CHARLESTON, Tenn. — A century and a half ago, some pro-Unionists from Bradley and Hamilton counties sneaked onto the Hiwassee River railroad bridge and burned it.
A re-enactment of the bridge burning will be the centerpiece of a Civil War weekend here in November. The events will take place Nov. 4-5 in Charleston.
The actual bridge burnings happened on the night of Nov. 8, 1861, said Brian Reed, president of the Bradley County Historical and Genealogy Society. The strategy had been approved by President Abraham Lincoln, Reed said, and nine bridges were to be burned to cripple Confederate troop movements north to south through East Tennessee.
Union Army troops were to swoop in from Kentucky behind the burnings. But the Union Army decided to stay in Kentucky instead and some local bridge burners apparently didn’t get the word, Reed said. Still, only four of the nine targeted bridges were burned, he said.
“This time there will definitely be more smoke than fire,” Reed said.
Most of what is known about the raids comes from claims filed later by the Union soldiers for government benefits, Reed said. One account recalls a Confederate guard at the Hiwassee River bridge was asleep when the Union soldiers approached.
“If that guard had woke up, they were going to kill him,” Reed said.
The bridge burners were tracked down and arrested. Some went to prison and some were hanged.
Living history demonstrations by Civil War re-enactors will happen Nov. 4, said Faye Callaway, president of the Charleston/Calhoun/Hiwassee Historical Society. The bridge burning re-enactment will be Nov. 5, but at the Charleston boat dock. Admission is $5.
“We’ve got several hundred students coming,” Callaway said. “On Saturday [Nov. 5] it will be open to the public, and the re-enactors will be here.”
On Nov. 6, the Bradley Historical Society will conduct its annual walk through Fort Hill Cemetery. Each year local actors and history students dress the parts of some of the people buried there. They stand beside the real graves and tell visitors about the people’s lives. This year the cemetery walk will focus on the bridge burners buried there.
Walks are planned for 4 and 7 p.m. Since daylight saving time ends before the walks, the 7 p.m. walk will be done by lantern light.
“If you want to come while it’s still daylight, come to the first walk,” society Vice President Debbie Moore said. “If you like a little more adventure, come when it’s near dark. It’s not a scary, spooky something. It’s a history something, though.”
The cemetery walk also has a $5 admission price.
Randall Higgins covers news in Cleveland, Tenn., for the Times Free Press. He started work with the Chattanooga Times in 1977 and joined the staff of the Chattanooga Times Free Press when the Free Press and Times merged in 1999. Randall has covered Southeast Tennessee, Northwest Georgia and Alabama. He now covers Cleveland and Bradley County and the neighboring region. Randall is a Cleveland native. He has bachelor’s degree from Tennessee Technological University. His awards ...