By Michael Hardy (reprinted from The High Country Magazine, June 2012)
Undoubtedly, the rumors that the War might soon end were on the mind of Mary Councill as she began to go about her morning chores in the spring of 1865. Soldiers were beginning to appear in town, many not on official leave, bringing with them stories of the hardships endured by the men in gray in the trenches around Petersburg. Times were just as hard in Boone and the surrounding countryside. Even as Mary sought to care for her family, a new home guard company was organizing in Boone. There were rumors that Jim Hartley’s gang of deserters and Unionists was on the prowl once again.
There was some type of commotion on the other end of town, and Mary headed for the door to see what was going on. As she stepped out onto her porch, a scattering of shots rang out, and the bullets slammed into the wooden frame around the door. Mary quickly retreated inside, shaken, but unharmed. After four years, the Civil War had come in earnest to Watauga County.
Almost four years before, a different crowd had gathered on the streets of Boone. Local farmer Harvey Davis was in town the same day as George N. Folk, the former general assemblyman who had resigned his seat in order to come home and raise a company for the war. Harvey recalled in his diary that Folk gave a “some-what fiery speech,” at the end of which a call was made for volunteers. Many men stepped up, including Harvey. After several weeks of drills, with ample public banquets, the company was off to the war, becoming members of the First North Carolina Cavalry.
Rumors abounded on the supposed Unionist sentiment of Watauga County. One newspaper article stated that 500 local men were ready to cross over the mountains into Tennessee and join the Federal army. Just the opposite was actually true. In September 1861, two more companies, two hundred more men, voluntarily enlisted in the Confederate army. These enlistees included one local Native American, Larkin Oxentine, and two free persons of color: Franklin Cousins and his brother, William Henry Cousins. In November, these two companies became members of the Thirty-seventh North Carolina Troops, the regiment that lost more men during the war to combat and disease than any other Tar Heel regiment. By the end of 1861, some 300 men out of a population of 4,957 in Watauga County had freely enlisted to fight for the Confederacy.
April 1862 brought the despised Conscription Act which required enlistment for white males between the ages of eighteen and thirty-five, unless they were government employees, militia officers, or plantation owners. In Watauga County, there were few government employees, mostly postal workers, and no plantation owners. Men were given until July to voluntarily enlist. Those not voluntarily enlisting could be rounded up and forced into the army. The conscription age range was later expanded from seventeen to fifty.
Two more companies of these not-so-willing volunteers enlisted in July 1862. They became members of the Fifty-eighth North Carolina Troops, serving in Tennessee and Georgia. A third company of conscripts from Watauga was added in September 1862.
The War was largely fought “some other place” until late summer 1863. East Tennessee was abandoned by the Confederates in September, a move that empowered both dissidents and Unionists. The role of dissidents, those who chose to support neither the North nor the South, is the great untold story of the War. In 1863, a group of dissidents attacked the home of Paul Farthing in the Bethel community. Thomas Farthing was killed in the attack. Later, John Canada Guy was captured in present-day Todd, taken to Ashe County, and hanged for the crime. Guy’s father, Levi, was also captured and hanged.
Governor Zebulon Baird Vance, in response to the increased violence and to enforce conscription, created the home guard in July 1863. Harvey Bingham, a former Confederate officer who was wounded in battle and unable to withstand the rigors of active campaigning, was chosen to command. Bingham’s command was known as the 11th Battalion, North Carolina Home Guard, and eventually contained two companies. A camp which contained cabins was constructed on Cove Creek. Usually, one company was on duty, while the other was back on their farms, tending crops and livestock.
Bingham and his command faced numerous challenges. The Conscription Act had produced hordes of deserters. Some of these men simply came home to check on their families, while others came to sit out the remainder of the war. Often, these deserters, sometimes both Confederate and Union soldiers, formed themselves into bands of armed men for mutual support. The only way these bands of men could survive was by stealing. Added to this mix was a steady stream of both dissidents from off the mountain and escaped Federal prisoners from Salisbury. Both groups were seeking the lines of Federal forces in East Tennessee. The latter groups used an underground railroad that ran from Blowing Rock, across Boone Fork and Seven Devils, and into Banner Elk. There is no account of this local route across the mountain being used by escaped slaves.
Possibly the most famous couple in Civil War western North Carolina served as guides on the route between Blowing Rock and Banner Elk. William “Keith” and Malinda Blalock were living in Coffey’s Gap on the Caldwell-Watauga County border in 1860. The 1862 Conscription Law forced Keith into the service. Malinda, possibly without Keith’s knowledge, cut off her hair, donned men’s clothing, and joined under the name of Sam. The couple wound up in the Twenty-sixth North Carolina Troops stationed in Kinston. After about six weeks, Keith tired of military life. He ventured out into the swamp and rolled in every type of poison he could find. The ensuing rash netted him a discharge. Sam revealed her true identity and the couple were soon on their way back to the mountains. Keith healed quickly, and the conscription officers’ constant badgering forced the couple into a cave on Grandfather Mountain. From that point, Keith began to help guide men on the underground railroad, and at the same time, battled local Confederates and just about everyone else who crossed his path. At times, other dissidents or Unionists joined with the Blalocks as they roamed Watauga and Caldwell Counties. They even reportedly hid out in a cave on Myria Knob at Price Park. After two years of being on the lam, Keith officially joined the Union army. He mustered in as a private in the 10th Michigan Cavalry in June 1864. Unofficially, he was an enrolling officer, and spent most of his time in western North Carolina, so much time, that at one point his commanding officers passed around the notion that he was a Union deserter.
