The South’s Horatius

On Feb. 27, 1894, an elderly feeble looking gentleman with one hand walked into the offices of Dr. W. T. Delaney in Bristol. The man seemed to loathe his presence in the office, as he was never one to take charity. The Tennessee legislature, however, had funded a pension for former Confederate soldiers who had served the state during the war and, with age limiting the gentleman’s chance for employment, he had no other choice. His wife had died and he was the sole guardian of three granddaughters. Then, as now, there were many "arm-chair" warriors who claimed to be veterans, which led to the establishment of an interview process to ensure the men were who they said and no one took advantage of the meager fund. Accompanying the aged applicant, however, were two solid witnesses in the eyes of the doctor. One was a powerful man in state government and future governor Alfred Taylor. The other was also man of prominence in the region named C.C. Frasier. A couple of weeks earlier a reporter from the Louisville Courier-Journal in Kentucky, who had heard of the former Confederate’s story, tracked him down, did an interview, and encouraged the impoverished man to seek a Confederate pension from Tennessee.
When Dr. W.T. Delaney pulled out the state pension forms and began officially questioning the individual, he uncovered an incredible story that had been the stuff of campfire legends since the war had ended – a story that would forever earn the man in front of him a place in American military history.

James Keelan was born in 1818 in Pittsylvania County, Va. His parents were descended from Scots-Irish immigrants and sustained themselves through farming the rich lands of the region. They eventually migrated into upper East Tennessee and James Keelan helped his family on the farm never receiving any formal education. Like most boys in Tennessee, he grew up hunting and fishing in the region and was regarded as one of the best at it. He was also a first-rate farm hand and scratched out an existence in East Tennessee.
When the War Between the States began and Tennessee voted to secede from the Union, 43-year-old Keelan enlisted in the Will Thomas Legion as a Private. The Will Thomas Legion was unique in that it was made up of mostly Cherokee and mountaineers. They were regarded as one of the Confederacy’s better units and fought hard in the Virginia campaigns before being called back to East Tennessee. The Confederacy knew that they had to occupy valuable roads and passes such as Cumberland Gap.
The Confederate occupation of the region, however, led to pro-Union William B. Carter coming up with a plan he thought would give the region back to the Federals. His plan was for the Union to mass a large body of soldiers on the Tennessee-Kentucky border ready to invade East Tennessee. While they were gathering, he and a handful of men would slip into Confederate-held East Tennessee and start disrupting communications and burning nine major railway bridges in the region. From Bridgeport to Bristol, Carter planned to down the bridges along with the telegraph lines while the Union Army, capitalizing on the confusion, swept through Cumberland Gap and retook the region from the Confederacy. Carter would then rally pro-Union East Tennesseans, who would join the invading force.
The plan was presented to President Lincoln, who approved it and a date of Nov. 8, 1861 was selected by Union Generals William Sherman and George Thomas, who would actually lead the invasion. While Thomas was a big believer in Carter’s plan, Sherman didn’t like it and thought too much could go wrong. On Oct. 19, Carter left the Federal camp to enter East Tennessee and start recruiting saboteurs for the task. The Confederates were aware that something was going on near Cumberland Gap and intelligence reports were disconcerting. While Thomas’ men were still gathering, Confederate General Felix Zollicoffer unexpectedly advanced through Cumberland Gap towards London, KY with a small army. The move forced Thomas to start the campaign early, which resulted in a vicious battle near Wild Cat that forced the Confederacy to withdraw. The surprising military action by Zollicoffer shook up Sherman and forced him to order Thomas to halt his invasion into East Tennessee. It was too late to stop Carter and his saboteurs, who had already recruited men for the mission.
