Blood in the valley: The Shelton Laurel Massacre’s haunting legacy

NAMES OF THE FALLEN: Two granite markers in the vicinity of their gravesites bear the names of the 13 victims of the Shelton Laurel Massacre: James Shelton; David Shelton; James Shelton, Jr. ; Azariah Shelton; William Shelton; Rod Shelton; Jasper Chandler; Ellison King; Hellen Moore; [young] David Shelton; James Metcalfe; Wade Moore; and Joe Woods. Photo by Max Hunt

“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.

EYE FOR AN EYE: When Unionist raiders sacked the town of Marshall in Jan. 1863, several looted Confederate. Col. Lawrence Allen's house (above), where Allen's two children lay fatally ill with Scarlet Fever. Photo by Max Hunt
EYE FOR AN EYE: When Unionist raiders sacked the town of Marshall in Jan. 1863, several looted Confederate. Col. Lawrence Allen’s house (above), where Allen’s two children lay fatally ill with Scarlet Fever. This action may have inspired the subsequent mistreatment of Shelton Laurel residents. Photo by Max Hunt

“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.

SOMEONE TO BLAME: Confederate colonel Lawrence Allen (pictured with his wife) was a prominent Madison County citizen prior to the Civil War. The death of his children a few days prior to the killings in Shelton Laurel may have led his men to seek retribution on the Shelton Laurel prisoners. Photo via Ms. Helen Allen, Huntongton Beach, CA, reproduced from James O. Hall Collection, Southern Appalachian Archives, Mars Hill University.
LIFE BEFORE WARTIME: Lawrence M. Allen and his wife. Reproduced from a glass negative made in the late 1850’s. Photo via Ms. Helen Allen, Huntington Beach, CA, courtesy of Southern Appalachian Archives, Mars Hill University.

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.

SITING THE SHOOTINGS: Looking down over the Shelton Laurel Valley. The site of the murders is commonly believed to have been somewhere at the edge of the field below. Photo by Max Hunt
SITING THE SHOOTINGS: Looking down over the Shelton Laurel Valley. The site of the murders is commonly believed to have been somewhere at the edge of the field below. Photo by Max Hunt

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.”

SCOUNDREL OR SCAPEGOAT? James A. Keith, circa 1880. Photo via Mrs. James F. Arnold, El Paso, TX; courtesy of Southern Appalachian Archives, Mars Hill University
SCOUNDREL OR SCAPEGOAT? James A. Keith, circa 1880. Photo via Mrs. James F. Arnold, El Paso, TX; courtesy of Southern Appalachian Archives, Mars Hill University

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.”

JUSTICE OR VENGEANCE? "A.S. Merrimon, Dem. Ex. Com." Merrimon was in charge of investigating the killings in Shelton Laurel and implicated Keith as the man in charge of the 64th at the time. Photo courtesy of NC Museum of History.
JUSTICE OR VENGEANCE? “A.S. Merrimon, Dem. Ex. Com.” Merrimon was in charge of investigating the killings in Shelton Laurel and implicated Keith as the man in charge of the 64th at the time. Photo courtesy of NC Museum of History.

Modern-day echoes

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.”

RETELLING THE TALE: A scene from the Southern Appalachian Repertory Theatre's 2005 production on the Massacre. The play premiered to sold out crowds and received praise and criticism from descendants on both sides. Photo courtesy of Bill Gregg/ Southern Appalachian Repertory Theatre, Mars Hill University
RETELLING THE TALE: A scene from the Southern Appalachian Repertory Theatre’s 2005 production on the Massacre. The play premiered to sold out crowds and received praise and criticism from descendants on both sides. Photo courtesy of Bill Gregg/ Southern Appalachian Repertory Theatre, Mars Hill University

“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.”

Invisible borders

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.”


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About Max Hunt
Max Hunt grew up in South (New) Jersey and graduated from Warren Wilson College in 2011. History nerd; art geek; connoisseur of swimming holes, hot peppers, and plaid clothing. Follow me @J_MaxHunt

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117 thoughts on “Blood in the valley: The Shelton Laurel Massacre’s haunting legacy

  1. Southernbelle

    So reading the account at the start of the article, these people were no “innocent” victims, but had functioned as thieves, traitors and against the Confederate States of America during this War of NORTHERN AGGRESSION against the Confederates.
    I would BET that a careful search would turn up equal or WORSE atrocities by the union soldiers under Sherman.

    • bsummers


      You mean the War of Re-Unification For Which They’ll Thank Us Later?

    • boatrocker

      The true definition of a Southern Belle, by the way, is a female who would rather her slaves do the work for her while she nagged her husband as to why his slaves couldn’t keep her in the latest whalebone framed fancy dresses for the weekend cotillion.

      Real Southern gals who know their history and own it, can build their own house, play an instrument or 3, can write a book on local edible plants and can storytell in the Cherokee tradition are dreamy. I swoon over them, and am proud to say I also am dating one.

      By the way, when asked years ago what his favorite movie was, Bob Dole replied “Birth of a Nation”.

    • Big Al

      Even if what you said were true, the articles of war (than AND now) do not allow for summary execution of prisoners. Those Shelton Laurel victims, even if they did turn out to be thieves or traitors, still deserved hearing before a military tribunal, not being shot like dogs in a field by their captives.

    • Shaon Brown

      These were innocent women and children one being my dad great grandmother. It was her house where they were held the night before they were marched to their deaths. Of the thirteen only five were actually at Marshall. Granny Judy and other women and children were terrorized. She later helped Rock Franklin haul the 13 to where they are buried. The civil war had enough blame for all. These people were as innocent as the people in Marshal had been. It goes both ways mamam!

      • Deborah k Wiideman

        So true. They were my family too. The Shelton’s. Such a sad thing that happened to them all.

  2. Max Hunt

    Hi Southernbelle,

    Thank you for commenting. I cannot vouch definitively for who was involved in the Marshall raid or in activities against the Confederate authorities. I don’t know that anyone can. Many would claim that the people of Shelton Laurel had very little involvement in what happened in Marshall.

    That said, I think the argument you made about them being “thieves and traitors” is ironically similar to the one used by Federal authorities of the time to stereotype pro-secession Southerners. If you believe it was acceptable for the Southern states to secede, wouldn’t it be contradictory to then say that the people within those states without a vested interest in the Confederate cause could not choose to remain loyal to the Union?

    I think that also plays into the point that our perceptions of “us vs. them” continue to define how we view ourselves as Americans. But often history is more complex than that.

