Wednesday, June 14, 2017

Was it really Witcher's Cavalry?


In November 1863, a group of dissidents left Wilkes County, bound for Knoxville, and the 10th Tennessee Cavalry (US). As the story goes, the group of fifty-seven men were being piloted by Wilkes County resident John Bryant. They passed through Watauga County, and on into Tennessee. In an area of present-day Unicoi County (then Carter County) they stopped at the home of Dr. David Bell, for breakfast. As the waited under some trees, "rebels... suddenly came insight, and the alarm was instantly given. The poor fellows tried to save themselves by flight, being closely pursued by the rebels, who were shooting at them and charging on them with their horses at a terrible rate."

According to this account, written by Daniel Ellis in 1867 (he was not present), eleven did not escape. Those killed were:

Calvin Catrel - shot in breast, knocked in the head and then bayoneted.
John Sparks - shot in head
Wiley Royal - shot in shoulder and back and then beaten to death with a fence rail.
Elijah Gentry - shot and killed.
Jacob Lyons - shot and killed.
B. Blackburn - shot in shoulder and then beaten to death.
Preston Pruett - shot in shoulder and then beaten to death.
James Bell - dragged from house and beaten to death.
____ Madison - wounded, but survived.
After killing Doctor Bell, the attackers burned down his house.

Ellis places the blame for the murder of these men on a Witcher, whose first name Ellis could not remember, but believed that it was either James or Samuel. Ellis wrote that Witcher came from Virginia, and had 400 men under his command. A whole host of later writers and historians believe that the man leading the attack was Col. Vincent A. Witcher, commander of the 34th Battalion, Virginia Cavalry, also known as Witcher's Battalion. There are, or course, many who dispute the claim that Vincent Witcher and his men were involved.

Vincent A. Witcher is an interesting soldier. He gained the praise of J.E.B. Stuart. The famed cavalry leader wrote a letter of recommendation for Witcher, on November 26, 1863, stating that he had witnessed Witcher's "personal gallantry and the good fighting qualities of his command. These were particularly exemplified at Gettysburg, at Hagerstown, Funkstown, and subsequently at Fleetwood in Culpeper." However, there was also a dubious side to Witcher's battalion. The Bristol Gazette reported in early 1864 the capture of a Yankee in Lee County accused of rape. It was the prayer of the editor of the Richmond Sentinel, commenting on the Gazette story, that the man "may fall into the hands of Colonel Witcher." Clearly, the battalion's reputation was a fearsome one.

Vincent Witcher 
Were Witcher and the 34th Battalion Virginia Cavalry even in the area of east Tennessee in the fall of 1863? On October 20, 1863, Maj. Gen. Samuel Jones wrote from Abington, Virginia: "Colonel Witcher had a spirited skirmish yesterday 2 miles south of Zollicoffer, with enemy's rear guard." (OR vol. 29, pt. 2, 796.) Zollicoffer was an earlier name for Bluff City. Two miles south would put the skirmish near Piney Flats, Tennessee, in Sullivan County. As the crow flies, that is about twenty miles from Limestone Cove, probably a day's ride through the mountains. Edward Guerrant, a Confederate staff officer who left behind a diary, also makes mention of Colonel Witcher arriving in camp three miles west of Blountville on October 27, 1863. (Bluegrass Confederates 358)

One newspaper in Knoxville republished an order that Witcher issued on November 23, 1863: "Headquarters 34th VA Bat. Cavalry... To all whom it may concern: "Notice is hereby given to the people of Carter and Johnson counties that the Union men will be held responsible, in person and property, for all plundering and bushwhacking of Southern soldiers and citizens. Whenever deserters, bushwhackers, and marauders, are known to assemble or whenever they may steal or plunder, the house and barns of Union men shall be burned to the ground. Citizens may appeal to, to organize and destroy the gangs of scoundrels who are infesting the country. The above order will be executed to the very letter. By order of Lt. Col. Witcher." (Brownlow's Knoxville Whig and Rebel Ventilator, August 19, 1864)

So, that places Witcher's battalion in the area.

Unfortunately, the trail runs cold at that point. There is a history of the 34th Battalion Virginia Cavalry, by Scott Cole (H. E. Howard, 1993), but it is silent on the matter.
Parson Brownlow, in his Brownlow's Knoxville Whig [Knoxville] April 16, 1864, published this account five months after the events took place: "Hundreds of men have actually been hanged and shot in upper East Tennessee by Longstreet's thieves and assassins... Witcher's company of cavalry, piloted by Nathaniel [Benson], of Washington county, took James Bell, the brother of Dr. Bell, of Greene county, forced him to lay his head on a chunk in the road and with stones and clubs they beat his brains out. They took some of the blood and brains and rubbed them under his wife's nose, cursing her, and telling her to smell them! They then burned the house down, and its contents with it, allowing her and her children to look on at the flames. The notorious Wesley Peoples and his brother, son of old Bill Peoples, were in this crowd."

