December 11th, 2012 Headsman
Christopher Alexander (“Alex”) Haun was perhaps the finest potter in antebellum Tennessee. He never had the chance to become the finest in post-bellum Tennessee because he was hanged in Knoxville this date in 1861 as an incendiarist.
While Tennessee seceded with the Confederacy in the U.S. Civil War, East Tennessee was a Union stronghold. This was the native soil of pro-Union “War Democrat” (and future U.S. President) Andrew Johnson.
Soon after the war began, Unionist east Tennesseans started slipping over the border to northern-controlled Kentucky, where they hatched a plot to burn railroad bridges throughout East Tennessee.
Hand of Bridge
Besides being good fun, the conspiracy promised an effectual blow against the Confederacy inasmuch as the East Tennessee & Virginia and East Tennessee & Georgia lines constituted the South’s most reliable rail and telegraph link between its capital at Richmond, Va., and the Deep South. This plan’s author, Rev. William Carter, went to Washington and had his scheme personally approved by President Abraham Lincoln, Secretary of State William Seward, and Gen. George McClellan.
The rest of the plan called for the Union army to invade East Tennessee on the heels of the bridge-burnings and occupy the area. Just a few months before, McClellan’s troops had similarly occupied the pro-Union western mountains of secessionist Virginia, which is why there’s a state of West Virginia today.
But there’s no state of East Tennessee, is there?
The bridge-burning conspiracy would go down as one of the great, failed guerrilla operations of the war.
Burning Your Bridges
With authorization straight from the top, the conspirators got going. A Captain David Fry** was tasked with targeting the Lick Creek bridge, located in northeastern Tennessee† near the settlement of Pottertown, so named for the ceramics craftsmen attracted to the area’s excellent clay.
After dark fell on Nov. 8, 1861, the local Union sympathizers recruited to the plot — Christopher Haun among them — gathered at the house of a local landowner, Jacob Harmon, Jr. There they took a dramatic lantern-lit oath on the Union flag, each to “do what was ordered of him that night and to never disclose what he had done.”
Then a party of some 40 to 60 mounted raiders stole out for the Lick Creek bridge two miles distant.
Around 2 a.m., they overpowered the small Confederate sentry detail assigned to Lick Creek, and forced the sentries to watch as they fired the bridge. That same night, several other parties elsewhere along the line all the way down to Alabama also burned, or tried to burn railroad bridges and cut telegraph lines.
These “deep-laid schemes … by an organization of Lincolnite traitors” (as the Knoxville Register accounted matters) brought a predictably furious Confederate response — and the audacious saboteurs would discover only after the fact that the planned East Tennessee invasion had been aborted by William T. Sherman without alerting his pyrotechnic fifth-column allies.
A Bridge Too Far
Within three days of the “treason,” East Tennessee had been clapped under martial law. A number of bridge-burners were also arrested (although many others escaped), and here the Lick Creek men would pay dearly for their recklessly humane decision to release their captured sentries. (pdf) As a result, several of them were captured in the days following their attack.
I now proceed to give you the desired instruction in relation to the prisoners of war taken by you among the traitors of East Tennessee.
First. All such as can be identified in having been engaged in bridge-burning are to be tried summarily by drum-head court-martial, and, if found guilty, executed on the spot by hanging. It would be well to leave their bodies hanging in the vicinity of the burned bridges. [emphasis added]
Second. All such as have not been so engaged are to be treated as prisoners of war, and sent with an armed guard to Tuscaloosa, Alabama, there to be kept imprisoned at the depot selected by the Government for prisoners of war.
Two men, William Hinshaw (often called “Hensie” in the period’s reports) and Henry Fry, were condemned by such a tribunal on Nov. 30 and immediately hanged — their bodies left exposed at the Greeneville Station for a day or more, until the stench became overpowering.
The court-martial has sentenced A.C. Haun [sic], bridgeburner, to be hung. Sentence approved. Ordered To be executed at 12 o’clock tomorrow. Requires the approval of the President. Please telegraph.
Benjamin replied within hours, telling Carroll to make with the noosing.
Execute the sentence of your court-martial on the bridge-burners. The law does not require any approval by the President, but he entirely approves my order to hang every bridge-burner you can catch and convict.
Haun takes leave of his pregnant wife and four children before execution. Illustration from this 1862 propaganda volume by the Unionist publisher of the Knoxville Whig.
Six days after Haun hanged at Knoxville, the landowner who hosted the conspirators, Jacob Harmon, also went to the gallows, along with his son Henry. It seems someone in the incendiary party had carelessly dropped the name “Harmon” in conversation while the bridge sentries were in custody within earshot.
(Several others only narrowly avoided execution, or lynching, for the conspiracy. Given hundreds of other arrests of even merely suspect East Tennesseans and the very nasty feelings engendered by the Unionists’ attempt, it’s something of a wonder that only five were executed.)
Water Under the Bridge
Today, the Harmons are buried at Pottertown Harmon Historic Cemetery in rural Green County, Tenn., where a hexagonal monument commemorates all five executees (with an extra panel for summary text). There’s an annual ceremony there to commemorate the East Tennessee bridge burners.
All the hanged incendiarists were posthumously enrolled in Company F of the 2nd Tennessee by Congress in 1862, a gesture of appreciation which also conferred on their heirs the right to survivors’ benefits.
In addition to the resources linked here, see Donahue Bible’s “Shattered like earthen vessels,” Civil War Times, Dec. 1997.
**The intrepid Captain Fry would escape immediate capture, gather a few hundred Unionists as a guerrilla band, and eventually get caught, sent to Georgia, and condemned to death as a spy. Fry escaped by breaking out on the eve of his Oct. 15 hanging, in the company of some of the men arrested for the Great Locomotive Chase. He rejoined Union forces, was captured again, and survived the war, finally dying in 1872 … when he was hit by a train.
† The other bridges successfully torched by the conspiracy included two over the Chickamauga in southeastern Tennessee, and the theme of Civil War bridge-burning in that sector can’t help but suggest Ambrose Bierce’s “Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge”. (The other details are nothing alike, so Bierce’s story clearly isn’t about this incident.)
‡ The railroad bridge at Lick Creek was back in action by this time.
On this day..
- 1981: El Mozote Massacre - 2016
- 1812: John Rickey but not Benjamin Jackson - 2015
- 1895: Harry Hayward, the Minneapolis Svengali - 2014
- 1876: Basilio Bondietto - 2013
- 1970: Akira Nishiguchi, Vengeance Is Mine inspiration - 2011
- 2006: Two Egyptians who just wanted to watch the game - 2010
- 1831: Gen. Jose Maria Torrijos y Uriarte and his liberal followers - 2009
- 1917: Thirteen black soldiers of the 24th U.S. Infantry Regiment - 2008
- 1962: Arthur Lucas and Ronald Turpin - 2007
Tags: 1860s, 1861, abraham lincoln, alex haun, andrew johnson, christopher haun, december 11, jefferson davis, judah benjamin, knoxville, pottery, sabotage, saboteurs, william carroll, william sherman