    • Michelle King

      Wow. Glad folks are continuing to debate this tragedy. That’s good it should never be forgotten. My name is Michelle King, Ellison was my g g grandfather. Like a good game of chess you have to see the whole board. In this case the whole picture. The winter of 1963 was the worse recorded to that date. What supplies these folks had and rest assured they were extremely self reliant and well equipped to get through a winter was struggling as each regiment conferderate & union moved through the area stealing whatever they needed. Their food was taken and live stock killed. These families were starving and trying to survive. Rena Shelton told me, that it was out of desperation that a few went into Marshal seeking to buy salt. The store had salt but it was for military use only. If you can imagine riding horse back from Marshal to Shelton Laurel you can imagine going back empty ganded was not an optiin. The Shelton Laurel men only took what they needed to cure to survive.
      What would you have done under the same circustances? Desperate measures in desperate times. I can’t say what I would have done but these thieves you refer to were all God fearing, extremely religious people, hard working innovative farmers. Good people and better neighbors. The men in my family are kind soft spoken & generous. I’m sure these are traits that have been passed down through Ellison. I can tell you these families are still ingrained with these values. If they took these drastic measures I know it was a last resort and would like to note no one was hurt in the raid. If you’ve never been to Shelton Laurel or hung out at Cooks Grocery or talked to the families who reside there now, you have no room to cast judgment. Best to you all and thank you for continuing the conversation. Michelle King Raleigh,NC

      • Max Hunt

        Thanks Michelle! That was very well put. As you said, we have to remember that these were desperate times for the people of the mountains.

        • NFB

          Yes, it is very easy to sit in judgment of people 150 years after the fact when we have not faced the kind of trauma of a civil war that divided not only the community but families, vindictive authorities, a harsh winter, etc.

      • Larry McGarr

        I think that what’s missing from most history accounts is the humanity. We perceive our ancestors as ghosts who aren’t as real as we need them to be. Every generation has their own experiences and challenges. What little I know of my family is limited to what’s on their tombstone. There might be a draft notice or a census form that reveals some data, but what’s lacking is the stories. It’s important to write down our experiences for those who follow us. But we should not record them as an academic record. Instead we should include our worldview, how we arrived at it, how we would describe ourselves to our great great great grandchildren.

        A relatively new phenomenon is the intentional attempt by average Americans to conceal information from the government. During the last census there was much talk about not telling Big Brother anything. People tended to understate their wealth, inflate their titles, and thumb their noses at the government. We probably do have much to fear from our government. Obama’s use of the IRS and the DoJ to spy on folks who were critical of his administration is a prime example of abuse of power. Americans rightfully oppose this type of intrusion into our personal lives. Yet at the same time , we’re depriving our descendants of a means of understanding what our lives were like. Social media certainly is one avenue for expressing our opinions, but who knows what that will morph into later on? I think that every American should write their story, and pass it on to their children, and their children to their children. We need to relate what we’re passionate about, what we love, what we hope for. This is something I’m doing for my chlldren and grandchildren, but I really wish I’d paid more attention to my parents when they talked about their experiences. They are already becoming ghosts and less knowable.

      • cyndi

        you tell them cousin. times were tough back then, things are better now but the struggles to keep food on the table are just the same.
        if my child were starving don’t think for one second that I would do what ever I had to do to get them fed.

  3. Simon W

    Great piece, Max.
    I recently read the excellent book Appalachia: A History by John Alexander Williams and had not realized that so many Appalachians were in fact Unionists because, as you said, “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.”
    Thanks for writing about this really interesting piece of local history.

    • Max Hunt

      Thanks for reading, Simon! I will have to pick up a copy of Mr. Williams’ book.

  4. boatrocker

    The same folks who “never forget” losing the Civil War (150ish yrs ago) are the same folks who post “why don’t those Negroes get over slavery?” (400ish years ago.

    The Shelton Laurel Massacre was a Confederate war crime.

    The Confederate States of America also invented the concentration camp. Andersonville, GA.

  5. boatrocker

    Oh darn, I forgot.

    If you still think the Confederate States of America is valid (ahem, sore losers, like Germany and Japan who acknowledged losing for fighting under the wrong set of values) then please elucidate as to why slavery should still be a thing.

    Please renounce your American citizenship. Please take your children out of public schools. Please refrain from calling the fire dept when your house catches fire. Please kick your children out of the house when they serve in the United States’ military and take an oath to uphold the Constitution of the Unites States of America.

    Get over it. Your ancestors fought for the wrong set of values and are pushing up daisies for it.
    The Reb flag is nothing more than the Southern fried swastika.

    • Max Hunt

      While I agree with your statement that the Shelton Laurel Massacre was a Confederate war crime, boatrocker, it must be said that the North maintained several prison camps about as bad as Andersonville. In fact, several men of the NC 64th regiment would die after their surrender in 1863 at Camp Douglas in Chicago, notorious for its poor conditions.

      I also think the popular notion that all Confederates were fighting for slavery is a narrow way to view the Southern causes for war. Many genuinely believed that the Federals were coming to take their land and their rights, much like people today who are distrustful of Federal oversight. Others were forced into service by the Conscription Act of 1862 (including many in WNC).

      Were the movers and shakers in Confederate politics fighting to preserve slavery? Most likely; that was their meal ticket. But few of them did any actual fighting, and a surprising number of troops and officers on the Southern side were ambivalent about the idea of Slavery. Loyalty to one’s home played a much bigger role.

      It must also be noted that there was no great love for the freed African-Americans among Northerners. Stories of mistreatment at the hands of Union soldiers and civilians are plentiful, such as the NYC draft riots during the war.

      • boatrocker

        Please show me primary source photgraphs of said Chicago POW camp where the inmates looked like bulimic Jews fresh off a railroad car during WWII.
        As in a stiff breeze would blow them away.

        Then we’ll talk. One side at least fed them more than a spoon full of cornmeal per day. If you would blame that on lack of provisions for railroads being destroyed, then 1) don’t start a treasonist war you can’t finish and 2) were all those scars on slaves’ backs from them just not possessing the proper work ethic?

        • Max Hunt

          I appreciate your passion about this topic, boatrocker. I personally don’t feel I have the insight to compare human suffering. Andersonville was an atrocity. So was Camp Douglas. So was slavery.

          Your original statement was the the South created concentration camps. As Peter mentioned above, their refusal to exchange black prisoners played a large part in ballooning prisoner populations on both sides later in the war. Peter’s cited article also mentions that Grant took advantage of that for military reasons, and that the North deliberately deprived Southern prisoners of supplies to get revenge on the South for their treatment of prisoners.

