In August 1863, USA Gen. Ambrose Burnside organizes his 15,000 troops in Kentucky and marches into Northeast Tennessee. On 3 September 1863, with most of the Confederate troops absent defending Chattanooga, Burnside easily occupies Knoxville, and is received by cheers from the city’s Unionist civilians. Confederate forces have successfully controlled Northeast Tennessee since 26 July 1861.
Major General Ambrose Burnside USA
Protecting the Railroad
The railroad running through Northeast Tennessee—the East Tennessee & Virginia Railroad—is the chief means of communication, travel, and shipment of supplies. The bridges, telegraph lines, and tracks of the ET&VA have been in possession of the Confederate forces since July 1861—except for a short period in November 1861 when gangs of Unionists burned two of the railroad bridges on the ET&VA.
Col. John W. Foster USA
Soon after his arrival in Northeast Tennessee in September 1863, Gen. Burnside maps out an aggressive campaign to gain control of the ET&VA railroad. Hoping to also rid the area of Rebels, Burnside sends Union troops to push through to the Virginia border, running off the Southern military along the way. This is the initial step in the Union attempt to force CSA Gen. Samuel Jones and his command to leave Northeast Tennessee.
In mid-September, USA Col. John W. Foster marches his force toward the town of Zollicoffer (now Bluff City) in Northeast Tennessee to engage the troops stationed there under CSA Col. James E. Carter. These troops skirmish for several days along [ET&VA] Railroad between Carter’s Depot [now the town of Watauga] and Zollicoffer [present-day Bluff City]—vying for control of the railroad.
September 20, 1863
Confederate Repulse of Union demonstration in force near Zollicoffer
[now Bluff City]
ZOLLICOFFER, September 20.
Gen. S. COOPER:
The enemy made a demonstration in force on us here to-day, and were repulsed. My cavalry followed them to Blountville, 6 miles from here. Their force engaged to-day are believed to have been not less than 2,000, all mounted, and six pieces of artillery. Five other regiments are reported between Jonesborough and Watauga Bridge, but they had not engaged my force at the latter place late this afternoon.
SAMUEL JONES, Maj.-Gen. [CSA]
Zollicoffer is a station on the East Tennessee and Virginia Railroad, 11 miles from Bristol. Jonesborough is 32 miles from Bristol. The distance from Bristol to Knoxville is 130 miles.
21 September 1863
On 21 September 1863 near Shipley’s Ferry crossing on the Watauga River, Union forces receive reinforcements and turn north toward the town of Blountville in Sullivan County.
Unlike most counties in Northeast Tennessee, in June 1861 Sullivan County vote strongly for separation from the Union—1,586 voting for and 627 against. Many call it ‘The Little Confederacy.’ With most of its residents in and around the county seat, Blountville benefits from a major transportation route and a small but educated group of merchants and professionals.
22 September 1863: Battle of Blountville
On the morning of 22 September CSA Col. James E. Carter and his 1st Tennessee Cavalry withdraw from their position on the Watauga River and occupy Blountville.
Battle of Blountville: Confederate Position
[The marker stands] in the former schoolyard of the Masonic Female Institute, where Confederate troops stood as they defended Blountville on September 22, 1863. Col. James E. Carter’s 1st Tennessee Cavalry withdrew that morning of 1863 from the Watauga River to positions … that had already been prepared to block the Union Col. John W. Foster’s cavalry brigade after it crossed the river. Foster took up a position on Cemetery Hill on the western end of town early in the afternoon, and a destructive artillery duel ensued. After four hours of fighting and shelling, the Confederates withdrew to Carter’s Depot on the East Tennessee and Virginia Railroad a few miles east of here as Federals charged through the town near dusk.
Carter lost a cannon and about fifty men captured in battle. The next day, he evacuated the depot, leaving it in Foster’s hands.
White Side Lodge No. 13 constructed the Masonic Female Institute in 1855 “to promote female education.” Jefferson Academy, the boys’ school, which stood near Cemetery Hill, contributed funds for the construction of the girls’ school. The academy was closed about 1900, and the girls’ school then became the Masonic Institute for both girls and boys until 1919.
