Upland Chronicles: Controversy surrounds the legend of Fort Harry

Jan. 18, 2014 @ 11:37 PM

Over the past 150 years, numerous stories have been passed down from generation to generation about a fortification known as Fort Harry. It was reputedly built by the infamous Thomas’ Legion, on a bluff protruding from the side of Mt. LeConte about eight miles south of Gatlinburg.

Most sources agree that Thomas’ Legion, a unit of the Confederate Army, erected the fortification sometime around late 1862. In his book “The Civil War in the Smokies,” Noel Fisher wrote, “Several of Thomas’s companies were sent to East Tennessee to guard bridges and rail lines, hunt down bushwhackers and conscripts, and perform other garrison duties. On the other side of the Smoky Mountains, Thomas used the remaining companies to improve the road connecting Sevierville and North Carolina, to mine alum, saltpeter, and other minerals from Alum Cave.

“Thomas also organized a ‘company of sappers and miners’ to aid in the road building. Led by Robert Collins, the man who had earlier guided Arnold Guyot’s surveying parties, the company was largely made up of East Tennessee loyalists who would not enroll in combat units but would perform other duties. When Confederate authorities ordered the men moved to regular regiments in late 1862, nearly all deserted.

“Thomas’s men built crude barracks below Alum Cave and surrounded them with a wooden fortification built of felled trees. The complex, which became known as Fort Harry, was intended to house the miners and road builders, protect Alum Cave, and prevent Federal forces from crossing into North Carolina. Northern troops burned the fort in 1864.”

Although archaeologists such as Erik Kreusch dispute some of the claims, a story written by Pete Prince and published in the Fall 2003 edition of The Blount Journal has perpetuated some of the stories “without archeologically ground truthing these claims.”

In the article, Prince stated: “The fort was 100 feet by 100 feet. It sat 50 feet above Indian Gap Road and the West Prong (of the) Little Pigeon River. The two outside walls were upright, pointed logs, appearing like two rows of sharpened pencils. The outside was 10 feet, the inside 16. The log construction made it easy for the federal forces to burn the fort in 1864.

“There were eight guard towers. The double wagon gate was unique – inside, the gate would not open until the outside gate was shut and secured. Soldiers died of pneumonia as the barracks was damp and not heated. The 300 soldiers had to take three eight- hour shifts to find beds. Five troops slept in the kitchen. Cooking was over a fireplace. A box spring was the only source of water.”

Prince also wrote in the article that Cherokee Tribal Historian Carl Lambert, then 77, said in an interview that Fort Harry was named for Col. Thomas. Lambert claimed that the word “harry” is synonymous with “Army commander attacking with organized forces.”

Thomas Divide, 3,310 feet, on the south side of the Great Smoky Mountains, is also named for Col. Thomas. According to Prince, “The unique name was suggested by Robert Collins, a life-long friend of Col. Thomas. Collins was in charge of building the fort and improving the 30-year-old ill-kept {sic} mountain road maintaining Oconaluftee Turnpike (Thomas Road) and Indian Gap Road over the Smokies. Collins first built the road between Webster, N.C., and Sevierville, Tenn., in 1838. Due to his age, 56, Collins worked as a civilian in charge of 400 Cherokee troops in building Fort Harry.”

On April 9, 1863, Collins contracted pneumonia due to exposure at Fort Harry and died. Even though the war was going on, Collins’ body was carried over the Smoky Mountains via Indian Gap to Oconaluftee, N.C., and buried in the Old Beck Cemetery. Mt. Collins, 6,188 feet, in the Smokies is named for him.

According to Prince, a little-known Fort Harry Confederate Burial Ground is located 0.8 miles south of the Chimney Tops parking area on Newfound Gap Road. Across the trail from the burial ground is the site of the Goldie Brown Possession Cabin for Champion Lumber Company. There is a well-worn path to the arrowhead marker for Fort Harry Burial Ground. He stated that some 39 soldiers and 100 Cherokee civilians are buried there. “Most of the soldiers were victims of measles, mumps, and exposure.”

Alden Carver (1844-1945) of Oconaluftee, N.C., was just old enough to enlist in Thomas’ Legion, but the Confederate troops needed young Carver to operate a gristmill at Oconaluftee and carry the cornmeal 10 miles to the troops at Fort Harry. Carver was a member of the Home Guard, which permitted him to receive an eight-dollar a month pension.

Indian Grave Flats marks the burial of an unwilling Cherokee scout who in 1864 disobeyed the Union soldiers. He was dragged 10 miles from Oconaluftee to Indian Gap Road, shot and left to die. He was buried on the spot by Confederate troops.

In 1956, Paul M. Fink, author of “That’s Why They Call It: the Names and Lore of the Great Smokies,” wrote: “Echoes of the Civil War are heard in two names near the Chimney Tops. In 1862, Col. William H. Thomas and his combined Confederate force of Indians and whites, made camp a short distance above Chimneys Camp Ground, while building a road to develop the mineral resources of the Alum Cave.

“To guard against surprise attack from federal troops down the valley, earthworks were thrown up and guards posted. The spot was christened Fort Harry, for whom unknown, and the river crossing nearby Fort Harry Ford.”

Whether Fort Harry was an impressive wooden fortress surrounded by pointed logs, a thrown together earthen entrenchment, or something in between is likely lost in history. But it is certain that the valuable resources of Alum Cave were protected by some sort of defensive structure during the tremulous days of the Civil War.

Carroll McMahan is the special projects facilitator for the Sevierville Chamber of Commerce and serves as Sevier County historian.

The Upland Chronicles series celebrates the heritage and past of Sevier County. If you have suggestions for future topics or would like to submit a column, contact Carroll McMahan at 453-6411 or email to cmcmahan@scoc.org; or Ron Rader at 604-9161, email ron@ronraderproperties.com