Washington County and the area of what would later become Johnson City was in the epicenter of one of the most divided regions of the state during the Civil War.
Much of the focus is often on Confederate soldiers, more than 50 of which are buried at Johnson City’s Oak Hill Cemetery alongside a few Union soldiers from the region. But there were prominent Union leaders in the area who played influential roles for the small number of Union soldiers laid to rest in and around Johnson City.
In neighboring Johnson County, one of those figures was Roderick R. Butler, a Virginia native, legislator and lawyer, who played a prolific role in supporting and leading local Unionists.
Butler served as a state representative in the Tennessee House of Representatives just before the war and into 1862. The outbreak of the war changed the trajectory of Butler’s life, according to Melanie Storie, a lecturer in the East Tennessee State University Department of History and author of “The Dreaded 13th Tennessee Union Cavalry: Marauding Mountain Men.”
“He was elected to the General Assembly in 1859, so right before the secession crisis. He served in what was called the ‘rebel legislature’ in Tennessee, but he was a Unionist, and they had required everybody (in Nashville) to take an oath to the Confederacy. He didn’t want to do it, and there were some who didn’t do it and got sent off to prison down in Tuscaloosa, Alabama,” she said.
Butler later got criticized for taking that oath, despite his Unionist aims — a criticism Storie said was perhaps unfair.
“Butler thought it would be better to take the oath and work to help the Union as much as he could,” she said.
Before Tennessee joined the Confederacy in 1861, Butler worked alongside Washington County Unionists like Thomas A.R. Nelson of Jonesborough in an attempt to help keep the state in the Union.
“I think it was just instilled in him through his family,” Storie said of Butler’s pro-Union politics and alignments with the Whig and Republican parties.
Once Tennessee seceded, Storie said local Unionists “became more determined” to oppose Confederate rule, and many engaged in acts of sabotage throughout the region.
“In Nov. 1861 several key bridges on the ET & VA and ET & GA rail lines were burned. The Union Depot bridge at (what is now) Bluff City was one that was burned. The Confederacy came down hard on East Tennessee Unionists after this, and many from the area were arrested and taken to Nashville to be tried for treason.
“Butler, who was still a member of the General Assembly at this time, used his position as a legislator and training as a lawyer to represent Unionists and help them get out of jail and back home to East Tennessee. Butler himself was arrested by Confederate authorities on two occasions for treason, but was released both times,” Storie said.
As the war progressed, Butler helped organize the 13th Tennessee Union Cavalry and began serving as Lt. Colonel with that regiment in 1862. That regiment included local fighters as young as 15, such as John G. Burchfield, a soldier who took part in the bridge-burning and later served as chief engineer for Mountain Home in Johnson City.
After the war, Butler stayed in the region and served in the U.S. House of Representatives from 1867 to 1875. He continued his law practice and helped some black Union soldiers get their pensions following the war.
Butler left the military a year before the end of the war and resigned his position as Lt. Colonel due to health reasons, but later returned to politics as a state legislator and briefly served as a state court judge.
Butler’s home still stands in Mountain City, where he died in 1902.