There are several interesting points here. One: Brownlow does not make mention of the ten others killed that Daniel Ellis lists in his 1867 account. Only James Bell, the brother of the doctor, is mentioned. Since Brownlow had heard of the death of Bell, the burning of the house, and of Witcher, then surely he had heard of the deaths of the ten.

Next, he makes mention of "Witcher's company of cavalry," not Witcher's battalion, which had several companies. That could simply be a mistake on Brownlow's part - I mean, there is a war going on and information is (probably) coming to him third or fourth parties. There is, however, another Witcher running around the mountains. James Witcher was forty-three years old when he enlisted June 13, 1863. Witcher was born in Virginia, but was living in Sullivan County, Tennessee. His command was known as the Zollicoffer Mounted Rifles, or the Sullivan County Reserves. We know next to nothing about the Sullivan County Reserves. It appears that there were six companies, and the Civil War Soldiers and Sailors database shows 343 men on the roster. James Witcher's folder in the Compiled Service Records from the National Archives contains just three cards. One is a muster and descriptive roll dated June 30, 1863, in Zollicoffer; the next states that he is present from June 13 to December 31, 1863; and the final card states James Witcher's name appears on a report dated Bristol, September 5, 1864. It is doubtful that Capt. James Witcher had 400 men with him, as claimed by Daniel Ellis.

In the end, it is really not clear just who attacked the party at Doctor Bell's home in November 1863, or even who was actually killed.

Maybe there are other documents out there. Maybe we should have a better book on the 34th Battalion Virginia Cavalry (Witcher's Battalion). Maybe we should do some research into the Sullivan County Reserves. Once again, I am confronted with a whole lot of questions, and very few answers.


Thursday, May 18, 2017

William Wallace Rollins: Confederate Captain - Yankee Major.

   He probably started off as a Confederate soldier, deserted, joined the Union army, and even had a fort named for him. But when it comes to the life of William W. Rollins, plenty of questions remain.
   It appears that Rollins was born in Spartanburg, South Carolina, on July 14, 1838. He was the son of a L. J. Rollins, listed as a preacher in the 1860 census. By 1860, the family was living in Madison County, North Carolina.  From available online resources, it is unclear if Reverend Rollins was connected to the new Mars Hill College prior to the war. In the same census, William Rollins was listed as having $1000 of real estate and $250 of personal property.  
W. W. Rollins, in Federal uniform. 
  On August 13, 1861, Wallace W. Rollins enlisted in Company D, 29th North Carolina Troops. I believe that William W. Rollins and Wallace W. Rollins are the same person. There is no other Rollins with similar initials in the 1860 Madison County census. The enlistment cards list Wallace W. Rollins as being 23 years old when he enlisted in 1861, consistent with an 1838 birthday. Rollins was mustered in as a First Sergeant. On an unknown date, he was promoted to sergeant major of the 29th Regiment and transferred to the field and staff. On May 2, 1862, Rollins was elected captain of Company D and transferred back to the company (Capt. John A. Jarvis was defeated for reelection when the regiment reorganized.)
   It is really unclear what happens next (the records of the 29th North Carolina are some of the worst. One card lists that he was in the hospital in Atlanta on August 20, 1864. Another card reads "By Presdt G. C. Martial this man was on furlough and was ordered to remain in N C to attend the Court Martial." In a letter written on January 17, 1865, Maj. Ezekiel H. Hampton, 29th North Carolina,  asked that Rollins be dropped from the rolls of the regiment. "Capt W. W. Rollins... who deserted from Hospital in August, GA on or about the 12th of Aug. 1864... went to the enemy [and] took (20) twenty men with him, and is now commanding troops in the enemey's lines in East Tenn." Rollins is listed as being dropped as an officer in the 29th North Carolina on February 17, 1865.
   On March 14, 1865, William W. Rollins was appointed major in the 3rd North Carolina Mounted Infantry (US). His compiled service record tells us that he was 26 years old in 1865. The cards do not tell us where he was from. When Col. George W. Kirk ordered part of the regiment to Blowing Rock in Watauga County in April 1865, the earthworks they constructed were named Fort Rollins in his honor. Rollins did get a leave of absence in July 1865 to return to North Carolina and help the Governor (W. W. Holden) reorganize the civil government. Rollins was mustered out on August 8, 1865. One item I do not have that might clear up a question or two is his pension application, which was filed on January 23, 1893.

