Friday, February 25, 2011

Eyewitness Account of a Confederate Train Wreck

This monument at Fort Hill Cemetery, Cleveland, Tennessee, memorializes the 17 Confederate soldiers of the 33rd Alabama Volunteers, CSA, who died November 4, 1862, in a train wreck south of Cleveland, en route to Chattanooga, during the War Between the States.  In addition to the 17 dead, another 67 soldiers were injured in the accident.

The monument, listing the names of each of the 17 soldiers, was dedicated November 4, 1989, 127 years after the accident. It stands beside another, much older monument which marks the mass grave of 270 unknown Confederate soldiers.

At the time of the accident, the Alabama 33rd had just fought a battle in Kentucky and were on their way to Chattanooga.  There was no time for burials and the ded were laid in hastily dug graves beside the railroad tracks.  The marker for those graves was long since lost so the exact location is known only to God. 

A fascinating eyewitness account of the train wreck was written by a survivor, Pvt. Marvin L. Wheeler, Company A, 33rd Alabama Infantry Regiment. Pvt. Wheeler enlisted July 1862 at Stevenson, Alabama. He was wounded at Chickamauga. The following is taken from Pvt. Wheeler's memoirs:

"It was then the ladder part of October and first of November. Climatic conditions caused Knoxville to be the smokest place we were at, the smok from our green oak wood fires did not rise but settled and remained in a heavy black bank just above the earth and kept our eyes running water nearly all the time that we were not laying down, it being less dense just next to the earth, and we wer glad to leave there one morning early in November in box cars, a company in a car, with three days cooked rations of flour bread, fresh beef and bacon.

"The engines could pull but ten loaded box cars, say twenty four to thirty six feet long. The 33rd moved in the cars, that time by the left flank, the regimental staff officers or those who were along at the time and part of the baggage, the cooking utensils, axes and medicine chest, occupying the rear or tenth box and this time it fell to the lot of Company D, thought its place was not on the extreem right of the battalion, to occupy a box in the second section or train to our rear, the engine of which train frequently pushed our train up the grains when we stalled, as it did up the grade two or three miles south of Cleveland. And while running fast down grade our trained was wrecked about one or two p.m. the day we left Knoxville, south of Cleveland, killing nine or ten of Company G, one or two of Company E and of Company F and of Company H. Seventeen in all, whom we buried the next morning in a long ditch we dug on the southeast side of the railroad track, and built a worn rail fence around them. We pad put sixty seven crippled ones in box cars and sent them back to the hospital at Cleveland the evening of the wreck, soon after getting them out of it.

"Company B was in the box car next to the tender which was heaping full of split wood and it was supposed that a stick of wood dropped off the tender breaking the front axle under our car. At any rate all the wheels suddenling came out from under our car, causing a dreadful jar and clogged under the second car, which Company G Cooper's Co. from Daleville were in. Many were riding on top of the cars as was usual when moving by rail, and were shuck off like shaking peaches off a tree and badly jolted when they hit the ground.

"The coupling Company B's and Company G's boxes parted and the primitive engine carried Company B's box bouncing along without any wheels under it for two or three hundred yards, and it was the roughest riding we ever experienced. Those of Company B in the front end of the box got out at the doors on either side, some of the alighting on their heads.

"The company guns, accountrements, knapsacks and things soon all worked back to the rear end of the box in bouncing along would strike the rails it would us men and things a foot or more from the floor then when the floor would come in contact with us some would be beneath the pile and get bruised and mashed and were all banged up and badly frightened when the old fashioned engine stopped and after gettin out and find we had no broken bones we hurried back to where the cars were piled up in and on top of each other and assisted while men pried up or chopped to pieces the boxes in getting the crippled or dead out.

"We were delayed about twenty four hours, then we rode in a coal car to Chattanooga where we drew crackers and bacon."

Myra Inman, a local Cleveland woman whose Civil War diary has been published, made this entry on the day of the train wreck:

"Wednesday, 5: cloudy day, rained a little this morning. A gloom was spread over our town this morn. Caused by a sad accident which occurred 16 miles from here. The cable of a car broke, which caused 18 men to lose their lives, while 70 were wounded. There brought to the hospitals."

Fort Hill Cemetery, Cleveland, Tennessee
Left: Monument in memory of the 17 dead from the Alabama 33rd Volunteers train wreck.
Right:  Mass Grave Marker for 270 unknown Confederate dead.
Photos by J. Stephen Conn - click on image to enlarge