Defender of the Bridge.

James Keeling, Defender of the Bridge

Field review by the editors.

Bristol, Virginia

Most of James Keeling is buried in Virginia, but his hand is in a grave across the state line in Tennessee -- only a few hundred yards from where it was chopped off.

Keeling was a 43-year-old Confederate private guarding a railroad bridge across the Holston River. On the night of November 8, 1861, Keeling fought a group of Union loyalist "bridge-burners," who wanted to torch the railroad bridge. Some accounts say that Keeling faced only five or six arsonists, others that there were as many as 40; some say that Keeling killed three of them, others that he merely wounded one and knocked away their box of matches. Whatever odds he actually faced, Keeling kept the bridge from burning, and was so bloody with knife and bullet wounds that he was left for dead. A local woman made a silk bag for his severed hand and buried it in her nearby family cemetery (currently closed to visitors) but the rest of Keeling survived for another 34 years.

Keeling was buried in an unmarked grave -- and celebrated as an example of Lost Cause valor. He was christened "The South's Horatius" -- for his heroic bridge defense -- and posthumously awarded the Confederate Medal of Honor. Fourteen years after he died his grave was marked with a small obelisk engraved with a Confederate battle flag; the epitaph, "Defender of the Bridge;" and a brief, heroic account of the night he lost his hand. And although most people have never heard of James Keeling, his obelisk is sparkling clean and well-maintained in a cemetery of tumbling, weather-beaten tombstones. Apparently, The South's Horatius still has local fans.

James Keeling, Defender of the Bridge

East Hill Cemetery

Address:
E. State St., Bristol, VA
Directions:
East Hill Cemetery. I-81 exit 1 in Tennessee. Drive east toward Bristol on US Hwy 421, which turns into State St. Drive 3.5 miles, through town. The cemetery entrance will be on the left. Drive through the gate, then make an immediate left and follow the road westward until it ends in a gravel loop. Drive to the back of the loop, park, then continue walking westward, and you'll see the small obelisk straight ahead and to the right. Look for the engraved Confederate flag.
Hours:
Gated after hours. Local health policies may affect hours and access.
Save to My Sights

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In the region:
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