Once again, the Shelton laurel Massacre has raised its unattractive head - this time, in a blog from the New York Times. You can see the article here. Well, let's see what the "rubes" up North think of a bit of our history.
"On Jan. 18, 1863, troops from the 64th North Carolina Infantry under the command of Lt. Col. James Keith lined up 13 men and boys, ranging in age from 13 to 60, made them kneel and shot them at point-blank range. Then the soldiers tossed the bodies into a shallow grave, from where they were later reclaimed by family members for burial."
That is a good one-sided introduction. Where is the mention of the salt raid, or the atrocities committed on local people by the Unionists, or the battle that raged for days prior to the Confederates' arrival in Shelton Laurel, or the other prisoners that the Confederates captured and sent to Asheville?
"This incident in Madison County, N.C., known to history as the Shelton Laurel massacre, was hardly the worst example of violence visited on civilian populations during the Civil War. On Aug. 21, 1863, scarcely a month after the murders in North Carolina first received national press coverage, the Confederate guerrilla leader William C. Quantrill led a raid on Lawrence, Kan., that killed 183 men and boys."
"But Shelton Laurel provides an especially compelling look at the internecine war between Confederate authorities and pro-Union sympathizers in the mountains of western North Carolina and eastern Tennessee. Madison County sits on the border with Tennessee and in 1863 was incredibly isolated. "That country," wrote one Confederate officer, "consists of a tumultuous mass of steep hills wooded at the top, with execrable roads winding through ravines and often occupying the bed of a watercourse."
"The county also featured one of the state's sharpest political divides over the issue of secession: the vote to hold a convention lost by a 532-to-345 margin."
Define " one of the sharpest"... There were eighty-four counties that cast votes in February 1862; thirty-five voted against calling a convention. I would consider Montgomery County's vote, 81 for the convention, 870 against, a sharp political divide. And don't forget, Montgomery County is part of the cotton-growing Southern piedmont. In fact, the counties voting against calling a convention run from Pasquotank and Camden in the north east, to Macon in the far mountain west. Other counties, such as Bladen (480-460), Macon (250-259), Tyrell (134-158), and Yancey (556-598) are just as divivded. But, these numbers, taken from a Raleigh newspaper, show us that division in North Carolina is not "just a mountain thing. "
"When the convention did convene, Madison County's delegate was a Unionist. Divergent loyalties continued to characterize the region throughout the war. Those who did fight for the South - between 800 and 1,000 men from Madison County served in the Confederate States of America's 64th North Carolina Infantry - were often of suspect loyalty."
Terrell Garren, in Mountain Myth, states that there were 1,969 men from Madison County in Confederate service. That is greater than in Yancey County to the east (1,045 in Confederate service) and Haywood County to the west (1,504 in Confederate service). Only 806 of the 1,969 from Madison County served in the 64th North Carolina Troops. In contrast, Garroe has only 135 men from Madison County who served in the Union army.
"As Maj. Gen. Kirby Smith, commander of the Department of East Tennessee, observed: 'The very troops raised here cannot always be depended upon. They have gone into service, many of them to escape suspicion, prepared to give information to the enemy, and ready to pass over to him when an opportunity arises.' North Carolina led all Confederate states in the number of deserters: during the war more than 24,000 soldiers left the ranks and went home."
North Carolina also sent more men than the other states, so she should have had more deserters, and more deaths.
"Many men sympathetic to the Union simply never joined, relying on the region's inaccessibility to keep the war at arm's length. Their Unionism had little to do with anti-slavery sentiment: Madison County had no more than 46 slaveholders and 213 slaves, and most residents shared the era's pervasive racism. Rather, it stemmed from an amalgam of class resentment against the slave owners and tenant farmers who had supported secession; a deeply engrained rural suspicion of urban places; and a widespread feeling that the wealthy were threatening hard-working common people."
But how do you know that the majority are Unionists? Couldn't they just as easily have been dissidents, with no interest in either side?
"A traveler to the region immediately after Appomattox captured the character of the Northern sentiment in the region: 'The Unionism of Western North Carolina ... was less a love for the Union than a personal hatred of those who went into the Rebellion. It was not so much an uprising for the government as against a certain ruling class.'
"By the winter of 1862, the war was taking a toll on Madison County. The need for constant vigilance against Confederate soldiers searching for Union sympathizers kept many men from harvesting crops and caring for livestock, and the area's inaccessibility made it nearly impossible to bring in food from other regions. The scarcity of salt was particularly acute. In an era before refrigeration, the mineral was the primary means of preserving meat. In late 1861, the state's governor, Zebulon Vance, established an office of salt commissioner to manage this precious commodity. A year later he placed an embargo on the export of salt from North Carolina."
Um, Vance did not become governor until September 1862. Not sure whom the author is quoting here.
"During an early January night in 1863, 50 men, many of them deserters from the 64th regiment, carried out a raid on Marshall, Madison's county seat. Their primary target was the salt store, and they carried off some 50 bushels of the precious mineral. They also raided several homes, in the process shooting a Confederate officer home on leave; frightening two young children of a second officer who were ill; and carrying off blankets, clothing, food and money before disappearing back into the hills."
Carrying off the blankets that had been covering those ill children, who later died - Let's keep the story straight.
