On Jan. 15, 1863, amid the Civil War, The Asheville News reported that enemies, “not in the shape of Northern soldiers, but … of disloyal men from Tennessee and our own State,” ransacked the nearby town of Marshall. Confederate soldiers, the article noted, were headed to Madison County to “restore order and security.”
Additional information, the paper continued, “will be fully known in due time.”
Subsequent reports explained how the region’s Union sympathizers, including those living in Shelton Laurel, were denied salt from Confederate commissioners. With food in short supply and salt critical for preserving meat, individuals took matters into their own hands.
Two months later, on March 17, 1863, The North Carolina Standard, based in Raleigh, shared an account from an unnamed source residing in the state’s western region. According to the individual, Confederate soldiers “shot down in cold blood” a number of Shelton Laurel residents accused of the January raid.
The source asserted that the officer who ordered the executions (identified in subsequent papers as Lt. Col. James Keith) “knew that the only object of the raid made by these [Shelton Laurel] men was to seize the salt, which they believed was wrongfully withheld from them.”
“I am no apologist for these miserable ignorant thieves,” the source continued. “But I hold that the Constitution and the laws of this country guarantee to every man and woman in the Confederacy, no matter what their crime, a fair and impartial trial.”
The North Carolina Standard agreed. The men accused of the raid “committed a great wrong against society,” the paper wrote. Along with the stolen salt, the article noted damage to private property and at least two wounded residents.
The men deserved lawful punishment, The North Carolina Standard continued. But instead, the paper observed: “The musket did the work. The red hand of vengeance was triumphant, and the voice of mercy, which is heard everywhere except in hell, was raised in vain.”
Because these men were denied a trial, the paper deemed the 64th Regiment’s actions “both cowardly and wicked.”
By the summer of 1863 several newspapers — including the Baltimore Sun and The New York Times — picked up on the story and ran a syndicated article describing the January killing of the 13 men and boys, which became known as the Shelton Laurel Massacre.
The piece features gruesome and dramatic details about the executions, including alleged pleas made by one of the youngest victims, 12-year-old William Shelton.
“Poor little Billy was wounded in both arms. He ran to an officer, clasped him around his legs, and besought him to spare his life. ‘You have killed my father and my three brothers; you have shot me in both arms — I forgive you for all this; I can get well. Let me go home to my mother and sisters.’ What a heart of adamant the man must have who could disregard such an appeal! The little boy was dragged back to the place of execution; again the terrible word ‘fire!’ was given, and he fell dead, eight balls having entered his body.”
The syndicated report went on to note that a number of Shelton Laurel women were also brutally “whipped and hung by the neck till they were almost dead.” Among the assault victims was an 85-year-old resident. “And the men who did this were called soldiers!” the article decried.
No members of the North Carolina 64th Regiment were ever tried for the deaths of the 13 people killed in Madison County on Jan. 19, 1863.
Today, the Shelton Laurel Massacre continues to inspire debate, research and publications, including the most recent work of historical fiction And the Crows Took Their Eyes by local author Vicki Lane. (See “Author Vicki Lane Takes Multiple Views of the Shelton Laurel Massacre,” Oct. 23, Xpress)
Editor’s note: Peculiarities of spelling and punctuation are preserved from the original document.
UPDATED: The article’s photo caption was updated on Nov. 9 to more accurately describe Keith’s role in the massacre.