Blountville, looking east from near the Union position, with the Masonic Female Institute at upper right, ca. 1900 – Courtesy Sullivan Co. Archives
Masonic Female Institute, 1907 – Courtesy Hunt Library
Marker is on Franklin Drive, 0.1 miles east of Tennessee Route 394, Blountville TN 37617.
Erected by Tennessee Civil War Trails.
USA Col. John W. Foster and his 2500 men occupy the south bank of the Watauga River; he leads his cavalry brigade across the river at 9 a.m. After a short fight he drives the outnumbered Rebel pickets in on the main Confederate body and sets up his artillery on Cemetery Hill on the west side of town.
22 SEPTEMBER 1863
Engagement at and burning of Blountville [artillery duel]
BLOUNTSVILLE, TENN., September 22, 1863.
GEN.: We met the enemy at Hall’s Ford, on the Watauga, this morning at 9 o’clock, where our passage over both rivers was disputed by a heavy picket force of cavalry. After considerable skirmishing, the enemy was driven back and near to town, where we found the enemy posted in a chosen position with four pieces of artillery.
It was with difficulty that we could dislodge them after four hours’ fighting. I at last effected it by a charge of the Sixty-fifth Indiana Mounted Infantry, Fifth Indiana Cavalry, and Eighth Tennessee Cavalry, which was made just before dark. Our loss is not heavy, about 6 killed and 14 wounded, mostly of the Sixty-fifth Indiana Volunteers. We captured about 50 prisoners and 1 piece of artillery.
The shells of the enemy set fire to the town, and a great portion of it was consumed. Lieut. Miller, of my staff, will communicate all further desired information of my position and the enemy’s movements, and what is deemed necessary by me.
JOHN W. FOSTER
Battle of Blountville: Federal Guns on Cemetery Hill
This is where Union forces stood as they attacked Blountville on September 22, 1863, during a campaign to control the Virginia and Tennessee Railroad. On the day of the attack, the Confederates occupied Blountville while the Federal forces held the south bank of the Watauga River.
Union Colonel John W. Foster led his cavalry brigade across the river at 9 A.M., drove off pickets from Confederate Col. James E. Carter’s 1st Tennessee Cavalry, and then occupied Cemetery Hill. Foster shelled Carter’s positions in Blountville … then ordered a charge about sundown that pushed Carter’s regiment from the town.
Foster reported that he suffered six killed and fourteen wounded. The next day, he occupied Carter’s Depot as the Confederates withdrew.
The cemetery here was created before 1824 on land that later belonged to the adjacent Blountville Presbyterian Church. Although churches typically had their own burying grounds, the local Presbyterian, Methodist, and Baptist churches, which stood near here, all shared this cemetery.
Blountville from Cemetery Hill — Copyright Anita B. Long (2002)
Blountville Presbyterian Church, which burned during the war. It was rebuilt later (shown with a red roof in the painting). Photograph ca. 1900 Courtesy Sullivan Co. Archives
The marker is located in Blountville Cemetery, Blountville TN 37617V
Battle of Blountville Heritage Trial.
Erected by Tennessee Civil War Trails.
Col. Foster attacks at noon, continuously shelling the town. The two sides fight an artillery duel for four hours. Col. James E. Carter and his men stand defiantly in Foster’s way.
Battle of Blountville: “…the best portion of the town was destroyed”
This is the Sullivan County Courthouse. Its interior was burned during the Union attack on Blountville on September 22, 1863, as Confederate and Federal forces vied for control of the Virginia and Tennessee Railroad, located a few miles east of here. Union Gen. Ambrose E. Burnside needed the railroad for a supply line to Knoxville; the Confederates wanted it for a supply line to Virginia. After several days of skirmishing at Blountville and along the railroad at Carter’s Depot and Zollicoffer, the Confederates occupied Blountville while Federal forces held the south bank of the Watauga River.
Union Col. John W. Foster led his cavalry brigade across the river at 9 A.M. on September 22. Confederate Col. James E. Carter’s 1st Tennessee Cavalry defended Blountville. For four hours in the afternoon, as Foster occupied Cemetery Hill, the two sides fought an artillery duel until Foster ordered a charge that drove Carter’s men out of town.
