This is a collection of the four articles that composed a series in the Asheville Citizen-Times "Visiting Our Past" column, Summer, 2009. See also Terrell Garren's Civil War blog
Tour of Four WNC Civil War sites
by Rob Neufeld
Though few battles took place in the Asheville area, it was of great significance. Many soldiers came from here. North Carolina contributed more men to the Confederate Army than any other state, and, within North Carolina, the western part realized 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 great cause became an endless one for a pained cause. 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.
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; “The World Made Straight” by Ron Rash.
On April 20, 1865, where Old Route 70 crosses the Swannanoa Tunnel, locals won the last Confederate victory of the Civil War. The previous night, Col. James R. Love had marched Walker’s Battalion of Thomas’ Legion from Waynesville to Asheville to join General James G. Martin and stop the advance of the 2nd and 3rd Brigades of Stoneman’s Cavalry.
The “Raiders” included many “tories,” as locals branded them. Col. William J. Palmer, commander of the 1st Brigade, had warned Stoneman that the troops had lost all discipline and devoted “themselves exclusively to pillaging.”
Confederate soldiers and guards positioned themselves in a horseshoe pattern at the gap and along both sides of Royal Gorge. Junior reservists went ahead and felled trees to block the route. The Union cavalry, though armed with Spencer repeating carbines, ultimately retreated to take a circuitous route to Asheville via Howard Gap.
Accounts by Private Charles White of Broad River, a junior reservist in the Home Guard, give us an eyewitness. “We succeeded in making a barricade that no cavalry force would soon cross or clear way,” White is quoted on the trail marker, “but those of us (25 or 30) working on the road to the Swannanoa Gap were trapped” by an early appearance of Stoneman’s men.
Hanging Dog Creek and Valleytown
For a month after Lee’s surrender at Appomattox on April 9, 1865, the Civil War continued in the mountains. The last clash—or skirmish, or battle—east of the Mississippi occurred on Hanging Dog Creek, May 6.
Hanging Dog Creek tumbles through what is now the Nantahala Game Land, north of Murphy, and flows into the Hiwassee River, passing under Old Joe Brown Highway, once a Tennessee-North Carolina toll road. Along this road, during the final actions of the war, a deserter-turned-raider named Captain Aker directed his band of men across the mountain boundary into North Carolina.
In Murphy, Aker’s group set fire to the courthouse. It then headed north up the Valley River Valley to Valleytown, as Margaret Walker Freel documented in her Cherokee County history, “Our Heritage.” The raiders were after food. Unlike East Tennessee, eaten up by camping armies, Western North Carolina had game—and livestock.
“With only a small home guard and the women-folks left to protect the vast rugged terrain, raiders found it easy pickings,” says Bill Carver, native Cherokee County author and storyteller. Carver points out that the Buncombe Turnpike and its feeder roads supported a cowboy trade here that beat what would pass out West.
A great memorial to that era survives in the Old Tatham House in Valley Town, near Andrews. In 1833, Thomas Tatham built a two-story log structure for his young wife, Polly, and their future large family. John Parris celebrated Polly in a piece titled, “A Breath of the Past.”
Barely 110 pounds and just five feet tall, Parris relates, Polly raised sheep, wove wool, plowed fields, and chopped wood. “Her home,” he notes, “was a haven for neighbor women during the Civil War, when her own husband and five sons were off fighting for the Lost Cause.”
Aker’s raiders never threatened Polly, for they’d turned and headed home when they’d discovered that Confederate soldiers under the command of Stephen Whitaker (of Thomas’ Legion) were encamping there. “These men were definitely still in Confederate service,” says Terrell Garren, local author and Civil War scholar.
General James Green Martin, commander of Confederate Troops in Western North Carolina, had not surrendered to the local Union commander, Col. William C. Bartlett, until their meeting in Waynesville, May 7. When Whitaker heard, he surrendered in Franklin on May 12.
An impressive stone monument sits hidden in the shade of a yard-side dogwood tree in Hazelwood, outside of downtown Waynesville. “Near this spot,” its plaque reads, “the last shot of the War between the States was fired under the command of Lt. Robt. T. Conley of the Confederate Army, May 6, 1865.”
Within view, the only thing that evokes the 1860s is the road—Sulphur Springs Road, running alongside Richland Creek. It had once been a Canton-to-Sylva thoroughfare, and is now a residential street, superseded by Rte. 23/74.
On that day in 1865, Conley and his Sharpshooters left Thomas’ Legion in Soco Gap to request reinforcement from Col. Robert James Love Jr. and his regiment at Balsam Gap. The news was that Col. Bartlett’s 2d N.C. Mounted Infantry had occupied Waynesville, burning the courthouse and the home of Robert Love, Waynesville’s founder. Following the fastest, though not the shortest path, Conley ran into a Union detachment and chased it back into Waynesville with bullets and bayonets.
Though Lee had surrendered, the war was not yet over in the mountains. Mountain men stayed formed in regiments to have control over truce terms. The truce that Confederate Gen. James Martin had made with Union General Alvan Gillem in Asheville, April 26, had broken down when Gillem’s men turned on the city and sacked it. Waynesville had been sacked by Col. George W. Kirk in February.
Stringfield, who’d assumed leadership of William Thomas’ Cherokee and white legion when Thomas had withdrawn for a while, was a POW. Just a week earlier, Federal officers had captured him in Knoxville when he had gone to sue for peace. After his release, Stringfield would move to Waynesville, raise his family, and play host to Cherokee guests. His gravestone stands behind Thomas’ in the Green Hill Cemetery, off Main Street in Waynesville.
It is from the cemetery that one gets a view of the scene of action after the skirmish at the monument site. On Rocky Knob, eight miles north, and on Old Field Top Mountain, five miles west, Thomas, re-engaged, brought his Cherokee soldiers to build bonfires, perform war dances, and simulate a larger force.
Bartlett called for a peace conference in the Battle house (demolished in 1899, according to the N.C. Civil War Trails marker at the municipal building, next door to the site). Twenty Cherokees from Thomas’ Legion came to the meeting, “stripped to the waist and painted and feathered in good old style,” “North Carolina Troops” reports. Gen. Martin negotiated for a parole for all his men, retention of arms by the Cherokee, and the suspension of bushwhacking raids in the area.