Seeing that I’m speaking at the opening of a new Civil War exhibit at the Wilkes County Museum this week, I thought maybe we could turn our attention to Wilkes County as our next county study. My ancestors landed in Wilkes County in the mid to late 1700s and include members of the Laws, Hampton, and Proffitt families.
Wilkes County, just east of the crest of the Blue Ridge Mountains, was formed in 1777 from Surry County, and was named for a member of the British Parliament who fought for American Independence: statesman John Wilkes. The county seat, Wilkesboro, was incorporated in 1847. In 1860, Wilkes County had a population of 15,749, including 261 free persons of color and 1,298 slaves.
In the 1860 presidential election, there were 1,323 votes cast for Bell, and 363 for Breckenridge. Wilkes County men voted overwhelming against calling the convention in February 1861, with 51 for and 1,890 against. The county had two delegates. Peter Eller (1805-1872) was a farmer, elder in the Baptist Church, a member of the House of Commons (1856-1858); Eller “opposed secession until he thought opposition useless.” The other representative was Dr. James Calloway (1806 - 1878) Calloway was a graduate of Jefferson Medical College in Philadelphia and the only doctor in the area for many years. He was a representative in the House of Commons from 1828 until 1832.
According to Terrell Garren’s Mountain Myth, Wilkes County furnished1,599 men to the Confederate army, and 145 who joined the Federal army. Those in the Confederate served primarily in Company B, 1st North Carolina State Troops; Company B, 11th North Carolina State Troops; Company C, 26th North Carolina Troops; Company D, 33rd North Carolina Troops; Company F, 37th North Carolina Troops; Company F, 52nd North Carolina Troops; Company K, 53rd North Carolina Troops; Companies E and G, 54th North Carolina Troops; Company B, 55th North Carolina Troops; and, Company D, 1st Battalion North Carolina Junior Reserves. Most of the Federal troops served in the 3rd North Carolina Mounted Infantry (US) and the 13th Tennessee Cavalry. Once again according to Garren, 472 Confederates died while in service.
Wilkes County also produced a number of higher-ranking Confederates, including Brig. Gen. James B. Gordon, mortally wounded at the battle of Yellow Tavern in May 1864, Col. William Barber (37th NCT), mortally wounded in September 1864; Col. Monford Stokes (1st NCST), mortally wounded in June 1862; and Lt. Col. William H. H. Cowles (1st NCC); and, Lt. Col. Abner Calloway (55th NCT).
Wilkes was a troubled place during the war, and some have even argued it was one of the most Unionist counties in the state of North Carolina, even though both Yancey and Buncombe furnished more Federal soldiers. We really find events heating up in Wilkes County beginning in the summer of 1863. There are rumors of camps of deserters and dissidents in Wilkes with 500 to 1,200 men. On one occasion that summer, a group, supposedly of pro-Union militia, marched out of the Trap Hill area and to Wilkesboro, where they held a pro-Union rally and raised a United States flag at the courthouse. The militia company was soon out roaming the countryside, “harassing residents” and marching “under an old dirty United States rag.” Governor Vance asked Robert E. Lee to spare some troops for the area, and Lee sent Brig. Gen. Robert F. Hoke and two infantry regiments (21st and 56th NCTs), and a battalion of cavalry. Hoke spread his forces out in the surrounding counties, and by October, was reported to have captured 3,000.
Governor Vance chose to visit Wilkes County in February 1864. His speech that day was prefaced by the band of the 26th North Carolina Troops, and a crowd of between 800 and 2,000 people heard Vance kick off his re-election campaign. But neither the sweep of Confederate troops nor Vance’s visit could prevent another Unionist visit. Portions of McMillan’s cavalry were back in the area in the summer of 1864, skirmishing with the deserter bands.
In March 1865, real Union soldiers arrived. The brigades of Maj. Gen. George Stoneman rode through Wilkes County on their infamous raid, “gathering” supplies from a population that had been unwillingly supplying deserters and dissidents for quite some time. Stoneman soon left, the war ended, and the problems with bands of lawless men continued. One of the most famous (or infamous) was the Fort Hamby episode, in which a group of men used the Hamby home as a base for their robbing and plundering the countryside. The site is currently under water. You can read an essay about those events here.
There were reunions after the war for Wilkes County’s Confederate soldiers, and in 2008, a monument to local Confederates was placed on the courthouse grounds. You can learn more about Wilkes County and the War by visiting the Wilkes Heritage Museum.