   In the 1870 Madison County, North Carolina, census, there is a "Wm Wallace Rollins" age 31. He is listed as a lawyer, with considerable wealth ($12,200/20,500). He is married to Elizabeth and they have one son, Wallace, and three servants. He is listed as living in Marshall, Madison County, in the 1880 census. Rollins is a farmer and lawyer. Eliza is listed as his wife, with four children, one nephew, and three servants. By 1890, Rollins has moved to Asheville. He is listed in the 1890 veterans census as a major, but no regiment is given. The 1900 census lists him as widowed, living in Asheville, and working as the postmaster. Wallace Rollins appears in the 1910 census in Asheville as a postmaster. And finally, W. W. Rollins, 1920 census, retired, still living in Asheville.
   Rollins ran for the state senate in 1866, representing the counties of Buncombe, Henderson, Madison, and Yancey, but appears to have been defeated by Leander S. Gash of Henderson County. (Arthur, Western North Carolina, 449)
   According to William C. Harris's bio on William Woods Holden, Rollins was first tapped to lead the force that Holden wanted sent into Alamance and Orange and surrounding counties. Rollins declined, and upon Rollin's recommendation, George W. Kirk was given the job. This would eventually lead to Holden's impeachment.
   Looking through local newspapers, one can find that Rollins was involved in the railroad, serving as president of the Western Division of the Western North Carolina Railroad (Asheville Weekly Citizen April 11, 1878); some of his dealings with the railroad wound up in litigation for years (Asheville Weekly Citizen April 22, 1880); there were other court cases as well - "W. W' Rollins vs. Eastern Band Cherokee Indians (Asheville Weekly Citizen January 5, 1882); Rollins was one of the organizers of the Western North Carolina Fair (Asheville Weekly Citizen October 23, 1884); he was one of the directors of the First National Bank of Asheville (Asheville Citizen-Times December 15, 1885); a stockholder in the Asheville Gas and Light Company (Asheville Citizen-Times June 15, 1886); president of the Asheville Tobacco Association (Asheville Citizen-Times September 3, 1889); president of the Asheville Branch of the Building and Loan Association (Asheville Democrat March 27, 1890); collector of internal revenue for the fifth North Carolina District (Asheville Weekly Citizen October 2, 1890);
   Rollins was also very involved in local Republican politics, was a member of the G. A. R. Post 41; and was considered one of the largest growers of tobacco in Western North Carolina.
    When he died in 1925, his obituary mentioned his service as major of the 3rd North Carolina Mounted Infantry (US), but failed to mention his three years of Confederate service.
    So that is my question: is the Wallace W. Rollins, captain in the 29th North Carolina Troops, the same as Maj. William W. Rollins, 3rd North Carolina Mounted Infantry? Maybe that pension application will tell.

Tuesday, May 02, 2017

Was William Blalock imprisoned?

There are a half dozen people from the 1860s whom I have spent a great deal of time researching: Lawrence O'Bryan Branch, James H. Lane, John B. Palmer, Collett Leventhorpe, Richmond M. Pearson, and..... William M. Blalock. I'm not sure why I'm so drawn to the story of Blalock. There are a great many details that we just simply don't know about his life.

This evening, while reading through his pension application, I came across an interesting turn of phrase. In this affidavit, dated November 1874, Blalock states that he was "arrested by Maj. Harvey Binghams command[, had his] hands tied behind him, and sent to head Quarters in Watauga Co., N.C. and there put in the Guard House for a term of 8 days, and on the 9th day took said affiant [Blalock] out of guard house, tied his hands behind him and started with him to Castle Thunder, to wear the "Ball and Chain." Blalock later claims to have escaped.

When doing research for the Grandfather Mountain book (2014), I came across this anonymous riff:
     I'd ruther be on the Grandfather Mountain
          A-taking the snow and rain
     Than to be in Castle Thunder
         A-wearin' the ball and chain.

The late Frances Casstevens, in her book George W. Alexander and Castle Thunder, stated that it was a popular ballad of the time period. I have found the quotation in many other places, like Radley's Rebel Watchdog and Thomas's The Confederate States of Richmond: A Biography of the Capital. The fragment appears in 1952 in one of Frank Brown's Collection of North Carolina Folklore  and in 1951 in the Southern Folklore Quarterly in 1951 (volume 199). On an online search, I don't see it prior to 1951.


