Tennessee Unionists in the Civil War 4 - A Hazardous Journey

Aug 23, 2019 12:00 AM

Alvis Duncan Hicks compiled service record

2nd Tennessee Infantry, Volunteer

Sunday, August 11, 1861. Four dozen or more men from Roane County, Tennessee (which included present-day Loudon County), having made possibly the most significant decision of their mortal lives, dispersed from their meeting at the Union Baptist Church and returned to their homes to kiss their families goodbye. Collecting what goods they deemed it necessary to carry, they proceeded to their agreed upon rendezvous points.

The northward march began at Prospect Baptist Church[1] and then on through Stockton Valley, collecting men as they went along. The column soon numbered about 40 men.

Their original travel plan was to rendezvous with other Unionists at the south Kentucky town of Barbourville. The journey was not going to be an easy one. Virginia had already lost its own pro-Union mountain territory to Federal control. Knowing that East Tennessee was a pro-Union stronghold, the Confederates were determined to hang on to it. They had already exerted control over all the big towns and were patrolling the main highways. The only safe option for the would-be Federals was through little known, seldom traveled Indian paths and buffalo trails through the wooded hills. 

Despite a late start and a rough hike overland, they made 10 miles or more (depending on the route they had to take) and camped that night at Swan Pond near present day Harriman, just a few miles south of the Morgan County line. This was on the sprawling farm of Robert K. Byrd, the most prominent and vocal Unionist in Roane County, a leading property owner—and a slaveholder. He would have been there to greet them except that he had left the previous day leading a large company who had signed up with him in Kingston. He would be appointed commander of the 1st Tennessee Volunteer Infantry at the rank of Colonel. He would serve throughout the war at that post with an exemplary record, including service under Sherman in the Atlanta campaign, until the regiment was mustered out in August 1864. 

The next morning, they continued their journey, avoiding the road and walking pine-wooded paths whenever possible, and watchfully crossing open fields only when necessary. Other men continued to join their march, so that by the time they crossed the state line three days later there were 360 of them.

Their numbers swelling, it was becoming even more difficult to move without attracting attention. Cutting north through the notch at Harriman, the company covered about twenty miles to Montgomery, the Morgan County seat.[2] The next day they made another twenty north to Pine Top and arrived at the Tolliver Staples farm.[3]


Benjamin Taliaferro Staples was a prominent man in that county and one of the most interesting Civil War characters that almost no one has heard of. An attorney, he was also named the first postmaster of Pine Top in 1856. He was a former county surveyor, County Clerk and Master of the Chancery, was active in state and local politics, and had run for various offices. An ardent pro-Unionist who had supported Bell for president, he dedicated his days post-secession to helping men escape Confederate hands to join the Union army. He was one of those later arrested and taken to Knoxville in the sweep following the burning of railroad bridges by Unionist partisans. (He was suspiciously absent from home that night, but authorities had no evidence that he was a participant in the affair.) After his release—or more accurately, his expulsion from the state—he joined the Federal forces as a colonel or adjutant of volunteers. There is some confusion in the record regarding his specific service, but evidently he was killed in the war in 1863. According to one account he was murdered by Champ Ferguson’s guerillas while being transported under their guard as a prisoner of war.

Tolliver Staples had sufficient means and local prestige to host a large assembly on his property without fear—for the time being—of harassment from Rebel patrols. His place was spacious enough for them to set up camp and had an ample spring or well for water. He likely also provided victuals. Most of the travelers do not seem to have had any personal knowledge of their host, however.

Sometime during the evening, probably while they ate their supper, John Bowman introduced to them a guide who would take them to Kentucky. This gentleman, he explained, would be leading them from here until they were safely across the state line.

They looked at the man skeptically. He looked old. Some would remember him as “Old Man Staples.”[4] Some, like Jack Snow, would just remember him as an old man. He must have been an amazing character, seemingly a throwback to the old frontier. With a weathered face and white hair hanging down to his stooped shoulders, he looked like he might have been a guide to Davy Crockett back in the day, but scarcely able even to survive the trip now.

Was this Tolliver Staples himself? It’s possible, but I don’t have direct evidence to say so at this point. Certainly, a man who had been county surveyor and postmaster would have a detailed knowledge of the backwoods and hidden paths. Tolliver Staples was only 44 (b. 1817), but he may have had the appearance of a much older man. On the other hand, the legendary and mysterious “Old Man Staples” could have been—and I think probably was—one of his older brothers, Thomas (b. 1807), or William (b. 1802). In any case, the “old man’s” outward appearance belied the true vigor of his frame, as we shall see. 

Staples informed them that from here they were going to take a detour. A direct route to Barbourville via the highway through Huntsville and Oneida up to Pine Knot was too dangerous. The Rebels were aware that many, not just this group, were headed for the border, and they had pickets and roadblocks all along that way.

