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Civil War Comes to the Smokies

The Civil War was one of the most harrowing times in Gatlinburg history and Pigeon Forge history. The Smoky Mountain cities were largely pro-Union, but Tennessee had elected to secede from the United States and join the Confederacy in 1861.

While Gatlinburg tried to remain neutral when war broke out, the city was eventually occupied by Confederate troops who wanted to mine saltpeter (a key ingredient in gunpowder) from nearby Alum Cave. The Confederate Army was forced out of Gatlinburg in 1863 after the Battle of Burg Hill. Over in Pigeon Forge, The Old Mill was used as a makeshift hospital and a quasi-factory for the production of Union Army uniforms.

The Old mill

Unlike many who were in the thick of political party lines at the time, the Smoky Mountain communities had little to gain from throwing their allegiances either way. These downtrodden farmers were concerned about how war would affect their livelihoods and communities, not to mention the fact that they would most likely be the ones to lay down their lives for what some called a rich man’s war but a poor man’s fight.

Without slaves, wealth or even glory at stake, many of these mountain families preferred to keep out of the conflict. When the question of secession came to a vote, only 20 percent of residents in Tennessee Smoky Mountain counties voted “aye,” while around 46 percent of the Smoky Mountain counties in North Carolina were in favor of seceding. Regardless of any one town’s wishes, both states seceded in May, 1861.

Some pro-Union demonstrations erupted in response to this move, including a violent attack on Gatlinburg’s namesake resident Radford Gatlin, but the efforts were to no avail. Tennessee had already entered the war, bringing the Smoky Mountain citizens with them.

One Smoky Mountains site that fell under Confederate interests was known as Alum Cave. A rich source of saltpeter, the cave could provide ample source minerals to create much-needed gunpowder as well as Epsom salts. A Major William H. Thomas along with a legion of local guerrillas, Cherokees and Confederate soldiers held the caves and conscripted local forces to help him build roads and mine the valuable saltpeter. Provisions were acquired from Jefferson City to sustain the forces during this time.

In order to unroot the Confederates from Alum Cave near Pigeon Forge, two companies of Union soldiers were dispatched in December of 1863. 150 Union soldiers led by Colonel William J. Palmer of the 15th Pennsylvania Cavalry marched through the Smoky Mountains and down Fighting Creek to the edge of Gatlinburg. A skirmish broke out on Burg Hill, and the outnumbered Confederate forces under Major Thomas quickly retreated along Dudley Creek. Few casualties were had, and no deaths, according to record.

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