By Bud Phillips
Special to the Herald Courier
Published: September 21, 2008
A few years ago, I climbed a weed- and brush-covered hill near the east end of the railroad bridge at Strawberry Plains, Tenn. to a small, cut limestone enclosed family cemetery.
This was the burial ground for old Shady Plantation, once owned by Sarah King Williams, the only sister of Rev. James King of Bristol fame.
But, it was not her grave that I went to view. Rather, I went to see the burial site of a famous severed hand.
The owner of that hand was James Keeling, who later became a humble but highly respected citizen of Bristol, here being regarded as a Civil War hero.
At the beginning of the Civil War, James Keeling was a tenant on the farm of Frank Butler, which was a part of the old Shady Plantation.
The East Tennessee and Virginia Railroad passed through this plantation. That railroad was of great importance to the South. The destruction of the bridges along that line during the war became a prime interest to the Federals.
The railroad hired Keeling to guard the bridge located on the plantation site in what is now Strawberry Plains. He did his farm work by day and likely slept at the east end of the bridge during the night.
About midnight on Nov. 8, 1861, a group of 40 Federals from Sevier County, Tenn., led by William C. Pickens, attempted to burn the bridge.
Pickens was shot by Keeling, but he was not mortally wounded.
The torch he had already lit fell from his hand to the river bank as did the one box of matches he carried. Others of the group attacked Keeling.
During the hand-to-hand struggle, Keeling was shot.
His left hand was almost severed, his neck was gashed and scalp cut open to the skull, and his right arm was slashed near the wrist.
The attackers thought they had killed him, and then, having no matches to complete the mission, rode away.
In spite of his condition, Keeling walked nearly a quarter mile to the home of William Elmore, who sent for Dr. Robert Sneed. This doctor amputated the injured hand of Keeling.
According to her diary, Sarah Stringfield, a granddaughter of Sarah King Williams, made a silk bag for the severed hand and early next morning, it was buried in the family cemetery at the feet of her father, Rev. Thomas Stringfield.
In spite of these severe injuries and blood loss, James Keeling survived. Word spread of his heroic deed, and soon he was regarded as one of the southern Confederate heroes.
John G. King, youngest son of Bristol’s Rev. James King, later visited his relatives at Strawberry Plains. While there, he learned that this southern hero was not doing so well economically.
He moved him to Bristol and settled him on a small farm northwest of Bristol, Va., on or near the Benhams Road.
At the best, life was hard for this handicapped man. He was barely able to eek out a living on his small farm on which he was settled.
Old timers remembered that he survived winters by hauling firewood to town to sell.
One highlight in a deprived and dreary life was that he was always a highly honored and respected guest at local Confederate reunions.
These old veterans often referred to him as “The Horatius of the South” (which was a Roman historical legend about a hero who defended a bridge).
Shortly before his death, Keeling moved into a small cottage in Bristol, Tenn.
He died of pneumonia there on Feb. 12, 1895. He was buried in historic East Hill Cemetery in an unmarked grave near his fallen comrades. For years, the grave was neglected.
At the annual memorial meeting in East Hill Cemetery on May 30, 1908, Dr. William T. Delaney started a movement to mark the grave of Keeling and gave the first donation.
There and then, a monument association was formed with adjutant John N. Johnson as chairman, Robert Pile as treasurer and Mrs. H.F. Lewis as secretary.
Others followed suit with donations of their own, ranging from 10 cents to $5, and soon the amount grew to around $400. A marble obelisk was then erected at the grave.
At the annual memorial meeting in 1909, the Keeling monument was dedicated. On it, he is called the “Horatius of the South.”
©2008 Media General Communications Holdings, LLC