Upland Chronicles: Mike Miner was ardent follower of Civil War history

Aug. 17, 2013 @ 11:34 PM

Jan. 27, 2014 will be the 150th anniversary of the Battle of Fair Garden, the largest skirmish fought on Sevier County soil during the Civil War.

Sadly, the man who was perhaps the most enthusiastic collector of Civil War memorabilia and became a leading expert in military history died before the commemoration of the battle which was closely associated with his own family.

Born Dec. 29, 1951, Mike Miner grew up in Sevierville. His parents, Jim and Vivian Robertson Miner, recall that he first expressed interest in Civil War artifacts when he was a junior high school student by asking for a sword for his birthday.

Using an army mine detector, he first started relic hunting in 1970. When he came out of basic training, Mike used his money to buy a Metrotech on the advice of pioneer hunter Stanley Phillips.

He later recorded in his scrapbook: “In the early years I never carried a camera. The thought never crossed my mind. The years in Atlanta, Murfreesboro and home were fruitful, but I seldom carried one even then. More often than not, when I did, I either lost them in the woods or ruined them in the dirt.

Reflecting back, how I wish that I had fooled with a camera more often, as I would have volumes of these scrapbooks, to reflect upon a very enjoyable part of my hobby and the friends that I met.”

In 1970, Mike found his first bullet, Fort Dickerson in Knoxville using his army mine detector. Two years later on the same battlefield, he found his first button, a U.S. eagle blouse, using the Metrotech.

While attending Middle Tennessee State University in Murfreesboro where he earned a degree in historic preservation, Mike met his future wife Randa. They married on July 15, 1978 in McMinnville, moved to Sevierville, and operated Gallery ll located on the Parkway. A daughter, Ashley, was born in 1981 and a son, John, in 1990.

As a child, Mike heard tales of finding Civil War relics from his maternal grandmother, Mildred Umbarger Robertson, who grew up on a farm where some of the action took place during the Battle of Fair Garden. At the time of the battle, the farmstead was owned by John McNutt, a lawyer, a farmer, and a confederate soldier.

As the battle raged the first line of defenses at Rose Glen Plantation caved in. The McNutt house seemed to be the second line as southern forces fell back to its perimeters. Fifty-two caliber bullets stoked by the firing pins of Colt revolving carbines, rammed into the boards of the McNutt house.

Federal troops turned the flanks of the beleaguered Confederates. They fled in confusion into the distant woods. Word spread that Captain Eli Lily and his 18th Indiana field batteries was due praise for their unrelenting bombardment of Rebel positions.

But the thrill of victory was short-lived for the Federal soldiers withdrew in a hurry when they heard that General Longstreet and his infantry were quickly approaching the neighborhood. General Sturgis and his men fled the county in disarray.

However, the McNutt house stood fast with its splintered walls recording a scene of horror. John McNutt returned after the battle from a visit with Alexander Umbarger, the great-great grandfather of Mike Miner, in Virginia.

When McNutt arrived home he was startled to discover the body of a black man dangling from a tree. ‘That’s enough,’ muttered McNutt. He traded estates with Alexander Umbarger and hastily moved to Virginia.

Several generations later, Alda Householder was living in the old McNutt-Umbarger house when she found a .56 caliber slug imbedded within the walls of the house. Aware of Mike’s extreme curiosity, Alta passed the bullet on to him.

Mike did not limit his ever-growing collection to local conflicts. His intense interest allowed him to gain knowledge and collect relics from around the country. Perhaps his favorite Civil War soldier was Confederate Brigadier General Nathan Bedford Forrest, an innovative Cavalry leader and controversial figure.

John Watson Morgan, Chief of Artillery for Forrest was another soldier Mike found intriguing. In fact, it was because of his extensive research of Morgan that Mike discovered the only known photograph of Sam Davis who was called the boy hero of the Confederacy.

Mike became well known as an expert and was consulted on a national level as a leading authority in matters pertaining to the Civil War and World War ll. He contributed to and was published in numerous magazines and journals.

Occasionally, a surprising situation would arise while Mike was searching for Civil War artifacts. For instance, he was hunting relics in Lovejoy, outside of Atlanta, Georgia when he and his buddies heard gunfire. Figuring it was nothing more than nearsighted game hunters they continued until the shots became closer and more frequent.

They then went into disorderly retreat and hid for about fifteen minutes to elude their tormentors. Later they found the reason for the barrage was because they were headed toward moonshine still.

Mike searched in vain for a first edition of “Divided Loyalties” a book written by Dixby Gordon Seymour about the vital East Tennessee campaign of 1863 and the climactic Battle of Fort Sanders. Ironically, when an up-dated second edition was published by the East Tennessee Historical Society Mike was pictured and mentioned prominently as a contributor.

Mike Miner passed away on July 24, 2008 at age 56. He left a legacy as a renowned expert and devoted enthusiast 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, would like to submit a column or have comments, please contact Carroll McMahan at 453-6411 or email to cmcmahan@scoc.org; or Ron Rader at 604-9161 or email to ron@ronraderproperties.com.