Wednesday, June 6, 2012

The Backstory of Bear Creek Bridge

When reviewing this period of the Western Campaign, it is necessary to remember the overriding principle of the Union's strategy.  The War Department was convinced that the only way to control such a vast territory was to control the supply routes.  This is even demonstrated in the naming of their armies, all of which were named for the important rivers they were organized to control (eg. Army of the Tennessee).  The Confederates had the much more challenging task of controlling political territories, which was similarly reflected in the naming of their armies (eg., Army of Tennessee), while defending the strategic positions that were likely to be attacked by the Union Army. 

In January of 1862, plans to descend the Mississippi River from Cairo, Il. and to ascend the Tennessee and Cumberland Rivers from their mouths on the Ohio were put into play.  The rebel defenses at Forts Henry (Tennessee R.) and Donelson (Cumberland R.) were quickly overcome in February and Grant's army ascended the Tennessee while Buell  proceeded up the Cumberland to occupy Nashville before joining Grant at Shiloh. This area is represented in the period map below.

The period map of the western Tennessee area courtesy of  Son of the South

The modern map that follows provides a wonderfully clear picture of the transportation systems extant from Savannah, Tn. to Florence, Al. in 1862.  This area, including Corinth, Ms., was called the Crossroads of the South for good reason. It connected Memphis to Atlanta and Mobile to Louisville by rivers, roads and rails.

From Savannah to Florence on the Tennessee River, courtesy of

A lesser known course of action was also underway deep in the heart of Dixie in January of 1862.  Union gunboats with supporting troops were advanced up the Tennessee to Eastport, Ms. with the single purpose of destroying an eighty-foot bridge on the Memphis & Charleston RR, where it crossed Bear Creek. For an excellent accounting of this campaign titled First Shiloh, please visit the website belonging to my Favorite Link, Navy & Marine Living History Association.

This is the very same bridge that Woods' and Nelson's divisions were sent to repair and protect.  It is also, quite probably, the setting for Ambrose Bierce's immortal short story, An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge.  Owl Creek is actually found on the western border of the Shiloh Battlefield, but must have been chosen for it's alliterative value. All other descriptors in this story are accurate to the Bear Creek Bridge and considering Bierce's assignment to Hazen's Brigade of Nelson's Division during their stay at  Iuka and Bear Creek, the story notes were likely written here.

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