How many people, in the 1860s, actually knew of Grandfather Mountain? Probably just a handful. Was the phrase popular enough to be used in Blalock's Pension application? I wonder if he ever made it to Castle Thunder? Do the Castle Thunder records survive? (It appears that they do, at the National Archives.) Just something to ponder. 

Friday, April 21, 2017

Project Updates

How about a few updates!
General's Lee's Immortals: The Battles and Campaigns of the Branch-Lane Brigade in the Army of Northern Virginia is set for release on December 3, 2017. I'm really looking forward to getting the proofs this summer. More details about ordering signed copies and maybe about scheduling a visit to your area, will come later this year. I am really looking forward to seeing this project in print. The story has been part of my life for over 20 years.



Kirk's War: The Civil War Along the North Carolina-Tennessee Border (proposed title) is what my winter (and now spring) project has been. It's been interesting diving into some local history and folklore, trying to capture the War as it raged across the border area. I hope to wrap up the battle of Red Banks next week and move on to 1865. This book is being published by the History Press.






And then there is project X - which I'm not talking about yet, but which concerns the Army of Northern Virginia.  



And lastly... earlier this year, I submitted a grant proposal to the North Caroliniana Society for assistance for a new project, one focusing on the life of North Carolina Chief Justice Richmond M. Pearson. It is my belief that he is the most influential North Carolinian of the 19th Century. The number of governors, US Congressmen, fellow judges, state representatives, etc., who studied at his Richmond Hill Law School is staggering.  The North Caroliniana Society awarded me the travel grant, and I'll be hitting the libraries this summer. This project will take a while to complete, as there is a wee-bit of a learning curve. Thankfully, I started reading law and researching the subject a year ago; I even have my own set of Blackstone's Commentaries.


Friday, April 07, 2017

Has Paul Cameron been lost to history?

Paul Cameron
Do you even know who Paul Cameron is? In 1860, he was considered the wealthiest man in North Carolina. He reportedly owned 30,000 acres, and up to 1,900  slaves. According to the 1860 census, his real estate was valued at $195,000, and his personnel property at $72,000 (which is probably low). He also had plantations in Alabama and Mississippi. Cameron was born in 1808 in Orange County  and inherited a considerable fortune. But he was not an idle aristocrat.  He attended the University of North Carolina and eventually graduated from Trinity College in Connecticut. Cameron studied law, but according to one bio, never practiced. He devoted himself to managing his plantations. He was also interested in railroads,  helping to promote the North Carolina Railroad, and was a director of the Raleigh and Gaston Railroad and the Augusta Air Line. He also owned considerable stock in two different banks, and in several textile miles. Cameron married Anne Ruffin in 1832. She was the daughter of Thomas Ruffin, chief justice of the North Carolina Supreme Court. Only once did Cameron run for office, serving in the North Carolina Senate in 1856 and 1857.

If you have ever visited Historic Stagville, near Durham, you might have heard of Cameron. It was the house in which he was born, and one of several that he later owned.

Recently, I visited Stagville for the second time. It was on a Friday afternoon, and according to the sign, we had just missed the last tour of the day. I had been to the site a year earlier, and the tours were running a little later, and had managed to catch the better part of that tour. On this trip, we had to content ourselves with looking over the displays in the visitor center and walking the grounds about the house.

Stagville
In the visitor center, there was not one single mention of Paul Cameron. Now, having caught most of the tour last year, I know that he is mentioned there, as owner of the house, but every single exhibit in the visitor center was about his slaves. Now, don't get me wrong, slavery is an important part of our National story. Without slaves, who would have built out courthouses and universities, or provided the counties and states where their masters lived the money from taxes to take on these capital projects? Without slaves, who would have picked the cotton the fired the industrial revolution in the North? Without slaves, there would not have been the need for the massive amount of textile mills, who were turning out "negro cloth" in huge numbers to clothe the slaves in the South. Slavery is, unfortunately, a part of the history of us. And it needs to be interpreted and understood as a complex and many-faceted academic topic as well as a real human concern that affected the lives of real people with their own unique, often tragic, stories.

However, in my opinion, to totally expunge the story of Paul Cameron (and his ancestors) out the equation, is inexcusable. What were Cameron's contributions to the War? I see a brief mention of some of his slaves being conscripted to work on costal fortifications. And there is a mention of Federal forces raiding the Stagville (and others, I assume) for supplies towards the end of the war. Give us one board (with photos) tell us about his life, and the role of the community during the War years. Did Cameron sell foodstuffs to North Carolina or to the Confederate government? While Cameron himself did not serve (too old), and his sons were too young, how about other people in the community? Or, other members of his extended family? Did he have overseers who resigned and headed off to the war? I read someplace that Cameron was a Whig prior to the war. Did he even support secession and the Southern Confederacy? The Southern Historical Collection has the Cameron family papers. Surely somewhere in those 33,000 pieces are the answers to a few of those questions. The general public wants to know more.