          I think there’s plenty of blame to go around on both sides.

          • Peter Robbins

            No, no, no, no. The refusal of the Confederacy to exchange captured black prisoners was the sole cause for the existence of prisoner-of-war camps at all, not a cause for the ballooning of prison camps that would have existed anyway. Prior to the South’s taking its position that captured black soldiers were property and not human beings, equal numbers of prisoners were exchanged routinely in accordance with European military tradition — precisely so that prisoner camps would not be a needless drain on the resources of both sides. The South did create the camps and bears sole blame. In being sympathetic to human weaknesses in a past era, we must be not create false equivalences that distort the historical record. As Barry points out below, that romanticized road has modern-day ramifications that are quite ugly.

      • Peter Robbins

        Max, let’s not confuse what caused the Civil War with what might have motivated the soldiers who fought in it. The Southern states seceded because of slavery. They pursued the war to protect slavery. Other reasons were minor. To exaggerate them is revisionist nonsense. In my respectful opinion.

        • boatrocker

          I’ll go there.

          If the Civil War was started over rich plantation owners and their bought for/paid for agenda,
          (aka a rich man’s war and a poor man’s fight as CSA soldiers called it) then any soldier who fought for the South was a weak minded moron who knew exactly what he was in for when he raised a rifle against a Union soldier. They got what they deserved.

          One could say the same about any soldier in a coffin for supporting Dick Cheney’s Halliburton-esque excursion into Iraq. For false intelligence and wavin’ the flag, hoo-ah!

        • Max Hunt

          I appreciate your contributions to the conversation, Peter! I would argue that slavery became the main focus of the war by its end, but that does not mean the other factors were “minor”.

          Much of America’s early history is filled with the ongoing debate of how far states’ rights extend in relation to the Federal government’s ability to impose regulations and laws. The Civil War was a culmination of this debate in many ways. Slavery was initially the central focus for Southern plantation owners and Northern Abolitionists. But prior to the Emancipation Proclamation, Lincoln had no intention of abolishing slavery. And the practice wasn’t abolished in the border states until the 13th amendment passed towards the end of the war.

          I agree slavery was the catalyst, and ultimately the most important matter resolved in the war. But to brush aside the other factors in play is somewhat reductionist, in my opinion.

          • Peter Robbins

            I don’t buy that. The Civil War had been going on in Kansas for seven years before it started anywhere else. The issue there was slavery, not states rights . The South seceded because of the election of an opponent of the extension of slavery in the territories — which would have spelled slavery’s ultimate doom everywhere. It was no accident that the Union’s first successful military efforts were to secure the border slave states that had not yet seceded (Missouri, Kentucky and Maryland). The issue was slavery from the beginning, whether Lincoln was prepared to abolish it from the beginning or not.

          • Max Hunt

            Frederick Douglas absolutely agreed with you Peter, and pressed Lincoln from the beginning to make the abolition of slavery the central focus of the war. I don’t disagree with you personally, but I do think there were other important factors in play that contributed to the war’s escalation that deserve to be acknowledged.

            It’s a fascinating topic, and as SG said below, one that continues to inspire strong feelings today. I’ve enjoyed discussing this with you. It’s made me think and question my own perceptions, which is always a good thing!

          • Peter Robbins

            You’re still focused on the wrong end of the stick. The important question is why the South revolted, not why the Union responded to the revolt by suppressing it. And the answer is slavery.

          • Max Hunt

            Perhaps I am. I’m just inclined to think there’s more nuance to the issue, based on my own studies. But as Maynard Shelton said, “If information is always accepted as truth, then knowledge will never grow.”

      • Daniel

        I am a direct descendant of the shelton laurel masscare, i think that it was a act of murder and the commander should have been tried and hung for the senseless murders

    • Daniel

      The shelton laurel massacre was murder to my family. I am a direct bloodline of the viticms . The commander should have been tried and hung and the shooters should have been jailed for the crime

  6. boatrocker

    Oh darn, I forgot again.
    The Cornerstone Speech.

    Alexander Stephens, yea, the vice pres of the CSA wrote this. I know, This primary source is almost 2 pages long, but if you have the attention span, read it. It names slavery as a reason for secession and he vows not to give those darkies rights as citizens under that pesky Consitution,

    Reb revisionists, when you actually read that primary source, then post a CSA speech that mentions states’ rights as a reason for secession
    BEFORE the South lost the war. I’m waiting. But I’m not holding my breath as a southern boy, I can admit to dead folks making a mistake.

  7. SG Séguret

    I find it fascinating that this subject is still so volatile, these many years hence. Having lived my life a mile above the grave of the victims, with friends and neighbors whose forefathers’ and mothers’ blood was strewn senselessly, it seems natural that emotions should still run high in the valley of Shelton Laurel. But what it really evokes is that we all have some link to great tragedy, and we’re all still trying to understand, some with greater and some with lesser doses of compassion. We see echoes of this in wars that have been fought between then and now, that still rage even if not in our own backyards. We see echoes in the current presidential race as opinions fly on both sides of what each of us feels to be right and wrong. Our country is still divided, as is our globe in far too many ways. I would hope that in the retelling of a story that carries as much residual pain as this one, a few souls might consider the possibility that we don’t have to repeat these horrors. We can strive to respect differences of opinion without bringing it all back to feuding and bloodshed. These pages are, perhaps, a stepping stone…

    • Max Hunt

      Thank you for your thoughts, SG! You’ve expressed what I tried to get at in so many words much more poetically (and succinctly) than I ever could.

