It begins with an unlikely wedding in April 1861 at the Presbyterian church in Coffey’s Gap, near Grandfather Mountain.
On that day, William McKesson Blalock — from boyhood known simply as Keith — marries Malinda Pritchard. The Blalocks and the Pritchards have been feuding for more than 150 years — first in Scotland, then in the Blue Ridge Mountains — over property boundaries and politics.
The hard culture of the mountains holds nothing extra. Justice is not entrusted to courts, packed with relatives of the enemy, but sought according to the Old Testament law of an eye for an eye.
When Keith was an infant, his father disappeared into the woods to hunt, and only months later was his body discovered — killed either by wild animals or feuding bushwhackers.
His mother married Austin Coffey, a well-to-do farmer, when Keith was a boy. Keith gets his nickname from a local bare-knuckle boxer named Alfred Keith — the boy is a natural and fierce fighter.
He is 6 feet 2 inches tall, lean and strong, his face long and clean-shaven, his eyes full of humor. A shock of dark hair is swept back from his forehead. He wears a starched white shirt and dark frock coat, a suit he will rarely be seen in again. He is 23 years old.
Malinda is four years younger, round-faced and pretty, almost a foot shorter, her slight build accentuated by the long white skirt cinched at the waist under a green blouse. Her dark hair is spangled with blue flowers that bring out her blue eyes.
Malinda Pritchard grew up just five miles from Keith’s home in the shadow of Grandfather Mountain. They attended the same one-room schoolhouse and roamed the woods together. When Keith was 17, he carved their initials in the trunk of a towering pine that straddles their families’ property line.
After the couple takes their vows and the wedding party begins, in between fiddlers’ reels, a bagpiper skirls the old tunes that summoned the clans to war.
The Pritchards are Secessionists. The Blalocks are mostly Unionists. The Coffeys are split. Keith is a known Unionist — and so is his stepfather, Austin Coffey.
The wedding guests include many Coffey step-uncles and cousins, as well as Boyds — another family who married into the Blalock-Coffey clan. John Boyd, a fervent Secessionist, is among those present. Before long, they and other guests will be hunting each other to the death.
Present also is a powerfully built mountain lawyer and U.S. congressman named Zebulon Vance. There’s much talk of the crisis at Fort Sumter, of Lincoln’s call for 75,000 volunteers to suppress the Southern rebellion. Vance corners Keith: In the event of war, will he join the fight for his home state?
“That was the start of our great adventure,” Malinda later recalls.
For better, for worse
Four thousand volunteers from the mountain counties join up in the first call, and tens of thousands more willd sign up before war’s end. Recruiters canvass the countryside and the pressure mounts on able-bodied young men to enlist. Eighteen Coffey cousins join the Hibriten Guards.
Keith’s step-uncle William, at violent odds with his brother Austin, harangues Keith, accusing him of being a shirker.
Unwilling to fight for the Confederacy, Keith hatches a scheme. To avoid conscription, he will enlist. When his unit is shipped to Virginia, he will quietly slip across the lines and be free of the war.
In June, he travels from Blowing Rock to Lenoir to enlist in Company F, 26th North Carolina Infantry. Carrying his new gear — haversack, musket, and bayonet — and wearing a stiff new wool uniform, Keith trudges with 21 others to the railroad depot at Newton for transport to Camp Carolina for training. Keith has been elected sergeant.
One of the men — a slightly built soldier standing just 5 feet 4 inches tall, swallowed up by the baggy uniform, face hidden under a forage cap, approaches Keith on the road. “I’m going to fight with you,” the soldier tells him. It is Malinda — hair cropped, masquerading as Sam Blalock, Keith’s little brother.
Initially, the regiment is posted not to Virginia — the front lines — but to New Bern, where it fends off two assaults by troops of Gen. Ambrose Burnside. But the Union lines are too distant to make a break.
On patrol crossing the Neuse, the company is ambushed while still in the river. Malinda is shot in the left shoulder. Keith carries her back to camp. There, the regimental surgeon discovers her secret. Colonel Vance — who saw her married — discharges her from the service, and she returns her $50 enlistment bounty.
Keith doesn’t want to remain without her. In darkness, he slips out of camp and finds a patch of poison oak, rolls in it, and soon is feverish and covered with livid red welts. Fearing smallpox, the surgeon arranges a medical discharge for him — and Keith even keeps his bounty.
The two journey home together to their cabin near Grandfather Mountain. Keith soaks in tubs of brine until the welts disappear and his fever subsides.
With his official discharge papers in hand, Keith is confident that he is now safe from conscription. All he wants is to be left alone.
But his Coffey and Boyd relatives have other ideas. Once his rash is cured, they report him to the Home Guard, and Keith and Malinda’s real war begins. They engage in a cat-and-mouse game with the Home Guard patrols, spying the conscription agents from high on Grandfather Mountain. Keith disappears into the rugged forest, shot with caves and ravines, while Malinda politely welcomes the men to the Blalock cabin.
