The Souths 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 gentlemans 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 Confederates 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 Confederacys 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
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 Carters plan, Sherman
didnt 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 Carters 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 Confederacys 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
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 didnt 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
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 couldnt 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 Keelans 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 wouldnt 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, didnt 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
When William Elmore, unaware of what had just occurred, reached
Keelan, he couldnt believe he was still alive and thought
"Jim," said Elmore, "youve been drunk or
asleep and let the train run over you."
"No Billy," came Keelans 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 Keelans wounds. The dedicated
physician worked throughout the night to save the Confederate.
The doctor treated three severe saber cuts to Keelans
scalp, a gunshot wound in the right hand, right arm, and an
inoperable bullet in the left hip. Keelans 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 Keelans 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
"How did you get out of the Army?"
"I was discharged," replied Keelan.
"Did you take the oath of allegiance to the United States
"If so, when and under what circumstances?"
"A short time after the war closed at Bristol, Tenn.,under
compulsion," was Keelans 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 Keelans 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..."
Keelans 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 Bristols
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 Souths
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.
Keelans 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 Romes 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 Zollicoffers 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 Keelans 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 Confederacys
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 Crows
"Storm in the Mountains", which is the only known
reference on the Confederates 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.