    • Steve Tweed

      Good Post, Susi. You are absolutely correct.
      Growing up on Shelton Laurel about 1 mile from the Massacre site, I never understood the division and rivalry from a childs point of view.
      When I played Little League Baseball in the mid-1970’s the community didn’t care if we won a game all year except for two……..The two times we played Marshall. Folks were fierce about it. Talmadge Franklin, who ran the little store adjacent to the baseball field even told us one time that he would give us all a soda if we beat Marshall, which we did.
      Only much latr did I learn my family and community history.
      My earliest ancestors to America, James and Rachel Neely Tweed, bought land on Laurel through the Willie Blount Speculation Company about 1820. They traded cash, handmade clay pipes, taxed whiskey and four fatted hogs in several transactions for land that stretched all the way from Duck Mill (about 3/8 mile from the Massacre site) all the way across the mountain to beyond Barnes Branch.
      James & Rachel had six sons: Neeley, Rueben, Thomas, Abner Grainger (A.G.), John and Joshua.
      Three of those would perish during thee Civil War: Neeley, Joshua and my great-great grandfather, Thomas.
      Neeley died of “Fever” at Flat Lick, Kentucky shortly after mustering into the 1st Tennessee Cavalry (Union).
      Family lore says that Joshua was hung by the neck repeatedly until dead, not by soldiers but by “Bushwhackers” in November, 1864.
      Thomas was captured by Confederates and sent to a prison camp where he was routinely beaten and basically starved. He was released but died of his injuries within one month in 1863.
      After Thomas capture, Confederates burned his family’s home and outbuildings, as well as killing all the livestock. Thomas wife Celia and their children were marched by Confederates across Union lines to the point of starvation.
      Beforehand, Neeley was Madison County’s very first Clerk of Superior Court and was close friends with Sheriff Ransom P. Merrill. However, at some point Neeley & Merrill had a falling out. Merrill lobbied for Allen to become Clerk.
      On election day in May of 1861 a group from Shelton Laurel went to Marshall to vote which included Neeley.
      Merrill was spoiling for a fight. He had bought two bushels of whiskey for vote bribery but had imbibed himself.
      When the group from Laurel arrived, Merrill confronted them calling them a “Bunch of damned Black Republicans”.
      Neeley’s son Elisha responded “How about a cheer for Abraham Lincoln and the Union”!
      Merrill pulled his pistol, shot Elisha and then fled. Thought to be a mortal wound, Neeley gave chase.
      Merrill had run upstairs into a nearby building. (I’ve always heard it was the Allen House, but cannot confirm).
      Merrill leaned out a window and shouted below, daring anyone to come after him.
      Neeley did, running up the stairs and then mortally wounding Merrill who died within a week.
      Although Elisha recovered from his wound, the group fled back to Shelton Laurel where Neeley hid out for almost a year before leaving to join the Union Army. Family lore has it that my great great grandfather Thomas put him on a horse and told him to not come back.

      As a young boy, Martha Franklin Sams (1892-1983) told me that her grandfather was killed during the Civil War. She didn’t reference a side,she just used the term “Soldiers”. Martha said that “The Soldiers wanted to know where their salt was but my grandpa wouldn’t tell because it meant starvation”. Martha went on to say “The Soldiers burned him at the stake but took his boots off of him first so that one of theirs could have shoes”.
      That story struck me, even as a young man.

      After the war, A.G. Tweed went on to become Sheriff of Madison County, serving from 1867-1883 being part of Republican politics that would hold firm until about 1950.

      Also, Neeley was found not guilty of wrongdoing, in abstentia. The group that made the finding included Merrimon unless I am mistaken.

      I apologize that I have rambled, but wanted to include a little of my family history in case it may be of some help.

      The bottom line for me is that when I go into my family cemetery, look at the stones with premature death dates, knowing that they fought for what was right, I am filled with both pride and sorrow, not hate.

      • NFB

        Absolutely no need to apologize. That was not rambling that was fascinating. I wish it had been longer!

      • Danny Ingle

        Thanks for sharing, I to am from a family that settled in Madison around the same time, 1820. But they were from the Beech Glen area. The Holcombes, Holcombe Branch Road. My great ,great, grandfather, Joel Holcombe was killed at the end of the war in his front yard, in front of his family by yankee scavengers. I think he was part of the home guard. The story is in one of the history of Madison County books at the library. Very good article.

        • Max Hunt

          Thanks Danny! I appreciate you reading and taking the time to share your family history.

        • Steve Tweed

          You are most welcome and thank you for sharing as well.
          I am familiar with the Holcombe Family as well.
          My wife’s maternal Grandmothers family was from the Beech Glen area as well; The Andersons.
          The original Anderson Cabin in Beech Glen is probably the oldest structure in Madison County.

        • Dan Slagle

          Danny, records indicate that Joel Holcombe was killed by one Joseph Shelton. The case went to the NC Supreme Court.

          • Danny Ingle

            Dan, that’s awesome info, had never heard that. Always said it was Kirk’s Raiders. Thanks for the info, I will research that.

        • mona henderson

          Joel Holcomb was my Great Great Grandfather and I was told he was killed in front of his family in his yard By Kirks Raiders. Can you add anthing to this?
          Thank you!
          Mona Clark Henderson

          • Daniel Lee Ingle

            Mona, sorry about not replying sooner, just forgot. You can go to the nc supreme court on line, and search Joe shelton vs state of nc. This is who shot Joel, and he was convicted in 1870. There was a woman with our grandmother, and according to an article I read , a bullet hit her in the ear. You heard the same story I did, but I think Shelton was recruiting, maybe for Kirk, I don’t know for sure. I do know that several Holcombes were in the 64th, with were responsible for the Shelton Laurel Massacred, and Joel was in the homeguard, so my opinion is it was probably revenge, which was very common then. I think Stob Rob Shelton, one of the 13 massacred, was Joe’s Dad. Still trying to get clarification on that though. Please email me, would like to tell you more, and see what info on our family you have.

      • bob thomas

        Ransom Pleasant Merrill was my 3rd. Great Frandfather. He was the Sheriff of Madison County. My family account is that Neely Tweed’s son drew first on the Sheriff, the Sheriff shot the boy in the arm, then Neely shot the Sheriff. This incident also contributed to the tensions between the Confederates and the Unionists. Peter McCoy was my wife’s 2nd great grandfather. Another Union perspective of the massacre can be found in the book, “The Thrilling Adventures of Daniel Ellis”, by Daniel Ellis. Thanks for sharing.

        • Steven Tweed

          Bob, Thanks for that bit of your family history.
          That is the first time I have ever heard that account.

        • Steven Tweed

          Bob, I forgot to ask…….. Do you know what was the cause of Ransom & Neeley dissolving their friendship?
          I do know that it was pre-Civil War but cannot find any account.
          Thanks in advance.

        • Max Hunt

          Thanks for sharing, Bob! Ellis’s book is a good read for anyone interested in the topic.

        • Sharon Brown

          Pete McCoy’s sister was James Sheltons wife, it was her husband and 3 of her sons who was in the 13. It was said she was and Granny Judy was brutilized as well the night before. Pete escaped that night.

          • Max Hunt

            Hi Sharon Pace. I don’t mean to butt into the conversation but I do know that one James Metcalfe and a Jasper Chandler were among the 13 killed, as indicated on the memorial marker in the cemetery. Sharon might be able to shed more light on the particulars.

          • Frederick Patterson

            James Shelton was my great great great grandpa.

        • Frances Coleman "Frankie" Doyle

          Ransom Pleasant Merrill was my great, great grandfather through his daughter Polly.

