In late January 1863, two columns of Confederate soldiers made their way into the Laurel Valley.
The soldiers were from the 64th North Carolina, a regiment raised by ambitious local aristocrats in a sharply divided region. A cobbled-together mass of die-hard Confederates and dragooned mountaineers, the regiment drained away as the war ground on, leaving the secessionist remainder more bitter than ever.
The 64th, maybe just over 200 strong at this point, had come to kill. Contrary to many later portrayals of the war, the South was a mass of internal divides. North Carolina in particular was a split state.
The divide was particularly sharp in this county of western North Carolina, known as “bloody Madison.” Local Confederates tended to come from towns with elites connected to the slave power that dominated the region. Outnumbered in the mountains by the more hardscrabble Unionists in the vast lands around them, the Confederates saw enemies everywhere.
During that winter, one so harsh their own soldiers suffered frostbite, the secessionist regime had fallen back on an old and ugly tactic. Salt was key to survival, and the Confederates gathered up the scarce local supply. The lack left mountaineers in the more pro-Union hinterlands in a state of “great suffering,” as one general later recalled. That was the point.
To settle the score and fend off starvation, local pro-Union guerillas mounted a daring Jan. 8 raid on Marshall, Madison's seat. They shot the captain guarding the supply, a relative of the 64th's commander, Col. Lawrence Allen. Seizing salt and food, they looted homes in the strongly Confederate hamlet, particularly targeting Allen's home and intimidating his family.
At the time the 64th was across the state line, guarding salt supplies and trying to hold down Confederate rule in East Tennessee, another area of strong pro-Union resistance. But the 64th's Allen and Lt. Col. James Keith, both among the richest men in Madison County, felt a personal affront at this attack on their turf.
So days after the Marshall raid, in the cold mid-January of 1863, the 64th sought and received permission to go back to North Carolina and take revenge. Their ire fell on Shelton Laurel, a close-knit, dirt-poor, and fiercely Unionist community just north of Marshall that had provided safe haven to U.S. Army recruiters and bands of resisters in the past, including deserters from the 64th.
Gen. Henry Heth, the commander of eastern Tennessee, also wanted blood. As witnesses would later recall, he directed “I want no reports from you about your course at Laurel. I do not want to be troubled with any prisoners and the last one of them should be killed.”
The soldiers didn't need much encouragement. Allen led a column into the valley, Keith another from the peaks. Some of the locals skirmished with Allen's troops at a farmhouse, but the soldiers broke through and killed the defenders.
The 64th then set the tenor of their revenge, torturing the women they found, including the elderly. The women were whipped bloody or repeatedly beaten and hanged from a tree. One was tied to a tree in the snow and her infant put on the doorway of the cabin in the freezing weather.
But the women of Shelton Laurel didn't talk. The columns swept the valley. For good measure, they burned houses and slaughtered livestock. In doing so, they used a technique familiar throughout history: terror and a lack of food could scatter a community in a harsh climate, potentially killing far more of a hostile population than their rifles could reach.
Allen's children, already suffering from scarlet fever before the Unionist raid, died, and he left his troops for an evening to bury them before he returned to the valley. The 64th weren't the only Confederate forces in the area; the local militia and other army units also scoured the terrain. Some of the scattered locals they found were sent off to jail. The 64th eventually laid their hands on 15 men. The commanders promised they'd be taken to Tennessee for trial. Even a later investigation by Confederate officials only concluded that five may have been part of the earlier raid. The 64th remained in the valley for a few more days, attempting to ferret out more raiders, and in that time, two of their captives escaped. Finally, Keith claimed they were starting the march to Knoxville. But the 13 remaining men, ranging in age from 13 to 60, weren't going to jail, over the state line, or anywhere else. On a later January morning, Keith marched them a couple of miles to a rocky bend in the mountain's ridgeline, “a virtual amphitheater, a place where every mountaineer lurking in the nearby hills could see what was happening,” and ordered them killed.
An elderly man begged that they let them pray first and was shot anyway, along with five others. When a few of the soldiers hesitated, Keith warned them that they'd either fire or find themselves joining their captives. They quickly complied.
