Tennessee Mountain Stories

1871 Murder

Isaac Wood 1833 - 1871

Isaac Wood 1833 - 1871

As we look back on history it may seem easy to align yourself with one side or another, with one ideology or political agenda.  However, when I read about the struggles of our people during The American Civil War I recognize that the choices were not so cut and dried.  The Cumberland Plateau lay smack in the middle of two worlds.  Without large plantations, a need for slave labor or money to support it, the question of slavery hardly touched the people of the mountains but a fierce independence and memory of persecution in Ireland no doubt drove many to Confederate sympathies.  On the other hand, a deep spiritual conviction that no man should be owned by another and strong patriotism no doubt caused others to lean toward the Union.

Champ Ferguson and some of his company

Champ Ferguson and some of his company

Much has been written about the splits among families and communities as folks allied themselves with North or South.  But do we ever think about the back side of the war?  What about those who did manage to return from battle?  How did they live among neighbors who chose differently?  How did communities reunite after men went different directions with many husbands and sons never returning at all?

Tinker Dave Beaty

Tinker Dave Beaty

Two rather famous guerillas from our region were Tinker Dave Beaty and Champ Ferguson.   Beaty was from Fentress County, Tennessee and Ferguson hailed from Clinton County, Kentucky – less than 30 miles north.  It’s not hard to imagine the men of their companies overlapped in origin significantly.  While Beaty may not have been the hero that Grant or Hayes was he had chosen the winning side of the war while Ferguson was hanged as a war criminal – one of only two men who would be tried and executed following the war. 

I happened upon a story about Isaac Woods who rode with Tinker Dave Beaty and returned to Jamestown, Tennessee following the war.  In 1871 he was gunned down in the street in Jamestown and the family legend says the murderer was one of Ferguson’s men.  A September 1871 article in The Nashville Union and American cites a proclamation by then-Governor Senter offering $250 reward for the capture of Stephen Bannon in connection with the crime. I wasn’t able to ascertain whether Bannon was ever tried, but I understand that some of Mr. Woods’ descendants have done extensive research on this story and when that work is publicly available, I’ll certainly pass the information along to you.

As with any story, much is known and reported about the officers and leaders of Civil War units.  However, the common man’s story is often lost and I find those to be the most fascinating.  While letters and journals have been collected that give hints into the everyday life and thoughts of soldiers, little is written about their struggles in the post-war era.



Historic Media

I ran upon a copy of The Chattanooga Daily Rebel when a reader recently introduced me to www.newspapers.com.  Published between 1862 and 1865, this was the longest running Confederate periodical.  Originally containing four pages, it quickly shrank to a single sheet yet circulation seemed to be restricted only by availability of paper stock.  As the Union Army moved southward – eventually occupying Chattanooga, Tennessee in 1863 – the paper operated nomadically until it was finally captured in Selma, Alabama and printed its last copy on a hand press on April 27, 1865.

Chattanooga Daily Rebel.jpg

Now anyone who studied journalism at any level was taught to report the news without bias.  Despite our opinions of this agency or that one, newspaper-men have always needed to sell papers and therefore there is a certain pressure to write what their customers want to read.  So you can imagine this wartime publication was filled with news of the war with a slant toward its Confederate readership. 

The copy I’ve clipped from April 22, 1864 shares a story of a sergeant escaping the Union Army disguised as a female slave.  Presented anecdotally, he secured weapons and transportation from the enemy and high-tailed it back to his company.  Certainly the terminology used in this article would never be accepted today, but it’s funny to imagine this man dressed in drag and smeared with soot as he races across the countryside.  During those terrifying times I imagine the people needed a little humor as much as they did information.

There is an update from various forts and areas of the front.  The nearby city of Dalton, Georgia shows a 2 day old report that includes weather and road conditions.  And then there is the startling count of losses over the past year – 93,770 men lost.

A short article reminds readers of the necessity of eating salt.  During intense economic depression, it seems folks were wont to spend precious pennies on this natural flavoring.  So the article “throw[s] out these hints for the benefit of those of our people who are deterred from buying the essential supply of salt on account of the high prices” that not only will salt preserve foods, “but it is now well known why the animal loves salt and why it ultimately falls into disease if muriate of soda is for a time withheld.”

The Chattanooga Daily Rebel also introduced an up and coming publication, Smith & Barrow’s Monthly Magazine whose scope would be “Tales, Poetry, Sketches of life and manners, Official Army and Navy Intelligence, Instructive Miscellany, and Articles on Political Economy.”

We are so bombarded with news and entertainment these days that you hardly know what to believe and sometimes I just feel like I want to escape it.  Yet looking at the things that were written or sung in years past, it’s clear there is much to be learned from it. 


Christmas Fruit Bag

Christmas Goody Bag.jpg

One of my Christmas memories is the goody bag the church always gave out after their Christmas program.  Handed to each guest, it was an unexpected and exciting little brown paper bag.  We’ve stopped handing these out at my church and while fruit is readily available to me and I eat way too much candy, I found that I missed the little bag this Sunday.  And it got me to thinking about where that tradition may have originated.

Fruit at Christmas time is a deep tradition for our family, and I think for most folks on the mountain.  My Grandpa, who had little input to the regular grocery shopping, would always make a point as the holiday season approached to go buy a big box of apples and another of oranges.  There would be peppermint candy and chocolate drops in the house at this time as well.  Now, it’s not hard to theorize that this man, whose childhood held few treats and for whom poverty had been a constant companion, reveled in the relative wealth of having a whole box of fruit both to enjoy and to share. 