      • Dan Slagle

        Steve, according to records I have found, Merrill did go into a building, but most likely it was not the Allen house. The document says he went into a “store house.” That was what they called a store building. Someone’s home at that time, was called a “dwelling house.” Tweed shot him with a double barrel shotgun. I often wonder what I would have been doing back in 1861-65. Max did a great article here.

        • Max Hunt

          Thanks Dan! It couldn’t have been done without your help and willingness to share your research.

        • Steve Tweed

          Thanks for the information, Dan. You are correct that Max did an outstanding job with this article.
          That is an interesting wonderment about what you would have been doing 1861-1865.
          Personally, I would like to think that I would have been helping my family fight for freedom.
          Good to hear from you, Dan. Hope to see you around.

      • Frankie

        I think your “rambling” was fascinating … especially because Ransom Merrill was my great, great grandfather! That man!

        Would you believe that my great grandfather was one of the soldiers reputed to have shot the captives? I’d like to know more about those soldiers. Were they threatened? Were they punished? How did they live out the rest of their lives?

        My grandfather (the son of that soldier) and his wife (my grandmother – Ransom Merrill’s granddaughter) moved to Virginia. I wish I’d known of this story long, long ago when my mother and her brothers and sisters were still living. I never heard mention of it until about ten years ago.

        • Max Hunt

          Hi Frankie! Thanks commenting and sharing your family connections. I can share what little I know about the men of the 64th. Questions remain as to who did the actual shooting. The story goes that several of the soldiers balked when ordered to fire, only to be told that they would take their place with the prisoners if they didn’t follow orders.

          There’s no indication that any of the rank and file were punished officially for their role in the Massacre (at least as far as I know). However, Pete McCoy and others related to the victims made it a priority to exact retribution for what had been done. McCoy himself is said to have tracked down and killed over twenty soldiers from the 64th with his specially made “man killing” rifle.

          When the 64th surrendered later that year, many were shipped off to Camp Douglas near Chicago. Despite horrid conditions, most of the 64th boys seemed to have made it through the camp alive. From there, I know very little. Some undoubtedly returned home to the mountains. Other swore a oath of loyalty to the Union and were sent off to fight Indian tribes out west.

          Mr. Slagle would be able to tell you more. He’s the source of most of this information, based on his studies into the regiment. But hopefully this sheds a little light on your question!

      • Vickie Merrill Edson

        Thank you, Steve Tweed, for that wonderful account regarding Ransom Merrill, my Great, Great Grandfather. I had always heard that he fired the first shot and am certainly not proud of his actions at all. His drinking to the point of causing such commotion is a sorry testimony in itself as well as his actions that followed which led to his own death. It was so interesting learning what happened to Neely Tweed. Thank you so much for posting that! I am glad to know that his son survived and that he, himself, was found not guilty. It is sad that he succumbed to fever and never knew the outcome. By the way, are you the same Steve Tweed who takes and posts the beautiful photos? I enjoy them very much!

        • Steve Tweed

          Thank You, Vickie!
          I am indeed the Steve Tweed who does photography.
          In regards to your ancestor, Ransom P. Merrill, I would like to clarify that in no way did I mean to be accusatory. :)
          A lot of people are afraid to tell things the way they were when retelling history. There are certainly a tremendous amount of things in my family’s history that I am not proud of and don’t subscribe to.
          The bottom line is that it was a hard time, fought by hard people.

          • Vickie Merrill Edson

            In no way at all did I find you to be accusatory. You were simply doing exactly as you said-telling the truth about history which is exactly the way it should be. Long ago, upon first learning that Ransom was the first sheriff of Madison County, I was proud of that fact and still am. But the truth of his habits and character cannot be denied, and I am certainly not going to excuse it. I’m glad for his time on earth or I wouldn’t be here:) and I hope he knew the Lord as His Savior. It is beyond comprehending in the world of now, how, on a daily basis, just like in Orwell’s 1984, history is literally rewritten and twisted, and people hungrily accept it with eyes wide open even with multiple accounts, pictures, and videos that prove otherwise. Fairy tales are fun, but not when they become the foundation for truth in reality. I’m glad to know you are the photographer. God has certainly blessed you with a gift:)

      • Jo Ann Whitaker

        Thank you so much for this post. I just recently found out that my 3rd great grand mother was Isabella Tweed Pinner, sister of James Tweed. Her daughter Jane Pinner married Abner. Her daughter Margaret married my great great grandfather on my dads side. My mom was a Shelton from Haywood County. I’ve been reading up on Shelton Laurel for a while but haven’t connected all the family dots yet. I find the entire history both fascinating and sad. I was awestruck when I figured out both sides of my family were on the same side of this issue and helped one another. I’m from SC and have law enforcement family too. Appreciate your detail and commentary. Do you have any firm genealogical info on Isabella and James parents?

        • Steve Tweed

          Hi, Jo Ann.
          James & Isabella’s father was William Tweed. Something new that has just come to the light is that someone has found a record of William having a wife named Catherine when they landed in Charleston in1792.
          However, I can find no mention of Catherine in later Census Records, meaning that she must have died sometime between when they landed and their migration to Madison County, North Carolina, a span of about 28 years.
          Sorry that I could not be more of a help.

  8. bsummers

    I’m all for the Kumbaya, but as long as there’s idiots like the guy who shot up the church in Charleston, or the FOX News darlings like Cliven Bundy wondering if slaves were better off than free blacks, or these people who are still arguing the South should secede from the union, etc. etc., those wounds will never heal.

  9. boatrocker

    Just out of curiosity, had anyone else read Philip Shaw Pauldan’s “Victims: A True Story of the Civil War” before posting here? Having read it for a college class many moons ago, it really dug deep into the aftermath aka the trial. Ol Zeb Vance was the lucky guy tasked with the prosecution.

    Lots of pesky primary sources to be found in actual court transcripts, and a good read for folks who dig local history. Still a sad story, and yes it still ranks up there with incidents like the My Lai Massacre and that wackjob Sgt. Robert Bales’ atrocity. A war crime is a war crime, just like sometimes a cigar is still just a cigar.

  10. wayne looney

    My 4th great grandpa was nicknamed duck.. he was a Shelton he was raised by the Franklin family after the massacre.. was told he hid under the porch of the house as he watched them drag his father away . He was just a little boy at the time . After he was taken in by the Franklin family he eventually went by Franklin . Some of the Franklin family married the rices of big laurel ..

    • Max Hunt

      Thanks Wayne! I did come across the name Duck when researching this article, but I can’t quite remember where. Appreciate you sharing that.

