The Shelton Laurel Massacre Dramatized Madison County Resistance to the Civil War
Prologue: Western North Carolina
Though few battles took place in the Asheville area, it was of great significance. Many soldiers came from here. North Carolina lost far more men fighting for the Confederacy than any other state. Within North Carolina, the western part had the highest enlistment rate.
At first, Confederate enthusiasm in Western North Carolina was overwhelming. Men fought to defend their homeland. Then a short war for a common cause became an endless one for a conflicted one. Mountain men looked to defend their homes. Hunted men formed bands.
As men died—on battlefields, in hospitals, in prisons, and on the lam—the home region became grim. Families starved. Deserters took refuge. Western North Carolina became what Wilma Dykeman called, “The Civil War within the Civil War.”
Asheville and Flat Rock, home in part to wealthy landowners, were Confederate strongholds. In Asheville’s public square and at Camp Patton, troops and trainees gathered. Slaves helped manufacture rifles at an armory. Other African-Americans, some of whose descendants have established communities here, worked in households, trades, and hotels.
The last stages of the war focused on the East Tennessee-Western North Carolina territory that separated eastern and western campaigns. Prologue: Madison County
On Feb. 28, 1861, Madison County men traveled to their county seat to vote against secession. When the next vote took place—on May 13, 1861, a few weeks after Lincoln had called for troops—Unionism had come to seem an affront to a great urgency.
At the ballot boxes, the Madison County sheriff intimidated voters he considered Unionist. He went after a man with whom he’d had a quarrel. After a short chase, the sheriff shot his gun, hit the man’s son, and retreated to a second story perch in a nearby house. The inflamed father killed the sheriff with a shot through a window.
During the winter of 1862-3, Marshall was again tense. Confederate troops were clamping down on insurgents, who had increased in number since Fredericksburg and conscription. The army stationed in Marshall withheld salt and supplies from mountain men, who came down to sack the town.
One group ransacked the house of Col. Lawrence Allen, where his children lay sick with scarlet fever. Allen and the 64th N.C. Regiment retaliated, resulting in the Shelton Laurel Massacre. Major novels have incorporated the story of the massacre: “My Old True Love” by Sheila Kay Adams; “Ghost Riders” by Sharyn McCrumb; and “The World Made Straight” by Ron Rash, among others. The Massacre
On January 19, 1863, a Confederate regiment headed by Lt. Col. James Keith executed thirteen Shelton Laurel men, ages 13 to 56, for suspicion of Union sympathies and the theft of precious salt and meat from a Marshall storehouse. Memorialized as the Shelton Laurel massacre, the event stands out as one of the most notorious in this region’s history. Now, here’s the rest of the story.
The battle over salted meat and the massacre were the explosive climaxes to months of antagonism and treachery in Madison County. Shelton Laurel, named after the Shelton family, 1790s settlers, had become a mountain stronghold and refuge for independent men refusing to serve in the N.C. 64th Regiment. From East Tennessee—a bitterly contested crossroads and breadbasket—Daniel Fry, a noted guerilla fighter and bridge burner, had come to Shelton Laurel to hide out and set up headquarters.
Nine months before the massacre, the “Official Records of the War between the States” notes, the 43rd Tennessee Regiment had been fired on by small bands of men in Shelton Laurel, and retaliatory firing had killed fifteen of them. “There seems to be a regular organization among the inhabitants,” the report comments. “The whole population is openly hostile to our cause.”
At the January 1862 North Carolina State Convention, William Hicks of Haywood County proposed that a battalion stationed in Buncombe County march into Shelton Laurel to round up disloyal citizens, seize their property, imprison them, and treat them “as alien enemies.” The ordinance seems to have never been passed.
On the day after the January 19 massacre, Brigadier General Henry Heth, commander of the East Tennessee Confederate Division, passed on to North Carolina Governor Zebulon Vance the following report from Brigadier General W.G.M. Davis: “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 burn towns…I think the attack on Marshall was gotten to obtain salt, for want of which there is great suffering in the mountains…Col. Allen’s 64th N.C. 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.”
The 64th had been forcing captured Madison County men into service and, stationed in East Tennessee, it was easy for them to desert. Five of the men executed at Shelton Laurel had been identified as deserters. The Official Record, for instance, notes that Halen Moore had taken a long sick furlough in 1862, had exceeded his time, and had been declared a deserter on December 17.
“People in Shelton Laurel moved there to get away from government,” notes Dan Slagle, a genealogist who turned to researching the human side of the Civil War in Madison County when he discovered that three of his great-great grandfathers had served in the 64th Regiment. The more he researches, the more questions arise.