A Biography of Robert Cravens

Friday, May 10, 2013 - by John Shearer
Cravens House as it looks today, after post-Civil War restoration
Cravens House as it looks today, after post-Civil War restoration
- photo by John Shearer

One of the most famous names associated with the Civil War battle on Lookout Mountain 150 years ago this fall was Robert Cravens.

He did not fire a shot or lead troops, but he owned the home and land where the majority of the Battle of Lookout Mountain took place on Nov. 24, 1863.

While he was gone during the famous battle after taking refuge, he was on hand for some of Chattanooga’s important early industrial history as a major iron producer.

He also had to experience a few other battles of the personal kind during his long life.

Born in Rockingham County in Northern Virginia on May 5, 1805, he eventually moved with his family to Greene County, Tenn., and later to Selma, Ala., where his father and possibly mother died from fever.

His family later returned to Greene County, and, at age 15, Mr. Cravens began learning the iron manufacturing business from an uncle in Rhea County. At the age of 25, he married a woman named Catherine Roddy. They would have several children before her death in 1845. About a year later, he remarried Caroline Connyningham, the daughter of a Methodist church official.

About six years earlier, however, he had started the Eagle iron furnace in the Whites Creek area of Roane County with Jesse Lincoln, reportedly a cousin of Abraham Lincoln. A road there still bears the Eagle Furnace Road name, although Whites Creek would later be best known as the place just north of Spring City where a marker stands commemorating the death of seven Boys Scouts and their master from a 1929 flood.

Mr. Cravens’ Eagle Furnace was said to have stayed in operation when other plants across Tennessee closed.

By the early 1850s, he had relocated to Chattanooga and helped organized the East Tennessee Iron Manufacturing Company. This included the Bluff Furnace and surrounding buildings near the current south end of the Walnut Street Bridge. The site was also reportedly the scene of the first successful operation in the South of a furnace fueled by coke, a processed form of coal.

Mr. Cravens also invested in the local coalfields, including the Etna mines in Marion County.

As a result of his various business ventures, he became successful enough to buy a large tract of land on the side of Lookout Mountain about 1854 and build a comfortable home and cabins a short time later. The scenic view from the home, which he called “Alta Vista,” was long and sweeping, but unfortunately so was the roughly hour-long commute to work.

While the house was a nice refuge for him and his family most of the time, for about a few weeks or more in 1863, it obviously was not.  

Even before the war so greatly disrupted the physical landscape of Chattanooga, it was wrecking havoc with emotions. As Chattanoogans on both sides of the war issue offered their opinions, an Irish stonemason named Dan Hogan was beaten for supporting the Union. Mr. Cravens took him to his Lookout Mountain home for recovery and rest.

He also gave him some advice -- don’t be so vocal about your war views.

Mr. Hogan later built a still-standing stone dairy right next to the Cravens House. He would go on to become a successful and wealthy Chattanoogan.

When a Lookout Mountain battle seemed inevitable after the Union forces began shelling the home with cannon fire several times while trying to strike the Confederate defenses, Mr. Cravens used some further good judgment by fleeing to the Ringgold, Ga., area.

One daughter, Lydia, had married W.W. Anderson, and also apparently fled the home shortly before the battle. Another daughter, Nancy, had married J.P. McMillin, who reportedly sold the first insurance policy in Chattanooga.  

Shortly before the battle, Confederate Gen. Carter Stevenson reportedly signaled to Gen. Braxton Bragg from the Cravens House that he was concerned about the Union forces.

That intercepted message made Union Gen. George Thomas think the time was right for a Union attack on Lookout Mountain. Although Gen. Stevenson’s men had been on the top, fellow Union Gen. Joseph Hooker thought his forces needed only to capture the “bench” area of the mountain below the steep palisades, and the Confederates would not be able to control the top.

So he ordered two forces of men to come around the west side of the mountain and meet in the area of Cravens House. Despite the foggy conditions that gave the confrontation the name, “Battle Above the Clouds,” the Union was able to defeat the greatly outnumbered Confederate forces and control Lookout Mountain. The remaining Confederate troops left that night during what was a total lunar eclipse.

And after the easy Union victory the next day on Missionary Ridge, the fact that the war was turning in favor of the Union became much clearer intellectually than the view during the foggy battle the day before had been physically.

While the Union forces survived the battle with minor casualties, the Cravens House was not so fortunate. It ended up being heavily damaged by Union looters after the battle.

However, Mr. Cravens rebuilt, adding a third story and reconfiguring the formerly L-shaped second story. According to the book, “Chattanooga’s Story,” by John Wilson, he was able to rebuild his home by buying government surplus wagons after the war.

 His life evidently was rebuilt as well, and the financial hardships caused by the war were reversed. He later organized the Chattanooga Southern Manufacturing Company and was president.

 He was also a faithful Methodist and was an active member of Centenary Methodist Church, helping donate money for a new church building in 1870.

 Death finally came for Mr. Cravens on Dec. 3, 1886, at the age of 81 after being confined in a room at the Cravens House for two months.

 After his second wife’s death in 1893, the home and 88 acres were sold by the Cravens family to Chattanooga Times and future New York Times publisher Adolph Ochs, who donated the land to the National Park Service.

 The home, which was significantly restored in the 1950s with the help of the local Association for Preservation of Tennessee Antiquities, would be preserved.

 So, in turn, would the story of Mr. Cravens, a man whose reputation reflected the strong materials he produced.

 As his obituary in the Chattanooga Times said at the time he died, “He was a man of rugged honesty, strong character and of unbounded energy and public spirit.”

 Jcshearer2@comcast.net

Ruins of the Cravens House
Ruins of the Cravens House

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