Saturday, July 5, 2008

The Limestone Cove Tragedy

A historical marker in Unicoi County marks the site of a bloody incident that speaks volumes about the impact of the Civil War on upper east Tennessee. It's easy to assume that since Tennessee was among the eleven Confederate States that all residents of Tennessee at that time supported secession and the Confederate cause. But the history of this region is much more complicated that simply drawing a line north and south. My first recognition of this came when I was still living in Illinois ("The Land of Lincoln") and read about a small college called Lincoln Memorial University in Harrogate, TN. Strange, I thought, a college in the South named for the Great Emancipator. Upon moving to to east Tennessee, I found it fascinating that most cities in the area had a "Union Street" and a "Lincoln Street." When I asked local folks about this, they said that east Tennessee was pro-Union during the war. And while that is true, it's also an over generalization.

One hundred and forty five years ago, the Limestone Cove Massacre occurred in what is now Unicoi County (it was created from parts of Washington and Carter Counties in 1875). The site of the massacre was the Bell house, which originally stood across the road from the Bell Cemetery. A 1903 book entitled History of the Thirteenth Regiment, Tennessee Volunteer Cavalry describes the incident in all its gory detail. The Bell family is said to have been well known and respected in Carter County. Yet neighbors led the Confederate troops to this home of Union sympathizers -- and upon finding a house full of men enroute to join the ranks of the Union army, the Confederate troops killed the men and burned down the house. The roadside historical marker at Bell Cemetery gives a brief account...

Limestone Cove Tragedy
Here are buried the eight civilians killed at the home of Dr. David Bell in Nov 1863. Enroute to Kentucky to join Federal Forces, they were found by a detachment of Col. W. A. Witcher’s Confederate Cavalry, while waiting for breakfast. They were: B. Blackburn, Calvin Cantrel, Elijah Gentry, Jacob Lyons, Wiley Royal, John Sparks and two unknown. Buried nearby is Dr. Bell's brother, James killed at the same time.


  1. I just finished reading Mountain Rebels, a book gleaned from Dr. W. Todd Groce's dissertaion about the area pro-secessionists, who were certainly in the minority in the mountains of East Tennessee. It's a great book that explains how those sympathizers weren't inspired by slavery or even states' rights so much as the HOPE of economic improvement that was brought by the railroad and commerce during the decade before the not-so-Civil War. Very insightful, telling some good stories about the events of this area and about particular persons. You may borrow it if you like!

  2. Hi Janni,
    Thanks very much for the information. I'm fascinated with what life was like in this region during the Civil War. To have an area in the Confederacy sending troops and support to the Union... It's a part of US history I had never heard of until I moved here. Thanks again!

  3. East Tennessee is not the only region of the south that had significant pro union sentiment. You also saw this in North Alabama, where Winston County had a large meeting and debated on whether to succeed from the Confederacy. Almost all the southern states were represented by regiments such as the 1st Alabama Cavalry US Volunteers.


  4. Bah. There may have been a few Union sympathizers, but the majority of East Tennesseans who took up arms in the Civil War did so in order to pillage Western North Carolina. Unlike East Tennessee, WNC contributed a considerable amount of men to the Confederate army, and thus had no one to defend against brigands. East Tennesseans poured into this vacuum - criminals pretending to be dissidents. See for example: Inscoe, John C. & Gordon B. McKinney. The Heart of Confederate Appalachia: Western North Carolina in the Civil War . Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2000. Appalachian Collection: E524.I54.2000 c.2.

    ~ A WNC native

    p.s.- Apparently there was a similar situation between Kentucky and Indiana, with the former preying on the latter.

  5. How unfortunate that the marker calls this a "tragedy." From what I can tell from the description, it was a murderous massacre.

    It's bad enough to lie, but why immortalize a lie in bronze?

  6. Neighbors and sometimes family members were often adversaries in East Tenn from Bristol on the North border to Chattanooga on the South. Such was two of my great-great Grandparents who lived about four miles apart; one joined the Union, was captured and survived Andersonville prison and the other joined the Confederates, was captured and survived the Delaware prison. After the war they returned home and raised families who often married opposite sides. A couple of my great Grandads were the product of those who put the war behind.

  7. The Bells of this area and incident were my father’s family.

  8. As a point of interest, my father was a civil war buff and his name was also Dr. David Bell


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