Thunder Over the Smokies
It all began with a man known as Colonel William H. Thomas.
Thomas had served as a state senator in North Carolina before
the war and formed close ties with the people he represented
in the western part of the state. His popularity in the Smoky
Mountain region made him one of the most influential men in
his day. He, like many Southern leaders, fought against a divided
Union and supported secession only after President Lincoln ordered
the state to raise troops to force the seceding states back
into the Union. When North Carolina voted to join the Confederacy,
Thomas turned to raising a troop to defend the Southern Appalachian
Mountains and guard the railroad interests that were vital to
The "Will Thomas Legion", as it came to be known,
was made up of white mountaineers and Cherokee from the Smoky
Mountains. The Legions organization was just that
a Roman-style Army mix of infantry, cavalry, and artillery operating
under one command. The variety of fighting forces gave its commander
opportunities in combat not available to a regular military
officer. The free-wheeling organization was a cause of concern
among established military leaders, who feared it could prove
unstable in combat, but Thomas wanted his unit to be self-sufficient
under any circumstances.
While it was a questionable command to southern military leaders,
Confederate President Jefferson Davis immediately accepted them
into the ranks of the Confederate Army, but not to defend western
North Carolina. The Confederate President attached them to the
command of General Edmund Kirby Smith in East Tennessee.
They would be forever regarded as the most unusual military
unit in the War Between the State, boast numerous decorations
for their actions under fire, including the Confederacys
highest military award, and their last military act would go
into the books as one of the most astounding feats in the annals
of military history.
On April 27, 1862, a collection of gray-clad Cherokee disembarked
from a train in Knoxville and marched down Gay Street. Crowds
gathered on the boardwalks and lined the street to see the unusual
assortment of soldiers. A writer for the Knoxville Daily Bulletin
"At the appointed time the battalion formed a double file,
and marched under an elegant Confederate flag...the troops were
attired in their new dress... and entered in the church in an
orderly and quiet manner."
The crowd that turned out to see the religious service was so
large it had to be moved to a bigger facility in Knoxville.
Once gathered, Chaplain Unaguski, a full blood Cherokee, led
the service in the soldiers native tongue. The Will Thomas
Legion, whom everyone had heard about, but never seen, had arrived
in East Tennessee.
Following their stepping off the train in Knoxville, they sent
a group of soldiers to what would be their main base of operations
at Strawberry Plains in Jefferson County. From there, the Legion
guarded the vital railroad bridges over the rivers and dispatched
fighting forces throughout the region to aid and support Confederate
strongholds. Pulling guard duty was not exactly what Col. Thomas
had in mind, but the skill of his men would soon stir up the
North and earn the respect of Southern leaders.
In September 1862, an Indiana unit patrolling around the Cumberland
Gap region when they noticed a Confederate force moving along
the road below them. The Union soldiers quickly gathered into
position above a gap in the road and laid an ambush for the
approaching soldiers. One of the Indiana privates took aim at
a dark figure on a horse with what seemed to be a turban on
his head and fired. The figure dropped from the saddle and the
entire Union unit opened fire. Instead of bolting for cover
from the ambush, the Confederates instead turned and charged
directly to the Union position firing. Their surprising reaction
quickly drove the Indiana unit out of position and into a running
retreat. When the survivors returned from the patrol, what they
described to their commanding officer was a scene of sheer terror
that immediately flooded Union headquarters with dispatches
asking questions about the Confederate unit operating in upper
East Tennessee. The Legions action near Cumberland Gap
and the Union reaction to it caught the attention of Southern
command in Virginia.
One of the Will Thomas Legions brigades was assigned to
General Jubal Early. The mountaineers and Cherokee immediately
took a liking to "Old Jube" and stayed with him throughout
his campaigns earning a name for themselves as sharpshooters
and first-rate combat soldiers, who held their ground at all
costs. Their service in the Shenandoah campaigns was a principal
force in driving the Union Army from the region. Gen. Early
drew heavily on the Legions forces and their loyalty to
him in the most brutal of combat conditions never wavered.
Heavy Union activity continued in East Tennessee in early 1863
and saw the remaining part of Thomas Legion reassigned
to General James Longstreets First Corps in upper East
Tennessee. When Knoxville fell later that year, Colonel Thomas
was ordered to the Smoky Mountains to guard the passes.
Thomas gathered his men and marched from Strawberry Plains down
Wears Valley Road following it up into the mountains. Word of
his movement to the Smoky Mountains scared the Union command,
who feared the Thomas Legion would be unstoppable if they made
it to their native mountains. Col. Thomas was trailed to the
base of the Smokies by Col. Felix Graham of the Fifth Indiana
Cavalry who engaged the Legion in a hard-fought skirmish in
Sevier County. Thomas and his men fought off the attack and
fell back into the mountains where they marched to the Cherokee
territory in North Carolina. Once they established their headquarters,
Col. Thomas and his men stayed in the mountains guarding the
passes and keeping a steady presence in the region.
