Exploring WNC’s mixed role in the Civil War

ALWAYS IN THE MAKING: "This is a very important story for our region," says Les Reker, right. "The way the war started and the way it was fought by the people of not only Madison County, but Yancey, Haywood, Buncombe and East Tennessee — it's not the traditional story you hear about the Civil War." Also featured in this image, filmmaker Ryan Phillips. Photo by Chris Whitten

Our understanding of the Shelton Laurel Massacre, the most infamous incident in the Civil War in Western North Carolina, may be reshaped by a new exhibit coming to Mars Hill University.

The Civil War in the Southern Highlands: A Human Perspective, the latest exhibit at The Rural Heritage Museum at Mars Hill University, features stories of starvation, propaganda and deception, along with new evidence that shifts blame for the massacre away from the man long perceived as the villain.

Les Reker, the museum’s director, says the most groundbreaking component of the exhibit is the never-before-published letters of Confederate Lt. Col. James A. Keith. Keith gained local infamy during the war for his assumed role in the Shelton Laurel Massacre. Reker declares that Keith’s recently acquired missives, along with contradictory reports, possible ulterior motives of individuals involved and inaccurate claims, “cast new light on the events.”

According to filmmaker Ryan Phillips, who conducted research for the exhibit in addition to producing the show’s 15-minute introductory video, Madison County functions as a microcosm of the region’s overall divided allegiance. In his opinion, the Shelton Laurel massacre was a manifestation of this division. Whereas the area’s townspeople tended to support the Confederacy, most of its rural residents opposed leaving the Union.

Such tension, says Phillips, often resulted in violence. “War brings out the worst in people,” he explains. On May 13, 1861, the town sheriff, Ransom P. Merrill, shot and wounded local Unionist Elisha Tweed. Later that day, Tweed’s father exacted revenge on Merrill, killing the pro-Confederate sheriff. Merrill’s death, notes Phillips, was a harbinger of far worse things to come.

“There were a lot of little people that were caught up in [the Civil War],” says Reker. “They really did not have an opinion one way or another for the reasons why the South seceded and they certainly didn’t want to go to war about it.”

Reker points to the 1862 Conscription Act as a case in point. It required men ages 18-35 to serve in the Rebel army. Because of this, many women hid their husbands from the Rebel Home Guards. “Many women were beaten terribly. Older women were beaten with whips for conspiring with the Linconites [a term used to describe Southerners who supported the Union],” Reker explains.

In one unique case, Watauga County resident Sarah Malinda Pritchard Blalock did not hide her husband but rather joined him in battle. “She pretended to be his brother,” Reker explains. Blalock is the state’s only known female Civil War soldier. The Blalocks’ service with the Confederate army was short-lived. The couple would return to their farm, near Grandfather Mountain, and later join a guerrilla band of Union sympathizers.

Hostility within the region continued to escalate throughout the war years, leading to the eventual Shelton Laurel Massacre. Local Union sympathizers often shot at Rebel Home Guards, leading the Confederates to attempt to disarm residents. When the measure failed, Confederate authorities found other ways to punish the Shelton Laurel community, including the withholding of salt, which was used to preserve meats.

Hunger ensued. Because of this, on Jan. 8, 1863, residents of Shelton Laurel raided homes and business in nearby Marshall. They were in search of food, clothing and much-needed salt. Among the pillaged properties was the domicile of Confederate Col. Lawrence Allen, commander of the 64th North Carolina.

Within two weeks, 16 people were taken prisoner for their participation in the raid. Their ages ranged from 13 to 60. The accused were told they’d stand trial in Knoxville, Tenn. Plans, however, changed, and on Monday, Jan. 19, they were executed by a firing squad and buried in shallow graves.

Popular opinion at the time placed responsibility for the massacre on Lt. Col. James A. Keith. In 1867, he was arrested but would later escape from the Buncombe County jail. Augustus Merrimon and Zebulon Vance played a crucial role in promulgating claims against Keith. Such early accusations, combined with centuries of oral tradition, have all but cemented Keith’s fate as guilty.

The Civil War in the Southern Highlands: A Human Perspective raises questions concerning this nearly 155-year-old atrocity — namely, the role, if any, that Keith played. The exhibit highlights that Merrimon may have had ulterior motives for casting Keith in an unfavorable light. Likewise, many of the early accounts concerning Keith’s whereabouts during the war have since been proved false. But the greatest evidence, says Phillips, lies within the museum’s acquisition of Keith’s own letters. “These new papers are as rare as a winning lottery ticket,” Phillips says. “Their existence is almost impossible. For us to get our hands on it is even more rare.”

Along with the Shelton Laurel Massacre and the controversy surrounding Keith’s involvement, the exhibit will spotlight the Battle of Warm Springs and the Battle of Asheville. Bushwackers, bridge burners and brothers battling brothers will also be highlighted, as will the issue of slavery within WNC.

“Most people that haven’t studied [the Civil War] assume that anybody that lived in Western North Carolina during that time period was pro-Confederate,” says Dan Slagle, local historian and genealogist who assisted The Rural Heritage Museum with its latest exhibit. “But that is not true. … Your average citizen in Western North Carolina didn’t want any part of this war. But they were forced into it one way or another. And a lot of the soldiers that came from here didn’t have to go off to war. The war came to them.”

In Slagle’s opinion, scrutiny of the region’s history and its citizens’ roles within the war is among the many goals of The Civil War in the Southern Highlands: A Human Perspective. Slagle adds that such scrutiny is an essential component in the overall examination of our country’s past.

“If we study history and dig deep enough — and most of us don’t do that — but if you really want to know the truth, you’ve got to dig deeper and don’t stop researching when you find one book that agrees with your theory of what any one thing was. … There’s always a different side to every story.”

WHAT: The Rural Heritage Museum at Mars Hill University’s The Civil War in the Southern Highlands: A Human Perspective
WHERE: 80 Cascade St., Mars Hill mhu.edu/museum
WHEN: Exhibit opening runs 1-5 p.m. Saturday, Aug. 19, and will continue through Sunday, March 4. Free


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About Thomas Calder
Thomas Calder received his MFA in Fiction from the University of Houston's Creative Writing Program. He has worked with several publications, including Gulf Coast and the Collagist.

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