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A modern Horatius. [from the Louisville, Ky., courier-journal, January 9, 1894.]


Defence of a Bridge by one Confederate against an attack by Forty Federals.

He Kills three and wounds eight of his assailants after losing a hand.


[This article has been received from a distinguished Confederate officer. If the account may be questioned, let it be disproved.—Ed.] [Correspondence of the Courier-Journal.]

Bristol, Tenn., January 7, 1894.
I had an interview yesterday with a man who performed an act of [295] heroism during the civil war, of equally cool courage, and under circumstances of far greater personal danger, than that for which Horatious Codes has been celebrated in song and story for more than 2,000 years, for the soldiers of Lars Porsenna were not armed with modern guns, as were the assailants of this Nineteenth century hero—neither was he equipped with shield and coat of mail, as was the brave defender of the bridge across the Tiber.

James Keelin was a member of a battalion of Confederate cavalry, known as ‘Thomas' Legion,’ which was afterward, I believe, merged into a regiment commanded by Colonel Love. The ‘Legion’ was composed of hardy mountaineers from Western North Carolina, and was attached to the brigade commanded by General ‘Mudwall’ Jackson (so called to distinguish him from the immortal ‘Stonewall,’ and possibly for some other reasons). Keelin was only an ordinary private soldier, without any education, and his military training consisted chiefly in being firmly impressed with the fact that his first duty was to ‘obey orders.’

In November, 1862, Keelin was detailed with some six or eight others of his command to guard the bridge at Strawberry Plains, Tennessee, which was threatened by raiding parties of Brownlow's ‘Tennessee Federals.’ On the 6th of November, all the guard was withdrawn except Keelin and one other, and the extra guns they had were taken away by the recruiting officer at Strawberry Plains. This information was doubtless conveyed to Brownlow's troops, for on the 8th, at the dark hour of midnight, a party of Federal raiders, numbring forty men, appeared near the bridge with the evident intention of attacking and setting fire to the structure.

As soon as he saw the armed force making for the bridge, Keelin's companion in arms fled in the opposite direction, carrying his gun with him, leaving Keelin alone with a single gun and a big knife of the ‘Arkansaw Toothpick’ variety, to defend the bridge as best he might. As hopeless as the task appeared, Keelin bravely determined to stand to his post despite the tremendous odds against him, and do his best to keep the enemy from burning the bridge. He posted himself on the top of a bank underneath the bridge and awaited the attack. He held his gun at a ‘ready,’ and when one of the party advanced with a lighted torch, prepared to climb up to the woodwork of the bridge, Keelin shot him dead in his tracks. The survivors fired a volley at the solitary guard, and with a wild yell made a rush [296] for the bank. Though Keelin was wounded three times by the volley—in the hip, where he still carries a bullet, in the left arm and in the side—he bravely stood his ground; and not having time to reload his muzzle-loading musket, he drew his big knife and awaited the onset. Fortunately for him the assent was narrow, and the attacking party could only climb up the steep bank one or two at a time. With his knife he slew two more of the invaders and wounded six others, hurling them gashed and bleeding down the embankment. Once he stumbled while aiming a blow at one of the party, and before he could recover a big fellow made a vicious stroke at him with a heavy knife. He threw up his left arm to ward off the blow from his head, and the blow severed his hand at the wrist, besides inflicting an ugly gash upon the scalp. He also received a dangerous cut in the neck, and another on the right hand.

With all these gaping and bleeding wounds the brave fellow stood his ground, fighting with the courage of a Bayard, and held the whole attacking party at bay. At last, Bill Pickens, the lieutenant who was commanding the Federals, seeing so many of his men fall before the invincible arm of the brave Confederate, called out with an oath: ‘Let me up there, boys, I'll fix the d-n rebel!’ But when he rushed up the bank he was confronted by the same weapon, gory with the blood of his subordinates, and, after receiving two vicious cuts, he too retired, calling off his men. They left the place hastily, leaving their three dead companions on the ground, but carrying off their wounded. They thought that a force of Confederates was encamped a mile or so up the river, and probably expected them to be attracted to the scene by the sound of the firing.

Keelin, desperately wounded as he was, remained at his post until relieved. He bound up the bleeding stump of his arm, and staunched the blood of his half-dozen other wounds as best he could, receiving no medical attention till after daylight next morning. After he recovered from his wounds, he continued to serve in the army to the end of the war, notwithstanding the loss of his left hand. He is now an old man, far on the shady side of sixty, and lives by the fruits of his daily toil in a little cabin in West Bristol. He is modest and retiring in disposition, and comparatively few people in this city, where he has resided for a number of years, have ever seen him or heard the wonderful story of which he is the hero. There are several persons here, however, who are familiar with the incident, and from an [297] old Confederate, who was in the vicinity when the fight occurred, the Courier-Journal correspondent heard the story before seeking an interview with Mr. Keelin.

When asked why he did not run away with his companion when he saw the overwhelming force of the enemy, he modestly replied that he had been put there to defend the bridge, and save it from destruction if he could, and he did not think it right to give it up without at least making some show of fight for it; and when he got into it, ‘there was no way to get out except to fight out,’ as he put it. He seemed to have very little idea that his deed deserves to rank with the bravest in the records of mankind. He does not complain of his lot, but wends his quiet way unnoticed and almost unknown. He deserves a pension, both from his native State and from the railroad company, whose property he so bravely defended.


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