THUNDER OVER THE SMOKIES
Story of Confederate Cherokee Chaplain Unaguski and the “Will Thomas Legion”
Romans 1:16-17 (KJV), “For I am not ashamed of the gospel of Christ: for it is the power of God unto salvation to every one that believeth; to the Jew first, and also to the Greek. 17 For therein is the righteousness of God revealed from faith to faith: as it is written, The just shall live by faith.”
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 region.
The "Will Thomas Legion", as it came to be known, was made up of white mountaineers and Cherokee Indians from the Smoky Mountains. The Legion’s 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 Confederacy’s 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 reported:
"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 Union soldiers, from Indiana, 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 Legion’s action near Cumberland Gap and the Union reaction to it caught the attention of Southern command in Virginia.
One of the Will Thomas Legion’s 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 Legion’s forces and their loyalty to him in the most brutal of combat conditions and they never wavered.
Heavy Union activity continued in East Tennessee in early 1863 and saw the remaining part of Thomas’ Legion reassigned to General James Longstreet’s 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 Legion’s base of operations. They finally found Thomas’ encampment and charged it in a surprise attack. Although startled while 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 Legion’s 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 War’s close.
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 war’s 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 Legion’s 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 Legion’s 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. Bartlett’s 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 Legion’s intentions and did not think they had the supplies or men to attempt to take Waynesville.
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 "Union’s 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 didn’t 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 Lee’s 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 hand.
The Confederacy’s “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 own surrender.
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 institution’s 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 Legion’s 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 unit’s 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, the author of this article 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 family’s history in the Smoky Mountain region, including those of Cherokee descent (This book is out of print). 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.