As expected, the saboteurs successfully struck as planned on Nov. 8. The Unionists destroyed five railroad bridges – two on the East Tennessee and Virginia road, one on the East Tennessee and Georgia road, and two on the Western Atlantic road. One of the main targets left for Carter’s men was the Strawberry Plains Bridge, which spanned the Holston River above Knoxville and was being guarded by the Will Thomas Legion. On guard that night was 43-year-old Private James Keelan, who was doing his best to fight the November chill the wind carried off of the river. Around 10 p.m., he heard a rider approaching and assumed his post to qualify the man. Keelan quickly identified him as local Private William W. Stringfield, who was on leave from the Confederacy’s First Tennessee Cavalry. Stringfield stopped for a moment and talked to Keelan. The two men exchanged pleasantries and he rode on to his home where he longed for a warm fire and his own bed.
Keelan watched him go and climbed down to his post below the railroad bridge. The position was stationed behind some heavy timbers, which allowed him to see what was coming without being see. He nestled back against the wall and prepared for a long, sleepless night. Being an experienced woodsmen, his mind knew which sounds to throw away and which were unusual to the night. The only unusual sound he expected this evening, as most others since he had guarded the bridge, was the deafening noise of a train passing overhead. Keelan was trying to warm himself when he heard a click of a horseshoe against stone. He stopped what he was doing and strained his ears for the sound in the darkness. He knew that the pitch-black night would amplify not only sounds, but his imagination and he stayed still to see if his mind was trying to play tricks on him. Through the darkness, Keelan made out the sound of approaching boot steps. He listened and surmised it was a group of men and, judging by the sound of the approaching steps, figured their number was close to a dozen.
Unknown to the solitary sentry, William C. Pickens and nine other men had been recruited from Sevier County by Carter to burn the Strawberry Plains Bridge. They crept along slowly towards the railroad bridge. If they were caught, they knew what would happen. Bridge-burners were hated on both sides of the war and those caught, especially in civilian clothes,would be hanged with little questions asked. They had heard the Will Thomas Legion was guarding the structure, but had not seen anyone on or near it and figured they had the element of surprise. While seven men stood as lookouts, Pickens and another man named Montgomery started making their way to its most vulnerable point.
Keelan felt the first knots of fear, but remained where he was listening and peering into the darkness to try and make out the approaching men. His hand felt around the bunk for his rifle, but could not locate it. Instead, it fell upon his single-shot pistol and Keelan quietly eased the hammer back and waited. Pickens climbed up the pier and struck a match lighting pine splinters. He stretched forward to thrust them into the weatherboards on the bridge to ignite the dried wood that would start the destructive fire. As he reached to place it, Keelan aimed his pistol inches away from his chest and fired. Pickens, who was killed instantly, fell from his position onto the men below carrying the burning tinder with him. The other sentry posted on the far side was never heard from and bolted from his post because of the superior numbers. The private didn’t have time to think about it. He was used to relying on himself and, now that he had their attention, the private knew it was time to act.
Keelan fell back into his bunk as shots were fired at him from the cursing men. He again groped in the darkness for his rifle, but couldn’t find it. His hand found his Bowie knife and, with it and the butt of his spent pistol, Keelan moved away from his bunk and towards the attacking men, who were climbing the bridge and firing at him.
As the men made his position, Keelan came under heavy attack. They slashed out at him with sabers and fired in his direction. As they moved on him, Keelan held up his left hand to fend off the blows and swung his knife in a wide arch cutting anything that was near him. It was brutal hand-to-hand combat and the blows were starting to have their effect on Keelan. One of the men suddenly swung a saber at his head. Keelan saw it coming, ducked, and heard the blade cut deep into the timber. It was all the advantage he needed. Keelan caught the man off balance and pulled him deep onto his blade. As he tossed the man from the bridge and saw the others coming at him, Keelan knew he was in a fight for his life and viciously attacked the oncoming force. Twice he drove them back and twice they moved again cursing him– angered that one man could be so hard to kill. Those knocked from the bridge regained their rifles and shouted at the remaining men to back off so they could shoot "the damned rebel". Shots smashed into the timbers above his head and three tore into Keelan’s flesh. Now badly hurt and tasting blood, Keelan leapt at his oncoming attackers berserk with fury and swinging his knife. It found home on two attackers who yelped in pain and fell from the bridge.