The deaths came in waves. After the first five, one finished off with a pistol shot to the head, another five joined them. A 13-year-old, shot in both arms, begged them to let him live, frantically crawling away from the execution spot. They dragged him back and shot him again, before hastily throwing some dirt over the corpses. Out of sadism or madness, one soldier danced a jig.
As the next day rose on a devastated community, the remaining residents came out to collect the bodies and found that wild hogs had already chewed pieces of one away. They buried them nearby.
Whatever hesitancy some of the 64th initially showed, many of the soldiers went about their business in the days to come. A Feb. 10 letter from Daniel W. Revis, a soldier in the 64th, mostly complains about food and cold and blithely notes the regiment had been busy “hunting Tories.”
The Civil War is perhaps the most distorted event in American history. When Shelton Laurel and the Appalachian war are mentioned at all, they are too often perceived as an exception, wiped off with a “war's hell” or blamed on the ways of those peculiar mountain folks. But the atrocities at Shelton Laurel were an extension of methods the Confederacy used throughout the war.
Plenty of Southerners hated the regime from day one, a feeling that only grew as the war continued. In addition to facing the Union armies, the Confederacy had multiple fractious regions to control, and drawing on a violent tradition already honed on the enslaved, the indigenous, and abolitionists, it often did so mercilessly. The instruments were units dubbed “partisan infantry,” “irregular cavalry,” or “rangers” whose primary duty was repression. While the war was brutal and Unionist guerrillas resorted to assassinations and sabotage, it was overwhelmingly the Confederacy that used regular massacres and devoted whole units to put down “restive citizens.”
Mass killings like Shelton Laurel were carried out from Texas to the North Carolina coast. The fact that history—along with that of the resistance they were trying to crush—was later obscured is not accidental.
That mythology is propped up not just by the words we use, but by the ones we often don't. Civil wars in other countries have regimes, factions, atrocities, corruption, and resistance. But America's is commonly portrayed as long lines of soldiers dying in paintings, “brother against brother,” a haze of supposedly equally noble causes laid over the reality of slavery and death.
Even our strife, these lies seems to say, is exceptional, cleaner than other places.
The bodies in the Shelton Laurel snow paint a very different picture. The 64th's war, both before and after that day in January, was not formations and charges. It was that of “caustic measures,” torture, burned homes, and summary executions.
After all, the Confederacy was, while particularly American, also something common as dirt: a harsh regime in a violent country, held together by force.
Chivalry be damned, Dixie needed its death squads.
'Press home to his heart with your steel'
Antebellum America's history is often overwritten as a string of half-remembered Presidents, Andrew Jackson, and the country's borders spilling out on a school-room map. In reality it was a violent and unstable place. While the country's founders may have sought the marble stoicism and civic virtue of an imagined Roman Republic, the Rome they got was slave estates, military demagogues, and constant political crises, pushing its tensions bloodily outwards and cobbled together with shaky “compromises.”
Any fellow feeling among the citizens of the early Republic was hard to come by, especially as divisions over “the slave power” grew. When the question of slavery in Kansas was thrown open in the 1850s, one pro-slavery Senator swore to Jefferson Davis that “we will be compelled to burn, shoot and hang.” They did. The pro-slavery faction's state constitution mandated execution for those involved in the Underground Railroad and prison for anyone criticizing slavery.
Heth's career reveals the nature of this era. A prickly Virginian aristocrat from an old family, like many of his peers he ended up a career Army officer. In Mexico, a place he called “a nation of blanketed thieves,” he tried to kill two old men he believed had insulted him. Posted to the frontier under a general the local Native Americans called “the Butcher,” he led one massacre of the Brule and was only narrowly stopped from carrying out another against the Cheyenne. He carried this mentality into the war, fighting Unionists in West Virginia and eastern Tennessee. The strategist cavalier myth might later surround Heth's friend Robert E. Lee, but Heth was a far more typical Confederate aristocrat: brittle, blundering, and brutal.