"Coincidentally, at the time of the raid, the 64th Infantry was less than 80 miles away, at Bristol, Tenn., guarding nearby salt supplies. Upon learning of the raid, two of the regiment's officers, Col. Lawrence Allen and Lt. Col. James Keith, immediately petitioned their commanding officer, Brig. Gen Henry Heth, to allow them to lead troops on a mission to punish the raiders. Heth, a native Virginian, West Point graduate and close friend of Robert E. Lee's, had extensive experience combating hit-and-run guerrilla tactics, first in Mexico, then on the Western plains and in the Mormon wars in Utah, and most recently in West Virginia. Keith later recalled Heth's orders: 'I want no reports from you about your course at Laurel. I do not want to be troubled with any prisoners and the last one of them should be killed.'"
But Heth, like so many others placed in departmental command in western North Carolina and eastern Tennessee, was a failure. Also, only three companies of the 64th NCT, companies B, D, and H, were sent back to Madison County. Company B was from Henderson County, Company D was from Madison County, and Company H was from Greene County, Tennessee.
"Keith and Allen, both of whom were well-to-do residents of Marshall, set out with two columns of troops, absorbing sniper fire and killing 12 of the raiders as they made their way into the Shelton Laurel Valley. Allen pushed on to Marshall, arriving to find that both his 6-year-old son and 4-year-old daughter, recently terrorized by the raiders, had died from scarlet fever. After quickly burying his children, Allen rejoined Keith and his regiment the next morning and set about locating the raiders.
"As lifelong residents of the region, both officers knew that the families of the men would be able but unlikely to tell them where they were hiding. When the women refused to answer questions, the troops resorted to torture. They beat, whipped, hanged temporarily and robbed 85-year-old Unus Riddle and whipped 70-year-old Sally Moore with hickory rods until her back bled. Other women were treated with equal cruelty, but apparently none provided useful information. Keith's soldiers nonetheless eventually took 15 men prisoner and held them overnight before deciding to escort them to Knoxville for trial."
Um, how about the ones sent on to Asheville? There were about a dozen of them.
"After marching for a few miles, Keith stopped the column, ordered five of the prisoners to kneel, and had them shot by soldiers standing 10 paces away. An eyewitness account in The New York Times six months later recorded 60-year-old Joe Woods's last request: 'If you are going to murder us at least give us time to pray.' Five more were then ordered to kneel. Thirteen-year-old David Shelton, who was at first only wounded, begged the soldiers, exclaiming, 'You have killed my old father and my three brothers; you have shot me in both arms, but I can get well. Let me go home to my mother and sisters.' No mercy was shown Shelton, or the three remaining prisoners (two had escaped the previous night).
While the actions of the 64th North Carolina were extreme (yes, they overstepped their bounds and should have been tried for their crimes), what about the crimes of some of the men executed? The homes (not just in Marshall) that were plundered and robbed, citizens who were murdered, and then, there are those dead children. Add the dead children, the cold, frostbite, and having been shot at for what seemed to be every minute from behind every rock and tree for a week. I'm not trying to justify the actions of the 64th NCT, but it is important to see how these terrible events were part of a series of terrible events, back and forth, escalating into the dreadful events at Shelton Laurel. As a historian, I always try to take into account all of the events going on to get a context for any moment in history.
"Upon learning of the murders, Governor Vance called on A. S. Merrimon, an old friend and a prosecutor, to investigate. Within a few weeks, he reported 'that thirteen . . . were killed; that some of them were not taken in arms but at their homes; that all the men shot . . . were prisoners at the time they were shot' and that 'all this was done by order of Lt. Col. James A. Keith.'
"On Feb. 28, 1863, Vance wrote to Confederate Secretary of War James Seddon, urging him to take action against Keith for perpetrating 'a scene of horror disgraceful to civilization.' Five months later, upon learning that Keith had been acquitted at a court-martial and allowed to resign, Vance wrote Seddon asking him 'to furnish me a copy of the proceedings of the court martial in his case' because 'murder is a crime against the common law of the state and he is now subject to that law.'
"Vance's request illustrates a legal anomaly. According to the 1806 Articles of War, which both Union and Confederate forces followed (the Union would adopt new standards later in 1863), guerrilla fighters like those in Shelton Laurel Valley, unlike soldiers in uniform, could be shot even if they threw down their weapons and surrendered. They had no right to be treated as prisoners of war. But, once they were captured, they could not be executed without legal proceedings before either a military or civilian court. The execution of such prisoners without a trial was murder. Furthermore, the military was obligated to assist civilian authorities in bringing charges against anyone accused of breaking this regulation.
"Vance, who at one point had promised to follow Keith 'to the gates of hell, or hang him,' was ultimately frustrated in his attempts to see the Confederate officer punished. Captured by Union forces at the end of the war, Keith was imprisoned, charged with individual counts for each murder and brought to trial. Acquitted on the first count, he appealed the additional counts on the basis that an 1866 North Carolina amnesty law voided further prosecution. On Feb. 21, 1869, just days before the state's Supreme Court ruled in his favor, Keith escaped. In 1871, the state dropped its prosecution."James Keith was the only one ever tried for the murders in Shelton Laurel. His fellow officer, Lawrence Allen, escaped any punishment, although he chose to leave Madison County for fear of reprisals by families of those murdered.
Once again, we are only getting part of the story : about how badly the Confederates treated the overwhelming number of Unionists during the war. As shown by other historians, this idea of overwhelming Unionists is a myth. Maybe overwhelming dissidents, but true Unionisst were in a slim minority, at least in the mountains of western North Carolina. And the Unionists who did run amuck in western North Carolina were just as guilty of war crimes as were the members of the 64th North Carolina Troops.