My Bridge: Moving Beyond Virginia

Photography by J. Warren. Used with permission.

No, it’s not literally my bridge, but this structure – which I’ve yet to see on location – has become a symbol and inspiration. I’ll try to explain…

Last autumn when ECW ran the railroad series, I delved into the history of the tracks between Richmond, Virginia, and Knoxville, Tennessee – ultimately focusing on the Virginia portion of the line. However, I looked at sources and maps for the tracks into Knoxville and discovered that town was quite the hub and vital link in the Confederate transportation network which made it a target for the Union. Also, the majority of east Tennessee’s citizens supported the Union and Abe Lincoln himself wanted that territory back in Federal control as quickly as possible.

I reached out to a friend who lived in Knoxville and asked if he could do a favor for me: take a photo of a railroad bridge in his hometown. I’d read that this particular bridge has footings that date back beyond the Civil War, and I wanted to use the image in an article about Knoxville tracks. He agreed and I sent over the map coordinates.  Well, life rolls on, and it was quite a while before he had a chance to get down to the river and take a photo. I had almost given up. Then, one day in January my phone blew up. (That’s what I call it when it blings, buzzes, and chirps repeatedly.) Six photos. My bridge!

Meanwhile, I’d been tentatively building a research bridge into the Western Theater. I’ve always been an Eastern Theater gal, but I’ve never meant to be a snobby about it. It just sort of happened. Lee, Jackson, and Stuart pulled me into Civil War military history when I was kid. Later, I found the Army of the Potomac II Corps, so why leave and study something else? Sure, I know about the war outside Virginia and have even written about western theater battles and campaigns for my own blog.

Still, my impression of western theater had been less than positive. I found/find Braxton Bragg irritating. The Army of Tennessee and the Army of the Tennessee is just plain confusing at first. Chain of command and order of battle is all over the place. I’d have to remember admirals as well as generals. And, to crown it all, I have spent time in Virginia so I know the land, the locations, and the towns much better than in states I haven’t really visited.

To me, Western Theater loomed like the party you know you should attend, but you don’t know anybody at the prestigious house and it’s easier to just stay home and pretend like it wasn’t going to be interesting anyway. I know – that’s lame. Happily, I found I had “friends” already at the party.

About the time I was waiting for my Knoxville bridge photo, I read the manuscript for Dave Powell’s Missionary Ridge book (All Hell Can’t Stop Them). And I got hooked. This was fascinating, not so difficult to understand, and – best of all – I found a few “familiar faces.” John C. Breckinridge –  one of “my guys” from New Market. Joe Hooker – of eastern theater Chancellorsville infamy. Oh, this was tolerable!

Then I learned about Longstreet and Burnside at the Siege of Knoxville. More familiars, just a new place.

I’m pleased to report that I’m slowly bridging my way into Western Theater history. Maybe, I’m a scaredy cat for not leaping all the way to the Mississippi River, but I’ve inched into East Tennessee. Let me tell you – there is some crazy good history there! In fact, I’ve succumbed and bought three books about E. TN and the Civil War.

Soon, I’ll have my boots on the ground for a couple days in Nashville, Knoxville, and east Tennessee to see what Civil War history I can find and to see if the land and stories deeply inspire me. Wish me luck and watch for blog posts about east Tennessee history in the coming weeks and months.

I’m learning to try new things. I can always run back to Virginia, and it may always be my favorite for Civil War history. But I should learn new things in new places. We never know unless we try. If we’re too afraid to leap, build a bridge. Who knows – maybe I’ll find a story or two that needs to be written about east Tennessee and its colorful history!

What “historical bridges” have you built over the years in your interests or research? (Doesn’t all have to be Civil War era related!)

