It all begins with salt.
In Madison County, remote in the western mountains of North Carolina, salt is as rare as gold. Salt is crucial to curing game, baking biscuits, and preserving food through the long winter. A sack costs almost $100.
Salt is a staple of the Confederate war effort, hoarded by shopkeepers, guarded by troops. Gov. Zebulon Vance decrees that no salt be exported from the state. Vance and the Confederate authorities in Richmond, Virginia, have sent troops to the region with orders to not allow any salt to get into the hands of “disloyal” mountaineers — including not only bushwhackers and deserters, but also self-declared Unionists, derisively called Tories to echo Revolutionary factions.
Madison County is a Unionist stronghold. Tight-knit communities such as Shelton Laurel are Republican to the bone. People here defeated a ballot calling for a secession convention, 532 to 345. In Marshall, the county seat, a “secesh” sheriff started waving his pistol around and wounded a local boy. The boy’s father hunted down the sheriff and killed him in front of his neighbors.
In the middle of a raw, snowy January in 1863, a gang of Madison County Unionists, including many local deserters from the 64th North Carolina Regiment and an unknown number from Shelton Laurel, descend on Marshall, where Confederate commissioners store stockpiles of salt. The Unionists take all they can carry and then loot the town. A special target is the residence of Col. Lawrence Allen, commander of the 64th, who is off with his regiment in Bristol, Tennessee — guarding another stockpile of salt. The army relieved Colonel Allen of command for six months for falsifying the duty roster — part of a scheme that earns him kickbacks from well-heeled conscripts who want to buy their way out of service. The looters hack open his trunks and cabinets, steal anything of value, and terrorize Mrs. Allen and her three small children, two of whom are bedridden with scarlet fever.
Brig. Gen. W.G.M. Davis reports on February 2, “I think the attack on Marshall was gotten up to obtain salt, for want of which there is great suffering in the mountains. Plunder of other property followed as a matter of course. Col. Allen’s Sixty-fourth North Carolina 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 — a kind of feud existing between them.”
Rumors fly that a force of 500 men is forming in Shelton Laurel to fight the weakening Confederacy — by burning bridges, raiding depots and towns, attacking loyal Confederates in their homes.
Colonel Allen learns of the depredations at Marshall and is outraged. He obtains the permission of his superior to accompany the 64th back to the Laurel Valley to put down the insurrection.
The 64th North Carolina Regiment is an ill-starred unit suffering an epidemic of desertion. Once numbering 300 men, it scarcely fields a third of that number now.
Colonel Allen assumes the role of supernumerary, and Lt. Col. James Keith takes command. Keith, the son of a Baptist minister, is a firebrand who holds the mountaineers in contempt. At 35, he is one of the wealthiest 20 men in Madison County. He is tall, confident, sharp faced, with a prominent brow and high cheekbones; a mane of black hair; a black beard; a dark complexion; and keen, slatey eyes. His whole aspect inspires fear rather than trust.
Marshall is his hometown, so for him, the mission is also personal.
Wanting no part of war
Shelton Laurel lies in the valley of Shelton Laurel Creek between mountain peaks, not far from Marshall. Brothers David and Martin Shelton settled it back in the 1790s. By the time the war comes to the valley, 137 Sheltons live there, along with a community of neighbors descended from a handful of other families. They feel nothing but contempt for the wealthy men from larger towns, and they detest the slave owners most of all. Their labor is their only asset, except for the rough, beautiful land where they are rooted. It is a country of heartbreaking beauty, full of tulip poplar, oak, chestnut, and almost impenetrably thick stands of pine girdled with wild laurel. But the mountainous land also breaks their hearts with its harsh, bone-cracking winters; its stingy, stony soil; its steep, tortuous paths to and from anywhere.
Of those Sheltons recorded in the 1860 census, only four have lived beyond 40 years. Theirs is a hard life with slim margins.
The Sheltons and their neighbors are illiterate, passing on their wisdom in twice-told tales related in a dialect that is more Elizabethan English than American. Flatlanders hear their speech as a foreign tongue. They are proud and self-reliant, largely ignorant of the politics of Raleigh, let alone Richmond. They remain passionately indifferent to a sectional war, and most of them stubbornly resist any effort to draw them into it. They are not pacifists. They fight for their families and their land, and as in other mountain communities, they live in a tangle of long-standing feuds made more violent by the war. For them and their mountaineer neighbors, the war is a matter of personal vendetta, the settling of old scores, and family survival.
