The Siege at Bridgeport
Nearly 160 years ago, opposing troops gathered at a vital strategic asset — a railroad bridge across the Tennessee River. The span linked Alabama to Tennessee, and it represented a vital connection to points both north and south.
The bridge made the city of Bridgeport, Alabama, a focal point of a battle destined to become key to the fate of the Civil War. A battle lasting just more than an hour gave the bridge, and its strategic advantage, to federal forces.
Despite repeated Confederate efforts to regain the bridge, Union troops held the span for the remainder of the war. Bridgeport became the location of a shipping center that supported the march of Union troops across the South and to the sea.
Today, the Siege at Bridgeport is one of the largest annual Civil War reenactments in Alabama.
The Siege at Bridgeport reenactment
Location: County Road 255 just outside Bridgeport
The reenactment event kicks off on Friday, April 3, with a “school day” for local students to visit and learn about the Civil War.
“The infantry, cavalry and artillery will all be there,” says Merilyn Hill, a volunteer for the reenactment. “We have a lot of good scholars who love reliving and teaching these students about things like the flags flown during the Civil War.”
The event opens to the public on Saturday with an anvil shoot at noon, the first battle reenactment from 2-3 p.m. and a social ball in period clothing that night.
Sunday morning starts with a church service, followed by a trip to the local cemetery to place flowers on the graves of Civil War soldiers, as well as a historical presentation. The second reenactment will take place from 2-3 p.m.
“It’s about recognizing the history and teaching people about the Civil War,” Hill says. “They don’t learn much about it in school anymore, so a lot of people don’t know it. We think everyone needs to know the struggle and lifestyle of that era.”
For more information, visit facebook.com/siegeatbridgeport.
A few facts to know
- Bridgeport was originally known as Jonesville, named after the area’s largest landowner, Charles Smithson Jones.
- Development of a riverport and a new bridge across the Tennessee River prompted the name change to Bridgeport.
- Construction of the Nashville and Chattanooga (N&C) Railroad reached the community in 1852, bringing several new businesses, including a general store.
- Retreating Confederate troops destroyed the railroad’s drawbridge on the opposite side of Long Island.
- Bridgeport was the location for a Union field hospital and a military cemetery.
- Union steam transports and gunboats, including the USS Chattanooga and USS Bridgeport, were constructed in Bridgeport.
- More than 5,000 Union troops defeated about 450 Confederate forces there during the Siege at Bridgeport.
- The railroad shipping route from Bridgeport to Chattanooga was known as the “Cracker Line.”
- As many as 1,500 people have participated in the siege reenactment in Jackson County.
Sources: The Mountain Lakes Chamber of Commerce and the South Pittsburgh Historic Preservation Society
Postwar economic boom
Dennis Lambert and Ron Lee authored “Bridgeport, Alabama: Gateway to the Sequatchie Valley.” The 348-page book covers the history of the community from the times of Native Americans to the turn of the 20th century.
After the Civil War’s end in 1865, Bridgeport experienced a boom:
- Investors Frank J. Kilpatrick of New York City and others from the Northeast invested in the region. They built multistory retail businesses, creating a vibrant Bridgeport downtown.
- When the four-story Hoffman House opened in 1891, it featured electric lights and steam baths.
- The Aldhouse Block, also a four-story structure, housed a bowling alley and the First National Bank.
- The Whitcher Block housed Bridgeport’s first city hall.
After what became known as the Panic of 1893, the economic boom faded. The nationwide economic collapse was blamed on excessive building, particularly in the railroad industry. Questionable financing of that construction led to bank failures.
“Through all the turmoil that Bridgeport suffered during the Civil War, the city survived,” Lambert says. “And again, after a collapse in the country’s economy 120 years ago that all but crushed the town after it seemed to be on its way to becoming a major city. This town of about 2,500 residents has been very resilient.”
Bridgeport’s eventful history continued in 1999, when a downtown natural gas explosion claimed the lives of four people and leveled three buildings. The incident was an economic blow.
But over the years, Bridgeport has once again showed its resiliency:
- A new stage and amphitheater stand at the site of the destroyed buildings. A memorial to Ted Cloud, a retired downtown businessman who died in the blast, was included in the plan.
- The Southern rock band Confederate Railroad was one of the first performers there.
- The Trail of Tears Commemorative Motorcycle Ride originates in Bridgeport. Thousands of bikers and other visitors pour into the town for the event drawing attention to the suffering of Native Americans forced to march from Cherokee lands in North Carolina to reservations in Oklahoma. More than 4,000 of them died along the way.
- Google is constructing a $600 million data center outside Bridgeport, a facility expected to employ 75-100 people.