What is now downtown Gatlinburg was the flashpoint for the area’s only Civil War battle. Why did the Blue and Gray forces fight the Battle of the Burg here?
Though Tennessee joined the Confederacy, “The Burg” was a pocket of pro-Union sympathies. The Confederate cause didn’t resonate as strongly in rugged Eastern Tennessee as in the rest of the state and the Deep South. Independent-minded mountain dwellers were concerned with wresting their living from a tough landscape–not with fighting to protect big landowners, slavery, and a way of life that didn’t exist here.
As the National Park Service says, many here saw the conflict as “a rich man’s war, but a poor man’s fight.” But beneath the Smokies’ surface lay riches highly desirable to both armies. When the war finally arrived in Gatlinburg, it came hunting for one natural resource: Saltpeter, a salt vital to manufacturing gunpowder. Nearby Alum Cave was known for deposits of crystal saltpeter.
Enter Confederate Colonel William Thomas and his unusual Legion. Based in Western North Carolina, the Legion was Thomas’s creation, combining .white and Cherokee soldiers. Before the war, Thomas was a businessman and slave owner who learned the Cherokee language and was adopted into the tribe.
The Confederacy wanted both the saltpeter and a show of strength in Tennessee’s less than loyal mountain communities. In 1863, Thomas’s Legion occupied Gatlinburg, started mining saltpeter, and built a small fort on Burg Hill, today’s downtown.
The occupiers’ heated encounters with locals, including the capture of some of Thomas’s men by Union home guard soldiers, ratcheted up tensions.
Attacking the Occupiers
In December 1863, two companies of Union troops descended to drive out the Greys. The Battle of the Burg on Dec. 20 was a quick skirmish focused on Thomas’s fort. The hour-long engagement ended with no deaths and only one soldier, a Confederate, captured. Union forces pushed Thomas’s Legion back over the North Carolina border.
The Confederacy never again held Gatlinburg. Today, re-enactors sometimes bring the skirmish to life. Hikers can trek to Alum Cave. Civil War buffs learn about mountain life during wartime, at historic sites in the national park.