“Will the America of the future — will this vast, rich Union ever realize what itself cost back there, after all?”
– Walt Whitman
In January 1863, at the height of the Civil War, Confederate soldiers of the 64th North Carolina Regiment, composed mostly of men from the western counties, marched into Shelton Laurel. Their orders were simple: root out the deserters and Unionists using the isolated Madison County valley as a base for raids against Confederate holdings.
Over several days, the 64th fought skirmishes with residents, taking a handful of men and boys prisoner. These captives, however, would never stand trial: Instead, 13 of them, ranging in age from 13 to 60, were summarily executed in what became known as the Shelton Laurel Massacre.
The killings sparked local outrage, captured national headlines, tarnished the names of the 64th’s commanders and earned the county the dubious epithet “Bloody Madison.”
Yet more than 150 years later, debate persists as to what actually happened. And that long-ago strife is still leaving its imprint on the people and communities of Western North Carolina.
The gathering storm
In some ways, Shelton Laurel hasn’t changed much. Small farms still dot the starkly beautiful valley. Locals are friendly and courteous, provided you respect their privacy and don’t put on airs.
The Shelton clan and related families have lived in the area since the late 1700s, and many current residents can trace their family lines back to one of the 13 who were executed. To these descendants, the massacre remains a central aspect of their family history.
“Growing up, my granny talked quite a bit about the massacre,” says Freddy Patterson, who’s delved into the family history extensively. “I used to think the Confederate flag stood for the South until I came to learn that my ancestors were fighting for the other side.”
Asked to point out the actual execution site, he and several other Shelton Laurel residents stand at the edge of a field near the Petzold Distilleries. There’s no visible sign or marker, however, and they debate exactly where the shooting happened.
“People up here didn’t have slaves,” Patterson explains. “They were poor farmers, not like the plantation owners to the east and south. The Sheltons fought for this country in the Revolutionary War; they weren’t jumping to go join a rebellion they didn’t have much stake in.”
Some residents fled north to join the Union Army. Others tried to remain neutral, hoping their isolation would keep them safe. But when the Confederacy passed conscription laws in April 1862, the people of Shelton Laurel balked. Many who were forced to enlist quickly deserted. Others actively harbored Union agents and and raided local Confederate households and stockpiles.
The conflict between Madison County’s “Rebels” and “Lincolnites,” as they were known, came to a head on Jan. 8, 1863, when a group of Unionist bushwhackers, allegedly including some Sheltons as well as their neighbors and extended family, raided the town of Marshall, then under Confederate control, to capture a supply of salt. “Salt was essential for preserving meat back then,” says Patterson. “The Confederates were determined the people here wouldn’t have it, as a way of punishing them. They were trying to starve them out.”
The raiders didn’t restrict themselves to salt, though: They also stole shoes, clothing and anything else they could carry. This included breaking into the home of Confederate Col. Lawrence Allen, whose children lay deathly ill with scarlet fever. Allen’s children would die shortly after the Marshall raid.
When news of the raid reached Allen and Lt. Col. James Keith — cousins who’d grown up in Mars Hill — the two led their regiment on a mission to finally bring the Shelton Laurel rascals to justice.
Home to mother
As the men of the 64th North Carolina converged on the valley, they encountered local resistance, Phillip Shaw Paludan writes in his book Victims. After a brief skirmish, the Confederates tried to get the Shelton Laurel women to reveal their menfolk’s whereabouts.
According to Paludan, a leading Civil War and Lincoln scholar who died in 2007, several elderly women were hanged by the neck; another was tied to a tree while her infant lay in the snow at her feet; a mentally disabled girl was whipped. Still the women wouldn’t speak.
Meanwhile, the author says, the soldiers rounded up whatever males they could find. And while primary sources differ as to precisely who was captured, a letter from Augustus Merrimon, then the solicitor of the state’s Western District, to Gov. Zebulon Vance identifies 13 names, including: Ellison King and Joe Woods (mysteriously listed as “desperate men”); Stob Rod Shelton, so-called because of an amputated arm; and Azariah and David Shelton, ages 14 and 13.
Two others — 12-year-old Johnnie Norton and Shelton relative Pete McCoy — were also captured but later escaped. According to Maynard Shelton’s book A Family’s Civil War Struggles, McCoy — allegedly a Freemason — struck an agreement with a sympathetic guard and slipped away in the night. Young Norton, meanwhile, is said to have fallen asleep beneath a bed and been forgotten by his captors.
“Johnnie Norton later became a preacher,” Patterson notes. “You can bet he gave thanks to the glory of God for saving him from what was about to happen.”
On Jan. 19, the remaining 13 were marched several miles toward Knoxville Tenn., until the order was suddenly given to halt. “The men were split up into groups of five, five and three,” says Patterson, “and the first five were told to kneel before the soldiers.”
According to both Patterson and Paludan, an order was given to fire, and when several soldiers hesitated, Keith — supposedly in charge of the 64th at the time — told them to fire or take the prisoners’ places. A volley rang out, and five bodies lay lifeless on the frozen clay. The next five lined up, including young David Shelton.
