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The Student Voice of UNC Asheville

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History professor discusses Civil War

By James Neal – [email protected] – Contributor | Nov. 19,2014 |

Four men and a 13-year-old boy kneel shivering in the snow and chill January wind of the Appalachians amidst five fresh corpses.

An elderly man, denied even the right to pray before dying, lies among the dead. Three more prisoners await their execution, without the chance for a trial.

The victims’ families discovered their bodies in shallow graves the next day. Some of them had been exhumed and partially eaten by wild pigs.

Murdered in 1863 by Confederate soldiers from the 64th North Carolina Regiment after two other prisoners escaped, historians say the victims of what would become known as the Shelton Laurel Massacre possibly never participated in the raid for which they were arrested.

The Confederates, commanded by Lt. Col. James Keith, learned of the men’s potential involvement after torturing Laurel Valley locals for information. According to historical records, an investigation by Gov. Zebulon B. Vance later proved that only five of the men were guilty.

Sheltered from the Civil War’s major battles, Western North Carolina suffered only the occasional skirmish within the area of Madison and Buncombe counties. Daniel Pierce, chair of UNCA’s history department, commented on the lack of major fighting.

A Civil War era Union cap sits on a nearby desk in Pierce’s office. The hat, and his ability to speak in-depth on the war, without reference materials, hint at his enthusiasm. He specializes in the history of the South.

“Not much happened in Western North Carolina,” he said.  “You didn’t have very many military engagements. No big battles, no big movements of troops.”

Pierce said the region was split between Union and Confederate loyalties. Neighbor fought neighbor and practices like bushwhacking, where Unionists would hide in the woods, then ambush and kill Confederate officials, were common. Dressed in an outdoors vest, he looks ready to go on a winter hike through the woods himself.

“You had shifting loyalties, really. Some people were very enthusiastic with supporting the Confederacy early in the war, but then people were conscripted into the army and didn’t want to go,” he said. “Then you had a lot of what we called outliers, who were hiding out and evading the draft. You also had people who deserted and then came to the mountains to hide.”

Pierce explained how Confederate authorities in Madison County attempted to pressure the families of deserters and outliers.

“They controlled the supply of salt,” he said. “If you didn’t have salt, you couldn’t preserve meat. That’s how you preserved it. You salted and smoked it.”

A large concentration of Union sympathizers lived in the northern part of Madison County, and Confederate officials focused their efforts there. The region was also home to a substantial number of outliers and deserters.

“A large number of men from that area had gone across the mountain to Kentucky and joined the Union army and others were sympathetic,” Pierce said.

Pierce told the story of how locals retaliated against Confederate attempts to control the salt supply. A group of Union sympathizers marched on Marshall, where they raided the town stores.

During the raid, they entered the home of Col. Lawrence Allen, a local Confederate commander and allegedly stole quilts from the beds of his children, who were suffering from scarlet fever. The children died shortly after, and some historians claim Allen blamed the raiders for their deaths.

Elements of the battle-worn 64th were sent to capture the Unionists. The massacre that followed, according to Pierce, was one of the Civil War’s worst atrocities, and it continues to resonate with people today, especially in the Madison County area.

Pierce provided a number of examples of the massacre appearing in today’s media. Ron Rash, a popular North Carolina writer who sets his works in the Appalachians, mentions the massacre in his book The World Made Straight, and Charles Frazier used the event for inspiration when writing Cold Mountain. Both films earned movie deals.

“A couple years ago, the Southern Appalachian Repertory Theatre, which is a summer stock company at Mars Hill College, did an original play on the Shelton Laurel Massacre,” Pierce said. “They did it in Asheville and they did at their regular theater, but they also took it to the old school in Madison County and a lot of people whose ancestors were massacred, a number of them were named Shelton, came and it was a very moving type of thing.”

Troy Kickler, founding director of the North Carolina History Project, suggested Victims: A True Story of the Civil War, a book that covers the Shelton Laurel Massacre, for academic reading.

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