The Imaginative Pottery of C.A. Haun, Saboteur

When I heard there was a pottery exhibit at the History Center, I wasn’t tempted away from my daily routines. But attorney Charles Fels, who’s been doing some research into one of the Civil War’s most dramatic episodes, told me maybe I shouldn’t miss this one. And among the over 100 jugs, bottles, jars, and carafes on display, I found some surprises. We think of antebellum Americans as very formal, or practical, or both, but some of these 19th-century pots seem pretty giddy.

Some are whimsical caricatures. One work by Knox County Potter John Floyd appears to be a lampoon of President John Tyler, from 1842, a political cartoon in clay. Some big jars are decorated with random splashes of color, a century before Jackson Pollock.

One of the potters whose work is most prominently displayed in the exhibit was hanged as a saboteur. It was just down the street, 150 years ago this fall.

Born in 1821, Christopher Alexander Haun of Greene County became one of Tennessee’s finest potters. By fall 1861, rebel troops occupied East Tennessee, but secession didn’t tempt this 40-year old father of four. He was a Unionist, and for a moment he thought he’d found a way to help.

In 1861, a main route from Virginia to the Deep South was the East Tennessee and Virginia Railroad, which connected Bristol to Knoxville via Greene County. There had been some planning for a Union invasion of Unionist East Tennessee. Destroying a few bridges would cripple any Confederate response. The plan was to strike several bridges at once, in the dark of night on Nov. 8-9, 1861.

Haun, the regionally famous potter, was chosen to help Union Captain David Fry burn a railroad bridge over Lick Creek, in western Greene County, about 50 miles east of Knoxville. The guerrillas overcame the Confederate guard and held them at bay while they torched the bridge with turpentine. Then they let the rebels go.

From Chattanooga to Bristol, the saboteurs succeeded in destroying or damaging seven bridges that night.

The conspiracy was so secretive that even to this day we don’t know the identities of many of the dozens who took part. But on a tip from one of the freed guards, rebel authorities caught six of them, including Haun. Arson is a serious felony in peacetime. But the Confederate military authorities in occupied Knoxville, expressing frustration with “the slow course of civil law,” recommended harsher retribution.

The promised Union invasion didn’t work out, but the burnings alarmed the Confederate government in Richmond, already nervous about Union-tilting East Tennessee. Confederate Secretary of War Judah P. Benjamin demanded the bridge burners—he called them “traitors”—be captured, court-martialed, executed, and left hanging by railroads as an example.

Two, including Fry, were hanged in Greene County and left dangling within sight of passenger trains, as directed. Haun and three others were taken to the medieval-style Knoxville jail on Hill Avenue. Known during the war as Castle Fox, it was the uncomfortable home of dozens of other unrepentant Unionists.

Haun was picked out for a hasty “drumhead” court martial and found guilty, 31 days after the deed. The bridge he’d burned had already been rebuilt.

At Knoxville, Brigadier-General W.H. Carroll may have had misgivings about killing a civilian prisoner, saboteur though he might be. From Knoxville he telegraphed the Confederate administration, under the impression that President Jefferson Davis himself would have to approve the extraordinary execution. Haun hadn’t killed anybody, and he had a wife, four kids, and another on the way.

Carroll might be forgiven for his uncertainty about protocol. They’d all begun that strange year as U.S. citizens. Confederate laws were only a few months old, after all. And Confederate laws were mostly based on the enemy’s laws. It was a right awkward spell. He sent another telegram to Richmond.

Secretary Benjamin snapped back, sounding a little impatient. “The law does not require any approval by the president, but he entirely approves my order to hang every bridge-burner you catch and convict.” Most were never caught.

At noon on Wednesday, December 11, 1861, C.A. Haun, bridge burner and master potter, was hanged on the north side of downtown Knoxville, probably in the vicinity of what’s now Depot Street. At Haun’s request, Confederate authorities sent his body to his wife in Greeneville. Two other bridge burners, father and son Jacob and Henry Harmon, also potters, died at the scaffold a few days later.

Today, and until Oct. 29, you can see Haun’s work in clay at the Museum of East Tennessee History. Much of it’s a rich reddish brown, some of it with intuitive streaks of color, like a serpentine figure and a diagonal crosshatch decoration on a couple of two-gallon jugs. Haun was known for his work with glazes, especially copper and manganese. After all these years, they still glisten.

Some of his jars are displayed in the same case as those of a younger apprentice, J.A. Lowe—who turned down the invitation to join the bridge burners with the understandable excuse, apparently a surprise to his colleagues, that he intended to join the Confederate army. Also on display are some of the works of C.A. Haun’s younger brother, Lewis, who carried on the family tradition ably through the late 19th century.

They seem casual, almost modern. Some of the jugs are just attributed to Haun, based on his style, well-known among pottery experts. But some have his imprint, apparently pressed into the wet clay in rotary fashion, what they call “coggling,” a curious signature of exotic design. Look closely, and you see letters in a font that might remind you of French posters of art-nouveau period, a half-century later: C.A. HAUN.

The curator chose not to tell Haun’s dramatic story in the exhibit. I’m not sure why not. For me, knowing that story was part of what made it the most interesting display of pots I’ve ever seen.

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