      • boatrocker

        I’m so glad I know everyone’s family story for being born and raised here. Sarcasm. The Cherokee smirk for your deep deep roots here.

        However, The Shelton Laurel Massacre was a war crime perpetrated by the Confederate States of America, Nobody’s mamaw and papaw’s story will change that.

        Own thy history.

        Zebulon Vance (yep, NC’s Civil War governor) felt so strongly that it was a war crime that he was the lawyer for the prosecution.

        Cry about Benghazi but turn a blind eye to war crimes in the back yard. So classy.

        • Max Hunt

          I think the point is that by folks sharing their history, perhaps we can recognize the various tangled roots that make up our community. People can be excited to share their family history without being ridiculed.

          And as you’ve brought up the Cherokee, did you know that many of the Cherokee fought on the Confederate side? The majority of the Eastern Band warriors of the time served in Thomas’ Legion, which was feared and renowned in WNC and eastern Tenn. and were accused of brutality (real or imagined) during the war against Unionists.

          Out west, the tribe was divided between John Ross’s supporters (largely Union) and Stand Watie’s faction (fiercely Confederate). I don’t mean to be rude or patronizing, or try to lecture you on Cherokee history, but no one’s hands were completely clean during the Civil War.

        • Dan Slagle

          Mr. boatrocker,
          Would you mind sharing your source that Zeb Vance “was the lawyer for the prosecution,” – – and the prosecution of whom?

    • Michelle King

      I’ve seen Ducks headstone in Shelton Laurel. Cant forget a name like that.
      I go up every year for homecoming/decoration. It gives me an opportunity to visit graveyards. I think Ive found them all.

  11. Susan Way

    These Franklin/Norton/Shelton men and women of the Shelton Laurel vacinity are among my ancestral line. Always curious to read more about them. Thank you for the latest article above. SBKW.

  12. SG Séguret

    For all interested in further reading material on this multi-dimensional subject, here are some sources you can seek out: Phillip Shaw Paludan’s Victims, Manly Wade Wellman’s The Kingdom of Madison, John C. Inscoe’s and Gordon B. McKinney’s The Heart of Confederate Appalachia, William R. Trotter’s Bushwhackers: The Civil War in North Carolina, Ron Rash’s The World Made Straight, Daniel Ellis’s The Thrilling Adventures of Daniel Ellis, Sean O’Leary’s play Beneath Shelton Laurel, James O. Hall’s article “The Shelton Laurel Massacre: Murder in the North Carolina Mountains” in Blue & Gray Magazine, and Katie Baer’s article “The Shelton Laurel Massacre: Kinship and Rememberance” in Smoky Mountain Living, Maynard Shelton’s A Family’s Civil War Struggles, SG Seguret’s Massacre in Madison in WNC Magazine ( and A Wound Waiting to Be Healed in the January 20, 2016 Marshall News Record & Sentinal, …for starters…

    Following, for those passionate and with more than a moment to absorb, is a series of letters I uncovered from Vance, Merrimon, Heth and Brigadier Davis, when researching the nonpartisan assignment for WNC Magazine several years back:

    January 1863, Warm Springs, N.C.
    Brigadier General W. G. M. Davis to Governor Zebulon B. Vance
    Warm Springs, N.C., January –, 1863.
    His Excellency ZEBULON B. VANCE,
    Governor of the State of North Carolina:
    SIR: I have the honor to inform Your Excellency that upon full investigation I am convinced that the late attack on Marshall was made by a band of men numbering about 50 only, who were instigated by desire of plunder, and that there is no treasonable organization of citizens of North Carolina in the mountain region having in view the injury of the Government of the Confederate States or the giving aid to that of the United States. Having an ample force of Confederate soldiers I have informed Colonel McElroy that he can disband his militia, who will be no doubt of more service at home attending to their own domestic affairs, there not being any necessity for keeping them longer in the field. I am pleased to hear that they have been active and zealous in searching for the outlaws, and would no doubt have been very efficient had the trouble been as serious as reported. I have directed all the citizen prisoners to be turned over to the civil authorities of Madison, requesting Colonel McElroy to guard them to such safe jail as they may be committed to. You will be furnished, I suppose, by Colonel McElroy with a list of the prisoners and the evidence against them. They are all implicated in the [burning of the] town of Marshall. I have placed Maj. [W. N.] Garrett, Sixty-fourth North Carolina Volunteers, in charge of a force of about 200 of his regiment, one company of cavalry, and 30 Indians, which force is now on Laurel Creek. Major Garrett has orders to pursue and arrest every man in the mountains, of known bad character, whether engaged in any of the late outrages or not. the will be aided by six companies of cavalry, scouring the mountain regions in Washington, Carter, and Johnson Counties, Tennessee. Col. W. H. Thomas, with 200 whites and Indians of his legion, is operating in Madison, and will go into Harwood. Jackson, and Cherokee Counties, North Carolina, and Clay County, Georgia, with orders to arrest all deserters and recusant conscripts and all tories who have been engaged in unlawful practices on the Tennessee line of the mountains. He will be aided by cavalry and infantry. I have ordered Major Garrett to arrest all deserters he may find and to clear the counties lying adjacent to the mountains of them before he returns to his command. I am satisfied they are leagued with disloyal men frequently and perpetrate many of the crimes which are committed in this part of the State. Believing that it will be of service to your State to get rid of such a population as that inhabiting the Laurel region I have proposed to allow all who are not implicated in any crime to leave the State and to aid them in crossing into Kentucky. I am informed that nearly the whole population are desirous of accepting this offer. They will be driven to do so from necessity, as I learn our troops have consumed all the corn and meat in the settlement. If the people alluded to agree to emigrate I will cause them to be paid for their property used by our troops. Those who are of good character and who have not been guilty of any offense have not been molested by our troops, and will not of course be included among the number who are to be induced to emigrate as mentioned. I propose to give all tories of bad character who may be arrested the option of going to prison (unless they find security for good behavior) or of enlisting in the army. If they enlist they will he sent to Mississippi, from whence they will not find it so easy to desert. I am in hopes the measures adopted will secure peace and security to the families of our soldiers and to the good citizens living in this region of the State. I feel gratified in being able to assist in producing such results, and shall at any future trial be glad to serve your State, which has become endeared to the army by the patriotism exhibited by her children at home and the valor of her soldiers in the field.
    I have the honor to be, very respectfully, Your Excellency’s obedient servant,
    W. G. M. DAVIS,

