By: William R. Phillips
Political sympathies were divided in East Tennessee as states seceded from the Union. Fist fights had broken out in legislative chambers as secession was debated, and armed conflict between factions within the state had taken place. Young East Tennessee men with Northern sympathies went north into Kentucky to join the Federal forces. Some went openly, others slipped away without disclosing their intent. Brother was truly destined to fight against brother in the battles to come. My research shows that, of the sons of Jacob and Elizabeth Phillips, those in Washington County Tennessee fought on the Confederate side; those who went to Bradley County fought on the Union side.
Principal sources of these tales are Conley and Bessie Phillips of Johnson City,. TN. (children of Jacob “Big Jake” Phillips), and Annie Armstrong (granddaughter of Sarah Elizabeth “Liz” Phillips Tinker, sister of Grandpa Jesse Barton Phillips) who passed her family stories on to her grandchildren.
Civil War records indicate that Great-grandfather Jesse Phillips enlisted in Company F, Crawford’s Regiment, 60th Tennessee Infantry, at Jonesboro, TN. In September of 1863. He was 34 years of age at that time, a family man with children. The 60th Tennessee had been at Vicksburg when it fell, and Jesse’s younger brother John Phillips became a prisoner of war. On 15 September 1863, its remnants were ordered to reassemble in Jonesboro, TN. An inspection report shows that only 48 members answered muster. It was at this time that Jesse enlisted. For the remainder of the war, the reconstituted 60th TN Mounted Infantry operated in East TN and Western VA.
According to the History of Washington County published by the Watauga Association of Genealogists, Vaughn’s Brigade had badly beaten a Union brigade under A.C. Gillen at Bull’s Gap. Seeking to avenge his humiliation, Gen. Gillen assaulted along the railroad through Washington County. He succeeded in isolating a unit of Col. Crawford’s Regiment of the 60th Tennessee at Maglin Sherfey’s house east of Johnson’s Depot (Johnson City). The Confederates resisted strongly until 30-pounder Parrot Rifles were brought up to dislodge them. As they fell back into Carter County, a number of Confederate troops were captured (which may have included Jesse Phillips).
The captured Confederates were taken to Jonesborough where they were held for three days without food or water in the top room at the courthouse. They were subjected to summary court martial where they faced a death penalty. At 1 a.m. of the fourth morning, seven of the prisoners were able to get out through a window and escape by climbing down a lightning rod. The above account may be the source of the paragraph which follows.
Great-grandfather Jesse Farris Phillips worked as a “pilot” (scout or guide) for Confederate forces during the Civil War. He was well familiar with the hills and hollows and streams of East Tennessee, and thoroughly qualified to provide information on Federal troop locations and movements During the course of the battles and skirmishes that raged up and down the Nolichucky River and surrounding hills, he was captured by Union troops and charged with being a spy. He was summarily sentenced to be hanged. On an occasion when two Union soldiers were assigned to guard, one of the guards proved to be a kinsman. When this guard purposely relaxed his vigilance, Jesse struck the other guard over the head with his shoe, knocking him unconscious and making his escape. Union soldiers sent out on horseback to hunt him down, but Jesse wag able to make his way through mountain laurel tickets too dense for a man on horseback to follow, and across gullies too difficult for a horse to manage. He made his way to a friend’s house where he borrowed a shotgun. When his pursuer, coming by a longer way, caught up with him, Jesse shot and killed the Union soldier.
Jesse’s oldest son Stephen did not fare as well in his career as a Confederate soldier. Stephen was also captured by Union forces and held captive in a pit with sides too steep for the prisoners to climb out. At various times and places, Union forces attempted to coerce Confederate captives to turn renegade by offering them the choice of fighting for the Union or starving. This technique, historically authenticated, was applied to the Confederate prisoners in the pit, with the Union troops placing their cooking fires so that the smell of food would torment them. Some of the captives must have survived to bring the story to the family, but Stephen starved to death, still too young to be a soldier.
The U.S. Government today deems the Viet Cong “tiger pits” to be inhuman.
As the Civil War worn on into its final stages, Great-grandfather Jesse Farris Phillips became reconciled to the idea that the South was going to lose and fall upon hard times. He decided that his best course was to sell off all his holding – and be prepared to pursue new interests. After the war, he worked for a while as a cooper, a trade practiced by his father Jacob. In those days, barrel-making was a good-paying business because a wide variety of goods was shipped or stored in barrels – corn, beans, nails, coffee, hominy, crackers, salt meats, and even fresh produce (not to mention spirituous liquors). His first wife, Sarah Williams, had disappeared from any record I can find. He had married a second time, to Margaret L. (Peg) Dykes in 1857 and had started a new family that was to include Jacob, Elizabeth, Jesse Barton, and John Landon. When the war ended, he found himself in dire financial straits. The money he had received for his property had been in Confederate banknotes, which had become worthless in the economic collapse of the South.
Hostilities did not end in Upper East Tennessee with Lee’s surrender at Appomattox. When troops discharged from the Union army returned to their homes in that area, they formed vengeance groups and set out to punish those who had fought for the Confederacy. Marauding bands engaged in burning of barns and homes, and destruction of fences and crops. “Rebel killers” even resorted to murder, forcing some families to flee for their lives into other states or western Tennessee. This may account for some of the movement of the Jesse F. Phillips family and the Philip P. Tinker family.
Two tales of great-grandparents Jesse and Margaret in the post war period deserve to be appended to this narrative. The first comes from Annie Armstrong, who heard it from her grandmother, Sarah Elizabeth Tinker. The second was told to me by Bessie Phillips when I visited with the family members living in East Tennessee.
During the period of Union Army occupation of the South following the Civil War, euphemistically called “Reconstruction Days” by latter-day historians, Sarah Elizabeth and her two brothers were playing in their yard when a formation of Union troops came through. She and the boys climbed upon the fence rails to watch them go by. They shouted taunts at the Union soldiers, calling them “low down Yankees.” Their mother, Margaret, rushed out and hustled them into the house, scolding them sharply and spanking their bottoms. “Those men can cause us a lot of harm,” she explained. The children would have been quite small at that time, but Annie relates that her Grandmother Sarah Elizabeth remembered the incident quite vividly.
The other tale of the post-war period concerns a kinsman of Great-grandfather Jesse Farris Phillips. Could it have been one of his children? He was playing in a tree while wearing parts of a Confederate uniform. Some ruffians of the town, possibly of the “rebel killer” persuasion, saw fit to express displeasure at his attire by assaulting him and trying to cause him some physical harm. They were threatening to shoot the cap off his head when Jesse arrived on the scene. Jesse was able to revise the situation by using his knife with such effectiveness that he killed one of the assailants and persuaded the remainder to take their business elsewhere. Bessie says that her grandfather Jesse was not even arrested for his part in the incident.