Monthly Archives: July 2010

Check out this Civil War crater

…although it’s probably not the one you’re thinking of.   

This crater isn’t at Petersburg.  It’s tucked away on the side of a mountain at Cumberland Gap National Historical Park, at the junction of Tennessee, Virginia, and Kentucky.  I had to hike over and snap a photo of it for a slide presentation last week, and I thought you folks might be interested in seeing it and hearing the back story.  

Most of us associate Cumberland Gap with the frontier era, but the Gap was an important location in the Civil War, too.  It stood at the junction of two Confederate states and a border state, a potential avenue of advance either from Tennessee into Kentucky or vice-versa.  It also offered access to railroads that connected Virginia with the western part of the Confederacy.  

Confederates seized it early in the war to secure East Tennessee and a route northward into Kentucky, where Unionist refugees were assembling in camps, waiting for an opportunity to return through the Gap and drive the Confederates out of their homeland.  One of those Unionists was Samuel P. Carter, member of a prominent early Tennessee family and now commander of a Union brigade.   

In 1862 Carter’s brigade was placed under the command of George W. Morgan as part of the Army of the Ohio’s Seventh Division, and that summer these men marched southward for the long-awaited Union attack on the Gap.  Rather than assaulting the Confederates head-on from the north, Morgan divided his force in two and crossed the mountains at two gaps to the west, approaching Cumberland Gap from the south.  The Confederates evacuated before Morgan arrived, and his troops occupied the Gap on June 18 without the loss of a single man.  

They weren’t there for long.  When the Confederates advanced northward into Kentucky under Braxton Bragg and Edmund Kirby Smith, Morgan found himself cut off.  With dwindling supplies and a Rebel force hovering outside his position, Morgan mined the mountain and then evacuated the Gap almost exactly three months after taking it, leading his men on a harrowing retreat north to the Ohio River through the only avenue of escape open to him.  (One of the Union officers present described the capture, occupation, and retreat from the Gap in this letter sent to the New York Times.) 

Morgan left a small group of men behind to set fire to the buildings and light fuses to the mines and powder stores.  They did so in the wee hours of the morning of September 18.  When the powder in the commissary near the base of Tri-State Peak went off, it shook the mountain and sent debris hurtling into the air, an event depicted in this wartime engraving of Morgan’s troops marching northward as explosions tear through the night sky behind them:  

From the New York Public Library (Image ID 812927)

The Confederates had to wait a full eighteen hours for the detonations to subside before they could occupy the Union positions.  The Rebels maintained control of the Gap for a year after Morgan’s retreat, until Union troops under Ambrose Burnside re-captured it in September 1863.  It remained in Union hands for the remainder of the war. 

The commissary explosion left a gaping hole in the side of Tri-State Peak.  You can access it via a path that joins the Wilderness Road trail near the “Saddle of the Gap,” the point where the road actually passes through the opening in the mountain.  Here’s what it looks like:  


There’s a wayside marker at the site with a description of the Union evacuation.  Have a look the next time you’re in the park, but wear good walking shoes.  The trail is a little rough and steep in places.

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Filed under Civil War, Museums and Historic Sites, Tennessee History

Tennessee’s history from A to A-and-a-half

One of The History Channel‘s few history-related shows is “The States.”  Actually, it’s not solely about history, but each segment does include some historical information, which is more than you can say about “Ice Road Truckers.”

Yesterday I caught the segment on my home state of Tennessee.  I have many pet peeves when it comes to popularized Tennessee history, and this program managed to hit several of them within the span of a few minutes.

For one thing, in her opening commentary, Memphis native Cybill Shepherd mispronounced “Appalachia.”  It’s “App-uh-LATCH-uh,” ladies and gents, not “App-uh-LAY-shuh.”  The indigenous pronunciation of a place is always the correct one, and no native to the region is going to lengthen the third “a” or soften the “ch.”  Doing so invariably reveals the speaker to be a flatlander.  There’s nothing necessarily wrong with being a non-Appalachian—nobody’s perfect—but neither is it something one should be eager to advertise.

On the other hand, Cybill correctly pointed out that Tennessee is “very long.”  I don’t think anybody would argue with her on that one.

More seriously, the show’s view of Tennessee’s history was pretty myopic.  I know that you can’t offer a thorough overview of two centuries in just ten minutes, but the selections seemed a little odd to me.

There was, for instance, a biographical examination of Jack Daniel.  I think we can all admire Daniel’s entrepreneurial spirit, and I’m sure his product is exceptional.  (Being a teetotaler, I haven’t tried it myself.)  Still, for a state that’s produced three presidents and countless military commanders, this is setting the bar a bit low, isn’t it?

One of the on-air commentators stressed—I kid you not—that Jack Daniel was a real person, “not like Betty Crocker or the Stay Puft Marshmallow Man.”  I immediately had this mental image of a Godzilla-sized nineteenth-century distillery operator rampaging through the streets of New York.

The inevitable main topic was the history of music, which I found annoying but completely unsurprising.  People seem incapable of thinking about any other aspect of Tennessee history; Elvis and the Grand Ole Opry are apparently the Alpha and Omega of the Volunteer State’s past.  They loom over it like (to use a ready analogy) the Stay Puft Marshmallow Man.

The next time a cashier gives you a Tennessee state quarter, take a look at the reverse side.  Illinois has Lincoln, Massachusetts has a Patriot militiaman, Missouri has Lewis and Clark, New Jersey has Washington crossing the Delaware, North Carolina has the Wright brothers.  What does our quarter have?

From Wikimedia Commons

A guitar, a fiddle, and a trumpet.  We’re the pep band of the American union.

The exclusive focus on Nashville during the music segment was also irritating.  If we’ve got to concentrate on country music history to the exclusion of all else, then let’s at least get something straight.  The birthplace of country music was the state’s mountainous east, not Nashville.  Bristol is where the Victor Talking Machine Company’s 1927 recording sessions launched the careers of America’s first country superstars.  Johnny Cash himself called it “the single most important event in the history of country music.”

On the bright side, the Tennessee segment did include Andrew Jackson and Davy Crockett.  I couldn’t help but wonder why these guys didn’t make their way onto the state quarter.  You could name any number of other figures or events from Tennessee’s past that left their mark: Sevier, Robertson, King’s Mountain, New Orleans, Forrest, Shiloh, Sgt. York, the ratification of the Nineteenth Amendment.  Tennessee history doesn’t start at the Ryman and end at Graceland.

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Filed under Appalachian History, History and Memory, Tennessee History