Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Banner House talk

Greetings folks! Here is one of my talks from this past Saturday. This one is on the marker at the Banner House in banner Elk. I hope you enjoy.

It was a hellish existence. The prison in Salisbury was overcrowded, the food was poor, and disease was rampant. That’s not to say that any prison North or South was any better. They all shared the same disorders. And as in all prisons, the inmates sought to escape. At Salisbury, the Federal prisoners dug at least sixteen tunnels in attempts to escape. One of those tunnels was not found until one hundred years later, and was in such good shape that the workmen who found it were able to pose for photographs within the tunnel. However, tunneling out the prison was the easy part. Once free from the prison walls, the escapee had to look for sympathetic friends. Luke Blackmer was just such a friend. Blackmer hid a number of escapees, helping the Federal soldiers find guides toward Union lines in east Tennessee.

Guides took the Federal soldiers across the state. The parties would stop ever so often to pick up new guides and provisions. It was a common thought that once the parties reached the mountains, more people loyal to the Union could be found and the trip made easier. Nothing further was from the truth. Most citizens on the west side of the Blue Ridge were just as pro-Southern as residents in other parts of the state.

Once the escapees reached Blowing Rock, they were met by one of three guides: Keith Blalock, Harrison Church, or Jim Hartley. The escapees were piloted through Shulls Mill, or across Grandfather Mountain, to Dutch Creek and Hanging Rock, and then on to Banner Elk. At Banner Elk, other guides, such as Dan Ellis, met the Federal prisoners and conducted them on west.

John Preston Arthur, an early twentieth century historian, left us with this note. Two Michigan soldiers had escaped from prison and were making their way through the mountains of Watauga County. They were met by Reuben Coffey, who was determined to take them on to Camp Mast on Cove Creek. As they walked along, they were able to distract Coffey, overpower him, and take his pistol. A boy on a horse, Wilson Beech, came alone, scaring the Michigan men back into the woods. It is unknown if they ever returned safely to Union lines.

Monroe Dugger, in his book ­War Trails of the Blue Ridge, left this account. Dugger was living here in Banner Elk, as a young boy, when “on a spring morning a man coming to our cabin door from a nearby thicket of laurel and pine, ask my mother to prepare for six men, some breakfast, which he would come back after. Mother said, ‘Go back and stay, I will send it to you by the children’ who were my older sister and I. We were met at the edge of the woods, and conducted to where the remaining five were seated on logs. I knew the guide, who was caring a eight shooter, to be Harrison Church…”

Dugger’s acquaintances survived their ordeal.

Banner Elk, in 1860, an isolated hamlet of just a few homes was one of the pro-Union leaning areas in western North Carolina. These areas were not as predominant as modern historians would have us believe. You would need to travel into Ashe County to the north to find another in that direction, or to Bakersville in Mitchell County to find another to the south. The local home guard was constantly on the lookout for escaped prisoners or deserters. The local home guard commander for this area, Maj. Harvey Bingham, was publicly thanked by the general assembly in 1864 for his zeal in capturing those who chose to evade the authorities.

Lewis B. Banner was a slave owner, possessing one of the largest groups of enslaved people in what was then Watauga County. While a slave owner, Banner was also a Unionist, siding against the Confederacy. Banner had three sons in the Federal army. He frequently provided food and shelter for escapees while they waited for their guides. Banner’s son ,Samuel H. Banner, a member of the 5th Ohio Infantry, built this house after his discharge in February 1864. The laurel thicket by the river was known as the Land of Goshen and served as a hiding place for escapees and draft evaders.

Save for a few fragments of history, like those from Arthur and Dugger that I have shared this afternoon, not much solid information exists to tell us of the men who passed through this area. It is possible that this underground railroad also saw non-combatants, men, women, and children wishing to escape for a variety of reasons. We will probably never know their stories. But they were here, and on a cold winter’s evening, if you listen closely, you just might be able to hear that timid knock on a door, a hopeful, unfamiliar face taking a chance for a friendly bite to eat and praying that the Home Guard isn’t hot on his heels .

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