In Dec. 1863, Thomas moved his headquarters to the mountain
community of Gatlinburg. During this time, one of his scouting
parties was captured by the Sevier County Homeguard and thrown
into the Sevierville jail. Since the Homeguard was not a military
unit, Thomas feared his men would be grossly mistreated and
immediately decided to go get them.
Thomas gathered a formidable force of 200 troops and raided
the city of Sevierville. The action was swift and caught the
town off-guard. The Legion successfully completed their task
in a few hours. Thomas retrieved his jailed soldiers, captured
66 prisoners, and seized all of their guns and ammunition.
The Union command in Knoxville reacted quickly and dispatched
a Pennsylvania cavalry unit under Col. William Palmer to "recover
the stolen property from Sevierville." Union scouts scoured
the region for information on the Legions base of operations.
They finally found Thomas encampment and charged it in
a surprise attack. Although startled in the midst of performing
camp activities, the Legion proved their abilities as soldiers.
Without needing orders, the men grouped together quickly, found
their rifles, and fired volley after volley for over an hour
while they made their way back into the mountains and escaped
into the forest. In the Union reports filed after the assault,
they wrote extensively about the Legions ability to recover
from the sudden attack of the cavalry force, which proved to
the Union officers the Cherokee and mountaineers were not to
be taken lightly and would fight to the death even if attacked
by superior forces. With the Legion now in the forests of the
Great Smoky Mountains, the Union could not guarantee the safety
of anyone in the region.
For the remaining year and a half of the War Between The States,
the Will Thomas Legion carved a bloody reputation as one of
the best fighting units in the Confederacy. Only a small number
of the original soldiers survived the Virginia campaigns, but
those who survived were present the day General Lee surrendered
the Confederate Army to General Grant.
Although the war was over, the news of the Southern surrender
was slow getting to many parts of the South, including the isolated
Smoky Mountains. Getting confirmation of the news was impossible
and many Confederate soldiers were in doubt as to the Wars
In May 1865, Union General Tillson ordered Colonels Bartlett
and Kirk to move towards Waynesville, NC and clear the mountains
of "guerrillas and reestablish order in the region."
Col. Kirk decided to split the forces in two when he took his
command a couple of days off-trail scouting in the western part
of the Smokies for Confederate encampments. He marched his men
too far and unknowingly separated himself from Col. Bartlett,
who was marching towards the mountain city of Waynesville. The
Union forces were raiding family farms for horses and supplies
and earning a vicious reputation among the mountain families
for their tactics.
On May 6, 1865, Col. Bartlett and his men marched unopposed
into Waynesville, NC and stationed his troops near White Sulphur
Springs where they set up camp. By this time, news of the Union
movements was spreading through the Smoky Mountains as was news
of the wars close and the requirements of surrender.
Col. Thomas learned of the Union advance and moved his Legion
about three miles northwest of Waynesville. He ordered Pvt.
John Rice into civilian clothes and sent him into the city to
spy on Bartlett and spread misinformation about the Legions
troop size and strength. While Rice was busy gathering intelligence,
Thomas was hoping it would buy enough time for him to strategically
surround the town with his men.
Thomas quickly dispatched orders to his commanders to get into
position. Thomas knew the layout of the city and the fact that
Waynesville could be taken if he could get his forces in position
on the mountain peaks surrounding it. He had Lt. Robert Conley
march his men through the forested area near White Sulphur Springs
to try and find the Union encampment outside the city. Lt. Conley
and his men unexpectedly ran into the Union forces at White
Sulphur Springs and engaged them in a small skirmish. Although
Conley was just 23-years-old, he had earned more commendations
for his actions under fire than any other member of the Legion
and, according to company reports, was hand-picked many times
by Gen. Jubal Early to lead the Legions sharpshooters
in the Virginia campaigns. His quick thinking under fire proved
itself invaluable again and enabled him to get his men into
a battle line and firing by the time the Union soldiers realized
they were under attack. The Union force was caught by surprise
and forced into a running retreat towards Waynesville. Lt. Conley
quickly rejoined the other forces and found Col. Thomas where
he passed the word about the engagement and the eventual location
of Col. Bartletts troops.
The Union Colonel was both surprised and alarmed by the attack
and seeing his forces pushed into Waynesville, but hopeful that
Col. Kirk would be close enough to lend support if the Legion
decided to lay siege to the city. Bartlett, like other Union
leaders before him, underestimated the Legions intentions
and did not think they had the supplies or men to attempt to
The Cherokee and mountaineers, however, quickly and quietly
moved into positions on the peaks overlooking the city. When
word came that the men had reached their destinations, Col.