The aristocrats' view of themselves as medieval chivalry applied at the ground level as well, though with less glamour and more ruthlessness. Their contempt for the “mudsills” hit along class lines as well as race, and their senators relentlessly blocked infrastructure and education funding, along with any curb on slavery.
Early American democracy might evoke images of the town meeting peppered with the occasional brawl, but things were quite different, especially in the South. Landed oligarchs held a lock on positions from U.S. senator down to sheriff; justices of the peace often held their positions for life and meted out the law as they saw fit.
Slavery in Appalachia was comparatively rare, but far from non-existent. Almost all of the area's political leaders, even the provincial gentry who made up the 64th's officers, were slaveowners. That powerful planters from around the region vacationed in the mountains only increased the connections of the local elite to the escalating demands of the “fire eaters” before the war.
With poorer mountaineers driven to the margins, they formed an identity bitterly opposed to the slave society. In many cases, the founders of their communities were Revolutionary War veterans, as the first Sheltons were. They identified with the country, rather than the state, government. Understandably viewing the local justice system as corrupt, they valued connections to their local communities and weren't averse to meting out personal vengeance.
As the antebellum order fell apart, Appalachian Unionism pushed back. In the months leading up to war, William “Parson” Brownlow of Knoxville swore “we will fight the secession traitors until hell freezes over and then we will fight them on the ice.” Andrew Johnson condemned the planters as “a cheap, purse-proud set.” The mountains went against secession, even with widespread voter intimidation.
But Unionism took many forms. Plenty of mountain politicians luke-warm on secession, including slave owners like Zebulon Vance and Augustus Merrimon, sided with the Confederacy. Both Merrimon and Vance joined or organized regiments before becoming attorney general and governor, respectively.
Some mountaineers hated the enslaved as well as slaveholders. Others, like an Ashe County private who would later desert with 25 of his fellows to fight for the Union, condemned the whole system, swearing hatred on “a government that seeks to enslave me, and whose cornerstone is slavery.”
In Madison, the split turned bloody before secession. On the day locals were voting on the question in Marshall, the belligerently drunk sheriff threatened to kill any “Lincolnites.” After someone shouted a pro-Union slogan, he took aim at one farmer and shot his son. The father killed the sheriff in revenge, before fleeing the area and joining a Union regiment.
The region was not alone, either in the state or outside it. Northeast North Carolina, where swamps made central authority and large plantations similarly precarious and protected both pro-Union small farmers and multiracial maroon communities, was also a center of fierce resistance. Both western North Carolina and the northeast would supply Union regiments, as well as no shortage of the guerilla groups dubbed “banditti,” “rogues,” “renegades,” and “Tories.” Overall, the state would field the most Confederate soldiers, the second-most Union soldiers, take the most casualties, and have the most deserters of any Southern state.
From the beginning, the Confederacy had areas of firm support right beside places that actively resisted them. Opposition was particularly intense in Appalachia, but it also spread through the hill country of Texas, the “Free State of Jones” in southern Mississippi, and Mennonite and Quaker communities throughout North Carolina and Virginia. The new government would respond to all of these with massacre and repression.
Over 100,000 White Southerners would officially fight for the Union, with about 25,000 from North Carolina and 53,000 from Tennessee. When added to the many African-Americans from the region who served in Union regiments and the guerilla bands who fought the regime, the claim of a unified South fighting “the North” doesn't hold up. For many reasons, hundreds of thousands of Southerners were willing to fight and die for the Union.
But there was an initial surge of volunteers for the Confederacy in the mountains. Rather than being sent off to fight the Union armies, regiments like the 64th were often kept closer to home. Brutal men who felt outnumbered, knew the terrain, and hated their “Lincolnite” neighbors were useful there.
The bushwhacking began almost immediately. Without the cavalry or firepower of their Confederate enemies, Unionists turned to sniping and assassination. In 1861, Keith's nephew, who'd just joined the 64th, was found dead.