I imagine the church’s bags had very similar origins.  Since our picturesque mountain home won’t grow anything citrus and even apples have to be harvested and safely stored pretty early in the fall, fruit at Christmastime has to come from far away and would be rather a luxury in horse-drawn days.

Transportation has changed so much in the past seventy-five years, and now trucks arrive at grocery stores all over the country filled with fresh fruits and vegetables from all over the world.  We can have anything from bananas or mangos to strawberries and apples anytime we want.  And we know that transportation greatly affects the cost of everything.  So imagine how valuable an exotic fruit like pineapple would have been a few years ago.

Of course the church’s goody bag was generally filled with good ole American goodies but even that wouldn’t be easy to come by in the remote mountain communities.  How hard is it to get a load of oranges to a store that is served only by mule team?  How often would poor children in those areas see foods that were harvested hundreds of miles away when they might live their whole lives and never travel more than fifty miles from home?

Top off those juicy fruits with a few pieces of peppermint and maybe even a bit of chocolate and you’ve got a treat that makes a lasting memory.  I don’t know who made the decision not to hand out goody bags at church anymore, and maybe they won’t be missed by many – but I may have to make one for myself, or better yet revive the tradition by handing out my own bags next year.

Keepin' Fire


Keepin’ Fire

When the temperature drops I always want to build a cozy fire.  Sometimes it seems I need to reach out toward an open flame no matter what the thermostat on the wall reads.  And it never fails to remind me of how important it is to be adept at “keeping fire”.

Have you ever heard someone described by their ability to keep fire?  I’m not sure if it’s about skill or ambition but for a mountain family dependent on wood heat it is an invaluable skill.  Some days I have it, other days – not so much.  Now I’ve talked here before about the heart-warming nature of a good fire and I’m sure it’s a subject I will return to – next winter probably.

I grew up with wood fires and I love them.  Love the unique heat, the cracks and pops and the smell of wood smoke.  In his later years my Grandpa spent most of his winter days sitting by the stove keeping the fire going.  He would bake potatoes in that stove and they were the best tasting treat you can imagine.  He seemed to have a natural skill with that stove.

It’s always been parents’ primary task to teach their children life skills – the nature of those skills just keep changing on us.  Do you think kids a century ago just knew how to keep fire without lessons?  I doubt it.  The problem these days is that there seems to be so many things begging for our attention – and I find it’s easy to forget about the fire until it’s too late.  

Of course if you’ve got a good tight stove it will hold fire with little attention – an open fireplace is much more challenging.  You’ve got to keep stirring up the coals and feeding its insatiable appetite for wood.  Still when I can find the time to curl up in front of it, a warm fire is a wonderful investment of my time.

In years past, the stove was the center of the home because it was the warmest spot with the distant corners of the house getting quite chilly on cold days.  I guess it served to bring the family together – do you notice in our modern homes with central-heating that it’s easy for the family to spread out with a tv in one room, computer in another, even children playing with toys can be in their own rooms.  We really aren’t as close as families that had to spend their time in the same room.

Today you can simulate a cheery fire in many ways – even streaming "the peacefulness of an old-fashioned, wood-burning fireplace, as well as a crackling yule log fireplace” on Netflix.  Wonder whether it’s harder to keep fire or hook up all of the video equipment and stream the picture?

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Why I write – and What’s next


Over the last few weeks I’ve tried to answer the Who What When and Where of Plans for Emma.  The final question – and always my favorite on any subject – is WHY.  It’s a question any author ought to be able to answer before writing a single word and one I’m happy to answer for you.

I write because I have stories to tell.  I have the stories of generations of family bouncing around my head – stories that have been told and retold for so many years that the facts blur into the legend that’s grown around them.  I love these people and I love their stories.  I believe there is value for the next generation of my family, other families from the mountain, and people everywhere to know about these people, who they are and what they’ve endured.

With that said, the bigger reason I write, and I hope the primary reason I undertake anything in my life is to glorify God.  After all, that’s the reason for life – our purpose for existing.  I write about a people with a deep faith in God, so in many ways it’s easy to weave faith into every chapter. 

I hope that a Christian can read my stories and come away encouraged and uplifted.  We have so many burdens in this modern world where Christ is assaulted on every front that we need some kind of escape – if only for a few minutes – into a world where the battle belongs to someone else.  There are happy endings in my books if you look deeply.  If your own faith will allow you to see that even in hardship there is joy and that leaving a legacy of faith is a greater success than any earthly convenience or pleasure.

Of course, not everyone who reads believes and I pray that my books might fall into the hands of someone who does not have a personal relationship with Jesus Christ.  I pray that at the end of the story the gospel is clear and that the characters would draw you to Christ.

It is my intention that each story would end with an epilogue showing how the life of the characters affected the future.   It’s not a luxury we enjoy as we make decisions great and small in our everyday life so I hope it will be an encouragement to see the long term effect of the characters’ lives.  The end papers will always include a witnessing statement and resources where a reader can find answers to questions about God.

I’m so excited to have Emma in your hands and I can’t wait to hear what you think about this book.  As always I’m asking that everyone who reads the book will leave reviews – Amazon is a great place to start with those although there are certainly other platforms for book reviews.  I have so many stories I want to tell you and I’m turning right in on the next one.  At this point I believe I’ll finish a trilogy that I have about ½ complete.  It will follow a mother and her two daughters as they move from rebellion to obedience and service.  They will face great pain as well as great joy.  I’ll keep you updated as I progress on these three books.