Thus, Shelton Laurel is considered a hotbed of Unionists, and the 64th Regiment, led by Colonel Allen and Colonel Keith, heads straight for it.
Indifferent no more
Keith’s command moves on Shelton Laurel from two directions. He leads a column down from the high crest at the head of the valley, while Colonel Allen — acting in some ambiguous capacity as Keith’s subordinate — brings his men up the mouth of the valley. Mountaineers in hiding pepper Allen’s column with occasional gunshots. His soldiers return fire, killing eight men.
At Bill Shelton’s home, they meet a stubborn force of more than 50 riflemen, and a hot fight leaves six of the defenders dead.
As the troopers make camp to wait for Colonel Keith’s column, Allen receives the news that his 6-year-old son Romulus died of scarlet fever. He gallops home to Marshall to find that his daughter Margaret, four years old, is dying. He blames the intruders who ransacked his house weeks before. How could a sick child survive that kind of terror? He buries his children the next day and returns immediately to Shelton Laurel, fueled by grief and the desire for vengeance.
Under Colonel Keith, with Colonel Allen complicit, the 64th goes on a tear. They torture women to make them give up the whereabouts of their husbands — in vain. They hang and whip Mrs. Unus Riddle, 85 years old. They hang two of the Shelton wives, Mary and Sarah, by their necks until nearly dead.
The Memphis Bulletin reports: “Old Mrs. Sallie Moore, seventy years of age, was whipped with hickory rods till the blood ran in streams down her back to the ground. … Martha White, an idiotic girl, was beaten and tied by the neck all day to a tree.”
Keith and Allen’s men knock down houses and burn them. They slaughter livestock wantonly.
Through no cooperation by Shelton Laurel women, the marauding force rounds up 15 men. Colonel Allen persuades them not to resist, promising a fair trial. He knows from the start that these men are unlikely to have had anything to do with the raid on Marshall — witnesses identified the raiders as mostly deserters from their own regiment.
But Colonel Keith detains them anyway and jails them for two days in Marshall. Two of the prisoners manage to slip their bonds and escape into the night. The remaining 13 are ordered to march up the valley.
As the Memphis Bulletin relates the story, “They bid farewell to their wives, daughters and sisters, directing them to procure the witnesses and bring them to the court in Tennessee, where they supposed their trial would take place. … The poor fellows had proceeded but a few miles when they were turned from the road into a gorge in the mountain and halted.”
Colonel Keith orders five of the men to their knees. A squad of soldiers with rifles files into line 10 paces in front of them and aims. Joe Woods, who at 60 is the eldest, cries out, “For God’s sake, men, you are not going to shoot us? If you are going to murder us, give us at least time to pray.” Keith responds that there’s no time for praying. The kneeling prisoners raise their hands to their faces, futilely trying to fend off bullets with flesh. For a long moment, the soldiers hesitate, moved by the pleas of mercy from the helpless men.
Colonel Keith can hardly contain his fury. “Fire or you will take their place!”
The soldiers fire. Four of the men fall lifeless. A fifth is gutshot and must be finished off with a bullet to the head.
Five more are made to kneel, including 13-year-old David Shelton. “You have killed my father and brothers,” he pleads. “You have shot my father in the face. Do not shoot me in the face.”
The soldiers fire, and again four men die instantly. But young Shelton is only wounded in both arms. He hugs the legs of one of the officers. “You have killed my old father and three brothers, you have shot me in both arms. … I forgive you all this — I can get well. … Let me go home to my mother and sisters.”
But they haul him back to the place of execution and shoot him again — eight times. Then they execute the remaining three men. The soldiers dump all the bodies into a shallow trench scored out of the snow. One of the soldiers, Sgt. N.B.D. Jay of Virginia, bounds onto the heap of bodies. He cries out to his fellows, “Pat Juba for me while I dance the damned scoundrels down to and through hell!”
The next day, when the women climb up into the gorge to claim the bodies, they discover that wild hogs have been at the men.
On February 16, Attorney General Augustus S. Merrimon writes to Governor Vance, “I have no knowledge of my own touching the shooting of several prisoners in Laurel. I have learned, however, from a most reliable source that 13 of them were killed; that some of them were not taken in arms but at their homes; that all the men shot (13 if not more) were prisoners at the time they were shot; that they were taken off to a secluded cave or gorge in the mountains and then made to kneel down and were thus shot.”