The men suddenly realized that lights were burning at the Stringfield residence and knew it wouldn’t be long before Confederate reinforcements arrived. They tried to gather those wounded they could and fled into the darkness.
Keelan lay alone on the bridge bleeding badly and feeling weakness starting to overtake him. He also saw the lights at the nearby house and started dragging himself towards it to give what he thought would be his last report on his post. The years of hard labor and farming blessed him with a strong constitution and he managed to stay conscious.
The Tennessean drug himself inch by inch off of the bridge and towards the lights. He kept an incredible presence of mind and, thinking that he was dying, didn’t stop at the Stringfield residence for fear of alarming the women inside. Instead, he pulled himself past it to the Elmore residence. He found the gate and leaned against it where he started calling for help from inside.
When William Elmore, unaware of what had just occurred, reached Keelan, he couldn’t believe he was still alive and thought the worst.
"Jim," said Elmore, "you’ve been drunk or asleep and let the train run over you."
"No Billy," came Keelan’s reply. "They have killed me, but I saved the bridge."
Elmore and Stringfield awakened Dr. Sneed, who was the closest doctor to come and tend the Keelan’s wounds. The dedicated physician worked throughout the night to save the Confederate. The doctor treated three severe saber cuts to Keelan’s scalp, a gunshot wound in the right hand, right arm, and an inoperable bullet in the left hip. Keelan’s left hand, however, was the worst. The doctor saw it was only hanging by a sliver of flesh and told him it was lost. He offered to remove it and stitch the stump. Keelan told him to just stitch the wound as he could rest his rifle against the stump.
The next morning Confederate investigators went to the scene of the gruesome fight. There they found the bodies of three men. One was shot and two others slashed to death. From what they could tell from the evidence, blood, and horse hooves, another six or seven had gotten away badly cut and injured.
After Keelan’s wounds healed, he rejoined the Will Thomas Legion and, with one hand, fought to the end of the War Between the States being discharged in Bristol, Tenn. For the next thirty years, Keelan scratched out an existence working odd jobs, cutting wood, and farming while he was able. The 76-year-old man had reached a point where he could no longer perform the tasks where he could make a living and now was forced to take what he considered "charity" from the state.
Dr. W. T. Delaney continued filling out the form as the old man recanted the battle where he had sustained his wounds all those years ago. He asked the final questions on the form to Keelan:
"How did you get out of the Army?"
"I was discharged," replied Keelan.
"Did you take the oath of allegiance to the United States Government?"
"If so, when and under what circumstances?"
"A short time after the war closed at Bristol, Tenn.,under compulsion," was Keelan’s reply.
Delaney then asked Alfred Taylor and C.C. Frasier if they could verify this account and they both nodded yes. The doctor pushed the form across the desk where Keelan made his "X" under the date of the petition.
The next week a Bristol Law Court Deputy Clerk named Brewer accepted the application and pulled out another form for Taylor and Frasier to sign onto verifying Keelan’s service in the Confederate Army. At the bottom of the form the Deputy Clerk, who had known Keelan throughout his life, wrote:
"He was a brave and good soldier and the act performed by him, at the time he received the wound mentioned in his deposition, was one of the most heroic acts performed by any one during the late civil war..."
Keelan’s application was approved and the small pension kept him from suffering the disgrace of having to enter the poorhouse. On Feb. 12, 1895, a year after his remarkable story had been made public, James Keelan passed away in Bristol. Those who knew him lay their beloved friend and hero in Bristol’s East Ridge Cemetery. On the headstone erected at his grave, they carved a Confederate battleflag with the words.
"James Keelan, Defender of the Bridge – The South’s Horatius."