Thomas gave the order to build hundreds of fires around the
town and made it look like thousands of Confederates were mustering
in the hills above the city. To add to the scene, the Cherokee
started the war dances and filled the night air with drumbeats,
war whoops, and rebel yells.
Inside the city of Waynesville below, the action was having
its desired effect on Union soldiers. None of them could sleep
and all were made uneasy by the chilling war cries coming from
the mountains around them. Col. Bartlett had seen the reports
and knew what the mountain unit was capable of doing.
"It looked as if the mountains were alive," wrote
one Ohio Corporal, "fires could be seen on every hill and
the yells and war cries of the Cherokee made it impossible to
think about anything, but what would happen when daybreak arrived."
When dawn did break over the hills, the town surrounded, and
attack imminent, Col. Bartlett sent out a patrol under a Union
flag of truce asking for a conference with the Confederate force
to prevent further bloodshed between the two forces. Confederate
General James G. Martin, who had joined up with the Legion near
Franklin, N.C., and Col. Thomas accepted the offer and ventured
into Waynesville to discuss the "Unions surrender."
Negotiations between them lasted for two days. During the talks,
General Martin and Col. Thomas both learned of the Confederate
surrender in Virginia. For Thomas and his men, however, it didnt
change the current situation. Both sides knew the Legion could
virtually hold Waynesville and western North Carolina with their
present victory, but they also knew it was only a matter of
days before Union forces would be dispatched to the region.
Realizing the brevity of the situation, General Martin and Col.
Thomas proposed surrendering his men only if the Union would
stop their present raids on the mountain families and farms,
parole his officers and men, and let them walk home with their
firearms and ammunition. Col. Bartlett agreed to every term
of surrender, but refused to agree on the men keeping their
weapons. He explained to the Confederate officers that he was
ordered to seize their firearms and there could be no negotiation
on that point of the terms. The mountaineers and Cherokee would
have no part of it and impressed upon the Union Colonel that
they would fight to keep them unless they could come to an agreement.
With Waynesville surrounded, Union Colonel Bartlett had no recourse,
but to agree to the terms they presented.
On May 9, 1865, one month after Lees surrender to Grant
at Appomattox, the final drum rolls sounded and the Cherokee
and mountaineers of the Will Thomas Legion surrendered to the
Union Army and were paroled. They gave their word to never take
up arms against the nation again, took an oath of loyalty, and
were allowed to return to their mountain homes with rifles in
The Confederacys Will Thomas Legion returned to their
homes and went on to become regarded in military history as
one of the best fighting forces in the War Between the States
and is the only regular military unit in recorded military history
to have captured an occupied city in order to negotiate their
While history virtually forgot them and their service in the
War Between The States, the Eastern Band of the Cherokee Nation,
in keeping with their ancient oral traditions, recorded the
stories of the returning veterans. Through the years, the Museum
of the Cherokee Indian has built a solid display on the Will
Thomas Legion documenting their service in the Smoky Mountain
region in the War Between the States. In 1998, The Museum of
the Cherokee Indian acquired the personal papers of Col. William
H. Thomas from one of his descendants and are studying the papers,
which will become a part of the institutions archives.Although
it has been two years, museum officials say they are still studying
them and hope to include them in a decent display of the units
in the museum.
When the story of the Waynesville surrender made it across the
mountains, Union command was livid and demanded an explanation
from Colonel Bartlett. Although much was made of it, no Union
action was taken to confiscate the firearms carried away by
the Legions veterans and the story of what happened was
dismissed by the Union command as a misrepresentation of the
facts. Union military records of the negotiations, however,
uphold the Confederate units claim as do the stories that
were handed down through the generations by veterans present
that day at Waynesville.
Special thanks for this story has to go to The Museum of the
Confederacy for their battlefield accounts, The Museum of the
Cherokee Indian, Ray Kinsland, Rev. Robert Harris,and the Tennessee
Historical Commission for alerting me to other sources that
only recently became available.
One of the best available sources on the Will Thomas Legion
is the book "Storm In the Mountains" by Vernon H.
Crow. In addition to documenting the history of the Legion,
it includes the names of those men who served in it and the
county where they entered the service. For many historians,
it has become a primary resource of genealogical information
for those researching their familys history in the Smoky
Mountain region, including those of Cherokee descent. The rolls
marked the first time many of the Cherokee names had ever been
written down and are invaluable. While the Legion is historically
from the Smoky Mountains, the rosters include recruits from
Knox, Sevier, Jefferson, Monroe, and the numerous other counties
in East Tennessee as well as those bordering the Smokies in
western North Carolina.
Copies of Crows book can be obtained through your local
bookstore or ordered from the Museum of the Cherokee Indian.
Their phone number is (828) 497-3481 and they can accept credit