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.


Glenn Land said...

Hi Michael, I've lived in Sullivan County all my life. I began researching my Civil War ancestry some 30-35 years ago. I had numerous relatives both Confederate & Union, some that actually switched sides. A number were in the 5th company (Harris Guards) of the Sullivan County Reserves. Most all seem to have been old men and young boys who I suspect joined as a better alternative to being conscripted and sent to the front. Here's a brief overview from "Tennesseans In The Civil War" :


Organized in June, 1863, by the Commandant for Conscripts for Kentucky and East Tennessee, in Sullivan County. The intention was apparently to organize the companies listed below into a battalion, to be staffed by unassigned officers or officers from the Invalid Corps, but these plans apparently were not carried to completion. Officers were: Major-. C. Johnston, commanding:


Owen M. White, “The Jackson Hom~ Guards,” 1st Company.
G. R. McClelland, 2nd Company. J. M. Crumley, 3rd Company.
James Witcher, “The Zollicoffer Mounted Rifles,” 4th Company. This was originally mustered as a mounted company, but later served as infantry. Its members came from south of the river in Sullivan County and from the lower edge of Washington County.
M. H. Morrell, 5th Company. J. F. Trevitt, 6th Company, “The Harris Guards,” organized June 6, 1863, at Double Springs, Sullivan County.

Glenn Land said...

Michael, the James Witcher in Sullivan County, was born in Virginia in 1822. He enlisted in Knoxville, 8/14/1861, into company F 5th TN cavalry battalion in Knoxville. When the Army reorganized in May 1862, they became part of company F 2nd (Ashby's) TN cavalry. He may have been discharged for being overage at this time, and later joined the reserves in June, 1863.

October 19, 1863 - Skirmish at Zollicoffer ( Bluff City, Tn. )
The account of a Confederate staff officer:

With a mournful pen I record the death of Lt. Col. Bottles, who was killed
yesterday in a fight below Zollicoffer. He was a Lt. Col. of one of the
Vicksburg Reg[iment]'ts, had me up a Batt'n of East Tennessee troops & been
serving as commandant of scouts, pickets, &c. was invaluable to us in East
Tenn.-as he was thoroughly acquainted with the country, & was a brave &
dashing officer. He was acting in conjunction with Lt. Col. Witcher & overtook
a Reg[iment]'t of the enemy 11/2 miles below Zollicoffer. In a charge upon
them Col Bottles was shot from his horse while leading his battalion. The ball
entered his right lung & he lived but two hours. We routed the Yankees, killed
& captured 57. We lost but two. . .

Two of the captured Tennessee Yankee Volunteers were the grandfathers of my paternal grandmother.

James L. Bottles was a Captain Company B 26th TN Infantry. Most of the 26th ( an east TN regiment), were surrendered at Fort Donelson and paroled in September, 1862.

Bill Hicks said...

The Captain James Witcher of the Sullivan County Home Guard might be one David Witcher who enlisted on as a corporal on August 14, 1861 in Company F in Knoxville in LT Colonel George Rutledge McClellan's 5th Battalion of Tennessee Cavalry, later to become a private in Captain David McClellan's (a brother of Colonel McClellan) Company B (Sullivan County men) of the 4th/8th Tennessee Cavalry (Smith's). He was discharged as a private after the unit became Company B of the 4th TN Cavalry on August 13, 1862, likely due to disability as info from his CMSR's might suggest. He apparently began recruiting for his company on June 20, 1863, based on CMSR's of men in his company of home guard. If the genealogy is correct on one web site, he was from Pittsylvania County, VA and married to a Rutledge in Bluff City. He might have been a nephew of Colonel Vincent Witcher of Pittsylvania County. I am looking for more info in that regard. I do not believe Captain Witcher was the Witcher of Ellis' account of the Bell place. The "400 men" attributed to Witcher by Ellis is far more than a ~100-man company which made up the home guard command of Captain Witcher. Much is unknown, but in my opinion, a detachment of the 34th Virginia Cavalry of Colonel Witcher might have been at the Bell place. That Ellis would mention the name of David Witcher, was likely because he had heard the name before, but even Ellis was unsure of just which Witcher was involved.