Southern mountain people think for themselves, so when Tennessee voted to secede from the Union in 1861, the mountain folk of East Tennessee were “agin’ it.” They had little to gain from secession and much to lose, since this border region was likely to become a battleground between North and South.
So a group of dissenters met at the Greene County Court House and petitioned the legislature to let them become a separate state, which would remain with the Union. Their request was denied, and additional rebel troops were billeted in the region to keep an eye on them.
But that did not silence them. Greeneville’s Andrew Johnson was the only Senator from a Confederate state who continued to serve in the U.S. Congress. (President Lincoln rewarded his loyalty by making Johnson the military governor of Tennessee when it fell to Union forces in 1862. He then chose Johnson as his vice-presidential running mate in 1864.)
Military skirmishes continued in Tennessee throughout the war. During a clash on September 4, 1864, a cannonball lodged in the front wall of the Cumberland Presbyterian Church, corner of Main and Church Streets in Greeneville. There it remains, just as East Tennesseans remained a chink in the wall of the Confederacy.
Daniel Ellis (1827-1908) made his home in the East Tennessee town of Elizabethton, which has a long history of insurgency. (Here a group of colonists had defied a 1770 treaty between England and the Cherokee, which called for them to abandon their homesteads; instead the settlers leased this land from the Cherokee so they could stay. A decade later, “Overmountain Men” rallied here and marched across the Appalachians to the Battle of King’s Mountain.)
In this spirit, Ellis smuggled about four thousand men out of this region to join Federal forces during the Civil War. On return trips, he carried letters from the Union soldiers to their families back in East Tennessee. All the while, he passed information to Union officers about Confederate troop movements around his hometown.
The Confederacy placed a price on his head, burned his home, and intimidated his family, yet Ellis eluded capture to continue his smuggling and spying operation for nearly four years. Confederates called him “The Red Fox.” Eventually, the Union Army commissioned him a captain in the 13th Tennessee Cavalry.
Two years after the war’s end, Harper published his memoirs as a book entitled, The Thrilling Adventures of Daniel Ellis. (Overmountain Press reprinted this book in 1989.) Though he may have embellished some of its accounts, there’s no doubt Captain Ellis defied death to slip across the battle front between Knoxville and Johnson’s Station (now Johnson City) again and again.