About Sarah Kay Bierle

I’m Sarah Kay Bierle, historian, editor, and historical fiction writer. When sharing history, I try to keep the facts interesting and understandable. History is about real people, real actions, real effects and it should inspire us today.
This entry was posted in Western Theater and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

5 Responses to My Bridge: Moving Beyond Virginia

  1. Let me start by saying, I LOVE this article and how you think! I agree about the whole “Army of the Tennessee” and “Army of Tennessee” confusion. I still can’t keep them straight! The closest thing I can think of related to “research bridges” is my recent kick on studying Civil War battles in Florida. I live in the state and had no idea it had any Civil War history! It started with Olustee, and that might have been the end of it until I went to a talk in Vicksburg about women in the Civil War and learned about Delighty Powell, a thirteen year old girl who served as a nurse at Olustee. I dug into her history, and found out she might have been at the Battle at Horse Landing south of St. Augustine. That led me down a whole other rabbit hole, with Natural Bridge, and now Fort Pickens! I was SHOCKED to find out Braxton Bragg was in Pensacola! A familiar face to me after studying about Shiloh and Chickamauga. It’s dizzying how many connections can be made between the Eastern and Western fronts. General Pope, as I understand it, started with Grant in the west before being transferred to replace McClellan. Beauregard, too, shows up at Shiloh and Corinth.
    I could go on and on, but thank you for this article! 🙂

    • Mike Maxwell says:

      For those with an interest in Civil War Pensacola: J. D. Edwards. Born in New England, this man gravitated further and further south over time; was married in St. Louis in 1856; was living in New Orleans in 1858. And, along the way, he became an exceptional photographer (google him for some of his early work.)
      Beginning in January 1861 there were two places of concern, mentioned frequently in newspapers where Civil War could erupt at any moment: Fort Sumter and Fort Pickens. Photographer Edwards guessed “Fort Pickens,” and followed Louisiana troops to Pensacola; and during March – April 1861 took a fascinating collection of images (believed to be 39 photographs in all.) Some are available at and others are available at New York State Military Museum -> Search our collection -> Search photos -> Pensacola (items 8 – 16).
      For an excellent 1861 Map of Pensacola Bay showing locations where J. D. Edwards captured his photographs, see Harper’s Weekly of 9 FEB 1861 page 88.

    • Sarah Kay Bierle says:

      Thank you for sharing this! I loved reading about your “research bridges.” So good…

  2. John Pryor says:

    Sarah, love your reflections as always. One of the great series of passages in Shelby Foote’s history deals with the journeys that Jefferson Davis made out to the Army of Tennessee. When Knoxville finally fell to Union forces, his trip route became extraordinarily tortuous. The same was true of the passage of Longstreet’s Corps to assist Bragg.

    My paternal ancestor’s Civil War career was always out West. I always felt I should get a t-shirt printed for descendants of the Army of Tennessee saying “My Great Granddad Survived Braxton Bragg!” Although I am a Yankee by birth, I went to Centre College in Ky and Washington & Lee University law school. The incredible scope of the Western campaigns astonishes me. When I read about the “Eastern” theater of the war I always try to put myself into the shoes of those citizens and/or residents of South Carolina who woke up one day to find those wild Westerners on their doorstep. “Where did they come from???” must have been a similar thought, either in dread or in exaltation at liberation.

    Keep up your wonderful work. You have the soul of a poet.

  3. Dan Laubhan says:

    Very nice piece, Sarah. Being from Illinois, the Western Theater is closer for me than the Eastern theater, and yet I have visited the Eastern theater far more often. Until now. I’ve been particularly taken with KY, TN, GA and MS as of late. What makes it easy is that all I need to do is follow in the path of General Grant’s military career and it takes me, methodically, across each theater. Its quite remarkable when I sit back and contemplate that detail for a few moments… and his expeditions started from Southern Illinois! I’m thinking there’s an interesting article about the logistics of the War in there somewhere. Likewise, I’m increasingly intrigued by the army and navy’s joint operations in TN and MS. In any event, my next venture to the Western Theater will be the Ulysses S. Grant Presidential Library at Mississippi State in Starkville, MS for some a writing project. Can’t wait!

Leave a Reply