Fulfilling a promise to a veteran
Published 3:59 pm Tuesday, August 22, 2023
BY JADON GIBSON
Cumberland Gap changed hands several times during the Civil War.
The Rebels held the Gap for a year before Gen. Ambrose Burnside led his troops in an assault on the rebels in September 1863.
Burnside tricked his adversaries into believing they were out-manned. He moved his troops and artillery into position while being watched by the rebels on the distant mountain. Under the cover of darkness, he removed them only to have them openly move again into position the following day. This was done a third time.
Feeling his troops were outnumbered Confederate Gen. John Frazer surrendered his dug-in force even though they had superior position.
Lt. William R. McEntire was a member of Company A of the Ninth Georgia Artillery and was in command of a cannon at Fort Pitt, near the Pinnacle on Cumberland Mountain.
When he was told to surrender he refused and ordered his men to continue firing. Reports are that they gladly complied. He and the defiant members of his company were eventually arrested and placed under guard.
However, after dark individuals of the pesky unit were able to demonstrate their continued defiance by tearing down the Yankee flag.
Soon McEntire and the others were shipped off to prisons in the North, and the Gap remained in Union hands for the remainder of the war.
McEntire and the other Confederate prisoners were kept under harsh conditions in the northern prisons until they were released on June 16, 1865. Not unlike the others, survivors of Company A returned to Georgia not knowing what to expect. McEntire fared worse than most. His wife and children had been killed, falling before Sherman’s march through Georgia. Only ashes remained where his home and farm buildings once stood.
He found little to hold to in Georgia, so young McEntire left it all behind and migrated to Texas as many others did in that era. The initials GTT meaning “gone to Texas” were common in courthouses at the time.
McEntire remarried and became quite successful in Texas ranching and banking circles. When Civil War Company A held their yearly reunions he always attended. These events were held in or near the Atlanta area. With each successive meeting a dwindling number of veterans attended as they died off or became immobile.
The men who attended enjoyed reminiscing about the war, but McEntire remained bitter about the misguided surrender. When McEntire called the roll of 150 names at the 1904 reunion in Smyrna, Georgia, only 21 were present. Most of the others were deceased.
McEntire died in 1917, while he was in his 80s, but not before making an unusual request of his grandson George McEntire.
“If it is in your power I want you to return to Cumberland Gap on September 9, 1963, 100 years to the day after our surrender,” he uttered. “I want you to promise me that you’ll stand near Fort Pitt on Cumberland Mountain, look to the north, and curse the Yankees.”
George McEntire appeased his grandfather by making that promise. Although he never knew if he would be able to keep the promise it remained in the back of his mind.
The years past and finally 1963 arrived with George McEntire becoming more excited with each passing day. His health and finances were such that he could make the trip.
George McEntire drove from his Texas home arriving at Cumberland Gap National Historical Park on Sept. 9, 1963. When he told his story to a park ranger, McEntire was informed that the name “McEntire” was carved into a rock near the Pinnacle.
They drove to the Pinnacle and walked to the rock. Still evident after a century of weathering was the etching on the rock which read, “W. R. McEntire – Liet. Co. A-9 Ga. Bat. Arty. – Sept. 9, 1863.” McEntire’s chest swelled with a greater appreciation for his grandfather who had initiated the trip with his unusual request 46 years before.
“He was quite concerned and embarrassed because of the surrender to the Yankees a century ago,” George McEntire said. “I’m not as upset as he was, but I’m here to keep my promise to him anyway.”
The Middlesboro Daily News headline the following day read, “Texan Appeases Dead Grandpa, Curses Yankees from Pinnacle.”
Jadon Gibson is a widely read Appalachian writer from Harrogate, Tennessee. Thanks to Lincoln Memorial University, Alice Lloyd College and the Museum of Appalachia for their assistance.