The Chattanooga area is rich in history. And wherever there is history, there are ghosts. One of the region’s most flamboyant ghosts is Soddy-Daisy’s Col. William Clift.
The first account of Clift’s apparition occurred in 1898, just before the Spanish-American War broke out. An elderly man trudging the back roads of Soddy-Daisy claimed the colonel rose from his grave in Mount Bethel Presbyterian Cemetery, accompanied by the sounds of taps and muffled drums.
Just before the outbreak of other wars, the same events unfolded at the graveyard, according to witnesses of the day. Folks surmised that the colonel was warning of danger to America.
His place in history suggests that their story is based on some truth. The man was a zealous patriot. Anyone who knew the colonel during life might well imagine that even death could not silence him.
Described as Hamilton County’s first millionaire, in peacetime this influential slaveholder directed his passion toward taming thousands of acres of land he had amassed throughout Hamilton County. But when the Southern states seceded in 1861, Clift was devastated that the differences in values and opinions were literally tearing the once United States apart.
Clift’s stand on the War Between the States was firm—he risked all to follow his heart. At the age of 67, he joined the Army as a Northern officer, determined to preserve the nation intact. Described by historians Govan and Livingood as a man "who never failed to give assistance to the Union cause," his fervor for the Constitution led him to fight against many of his neighbors and even members of his own family.
Clift became a man possessed. Although most men in Chattanooga were Confederate sympathizers, many in Hamilton County supported the Union.
"People began coming to his farm," Sale Creek historian Curtis Coulter said. "He gave them refuge, and there eventually got to be so many that he brought them up to Coulterville."
Clift gathered the force of 300 to 500 Federal sympathizers into what he called the Seventh Federal Regiment and set up for their instruction and drilling at the Cumberland Presbyterian Church campground in Sale Creek.
Clift had commanded the County’s Seventh Regiment Tennessee Volunteer Militia before hostilities broke out between the states, but most of his men were green. Nonetheless, he didn't wait for the action to officially arrive in the Chattanooga area. Without aid from other Unionists, Clift's men initiated local skirmishes and amateurish sorties against Confederate strongholds. His incredible tenacity earned him a reputation as a hothead and a zealot.
For their major defense, Clift relied on a homemade cannon refashioned from a black gum log fitted with the flue from his riverboat.
"The blacksmith put strapping around it," then mounted it on an ox cart; "they fired it one day and blew it all to pieces," scaring his own men more than the enemy, according to Coulter.
Clift had amassed enough men and caused enough trouble that, finally, Coulter said, "The Meigs and Rhea militias decided they were going to come down and, along with the Hamilton County militia, set them adrift. They squared off."
They postured and crowed, but no real damage was done. They decided to talk instead.
"They met September 1861 and signed what was called the Treaty of Smith’s Crossroads," Coulter said. "They said any fighting they did would not change the outcome of the war and would only kill local people. So they just agreed to disagree and disbanded."
By November, the situation heated up again, "so the Sixth Alabama Infantry came up by riverboat, and they put them out," Coulter said. "They marched in and arrested everybody they came to, to keep them from running and telling Clift and his men."
At the same time, the Meigs and Rhea militias marched down again from the North.
"Before they would’ve done battle, Clift’s men all met, and they voted to disband—they just decided they weren’t going to fight," Coulter said.
Knowing he was beaten—for the moment—Clift fled into the mountains. Many of his men escaped to join Yankee troops in the North.
But, Coulter said, the Sixth Alabama Infantry fired on the camp, not knowing that Clift’s men had cleared out.
"Some of the Rhea County people were in the camp, so I guess in the yelling back and forth, they finally decided they were shooting on their own people," Coulter said.
Clift eventually reached Kentucky, where he received a commission to the Union’s Seventh East Tennessee Regiment. However, he would not withdraw his forces as ordered in one battle and was arrested.
It was said that Clift did not know the meaning of retreat—or defeat—and it was rumored that President Abraham Lincoln himself had him quietly reassigned.
The colonel's strong will and fearlessness could not keep his family together during the war. Two of his sons chose to join the Confederate Army, as did three sons-in-law. During the 1863 Battle of Chattanooga, Southern troops captured Clift carrying secret documents to Gen. Ambrose Burnside in Knoxville. His own son, Capt. Moses Clift, brought him in.
Two other sons, whether on their own accord or because of their father’s ardent persuasion, signed up with the Union.
This outspoken opponent of secession lived to see his beloved country torn apart then finally made whole again. After the war, Clift labored to restore national unity and reached out to the defeated Confederates.
His tombstone says he died in 1886, at the age of 91. But if accounts of his ghost and phantom legion of both blue and gray are true, his fierce patriotism lives on.
As a child, Georgiana Chitko Kotarski ate dirt. Now, she simply wears it. She chases after her herd of grass-fed cattle and machetes her way through the organic garden on her Sequatchie Valley farmstead. She began her writing career selling magazine articles; then, under mysterious circumstances, she found herself authoring "Ghosts of the Southern Tennessee Valley." This collection of local stories was honored by Storytelling Magazine. More than 6,000 copies have been sold. She earned her forestry degree from Sewanee, thinking she should make all A’s because of her tree hugging experience. She didn’t. She then completed an MPA at UTC. The opinions expressed in this column belong solely to the author, not Nooga.com or its employees.