    January 21, 1863, Knoxville, TN
    Brigadier General H. Heth to Governor Zebulon B. Vance,
    with inclosure from Brigadier General W. G. M. Davis
    Knoxville, Tenn., January 21, 1863.
    His Excellency Gov. ZEBULON B. VANCE:
    GOVERNOR: Inclosed please find an extract from a letter received this morning from Brig. Gen. W. G. M. Davis. From his statement I think the outbreak in Madison has been greatly exaggerated, and, as telegraphed you this morning, I think there is no present need of the State force called out by you. The outbreak has, I think, been suppressed, but an adequate force will be kept in the mountains as long as necessary for the protection of loyal citizens and their property.
    I am, Governor, very respectfully, your obedient servant,
    H. HETH,
    Brigadier-General, Commanding.
    Greenville, Tenn., January 20, 1863.
    GENERAL: As I informed you by telegraph on yesterday, Captain Nelson has returned and reports that his company went into Laurel Valley, N.C., and had a brush with the tories, in which he killed 12 and subsequently captured 20. From information I have received from all quarters from men of intelligence and reliable character, I am satisfied there is no organization in the mountains of armed men banded together for the purpose of making efforts to destroy bridges or to burn towns or property of Confederate officers and soldiers. I think the attack on Marshall was gotten up to obtain salt, for want of which there is great suffering in the mountains. Plunder of other property followed as a matter of course. Col. [L. M.] Allen’s Sixty-fourth North Carolina Regiment and the men of his command are said to have been hostile to the Laurel men and they to the former for a long time–a kind of feud existing between them. Of the men killed by Nelson’s cavalry all but one or two were deserters from Colonel Allen’s regiment. They formed part of the expedition against Marshall and no doubt plundered Allen’s house There has been no [attack] made on parties traveling on the Asheville road; the stage has not been destroyed and no acts of hostility committed that I can hear of but the plunder of Marshall and of Allen’s house. The whole force that went to Marshall did not exceed 50 men. All the reports stating the existence of organized bands of armed men numbering 300 or 400 are false beyond a doubt. The attack on Marshall has given rise to wild rumors of organizations of armed tories throughout the mountains, bent on sacking towns and the plunder of loyal men. The reports, greatly magnified as they went to Raleigh, have no doubt led the Governor of North Carolina to call on the Confederate Government for a protecting force. I think you can safely assure him that the militia are not needed.
    * * * * * * * * * *
    Very respectfully, your obedient servant,
    W. G. M. DAVIS,

    February 16, 1863, Ashville, N.C.,
    Letter from A.S. Merrimon to Governor Vance
    ASHEVILLE, N.C., February 16, 1863.
    GOVERNOR: Your letter of the 9th instant is just received. I beg to assure you that I shall at the next term of the court prosecute vigorously such of the prisoners to whom you direct my attention as may be turned over to the civil authorities. The late expedition to Laurel sent only four prisoners to jail, and one of them was admitted to bail on yesterday by Judge Bailey. I understand there are no more to send. I have no knowledge of my own touching the shooting of several prisoners in Laurel. I have learned, however, from a most reliable source that 13 of them were killed; that some of them were not taken in arms but at their homes; that all the men shot (13, if not more) were prisoners at the time they were shot; that they were taken off to a secluded cave or gorge in the mountains and then made to kneel down and were thus shot. One man was badly and mortally shot in the bowels, and while he was writhing in agony and praying to God for mercy a soldier mercilessly and brutally shot him in the head with his pistol. Several women were whipped; this I learned from one who got his information from some of the guilty parties. I learned that all this was done by order of Lieut. Col. James A. Keith. I know not what you intend doing with the guilty parties, but I suggest they are all guilty of murder. I do not suppose they had any order to do so barbarous a deed; but if they had the order was void absolutely, no matter by whom issued. Such savage and barbarous cruelty is without a parallel in the State, and I hope in every other. I am gratified that you intend to take the matter in hand. I will make such investigation as I can, but I have no means of compelling any one to disclose facts to me. It will not be difficult, I learn, to prove that the prisoners were killed. I assure you that I will prosecute all persons who have committed criminal offenses in this circuit at the next term of the court, and in the mean time I will do all in my power to suppress crime and violence. These are fearfully on the increase in this section of the State. A report might be made that would astonish you. I have done all I could in reference to the complaints made to you from Jackson and Cherokee Counties.
    * * * * * * * * * *
    I am, &c., yours, truly,

    • Max Hunt

      Thank you Susi for taking the time to share all this! I concur that anyone interested in further study read your work on the subject and the books and letters you listed.

      • Susan Way

        Another book – by Robert Orr, Earl Fletcher and Timothy Reaves “Blue, Gray and Homespun: The Civil War in East Tennessee” explains the authors’ viewpoints on the Shelton Laurel Massacre (Ch. 28) and another (Ch. 31) tells of the ordeal Nancy Norton Franklin (my 3rd gr grandmother) endured having to watch most of her boys murdered. George Norton (my gr gr grandfather) was not part of this merely because he was away with his unit fighting, not on leave or awol like Nancy’s other boys are written to have been.

        • Max Hunt

          Thanks Susan! I’ve never heard of that one. Another book for the list!

          • Susan Way

            “Blue, Gray and Homespun…” was published date 2013 – I believe all three of the authors are Greenevillians.

          • Max Hunt

            Wonderful! Thanks again Susan. Hopefully they’ll have a copy at the library.

  13. NFB

    Another example of Civil War divisions in Western North Carolina is the story of Keith and Malinda Blalock, unionists who engaged in guerrilla warfare in what is now Avery County (then a part of Mitchell and Watauga counties) and surrounding area. Keith served briefly in the Confederate Army as a draftee (Malinda disguised herself as a male and posed as his brother to serve along side him for a short period) before deserting. From that period on they two engaged in attacks against Confederate supporters in the area until the end of the war. Among those killed for their Confederate sympathies was Keith Blalock’s own uncle.

    Nearly 40 years after the war, in 1913, Keith was killed in a railroad accident. However it is believed by some that it was no accident but a revenge killing for his actions during the war. Perhaps as a final parting shot and last word against him, his grave marker identifies him as a member of the Confederate States Army. The ultimate revenge. The story of the Blalocks is relayed in the Sharyn McCrumb’s novel “Ghost Riders.”

    Much of what when on during the Civil War in Mitchell and Avery counties is often given as a major reason why the two counties have remained staunchly Republican ever since. Madison County too was a Republican stronghold up until the Ponder brothers brought about realignment in the 1950’s. Madison, Avery, and Mitchell are of only 6 counties in North Carolina to never have voted for FDR.