PS: If you work at Stagville, it is usually common courtesy to break away from the computer and at least acknowledge visitors when they show up. Yes, it was about 3:30 on Friday. But, well, you never know who might walk through that door.   It might just be a family killing time between science fair competitions, or it might be an award-winning author and historian hoping to ask questions and learn more about your site. It our case, it was both, which you might have noticed if you had bothered to say hello or even make eye contact while we were in your visitor's center.

Tuesday, April 04, 2017

Richmond Pearson and the Twisted History of North Carolina in the Civil War.

Friends - I'll be speaking at Lees-McRae College this Thursday evening, April 6, at 7:00 pm, in the Evans Auditorium. Topic is Richmond Pearson and the Twisted History of North Carolina in the Civil War.  Please come on out and join us! (Free!)

Friday, March 31, 2017

The "Old Red Fox" (No, the other one).

If you go to Google, and type in Old Red Fox, the image and story of East Tennessee Unionist Dan Ellis pops up. The Carter County native piloted dissidents through the mountains for most of the war, only joining the 13th Tennessee Cavalry in the last months of the conflict. He wrote about his exploits in a widely quoted book The Thrilling Adventures of Daniel Ellis. The book was published in 1867, just two years after the war ended. Many of the events were still fresh. However, many of the events that Ellis write about cannot be substantiated through other period sources.

Ellis was often called the "Old Red Fox." The Carter County Historical Marker talking about his life is even listed as "The Old Red Fox."

This past week I stumbled upon a North Carolina version: John Quincy Adams Bryan. He was also known as "The Old Red Fox."

Bryan's obituary (he died in 1905) states that he was "one of the most interesting characters that ever figured in the political history of the State." Bryan was born in Wilkes County, North Carolina, on October 10, 1833. There is not much to go on regarding his pre-war life. I believe I did find him in the 1860 census, still living at home and working as a farmer, but with $500 in real estate and $450 in personal property. Bryan was undoubtedly conscripted into Confederate service, but given the commonness of his name "John Bryan," I was not able to find him (yet).

The other "Old Red Fox": John Quincy Adams Bryan.
We know that Bryan was serving as a guide through the lines. In early November 1863, he was in Wilkes County recruiting for the 10th Tennessee Cavalry (US). It was Bryan who started with the group and wound up in the front yard of Doctor Bell's home in then Carter County on November 19, 1863. Confederate cavalry burst upon the scene, and out of the group of 57 men, seven were killed, plus Doctor Bell's brother James. Bryan escaped, and the party continued to work their way west. Bryan was officially enrolled in Company H, 10th Tennessee Cavalry, on February 12, 1864. He was mustered in as a first lieutenant. He is listed as present on all but one of the remaining muster roll sheets. At the end of the war, he was promoted to the rank of captain. An account from 1897 states that Bryan was "severely wounded and was for some time confined in the officer's hospital at Nashville." His wounding was placed in the battle of Nashville time period, but his compiled service record says nothing about the matter. Bryan was mustered out on August 1, 1865.

After the war, Bryan was elected to serve in the 1865 Constitutional Convention, and again in 1868. He also served under Kirk during the Kirk-Holden War, was an officer in the Grand Army of the Republic, and was assistant assessor in the Revenue Department and deputy collector. He also served in the General Assembly.

But how about the claim that he was "The Old Red Fox"? Turning again to his General Assembly biography, we find these details: "In 1863, when piloting recruits to the Federal lines, they disobeyed his commands and ventured into the valley near Lime Stone, Tennessee. Here they encountered a band of Confederate scouts (cavalry) and were quickly surrounded and most of his men captured and put to death on the spot. Seeing that he would not be treated as a prisoner of war, he cut his way through the ranks of the enemy and retreated to the mountains near by, pursued by several cavalrymen. Fighting doggedly as he retired, several saddles were emptied and more than one 'boy in gray; bit the dust as a result of too close contact with the desperate Unionist. During the war the soldiers of both armies gave him the sobriquet of "Old Red Fox," because of his skill in eluding the Confederate spies and Home Guards, who were hunting him down, and in the successful piloting of recruits through the mountain fastnesses to the Federal lines."

I could find no other mention of Bryan ever piloting men through the lines.


Bryan died in 1905 and is buried in Wilkes County. Unlike Dan Ellis, there is no state historic marker commemorating the life of John Quincy Adams Bryan.