On Aug. 20, 1994, James Keelan became the 40th Confederate soldier to receive the Confederate Medal of Honor. He would be one of six Tennesseans to be posthumously awarded the medal. It is on permanent display at Confederate Memorial Hall in Knoxville, which is managed by the local chapter of the United Daughters of the Confederacy.
Keelan’s service that night in Strawberry Plains forever earned him the title Horatius of the South among soldiers of the Will Thomas Legion and those who knew of him. According to accounts by ancient Roman historians Livy and Dionysius of Halicarnassus. Horatius Cocles, (translated as meaning "one-eyed") was a member of the Roman militia in 494 BC. guarding the Sublician Bridge over the Tiber River when the Etruscan invader Lars Porsena seized a Roman position and started a charge towards his position. The Roman Army broke under the pressure and fled across the bridge leaving Horatius by himself to face the advancing Etruscans. Horatius managed to stop some of the more seasoned soldiers and with, an impassioned speech telling them sure disaster would follow if they deserted their post, he inspired the small Roman unit to start tearing down the bridge while he tried to hold off the Etruscans. The people thought he was insane, but the soldiers went to work while Horatius walked towards the enemy. Seeing the single soldier, the Etruscans pulled up short of the bridge thinking the Romans had laid a trap. Horatius walked along the bridge cursing the invaders and challenging the soldiers to single combat. He defeated everyone sent against him and created such a fury among the Etruscan command that they slung spears, rocks, and other missiles towards him, which he repelled with his shield. Badly wounded and bleeding, his Roman compatriots yelled and Horatius noticed they were fleeing from the bridge. When the Etruscans pushed towards the bridge, the injured Horatius leapt into the Tiber River in full armor. As the bridge began its collapse, everyone on both sides of the river watched and waited to see if he would perish in the raging waters. Horatius broke the water, however, and swam to the Roman shore eliciting cheers as much from the enemy warriors as his own soldiers. It is said during the battle he lost his eye and, thus, earned his name. He was one of Rome’s most celebrated heroes and a statue was erected near the bridge to commemorate the action. His name became synonymous with individual courage under fire. Keelan is the only known individual in American history to have ever earned such an accolade.
Following his actions on the bridge and subsequent medical attention, it is said that the Stringfield ladies wrapped his severed hand and buried it in Jefferson County – although the site has never been found. The place where the action took place can still be see in Strawberry Plains. Although much heavier battle action would later occur in Knoxville and nearby Grainger County, the incident at the Strawberry Plains Railroad Bridge would become the most famous action in the region that occurred during the War Between the States. Gen. Felix Zollicoffer’s check of the Union forces at Cumberland Gap was successful, but cost the general his life in a nearby skirmish. It would be two years before the Union forces took East Tennessee.
There are numerous accounts of Keelan’s actions in various books. The best readable account can be found in the book "Valor in Gray" by Gregg S. Clemmer. It offers, in many cases, the only collected accounts of the men who earned the Confederacy’s highest military award. It is available in local bookstores and the public library and is highly recommended. Another good account of James Keelan can also be found in Vernon Crow’s "Storm in the Mountains", which is the only known reference on the Confederate’s Will Thomas Legion. The unit is recognized as the only one in military history to have captured a city in order to surrender so they could keep their weapons. William Thomas was a much loved leader among the Cherokee and in western North Carolina. Among his many accomplishments as a commander and leader in North Carolina, was helping to translate the New Testament into Cherokee.
In addition to the above resources, the Tennessee State Archives, and the Museum of the Confederacy, special thanks also has to go to Rev. Robert Harris, who alerted me to the fact that the Museum of the Cherokee Indian had last year acquired the journals of William Thomas, which finally give a first-hand account of his incredible life of service. While they are still being studied by Cherokee historians, a special display can be seen on him and his Confederate Legion at the Museum of the Cherokee Indian on the Reservation.