The 64th's officers mostly lacked the exalted pedigree of Heth and his peers, but they shared their paranoia. Whatever chivalrous pretensions they had, “Guerrillas,” an 1862 Southern war song, made it crystal clear what tactics they endorsed in their backyard:
Wherever the Vandal cometh, Press home to his heart with your steel, And when at his bosom you can not, Like the serpent, go strike at his heel. Through thicket and wood go hunt him, Creep up to his camp fireside, And let ten of his corpses blacken, Where one of our brothers hath died.
When conscription arrived in April 1862, an already resentful region boiled over. While plantation owners and workers were exempt, the area's farmers were not and the draft took away the manpower they needed to survive. While it temporarily bolstered numbers, it also made units like the 64th split between those attached to the Confederate cause and those (including some Sheltons) forced into its ranks. The latter deserted as quickly as they could, often re-encountering the former on opposite sides of a gun.
As 1862 wore on, Confederate troops clashed with Union insurgents near Shelton Laurel and made expeditions into the area, leaving one general convinced that “the whole population is openly hostile to our cause, and all who are able to serve are under arms.”
As manpower shortages bit deeper, desertions skyrocketed, and Union armies marched closer, Confederate forces resorted to a war of starvation.
So the salt was hauled to Marshall as the winter sank its teeth in. The raid followed.
As news of the Madison raid spread in January 1863, the Confederate power structure wasn't of one mind. Some major state figures had concerns about the 64th's expedition from the start. Vance was from Weaverville, just south of Madison. Merrimon, now attorney general, from Asheville.
In response to the Marshall raid, Gen. W.G.M. Davis, the local commander, proposed in a letter to Vance to double down on starving and exiling the whole population:
Believing that it will be of service to your State to get rid of such a population as that inhabiting the Laurel region I have proposed to allow all who are not implicated in any crime to leave the State and to aid them in crossing into Kentucky. I am informed that nearly the whole population are desirous of accepting this offer. They will be driven to do so from necessity, as I learn our troops have consumed all the corn and meat in the settlement.
Heth sent a later letter on Jan. 20, noting the units entering the valley and their first skirmishers with the resisters there, and that he believed the outbreak had been crushed. Vance replied that “I hope you will not relax until the tories are crushed. But do not let our excited people deal too harshly with these misguided men.”
The governor was fine with depopulating the area, though he noted that the elderly, women, and children could be left behind as hostages, “as the law will be strong enough to keep them in subjection.” But he was troubled by word that Allen had executed several of the valley's residents. Word of the massacre started to spread, and Merrimon went to investigate.
Throughout late February, Merrimon wrote letters back to Vance, blaming Keith for “such savage and barbarous cruelty.” He wanted murder prosecutions. Vance quickly wrote to Davis and Secretary of War James Seddon, demanding punishment.
Vance and Merrimon weren't averse to civilian bloodshed, as their post-war actions would show. They were, above all, cunning operators interested in propping up their own power and the system that supported it. Their holdings and relatives were also at risk if the Unionists retaliated.
By April, many of North Carolina's leading newspapers condemned the killings. The Unionist Memphis Bulletin called “upon the noble patriots of the Union to avenge the blood of these martyrs.” In June, the New York Times included the massacre in a rundown of “barbarous outrages perpetrated upon Union men.”
Vance's fears the massacre would ultimately bolster the “Tories” seemed merited; Unionist raids grew in strength and ferocity as 1863 wore on.
But if they hoped to put Keith in chains as a scapegoat, they were to be disappointed. In May, Seddon wrote Vance that Keith had resigned from the regiment, presenting evidence that he was just following Heth's orders. The finger-pointing had already begun. Heth claimed that he never ordered torture of civilians. By the time Vance received the letter, Heth was a major general alongside Lee, and in early July he blundered at Gettysburg.
With Keith and Heth slipping out of his grasp, Vance turned his attention to the 64th's colonel, but Allen evaded any real consequences. He was brought to court-martial in August and fined six months’ pay, inconsequential to someone raking in bribes from his various schemes.
Despite the scrutiny on its commanders and a few other junior officers officially leaving after the massacre, the 64th's war wasn't over.
Indeed, in the 1901 account of the 64th's Capt. B.T. Morris, the massacre—drenched in Victorian euphemism—is portrayed as part of a larger war of “hardship and endurance” dealing out “caustic measures” against resistance.
