These mountains are most often associated with peace and beauty, but during the Civil War that was not always the case. Even our beautiful mountain region was not immune to the effects of the War Between the States.
Tennessee was one of the most divided states in the South at the beginning of the Civil War. It was known as strongly Pro-Union until the bombing at Ft. Sumter. That act caused many to side with their Southern neighbors. Most people would be surprised to learn that the general area around Gatlinburg stayed Pro- Union with only about 20% of the populace voting for secession. The reasons for that are many and varied, but a great deal of the reasoning comes from the belief systems of the mountain folk themselves. Mountain people are highly loyal, highly superstitious and, being poor for the most part, were very distrustful of the rich influential people who tried to fight for slave holding and state’s rights. There were very few slave holders in the mountains since most of the landowners were so poor.
The area known as Alum Cave and Fort Harry (both now in the National Park) and Gatlinburg were occupied for about 2 years during the war by Confederate forces under the command of Major William H Thomas. His forces were known as “Thomas’ Legion” and was comprised of 200 white and Cherokee men. They basically were recruited to work the mines and build roads and were told they would not be called upon to fight. Alum Cave was a great source of Sodium Nitrate which was used in making gunpowder and it also had minerals used in the production of Epsom salts which were both much needed commodities during the conflict. Towards the end of the war these forces were needed for fighting and the soldiers felt they had been misled and many deserted at that time.
In December of 1893, Colonel William J Palmer led 150 Union soldiers from Wear’s Valley. They followed a path that includes many names that are familiar to tourists today. Rich Mountain, Laurel Branch, Fighting Creek and into Gatlinburg. A second force of 50 men led by Lt Colonel C. D. Lamborn came up from Pigeon Forge and joined with Palmer’s forces in Gatlinburg. They held camp in a location near where the present day “Riverside Hotel” is located on Hwy 321. On the 20th of December, 1863, these forces clashed with the Confederates in Gatlinburg on “Burg Hill”. A small fight occurred and the Union troops overwhelmed the confederates sending them running toward Roaring Fork and Dudley Creek. Colonel Palmer captured Confederate supplies and left ample stores for the locals who had suffered tremendously from the lack of supplies.
Recently Gatlinburg dedicated 2 markers depicting the role Gatlinburg played in protecting vital resources during this long and bitter conflict. They are located at the Gatlinburg Special Events office on Cherokee Orchard Road off Light #6 (the old Anna Porter Library site).