William B. Carter Banner


Railroad bridge over the Halston River
at Strawberry Plains.

The population of the mountain regions of eastern Tennessee opposed secession by a ratio of two to one; many of the pro Unionists in the area organized paramilitary units to combat the Confederate military presence. One dedicated Unionist, William B. Carter, hatched a plan for guerrilla strikes against the nine major bridges on the critical Southern railroad that ran through the area. He planned to burn the bridges, thereby rendering useless a 225 mile stretch of the railroad.

On the night of November 8, 1861, Carter's commandos struck the railroad bridges and successfully damaged or destroyed five. The bridge at Strawberry Plains was guarded that night by only two pickets, one at each end of the bridge. Ten of the guerrillas, carrying containers of flammable liquid, scrambled up a steep embankment at one end of the bridge shortly after 10:00 P.M. The sentry at that end, James Keelan, was alerted by the noise made by the raiders, but he had left his rifle leaning against the bridge, too far away for him to reach when the first of the Yankees appeared.

Keelan did have a Bowie knife with him, as well as a single shot pistol, with which he killed the leader of the guerrilla band, William Pickens. The other guerrillas fired a volley at the flash from Keelan's pistol, wounding the Southern sentry in the hip and right arm. But Keelan stood his ground, determined to hold the bridge. A frantic knife fight broke out at that end of the bridge, and during it at least one other of the raiders was killed, with several more severely gashed. Keelan was badly cut on the head, neck and right hand, and his left hand was almost severed.

Though the sentry at the other end of the bridge had run away at the first shot, the sound of the vicious fight brought Rebel reinforcements, forcing the guerrillas to retreat into the night. Keelan, in a heroic and astonishing fight, had single-handedly saved one of the most important of the railroad's bridges. He not only survived his wounds, but rejoined the Confederate army after taking a year off to recover.