Instead they would turn northwest toward Fentress County. Though not strictly part of East Tennessee, the vast majority of its population was of Unionist sentiment. Also, the area was sparsely populated, and though it was hilly, the mountains were not high. The guide knew the woodland trails and passes intimately. He assured them that if they stuck with him, he would get them there. 

He surveyed what weapons they had with them. According to Jack Snow, “there were only a few guns in the crowd, but every man had a butcher knife.” As the dusky light faded away the old man admonished them to get the best rest they could tonight, because tomorrow they would cover more ground than they thought possible. “Tomorrow night,” he pledged, “you will pitch your bedroll in Kentucky.” The way he said it made them think he believed it, and it gave them confidence.

It was still dark when their leaders roused them for breakfast. At daybreak they were moving out. It did not take them long to realize that the old man was far from frail. The young men had to struggle to keep up with him as he led them “over mountain and valley, through forest and creek, with the agility of a deer,” writes Jack Snow. By mid-morning they were crossing the Big South Fork of the Cumberland River. It was a deep ford. Six-foot-tall Jack Snow said that the water “came up to my neck and some of the fellows had to be helped across.”

Snow remembered how “when we crossed the road about three miles from Jamestown where a Rebel Army was camped, the guide told every man to have a stick on his shoulder” as though he were carrying a rifle. “We aimed to make them think we were ready to fight.” It was the closest they came to contact with the enemy on their journey. They managed to pass undetected or at least unchallenged, but Old Man Staples continued to push on. For a good part of the afternoon it rained on them. Even for young men used to a strenuous life the pace was grueling, but no one fell out and none turned back.

The sun had set, and as the last light of day faded away the old man suddenly stopped and indicated that the company would camp here. They weren’t home free yet, but he assured them they were now in Kentucky. He also told them that they had traveled 65 miles this day. No one questioned the fact. Years later Jack Snow said, “Such a bunch of worn-out, wet, and tired fellows you never saw in your life, as we were that night…. Our feet were scalded and our muscles sore.”

When the men rose Thursday morning Old Man Staples was already gone and they never saw him again.[5] They still had a lot of ground to cover, but they were now freer to take the roadways and travel was easier and speedier. Kentucky was still “neutral,” but most of the population in this region was pro-Union and nervous about all the Confederate activity around their border. They were glad to see the column of Tennessee volunteers and were hospitable. By Saturday or Sunday, they reached Williamsburg and stopped long enough to let the folks treat them to a barbecue given in their honor. Likely it was there they were told that Lieutenant Carter had taken the early comers away from Barbourville and gone on up to a new camp outside of Nicolasville.[6] By the following Tuesday afternoon they had reached Camp Dick Robinson and were standing in line to sign the enlistment cards.


For the next three and a half years, the story of Alvis Hicks will be one with that of the 2nd Tennessee. The regimental story will belong in turns to the Army of the Ohio, the Army of the Cumberland, and the Army of the Ohio again. While in history these armies have stood in the shadow of the great Army of the Potomac, the part they played in the war was by no means inconsequential. Indeed, their role was decisive, and even those who became subject to captivity made a vital and costly contribution to the outcome of the war.


[1] Although it is not completely clear in Jack Snow’s account, the Prospect Church where the march began is not the same as the Stockton Valley church where they had the meeting.  The Prospect community is about 3-4 miles east of Stockton Valley.

[2] Montgomery is located west of Lancing off state Highway 62.  Though it shows up on no contemporary map, in 1861 Montgomery was a thriving town and still the business and political center of the county.  Its businesses included two whiskey distilleries, a maple sugar refinery, a tan yard, a bark mill, a cigar factory, a turpentine distillery and a blacksmith shop.  Yet even then Montgomery was being eclipsed by the fast-growing German-Swiss settlement of Wartburg.  Prior to the Civil War efforts had been made to move the county seat to Wartburg, and in 1870 it was actually done.  After that Montgomery swiftly declined and soon became a ghost town.  All that remains of it today, literally, is a pile of rocks from the old courthouse chimney.

[3] The name “Tolliver” is rendered in Jack Snow’s account as “Talliaferro,” no doubt correctly. Tolliver is the phonetic spelling reflecting how everyone pronounced it and is the spelling that endured after his death. After the war Pine Top’s name was changed to Stapleton in honor of Tolliver Staples, but when the railroad was built in 1879 the station was named Sunbright. The town subsequently took on that name, and Sunbright is the name the town holds today.

[4] The name “Old Man Staples” comes from a separate oral history.  See

[5] Assisted by a man named Davidson (from one of the oldest families in the county) as a contact person, the mysterious old frontiersman continued to guide other groups of defectors and refugees from Confederate Tennessee to Kentucky. Ibid.

[6] Williamsburg is on the way to Barbourville, but out of the way to Nicolasville by the route they must have traveled.