When the next volley struck, Paludan writes, David, wounded but alive, pleaded with the soldiers to spare his life: “You have killed my old father and my three brothers; you have shot me in both arms. I forgive you all this — I can get well. Let me go home to my mother and sisters.”
Instead, they stood him up and shot him eight more times. The remaining prisoners met a similar fate.
After the executions, Paludan reports, soldiers piled the corpses in a mass grave, leaving several half-buried. Most of the Confederates moved on, a few staying to keep watch. When the women went the next day to collect and rebury their kin, they found that wild hogs had eaten some of the remains.
Today, most outsiders don’t even know where the old Shelton family cemetery is; Patterson leads the way up a muddy hillside. There are no elaborate headstones. A granite plaque placed by the Shelton family in 1963 bears the names of those killed in the massacre, but for the most part, it’s left to scattered stones stuck in the ground beneath the trees to indicate that the unnamed dead rest below.
Climbing family trees
Dan Slagle is a man on a mission. For nearly two decades, the Madison County native has been chasing down the ghosts of the past, poring over primary documents and collecting oral traditions passed down through generations.
“I became interested in the story while researching my ancestors,” he explains. “At least three of them were in the 64th; I had to know whether they were involved. On the victims’ side, two of my more distant cousins, the Moore boys, were among the 13 killed.”
Slagle’s research has turned up some intriguing tidbits — and many more questions. “The common thread with accounts of the massacre is they only tell one side of the story,” he points out. “Many times, when you try to question history, people won’t accept it.”
As an example, Slagle cites the figure of Keith, who’s been widely blamed for orchestrating the massacre. Sources ranging from Merrimon’s letters to an 1863 New York Times article have implicated Keith, stating that Allen was suspended from duty at the time.
“Allen was suspended two times, for six months each,” Slagle maintains, “but neither of those times was during the Shelton Laurel incident. I’ve got documentation that he was there.” Furthermore, Tennessee and Georgia cavalry were also operating in the valley then.
“There’s a report by a Capt. Nelson from the Georgia unit, a day after the killing,” Slagle explains. “He reports that his troops killed 13 and captured 20. Are those the same 13? There’s nothing about that in the rest of the story.”
An even murkier aspect involves the relationships among Keith, Allen, Vance and Merrimon before the war. “Allen was clerk of Superior Court in Madison from 1859 through 1863,” says Slagle — about the same time that both Vance and Merrimon were practicing law in the area. “In 1860-61, Keith was signing documents as deputy clerk of court, helping his cousin Allen. These men must’ve known of each other.”
It’s also possible, Slagle maintains, that Merrimon had ulterior motives for implicating Keith in the massacre. “James Keith was the executor of the estate of his father, William Keith,” Slagle reveals. Merrimon, meanwhile, had served as a trustee for attorneys representing Keith’s brother Alfred. When Alfred died in 1859, Merrimon sought to collect the money Alfred owed them from the father’s estate.
“We’ll never know what might have transpired between the two before Shelton Laurel happened,” says Slagle, “but it leads one to wonder: If they fought over money, was that Merrimon’s revenge on Keith?”
In 1868, as Keith sat in jail awaiting trial, he wrote a letter to an associate in Mars Hill claiming that Allen had been in charge at Shelton Laurel and that a “Capt. Brown” gave the execution orders, citing records left with officers of the 64th that Slagle has yet to uncover. “He’s pretty confident he’ll be vindicated in that letter,” notes Slagle. “I think Keith got the blame for a lot of stuff. He was part of it; he may or may not have given the order to kill those folks. We’ll never know.”
A history of violence
But the violence didn’t end with the massacre or even the conclusion of the war. Both Maynard Shelton and Freddy Patterson tell of Pete McCoy’s specially made “man-killing” gun, used to hunt down members of the 64th. All told, McCoy is said to have killed between 20 and 30 Confederates by the war’s end.
Another frequently repeated tale recounts the murder of a bricklayer named Inman during the reconstruction of Mars Hill College after the war. Inman had boasted of nearly shooting Nancy Shelton Norton in an 1864 skirmish in the Laurel in which her three sons died violently.
“Within earshot were two students from the Laurel area,” Maynard Shelton writes. They reported Inman’s tale to Nancy’s brother James Shelton, who went to Mars Hill and shot the bricklayer in the bowels.
According to several Shelton sources interviewed, James Shelton was arrested for murder, and his trial was moved to neighboring Yancey County for fear that a local jury would never convict. After hearing Nancy Norton’s testimony, however, the jury found James not guilty, calling it “justifiable homicide.”
But though the tale is accepted by most secondary sources, Slagle says he hasn’t found any evidence in either county that the trial or the murder ever happened. “I’ve searched court records up to 1867. If the story’s true, there’s no records of it,” he reports. “What do we believe? Unless somebody traces every little story in Madison history, there’s no way of knowing.”
For his part, Maynard Shelton encourages those disputing his version of events to do their own research. “If information is always accepted as truth, then knowledge will never grow,” he writes. And Patterson simply says: “This is our family’s history the way we know it, the way our ancestors told it. It’s our story, and we’re sticking to it.”