Blalock was not the only local man to join the Union army. A small but steady stream crossed over the Iron Mountains and headed for Strawberry Plains or Knoxville. A few would enlist in more traditional Federal regiments. Most chose to enlist in one of three “galvanized” regiments: the Thirteenth Tennessee Cavalry, the Second North Carolina Mounted Infantry, or the Third North Carolina Mounted Infantry. All three of these regiments were made up of men who remained loyal to the Union, or who initially had enlisted (or been conscripted) in the Confederate army, but deserted and later joined the Federal army. The Second and Third Regiments have become known as a “Notorious Band of Scoundrels and Thieves.” Col. George W. Kirk led the latter regiment, which sent bands of men into the mountains of western North Carolina to rob, plunder, and impress men into service. Of the 986 men (and one woman) who served in the military during the war years, thirty-six originally enlisted in the Federal army, and were later joined by sixty-eight former Confederates.
Not all of these men who joined the Federal army did so willingly. Sixteen-year-old Hezekiah Thomas joined the Fifty-eighth North Carolina Troops in July 1862. At the battle of Missionary Ridge in November 1863, he was captured and imprisoned at Camp Douglas in Chicago. One day in May 1865, a recruiter for the Federal army came through camp, and Hezekiah, claiming later that he and other Confederate prisoners were being starved, joined what became the Sixth United States Volunteers. Hezekiah was sent out west to battle the Indians.
As the life ebbed out of the Confederacy, conditions grew worse in Watauga County. In February 1865, a group of Unionists and dissidents captured Camp Mast in a brazen early morning raid. The raiders came from Banner Elk, surrounded the camp, and, harkening back to the story of Gideon in the Bible, built fires circling the sleeping home guardsmen. Awakening to what appeared to be an overwhelming number of the enemy, most of the camp voted to surrender. The camp buildings were destroyed, and those who had voted to stay and fight were sent to Camp Chase in Ohio. At least two, Paul and Ruben Farthing, died as prisoners of war.
The shots that terrified Mary Council on March 28, 1865, came not from Jim Hartley, nor Keith Blalock and his band. They came from the vanguard of a 6,000-man Federal cavalry force under the command of General George Stoneman. Boone’s reconstituted Home Guard, made up of disabled soldiers, young boys, and old men, was ill-equipped for the fight it had provoked. Quickly, the federal cavalrymen overwhelmed the locals, driving many into the surrounding woods. Others were wounded and captured. At least two were killed. The Federals cared for the wounded and sent their prisoners to Tennessee, while at the same time destroying the papers in the courthouse and burning the jail. Almost as quickly as the Federals appeared, they were gone, a portion heading east into Wilkes County, the remainder heading south into Caldwell County.
Mary and her neighbors probably breathed a sigh of relief. However, a worse nightmare soon rode into town. The rear elements of Stoneman’s command were composed partially of the Second and Third North Carolina Mounted Infantry. Under orders from Stoneman, they established five bases. In Boone, they cut holes in the walls of the courthouse to use as gun ports. In Blowing Rock, one of the summer homes of the Harper family was dismantled and reconstructed as a fort. Another fort, made of logs and dirt, was built in Deep Gap. For a month, the home Yankees ran rampant across the area. The home of state senator Jonathan Horton was reportedly robed eighteen times in fourteen days. Mrs. J. D. Councill was kept a prisoner in her own home in Boone. On April 27, the Federals rode away.
Life would never be the same in old Watauga County. Too many had been killed; too many had fought against family and friends. Many simply chose to move on, relocating to Texas or Oregon. There would be some attempts at reconciliation. One of the first veteran reunions was held at the Blowing Rock Assembly Grounds in 1891. Not only were former Confederates from the surrounding counties invited, but also Union veterans as well. An estimated 18,000 people attended. Reunions were often held every year, and by 1900, the Nimrod Triplett Camp, United Confederates Veterans joined the national United Confederate Veterans organization. Watauga County’s last Confederate veteran Jesse Luther, died in 1946, and is buried in the Gap Creek Cemetery.
There is not much left of old Watauga and the war. A few homes exist, along with a few treasured letters and photographs, and tombstones in cemeteries scattered across the mountains and valleys. All traces of the forts built by the federals have been swept away, along with the bitterness that marked the last half of the nineteenth century. Only a few historical markers, like the three cast iron ones denoting Stoneman’s Raid in Boone, Blowing Rock, and Deep Gap, along with the new Camp Mast North Carolina Civil War Trail marker in Cove Creek, with a few words on print pages, are all that remain of Watauga County’s Civil War.
Michael Hardy writes the North Carolina and the Civil War blog and was named the 2010-11 North Carolina Historian of the Year by the North Carolina Society of Historians. On April 21, 2012, the first North Carolina Civil War Trail Marker was dedicated at the old Cove Creek School in western Watauga County. Hardy played a major role in its installation, from recommending the location to writing the text on the marker itself. He has been writing about the Civil War for over a decade, authored 15 books, and is a six-time winner of the Willie Parker Peace History Book Award from the North Carolina Society of Historians. He makes his home in the mountains of Western North Carolina with his wife and their two children.