Sorry for the lack of posts – I’ve been kind of busy and, unfortunately, I believe that this will continue for the next two or three weeks.
I thought we would continue with our county-by-county study of North Carolina and turn our attention to Mitchell County and a mystery.
Mitchell County was formed in 1861 from portions of Watauga, Yancey, Caldwell, and Burke Counties, and named in honor of Dr. Elisha Mitchell, former professor at the University of North Carolina (there was only one campus at the time). Since the county was formed in 1861, we do not have the usual stats, and Mitchell County’s representative in the 1861 secession debates was the same as Yancey County’s: Milton P. Penland, a Yancey County merchant. According to a Tax List, there were 65 slaves in Mitchell County in 1862. The original county seat was in the southern portion of the county and called Calhoun, in honor of John C. Calhoun. The county seat was moved by General Assembly decree during the war, to a spot called Davis, even though it cannot be ascertained if the community was called Davis in honor of Jefferson Davis, or because some members of a Davis family lived nearby.
That being said, we’ll jump into the mystery. Ask anyone locally about the formation of Mitchell County and you will hear that it was formed because it was more pro-Union that Yancey County. In 1935, Muriel Early Sheppard wrote in Cabins in the Laurel, “As soon as war was declared, the [Toe River] Valley split in two. The northern half , which supported the Union, wanted to part company with the Secessionist southern half. They succeeded in bringing about the separation in 1861…” (56). It would be impossible to tell you how many times this has been reprinted, both in conversation and in print. I don’t think it is true, and I’ll show you why.
New counties do not get formed overnight, especially in western North Carolina. In the nineteenth century, the power base in the Tar Heel state resided with the eastern counties, and their legislatures fought hard to keep new western counties, which differ in politics, from being formed. Yancey County, which contributed the most to the new county, is a good example. The formation of Yancey County was originally proposed in 1825. It was not until 1833 that the measure actually passed. One representative in the General Assembly in 1833 tried to establish a new County in the east called Roanoke (as a counter balance), and then went as far as to propose that Yancey County be established with “administration of justice without representation.” Both measures failed.
People in the Toe River Valley had been trying to form this new county for a long time. According to the Asheville Messenger, there was a meeting held in June 1850 in Burnsville for the purpose of “making a New County out of portions of Buncombe, Yancey and Watauga.” I do have other evidence to prove false the idea of Mitchell being formed because it was pro-Union, but we’ll just leave it at these two. The idea that Mitchell was formed because of the secession crisis is simply not fact; it is local myth.
Was there a strong Unionist element in Mitchell County? Absolutely. I’ll not deny that, especially in northern Mitchell County. As with most western North Carolina counties, the closer you get to the Tennessee line, the more Unionist they become. Most of the Confederate soldiers served in Company E, 6th NCST; Company I, 29th NCT; Companies A, B, and K, 58th NCT; and, Company K, 6th NC Cavalry. Most of the Union soldiers served in the 3rd NC Mounted Infantry and the 13th Tennessee Cavalry. According to Terrell Garren’s Mountain Myth, there were 771 Confederate soldiers and 84 Union soldiers from Mitchell County.
Details about Mitchell County and the war are scarce, mostly just fragments found in obscure sources. There was an underground railroad funneling escaped prisoners through the area during the war. One stop was the old English Inn in Spruce Pine. There are also a couple of stories of large deserter camps in the county, and one, up near Roan Mountain, contained 250 armed men. I’ve also never been able to determine if Mitchell County ever organized a home guard company. If so, the designation appears to be lost. I can find evidence of Brig. Gen. John W. McElroy being ordered into Mitchell County with the home guard companies from surrounding counties, in an attempt to help Mitchell County organize its own home guard. Maybe more information on this will come to light in the future.
Most of the war in Mitchell County could be described as the worst of guerilla warfare. Families fought against families, neighbor against neighbor. Most of these encounters were small engagements (a few shots). In August 1864, portions of the 68th North Carolina Troops were quartered in Bakersville, probably attempting to break up some of the deserter camps in the area.
Garren estimates that 87 Mitchell County men died during the war. Hundreds more probably perished within the confines of the county where civil war truly existed. There are no records of a United Confederate Veterans camp in the county after the war. I did see a newspaper article once of an attempt to form of Grand Army of the Republic camp in Bakersville, but apparently this did not materialize.
Mitchell County will celebrate its sesquicentennial next year, and I’m looking forward to being a part of the festivities.