Armed citizen conflicts included rash acts in WNC
by Rob Neufeld
A member of “The Read on WNC” has linked me to a YouTube video, “The Battle of Athens: Restoring the Rule of Law,” which he says is “the real reason why we have the 2nd Amendment.”
The video re-enacts the illegal seizure of ballot boxes by a McMinn County, Tenn. political boss who wanted to avoid losing the race for sheriff in 1946; and the reclamation of those boxes by returning war veterans by force of arms.
In the wake of the most recent mass shootings, and the strengthened call for gun control, the militia justification for personal arsenals has gained prominence. Though the 2d Amendment protects arms ownership because “a well regulated militia” is “necessary to the security of a free state,” the concept of a militia has been expanded to any insurrectionist group opposing an oppressive government.
Two test questions arise. How oppressive does a government have to get for armed resistance to be justified? And, do supporters of militias support the right of all oppressed groups to go to war against those whom they see as oppressors?
Collateral consequences of an armed citizenship are not the subject of this article. It should be noted, however that, in the “Battle of Athens” movie, the warfare is caused in part by two irresponsible weapons discharges—first the shooting of a poll watcher by an overanxious deputy; and then a premature firing on the county jail, where the lawmen are holed up. The movie does not show the brutality and murders caused by an anti-government mob that the veterans could not control after deputies had surrendered.
History is the subject of this article. Examples of citizen-at-arms in the region help to broaden the subject.
The Regulator Movement
Many ancestors of Western North Carolinians opposed the state colonial governors in the 1760s and 70s when tax and debt collectors pulled the kind of greedy tricks that Robin Hood had opposed going up against the Sheriff of Nottingham. The farmers in what had then been known as the western counties (Rowan, Anson, Orange, Granville) formed the Regulator Movement.
In 1768, the Regulators sacked Hillsborough, and symbolically put human waste on the judge’s seat and a long-dead slave at the lawyer’s bar in the courthouse. Eastern politicians summoned the militia.
The conflict came to head at the Battle of Alamance, May 16, 1771, when the state’s well-regulated militia overwhelmed the Regulators’ not well-regulated one. Each side suffered about nine deaths. Seven Regulator leaders were executed; the rest, pardoned.
Polling day in Marshall
In Madison County, when people were voting throughout North Carolina for or against secession on May 13, 1861, the Sheriff got drunk, bullied Unionists, and brandished a gun, writes William R. Trotter in “Bushwhackers.” “Huzzah for Jeff Davis!” was met by cries of “Hurrah for Washington and the Union!”
The sheriff shot at one Unionist, who dove away, and the Unionist’s son was killed. The sheriff ran to the second floor of a house, and said, bring it on. The Unionist fired and wounded the sheriff. The constable raced up the stairs, followed by the father, who pushed past the constable and finished the sheriff off.
The Kirk-Holden police action
In June 1870, the Republican governor, William Holden, commissioned Col. George Kirk, the notorious Civil War guerilla raider, to lead a militia unit, composed of WNC and East Tennessee men, to take over the town of Yanceyville in the wake of Klan violence (including an assassination and a lynching) against Reconstruction officials. Asheville Republican leaders opposed Kirk’s appointment.
Kirk arrested suspected Klan conspirators in fields and homes, ignoring habeas corpus. When Holden heard that Kirk had tortured one man for information, he wrote Kirk forbidding such action. The Federal government eventually enforced habeas corpus, freeing most prisoners. Holden was impeached on Dec. 14, 1870; and removed from office, March 22, 1871. The Republicans lost power for many years.
Shoot-out at Highlands Inn
In 1885, the town of Moccasin, Ga. declared war on Highlands, N.C. when a Federal revenuer impounded two Moccasin bootleggers in the Highlands House (now Inn). Armed volunteers from Moccasin bivouacked behind the Central House across the street, and warfare proceeded for three days. A Highlands sniper killed a Georgia man from a roof, and the Georgians went home, vowing revenge.
Highlands recruited gunmen from surrounding towns. Moccasin responded by cutting off the trade route. Joel Lovin, a Confederate veteran, left Highlands to resolve the stand-off and came upon the Billingsley boys in Georgia, who passed without incident. “Uncle Lovin returned with supplies from Walhalla,” Randolph Shaffner writes in “Heart of the Blue Ridge.”
The Will Harris murders
On Nov. 13, 1906, Will Harris, an African American war veteran and Asheville worker, killed five men around Pack Square, fled, and was killed by a posse in a barrage of bullets. His body was displayed in a South Main St. (now Biltmore Ave.) funeral home window.
Violence against African-Americans in Spruce Pine
On September 26, 1923, 200 white citizens of Spruce Pine, led by a sheriff’s deputy, marched to the feldspar miners’ shanty town to evict every black citizen from the area. News had spread that John Goss, an African-American, had escaped from a prison road crew at about the time that a 75-year old white woman reported having been raped.
Governor Cameron Morrison called in the National Guard to enable the return of African-Americans. African-American labor was essential to the area’s booming new industry. Goss was sentenced in a rushed trial and executed.
The Marion textile mill strike
‘’For God’s sake, stop, men. Don’t kill any more,” “Time” magazine reported McDowell County Sheriff Oscar F. Adkins shouting as his deputies shot strikers at the Marion Mill on Oct. 2, 1929, killing six.
Brutal conditions at the mill had led workers to engage the United Textile Workers; and they were joined by Clinchfield millworkers. Negotiations fell apart when Clinchfield president B. Mabry Hart walked out.
Adkins deputized anti-union factory workers, including one who had gone on a shooting rampage against factory workers in their village, Mike Lawing reported in his book, “The Marion Massacre.”
The deputies had rifles; the workers, sticks and stones. The first shots came from the mill gate, where deputies were stationed. In the end, the lawmen were acquitted and union organizing did not return to Marion.