    Anyway, great article. I hope to see more like them in MX.

    • Max Hunt

      Ahhh, the “Bonny and Clyde” of WNC! Thanks for sharing the story NFB. I’ll have to dig up a copy of “Ghost Riders.” Sounds interesting!

      There’s an account of the the Blalocks’ exploits in the book “Bushwhackers” by William Trotter as well. It’s a pretty good read for those interested in some of the goings on across WNC and East Tenn. during the Civil War, though some historians question Trotter’s sources. Still, the book covers a lot of ground.

      Thanks again for sharing, NFB!

      • NFB

        Yes, I read Trotter’s book several years ago and ran across my copy recently. I think it may be time for a re-read.

        “Ghost Riders” is very much worth a read. It also covers Zebulon Vance’s role during the Civil War years. Might be a time for that one to get a re-read from me as well!

        • Max Hunt

          Looks like I’ll be heading to the library this weekend! Thanks for the recommendation NFB.

          • NFB

            I hope you like! “Ghost Riders” is a novel that deserves mention along with “Cold Mountain” and “The World Made Straight.” As I recall (it has been a few years since I read it) while the Blalocks are more prominently featured in it, Shelton Laurel is not overlooked.

  14. Dan Slagle

    The killing on Shelton Laurel in 1863 was probably the darkest day in the history of Madison County. It should never have happened, but in a time of war, I guess we can expect events like this. We read that the killing was because of salt. I don’t think so. It may have been the straw that broke the camel’s back, but it was not the cause. Troubles began in Madison back in 1861 (or even before) with the killing of the sheriff, and continued until well after the war.

    • Max Hunt

      Thanks for your words Dan! I think you put it perfectly, re: the salt incident only being the proverbial straw. I wish I had had more space to discuss Sheriff Merrill’s killing and the fracas in Marshall that surrounded that. Unfortunately, newspapers only allow so much space. That’s why we need your book!

      • Steve Tweed

        Another avenue for you to pursue would be to contact Tweed historian Diana Chesser in Johnson City.
        I can give you her e-mail/phone number if you contact me.
        Also, interestingly enough, Tweed Descendant Sammy Sams who recently retired as an engineer at N.C. State University found a wanted poster for Neely Tweed at N.C. State.
        Thanks again for the article.

        • Max Hunt

          That would be great, Steve. I’d love to get in touch with Ms. Chesser. That poster must be pretty interesting too; What a find! Thanks again for reading and contributing to the conversation!

          • Steve Tweed

            You are welcome, Max and Thank You.
            If you have a way that I can privately get you Diana’s contact info I will be happy to point you in her direction.

  15. Max Hunt

    Hey folks, I believe the Middle Laurel Church benefit dinner & play has been rescheduled for 2/27/16 at the Freedom Christian Church in Marshall (near Mama’s Kitchen) on 25/70, for those of you interested in attending. The dinner starts at 5 pm; the play “The Last Christmas” about Shelton Laurel begins at 7 pm. Donations go towards supporting some community members in need of assistance.

    • Max Hunt

      Correction! The play has been rescheduled for March 5th! Still a Saturday, still at Freedom Christian Church, same times for the dinner and play.

      • Joe Farrell

        Wish I could get down there, but can’t before April. Would love to see that play.

  16. Nova

    David Shelton was 12 years old not 13 because if he was 8 in 1859 and he died in 1863 and he was born somewhere around October/September of 1851 and Shelton-Laurel massacre happened in January then he would have been 12 years old when he died.

  17. Annette Shelton

    The site of massacre is my sons grandmothers place.I am from Shelton Laurel…I used to live in the cabin near gravesites.

  18. James G. "Corky" shelton

    I just happended across this article, and being related to the people that lived in Shelton larual, I have never heard the story about the killings. I traveled to shelton larual in 1966 with my family. it was the first and only time that i was ever there. I am seeking information on my family. My grandfathers name was Bessman Shelton, and his wifes name was Zora. My fathers name was Oscar Shelton. My dad told meas a child that if you wern’t related to or didnt have permission, that you didnt go there.
    My father was born in 1929, and lived on sams creek. I would be thankful for any help.
    Tanks, Corky Shelton

    • Michelle King

      That was true, Corky. Madison County has always had a bad reputation for tough no nonsense, low tolerate ppl. Most ppl living in Shelton Laurel now are from the 5 or 6 original family’s and they are getting old. They are dying out. Big developers moving in and buying the land. They’ve always been and remain suspicious of outsiders. I have found that upon introduction you have to run down your family tree until you drop a name they recognize. You’re a Shelton so it should be easy. They remain one of the largest familes there. 1966 is too long. Its time to go back and take your kids. You deserve to know your heritage. You better hurry though.

    • Shantel Brinkley

      My grandmother and her family was a Shelton descendent we have just started digging in to her history seems I have a bit of family out there we are unaware of

  19. Robert N. Dowell

    I read the article and comments with great interest. I am currently researching my Shelton ancestors and was told of the Shelton Laurel massacre by my paternal grandmother many years ago. Her surname was Ball and she was born at Marshall, NC. Her maternal grandfather was John M. Shelton who was born, raised and died in Tennessee. He was related to the Sheltons involved with the ones in the massacre. How, I don’t know. He and his family was living in Madison County, NC during the 1900 Federal Census, and insterestingly, they were back in Tennessee in Tim for the census enumeration for Cocke County, TN for its 1990 Federal Census. My paternal grandmother had another grandfather who lived in North Carolina named Noah Ball. Noah was a member of the North Carolina 64th, Company C. I have read that Company A was responsible for the massacre. Thanks for the article and other responses.

  20. Michael

    Interesting reading . For Robert N Dowell….your John M has not been linked as of yet. We do have about all the records but his father still elusive. You can contact me at for further. Back to the thread and the David Shelton b 1814 and Roderick b 1811 both killed in the Massacre. They were both sons of Armistead Street Shelton. Street also had William [Gamblin Bill] Shelton who served from Ky in the Civil War . Anyone interested in Armistead Street can find the correct info on his FindaGrave which I maintain. Thanks for the read…it’s all good!

  21. terri pierce motes

    my maternal grandmother,mildred jones Davis told me a story about her mother’s grandmother,Nancy Norton as a young girl.she had a copy of a newspaper article that was printed years ago and i copied and my children and one of my granddaughters took it to class during elementary school and was so proud to tell the class about our ancestor Nancy Norton and her brother’s passionate defense of the injustice she suffered.the name of the article is “revenge dear nancy norton”.it has been so interesting to read all of this.

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