February 2021, ehistory.osu.edu/books/official-records/114/0844

“Burning of the Railway Bridges, “War of the Rebellion: Serial 114 Page 0845, The Ohio State University, accessed 20 February 2021, ehistory.osu.edu/books/official-records/114/0845

“Daniel Stover: My 2nd Great Granduncle on my Father’s Side Part 1,” accessed 25 April 2021, pattillothornally.blogspot.com/2020/06/daniel-stover-1826-1864-my-2nd-great.html 

“Daniel Stover: My 2nd Great Granduncle on my Father’s Side Part 2,” accessed 25 April 2021, pattillothornally.blogspot.com/2020/06/daniel-stover-1826-1864-part-2.html

“Daniel Stover: My 2nd Great Granduncle on my Father’s Side Part 3,” accessed 25 April 2021, pattillothornally.blogspot.com/2020/06/daniel-stover-1826-1864-part-3.html

“East Tennessee and the Civil War, “Oliver P. Temple, 1899, Chapter XVII, Burning the Bridges, Pages 366—387, accessed 15 February 2021, ia800206.us.archive.org/8/items/cu31924081260972/cu31924081260972.pdf

“First Lady Biography: Eliza Johnson,” National First Ladies’ Library, accessed 25 April 2021, firstladies.org/biographies/firstladies.aspx?biography=18

“Heros and Heroines of Carter and Johnson Counties in the Civil War,” History of the 13th Regiment, Tennessee Volunteer Cavalry, USA, Chapter XXVIII, accessed 20 February 2021, tngenweb.org/greene/reghist-13/rh13-c28.htm

Samuel Scott and Samuel Angel, History of the 13th Regiment, Tennessee Volunteer Cavalry, USA, Alpha Editions, July 1, 2019, tngenweb.org/greene/reghist-13/rh13-c07.htm

“Isaac Lincoln,” Findagrave, accessed 25 April 2021, findagrave.com/memorial/67333130/isaac-lincoln

“John Burchfield (Company G),” 13th Tennessee Volunteer Cavalry USA Wiki, accessed 29 April 2021, 13th-tennessee-volunteer-cavalry-usa.fandom.com/wiki/John_Burchfield_(Company_G)

“Lincoln Family,” An American Family History,      accessed 25 April 2021, anamericanfamilyhistory.com/TennesseeFamilies&Places/Lincoln%20Family.html

Daniel Ellis, The Thrilling True Adventures of Daniel Ellis: 1861~1865, (Independently published (November 5, 2016), 13-20

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