Whatever actually happened back then, the Shelton Laurel killings continue to generate considerable interest. Many essays and books have been written on the subject, each providing slight variations in the “facts.” Two novels by local authors — Charles Frazier’s 1997 Cold Mountain and Ron Rash’s 2007 The World Made Straight, both of which were made into feature films — draw heavily on the massacre and its legacy.
“I’m not a reader: I’m a researcher; the first thing I do with a book is look for the footnotes,” says Slagle. “A journalist’s or author’s job is different. You guys are in the business of selling books and telling stories.”
Patterson shares Slagle’s ambivalence concerning some modern interpretations of the massacre. “A lot of those folks didn’t put in the time to research what they’re talking about,” he says. “It might be a good story, but it’s not what happened.”
Slagle is working on his own manuscript. “I keep holding out for that one little tidbit of information that’s not there yet,” he says. “It’s somewhere, but I’ve not found it. Maybe I never will.”
Patterson, meanwhile, wrote a play on the massacre titled “The Last Christmas.” It premiered last year at the Middle Laurel Church to a crowd of nearly 200. “It was free to attend, but we accepted donations, which went toward helping people in the community,” he explains.
Featuring a cast of locals (including Patterson himself), he says the play grew out of a year’s worth of research. “We took a few liberties with the dialogue and inserting a love story into it, but the spirit of the play is just as it was passed down to me.”
To build verisimilitude, Patterson recalls, “We had my little niece come out here, screaming, when the soldiers came. We had the prisoners march out of the church under guard and fired a real volley into the air outside to simulate the shooting. At the end, we have one character playing the piano very softly, while another recites the story plainly and reads the names of those killed. You could hear a pin drop in the audience by the end of it.”
A second performance had been scheduled for Jan. 23 at the larger Freedom Christian Church on Highway 25/70 near Marshall, but it was postponed due to severe weather. The proceeds from that performance will assist another neighbor in need.
“All credit goes to God for giving me the inspiration. I’m more than happy to help do his work,” Patterson proclaims.
Finding middle ground
In 2005, the Southern Appalachian Repertory Theatre in Mars Hill staged “Beneath Shelton Laurel,” its own take on the massacre, written by playwright Sean O’Leary. It was subsequently performed in Asheville and at several schools, including Laurel Elementary.
John Inscoe, co-author of Race, War, and Remembrance in the Appalachian South, served as a consultant, as did Slagle; Inscoe wrote an essay about the experience that appears in his book.
“The opportunity to see [the event] dramatized — and curiosity as to what perspective the play would take, given that descendants of both the Unionist victims and the Confederate executioners still lived in the area, added another layer of vested interest locally,” Inscoe noted in an email. “For many years, memories of the massacre remained very private. There was a strong oral tradition in how the story was told and who told it, and descendants were often uncomfortable as to what outside ‘authorities’ would do with ‘their’ history.”
“SART got praise and criticism from both sides, which Bill Gregg, who was in charge of the theater, wanted,” Slagle recalls. When the play premiered in the Laurel, “They didn’t really know what the reaction was gonna be, but it had a good crowd.”
Inscoe, moreover, believes that “in a strange way, the play proved cathartic to local people, particularly those living in Shelton Laurel. I don’t think a book or a lecture could ever evoke the sort of collective response this public event could and did.”
In a broader sense, the Shelton Laurel Massacre and its contentious legacy reflect both persistent divisions within WNC communities and the fierce passions tied to people’s sense of place.
Slagle grew up on Big Laurel Creek, downstream from Shelton Laurel, “before I moved to Mars Hill in the third grade,” he explains. “I remember being told you don’t go to Shelton Laurel unless you have business there or someone invites you. Things have changed since then, but it’s like there was an imaginary borderline once we went down the creek so far. Each community in Madison, they don’t necessarily associate with each other.”
In Victims, Paludan writes about the differing perspectives of rural mountaineers and urban populations in the antebellum South. “The ordinary pattern of life in Shelton Laurel was set by nature, by the seasons and by the ages of human life,” he notes. Folks in urban areas, on the other hand, focused on “making their towns prosperous and important in their neighborhood or region. Their hopes for themselves and their place emphasized progress, growth and change.”
Last October, Xpress published a commentary by retired UNC Asheville professor Milton Ready titled “Anywhere But Asheville: Pride and Prejudice in the Mountains.” The piece, which contrasted Asheville’s progressive, liberal culture with surrounding communities’ more conservative attitudes as well as those of dissatisfied big-city transplants, sparked a fierce online debate and several letters to the editor.
Meanwhile, a similar blurring of the boundaries between emotional loyalties and historical facts continues to play out in Shelton Laurel, Madison county and beyond.
“It’s sad, in a way,” says Slagle. “Things get perpetuated and carried on, and you have to wonder where it stops. Does it ever stop? I’m sure there’s people in Madison right now that’d get fired up if you mention the last names Allen, Keith or Shelton. The sad part is, what’s making them upset might not even be the truth.”