During the fight, exploding shells set fire to the courthouse and other buildings. Foster reported that “the shells of the enemy set fire to the town, and a great portion of it was consumed.” Mrs. Walter E. Allen, however, later wrote that “a shell from the Federal guns entered the courthouse, setting it on fire, and soon all the best portion of the town was destroyed.”
Sullivan County Courthouse, constructed 1854, ca. 1900 photo Courtesy Hunt Library
Sullivan County commissioners, ca. 1900 Courtesy Hunt Library
Marker is at or near this postal address: 3425 Tennessee 126, Blountville TN 37617.
Erected by Tennessee Civil War Trails.
Sullivan County Court House
The Court House in Blountville is gutted by a fire that breaks out during the shelling. [It is rebuilt in 1866.] Several other dwellings and buildings are destroyed during the Battle of Blountville. Most reports state that Union shells struck the courthouse, burning its interior contents completely and leaving only the brick exterior walls intact.
Heavy cannonading this evening towards Blountville indicate the progress of the battle. The smoke ascending from the Cannon plainly visible at Squire Rhea’s. Engagement ceased about 6 P. M.
About 7 P. M. some dozen horsemen came by flying from the Yankees, reported that we were “cut to pieces” at Blountville,—town burnt up, most of our men captured, &c. &c. &c. Didn’t believe enough of it to prevent me from sleeping soundly …
~ Diary of Edward O. Guerrant
The Cannonball House: Narrowly Missed Destruction
[This marker stands] in front of the Miller-Haynes house, known as the Cannonball House because of structural damage it sustained from Union cannon fire during the Battle of Blountville on September 22, 1863. During the artillery exchanges, Confederate forces were largely behind and east of the house, while Col. John W. Foster’s Union forces were positioned west of here at Blountville Cemetery. Several cannonballs struck the house’s western side.
It was fortunate that artillery fire did not destroy the house completely. Kentucky Confederate Edward O. Guerrant wrote in his diary on September 25: “Twelve dwellings, the Court House, Jail & both hotels were burned by the enemy’s shells. About the half (& better half) of the little town was destroyed.” Foster, in contrast, reported on the day of the battle that “the shells of the enemy set fire to the town, and a great portion of it was consumed.”
In 1849, Elbert S. Miller had purchased the house and lot from J. Irwin’s heirs; Miller later sold the home to Matthew T. Haynes, who lived there during the Civil War with his wife Kate Snapp Haynes and other members of the Snapp family. Haynes held the Confederate office of state receiver and was responsible for acquiring the confiscated property of Union sympathizers. Haynes’s brother, Landon Carter Haynes, was one of the region’s most vocal Confederates and represented Tennessee at the Confederate Senate in Richmond.
These photographs show shell damage to exterior clapboard in the rear of the house, now protected by plexiglass, and to an interior door.
Erected by Tennessee Civil War Trails.
The Cannonball House with its marker in the foreground.
During the Battle of Blountville, this house stood between the lines as fighting swirled around it, but it survived.
Mr. Wm James of Blountville came by with his family & plunder this evening – all in one little two horse wagon. His house was burned & he saved only his wife & children from the flames. Enough for happiness if he be strong and faithful. Twelve dwellings, the Court House, Jail & both hotels were burned by the enemy’s shells. About the half (& better half) of the little town was destroyed. Mr. James says we had about 1000 troops there & the Enemy 5000 (five to one,) but that the best of the fight was with us. It was principally an artillery duel. After fighting for several hours & until it was almost night, Col. Carter’s (comd’g) ammunition was exhausted & he withdrew in good order.
~ Diary of Edward O. Guerrant,
September 22, 1863
Old Deery Inn: Refuge from the Storm
In September 1863, Confederate Gen. Samuel Jones’s command and Union Gen. Ambrose E. Burnside’s forces contested control of the [Virginia and Tennessee] East Tennessee and Virginia Railroad a few miles east. On September 22, Union Col. John W. Foster’s brigade engaged the forces of Confederate Col. James E. Carter at Blountville.
