PUBLISHED:

In February of 1894, a feeble, one-armed man walked into the offices of Dr. W.T. Delaney in Bristol. His name was James Keelan, and though he was never one to take charity, he was in a bit of a pinch. His wife had died, and Keelan was the sole guardian of three granddaughters. And at age 76, he had no reasonable option for employment. However, the Tennessee legislature had funded a pension for former Confederate soldiers, and Keelan—claiming he was a veteran of the Civil War—was there to request his rightful payment. But when Delaney began to question the man about his service, he uncovered one of the most incredible and heroic stories he’d ever heard…which would forever earn Keelan a place in American Military history. This is his story:

James Keelan was born in Virginia in 1818. The son of farmers, Keelan learned to hunt, fish, and farm at a young age. He led a relatively quiet existence until the onset of the Civil War. By that time, he was 43 years old, but still enlisted in the Confederate Army within the Will Thomas Legion.

In October of 1861, unbeknownst to the Confederates, the pro-Union William B. Carter devised a plan to invade East Tennessee via the Cumberland Gap (a crucial crossing point for the Confederate Army). Without hesitation, the plan was approved by President Lincoln, General William Sheridan and General George Thomas. As the invasion started, some unexpected moves by the Confederates separated the Union regiments, and Carter’s army was left alone to invade Tennessee, burning bridges and destroying infrastructure. They were successful, to a point, until they reached the Strawberry Plains Bridge over the Holston River outside Knoxville. And as it turns out, the regiment assigned to protect the Strawberry Plains Bridge was none other than the Will Thomas Legion.

 

On November 8, the only member of the Will Thomas Legion standing guard was Private James Keelan, and through the bitter cold wind, he heard the footsteps of nearly a dozen soldiers headed his way. From his post, he could see the invaders without being seen…and his heart raced as he saw the flicker of a match being struck and lighting pine splinters. He fumbled for his rifle, but couldn’t find it in the dark. Instead, he found his pistol, and slowly took aim.

Then, in a flash, he fired the pistol and hit one intruder directly in the chest, killing him. As the intruders returned fire, Keelan grabbed his Bowie knife and began to swing furiously at the Union soldiers. Blood was shed, men fell, Keelan had shots fired at his chest and sabers swung at his head. Suddenly, the Union soldiers noticed burning lights at the nearby Stringfield residence, and knew their plan had been foiled. And those who were still alive quickly retreated, leaving Keelan alone.

The years of hard labor and strong constitution had given Keelan a strong constitution and he managed to stay conscious, so he drug himself inch by inch off the bridge and towards the lights. And even though he was near death, Keelan kept crawling to the Elmore residence (afraid he would scare the ladies at the Stringfield residence). When William Elmore discovered Keelan, he was astounded that the man was still alive.

“Jim,” said Elmore, “you’ve been drunk or asleep and let the train run over you!”

“No Billy,” was Keelan’s reply. “They have killed me, but I saved the bridge.”

A doctor was summoned, who treated three severe saber cuts to Keelan’s scalp, a gunshot wound in the right hand, right arm, and an inoperable bullet in his left hip. Keelan’s left hand, however, was the worst. It was removed and the bloody stump stitched up.

The next day, Confederate investigators discovered the bodies of three young men, and estimated that another six or seven had been severely wounded.

And more than 30 years later, in the office of W. T. Delaney, two of Keelan’s compatriots corroborated his story. Delaney sat back in shock, at what must surely have been one of the most amazing and heroic stories of the Civil War.

After Keelan’s remarkable story had been made public in 1895, he passed away in Bristol and was laid to rest in the East Ridge Cemetary. And on his headstone, they carved a Confederate battle flag with the inscription:

“James Keelan, Defender of the Bridge—The South’s Horatius.”

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