His letter goes on in painful detail: “One man was badly and mortally shot in the bowels, and while he was writhing in agony and praying to God for mercy a soldier mercilessly and brutally shot him in the head with a pistol. Several women were whipped.”
And there is no doubt about who is to blame. He writes, “I learned that all this was done by order of Lieut. Col. James A. Keith. I know not what you intend doing with the guilty parties, but I suggest they are all guilty of murder. … Such savage and barbarous cruelty is without parallel in the State, and I hope in every other.”
Governor Vance is determined to get to the bottom of the atrocity. He orders an investigation that lasts four months.
There is the question of Colonel Allen’s involvement. He was not officially in command, yet all witnesses place him squarely at the center of events. It is Allen who promised the men a fair trial in Tennessee and thus persuaded them not to resist arrest.
The Confederate Army suspends Colonel Allen for six months without pay, which scarcely troubles him because he has other ways to make money. His substitute enlistment scheme alone nets him $20,000.
‘To the gates of hell’
Governor Vance looks higher in the ranks for responsible parties. He demands an accounting for the orders of Brig. Gen. Henry Heth, Colonel Keith and Colonel Allen’s superior. Heth, the son of a Virginia planter and cousin of Gen. George Pickett, was the one who initially granted Allen permission to return to Laurel Valley after the Marshall raid in the first place. From Richmond, Secretary of War James A. Seddon responds, “In a communication to the Department by Lieutenant-Colonel Keith he claims that Brigadier-General Heth gave him a verbal order to the effect: ‘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.’”
An enclosed deposition by a Dr. Thompson supports Keith’s claim. Seddon goes on. Heth, he writes, “admits that he told Keith that those found in arms ought not to be treated as enemies, and in the event of an engagement with them to take no prisoners as he considered that they had forfeited all such claims, but he denies in strong terms the making use of any remarks which would authorize maltreatment of prisoners who had been accepted as such or to women and children.”
In the end, Heth escapes censure of any kind. He has a powerful friend and ally in Robert E. Lee — indeed, he is one of only two generals that Lee addresses by his first name. He is promoted to major general and is first on the field at Gettysburg, where his division stumbles blind into two brigades of Union cavalry and opens a disastrous three-day battle. Colonel Keith escapes to the mountains. Governor Vance vows, “I will follow him to the gates of hell, or hang him.” For two years, Keith remains a hunted fugitive.
When he is finally caught, it is not by the families of the Shelton Laurel victims or even by Vance’s North Carolina troops, but by Yankee troops. He is indicted on 13 counts of murder and imprisoned for more than two years, while the war goes out like a flame and the State Legislature haggles over an amnesty for all who served the Southern cause. In the end, even the State Supreme Court cannot levy justice on Keith — he is set free and disappears into the wilds of Arkansas.
Shelton Laurel mourns its dead. With the help of Merrimon, now a U.S. Senator, and with the support of the new governor, William Holden, five widows of the murdered men petition Congress for pensions. Their petition dies in committee. In the world beyond Shelton Laurel, the massacre is largely forgotten.
In Shelton Laurel, the bitter memory will burn for generations.
The Thrilling Adventures of Daniel Ellis by Daniel Ellis (Harper & Brothers, 1867); Victims: A True Story of the Civil War by Phillip Shaw Paludin (The University of Tennessee Press, 1981); excerpts from The Memphis Bulletin of February 1863 in Anecdotes, Poetry, and Incidents of the War 1860-1865 collected and abridged by Frank Moore (Publication House, 1867); correspondence between Brigadier General W.G.M. Davis and Governor Zebulon B. Vance (January 1863); correspondence between Attorney General A.S. Merrimon and Governor Zebulon B. Vance (February 1863); correspondence between CSA Secretary of War James A. Seddon to Governor Zebulon B. Vance (May 23, 1863): North Carolina Division of Archives and History and The Papers of Zebulon Baird Vance, Vol.2, 1863, edited by Joe A Mobley (N.C. Division of Archives and History, 1995).
Note: There are conflicting accounts of the exact date of the Shelton Laurel Massacre, but for various reasons January 18, 1864, seems the most likely. In any case, it occurred in the latter part of January. Likewise, contemporary accounts differ in listing the names of the victims. I have accepted Paludan’s roster, since he cross-checked the earlier lists and also interviewed direct descendants of the Sheltons who lived in the valley during the Civil War.
Philip Gerard is the author of two historical novels set in North Carolina: Hatteras Light and Cape Fear Rising. He is chairman of the department of creative writing at the University of North Carolina at Wilmington.
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