When the firing began, the women and children gathered the sick and elderly and sought refuge in the cellars of the most solid buildings; the St. John residence and the Old Deery Inn.
“In the thick of the fight and more dangerously exposed than the soldiers of either side were the fleeing women,” historian Oliver Taylor wrote in 1909. “In the confusion of such a hasty departure distracted mothers became separated from their children; cavalrymen dashed across their path, while bullets and bombs whistled above them. They went through Brown’s meadow and finally found a safe retreat beyond the hills.” Exploding shells set much of the town on fire.
William Deery constructed this trading post and tavern, later known as the Old Derry Inn, early in the 1800s. As Deery prospered, he added to the building, including a three-story hewn stone structure in the rear. After his death about 1845, his widow lived here until the Cate family purchased it after the Civil War.
Although Deery’s children had left Sullivan County years before, they did not escape the war’s effects. Eldest daughter Martha married Col. William Churchwell, who died at Cumberland Gap in 1862. Seraphina, the youngest daughter, married Col. Randal McGavock, a colonel in the 10th Tennessee Infantry Regiment (CSA) who was killed at the Battle of Raymond.
Old Deery Inn, 1927 — Courtesy Hunt Library
The dining room in the stone section of the inn where town residents took refuge during the Battle of Blountville.
Battle of Blountville / Heritage Trail map.
Erected by Tennessee Civil War Trails.
Present-day Old Deery Inn in Blountville, Northeast Tennessee
Many women and children who lived in the nearby fled to the historic Deery Inn for safety during the Battle of Blountville.
23 SEPTEMBER 1863
Major-General Burnside’s situation report to President Abraham Lincoln
CARTER’S STATION, TENN., September 23, 1863.
His Excellency A. LINCOLN, President United States:
Your dispatch of the 21st is received, and the order shall be obeyed at once. Every available man shall be concentrated at the point you direct, and with as little delay as possible. We hold this road effectually to this point, and have driven the enemy within a few miles of Virginia and probably into Virginia. I am now waiting for reports from the front so that I can definitely report to you the position of our advance.
One of our cavalry brigades had a sharp fight yesterday at Blountville, in which the enemy were beaten and dispersed. I will telegraph the particulars this evening or to-morrow. The main body of the troops are now moving in the direction your order indicates. The bridge at this place is burned, and I suppose the one over the Holston at Union Station [Zollicoffer] is also burned. That is the extreme point that I was ordered by Gen. Halleck to hold.
I leave for Knoxville very soon, and will try to telegraph you from there early tomorrow morning. Nearly 40 miles of the distance has to be made on horseback, owing to the burning of some small bridges between Greeneville and Jonesborough, which I hope to have repaired very soon. I shall leave force enough in this neighborhood to, in all probability, hold this section until the citizens can be armed. The entire country is Union up to the line of the Watauga River. Sevier County is entirely rebellious. …
Our cavalry, under Gen. [James M.] Shackelford, has been continually in contact with the enemy, driving them all the time. Col. Carter’s brigade has been moving along line of railroad, and Col. Foster has been on the flank. He whipped the enemy very handsomely, both at Blountville and Bristol. We have thus far captured but four pieces of artillery and but few prisoners. I hope direct telegraph communication will be opened with you to-morrow.
A. E. BURNSIDE, Maj.-Gen., Comdg.
After delaying the Union advance for more than four hours, Col. Carter and his Confederates withdraw to Carter’s Depot on the ET&VA Railroad, a few miles away. Col. Foster loses 27 Union soldiers during the battle. Carter suffers 165 casualties, fifty of his men are taken prisoner, and he loses one artillery piece. The next day, he evacuates the depot, leaving it in Foster’s hands. Though it is considered a minor battle in the overall history of the American Civil War, the battle left a permanent mark on the town and its people.
24 September 1863
Union troops drag out the occupation of Blountville for two days. On 24 September 1863, Union forces move on toward Zollicoffer and the reinforced Confederates who await them. The Confederates attack the advancing Union troops from Hamilton Hill. After several hours of fighting, the Yankees are driven back to Blountville. After a few hours, they head out through Carter’s Depot on their way back to Knoxville.
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