He portrays Keith and Allen as fearless and brave, launching into a justification familiar to anyone who's read accounts of death squads around the world:
When an officer finds himself and men bushwhacked from behind every shrub, tree or projection on all sides of the road, only severe measures will stop it. Keith and Allen were fighters—soldiers. Their first duty was self protection, protection of their people from midnight marauders
After Shelton Laurel, the 64th marched back to Tennessee and spent much of the ensuing spring of 1863 marching around there and Kentucky, hunting Unionists. “There in East Tennessee we slashed them, every time we had a chance at them. They never gave us a fair fight.” In September, the 64th found much of its remaining strength captured when the Union won a bloodless victory at the Cumberland Gap.
Some, including Morris, escaped and ended up mashed ad hoc with the remains of a similar regiment, the 62nd North Carolina, also dedicated to putting down “restive citizens.”
After Knoxville fell in November 1863, Morris writes that “the disloyal sentiment began to spread in several counties and it required heavy scouting to keep the enemy down.” So, in 1864, the regiment was back around its hometown in Marshall. Despite the desperate state of the war, it still wasn't sent to the front. Instead, the 64th guarded planters' summer homes and terrorized locals.
Morris is mostly silent about what all that “heavy scouting” entailed, but the mask slips off occasionally. He notes that, after the killing of one of its soldiers, the 64th went to the house of a nearby man suspected of Union sympathies. Finding him, “they fired into him one ball cutting the artery in his right arm, and in a few minutes he was dead.”
“From this time on that section was more quiet. Many other raids were made which were necessary to keep down such bands.”
Despite his resignation, Keith again took up his old death squad duties in 1864. A June 1864 article from the Asheville News, clearly not following the rest of the state media in condemning him, recorded that he was back in command of a unit of volunteers, “Keith's detail,” rounding up and killing Unionists. This including hanging “Old Bill Shelton”, whom the piece blamed for recent raids. The writer notes he could "name various other important duties performed by 'Keith's Detail,' but this article is already too long."
The 64th ended the war surrendering in April 1865 but—foreshadowing what was to come—Morris wrote that its hatred remained strong. None of its soldiers took the oath of allegiance to the United States.
The peace was ridiculously lenient. Keith, whom the Confederates somehow hadn't been able to lay their hands on despite him getting news write-ups, was finally dragged to jail by Union forces. Repeatedly brought up for trial, he escaped in 1869, fearful of local vengeance. A few days later, he was exonerated on a technicality.
Allen settled in Arkansas and later wrote a pompous pamphlet memoir. He left out the massacre.
But the Ku Klux Klan and other groups drew directly on the tactics practiced by the 64th and similar units during its terror campaigns.
Despite their wartime protestations, both Vance and Merrimon proved themselves just fine with “caustic measures.” Vance thundered against civil rights and the KKK's terror enabled his return to political power. Merrimon defended the terrorists pro bono. As a U.S. senator in the 1870s, he played a key role in halting any federal response to racist violence. He also brought up a token bill for compensating the Shelton Laurel survivors, then let it die quietly.
But in the 1890s, White Populists and Black Republicans formed a “fusion” alliance against their common enemies. Old Unionist regions throughout the state, including western North Carolina, proved fertile ground and the Fusionists swept many state and local offices.
In 1898, the defenders of the regime struck back hard at Wilmington, overthrowing the elected government in a coup d'etat and massacre. They used the methods of Shelton Laurel on a massive scale. In Wilmington's wake, the coup extended into the past as well as the present, the regime put up monuments in every town and backed histories glorifying the Confederate regiments.
The history of resistance, from the Shelton Laurel women who refused to talk, to the Unionists that fought against steep odds, intentionally disappeared. In 1966, the residents of Shelton Laurel paid for gravestones near a state historic marker, eight miles from the site of the massacre.
There is a tone of relish in the 1901 account Morris provided for the propaganda history put out by the new state government. In the end, he seemed to gloat, the 64th's “caustic measures” won the longer war. The South is still paying the price.