They devise a set of signals — hog calls, a certain quilt hung out on the clothesline, a candle burning in a certain window after dusk. In this manner, Keith eludes capture and roams the countryside. He even pays occasional visits to Austin Coffey’s house, stealing in through a secret tunnel that opens in a thicket 100 yards from the back door.
Keith grows a rakish mustache and goatee, living up to his outlaw image.
So far, the Watauga Home Guard has been disorganized and ineffectual. In summer 1862, Maj. Harvey Bingham takes command. A young, twice-wounded veteran of the 37th North Carolina Infantry, Bingham establishes his headquarters at Camp Mast, close to Boone, and whips his troops into shape. He is determined to round up every deserter, outlier, and shirker in the area — starting with Keith Blalock.
Bingham’s tactic is simple. When the Guard encounters an able-bodied man, they command him to surrender. If he runs, they shoot him down.
By the end of August, Major Bingham’s troopers surround the Blalock cabin before Keith can rabbit out the back into the woods. The Home Guard contingent includes his step-uncles, William and Reuben Coffey. Keith talks them into camping outside overnight so he can get ready. Before dawn, bearing rifles and provisions, he and Malinda sneak past the dozing guards and climb deeper into the wilderness they know so well.
Twice more Keith is cornered and captured, but each time he makes his escape. A man alone is at a disadvantage in fighting off determined pursuers. He recalls, “I saw the need for men we could trust and who could shoot.” By now, more than 1,200 Confederate deserters are hiding out in the Blue Ridge, and some find their way up the mountain.
Thus Keith becomes the leader of a ragged outlaw band spread out in caves on Grandfather Mountain, sharing lookout duties and foraging for food. Bingham attacks up the mountain with 50 men, and the gang holds them at bay long enough for Keith and Malinda to escape to the summit, then down to Shull’s Mill on the Watauga River. They ford the river and head for Banner’s Elk. From there, “Uncle Lewis” Banner guides them over nighttime trails into Tennessee.
Keith throws in his lot with the Union Army, though he doesn’t sign official papers until mustered in as a private in company D, 10th Michigan Cavalry, on June 1, 1864. For the time being he claims the rank of “scout captain and recruiting officer” under Col. George W. Kirk — a Tennessee-born Confederate deserter who has made it his mission to drive out Confederate partisan units operating on both sides of the Blue Ridge.
Kirk recruits Keith as a “mountain pilot,” establishing an escape route for Unionists, deserters, and Union prisoners into Union-held territory in Tennessee. Keith and Malinda now go armed with new Spencer repeating carbines and Colt revolvers.
So the couple returns to North Carolina at the head of a troop of 25 well-armed riders. They deliberately avoid attacking the conscription patrols as they gather intelligence and scout invasion routes. But when word reaches the Blalocks that Bingham has shot down one of their neighbors for failing to halt on command, the troops break up into squads seeking retribution.
In their first ambush, the squads kill three of the Home Guards. Later, Keith goes hunting for Robert Green, a compatriot of the Coffey brothers. Keith shoots down Green but leaves him alive.
The war becomes a desperate local feud. Keith and his Yankee scouts ambush a company of Home Guards, who retaliate by killing a Unionist man or burning his farm. No one is safe — if the Blalock band doesn’t come after you, the Home Guard will.
A flimsy truce
Through it all, as the death toll mounts, farms go up in flames, innocent men and boys are found hanging from trees or decomposing in laurel thickets. The Coffeys have honored an uneasy truce: If Keith’s mother and Austin Coffey — and their property — are left alone, then so will be the persons and property of his brothers William, Reuben, and McCaleb Coffey.
Keith’s band of a dozen scouts attacks the home of Carroll Moore — a prominent officer in the Home Guard — along with his brother James and four nephews. Unfortunately for Keith, all the Moores have assembled, loaded for bear, with a plan of their own to come hunting him. In the early morning gunfight, Carroll Moore has his leg blasted out from under him by the Sharps rifles and becomes permanently crippled. But Malinda is also wounded in the forearm and shoulder.
When she reaches the surgeon in Knoxville, Malinda learns she is pregnant. Until the birth of Columbus, the first of their four sons, she will sit out the war in Tennessee.
Meanwhile, near the end of October 1863, Colonel Kirk leads 800 men along mountain trails scouted by Keith and others to Warm Springs, near the Madison County seat at Marshall. They aim to force Gen. Robert E. Lee to send valuable regiments west to counter an imminent incursion by Union troops in force. A troop of 150 Home Guards, under the command of Maj. John Woodfin, rides into Warm Springs, convinced they will face only a small band of raiders.
But instead Woodfin’s troop meets a barrage of fire from the Spencer carbines. Woodfin is shot out of the saddle, dead. Kirk retreats back across the Blue Ridge, as Governor Vance, fearing invasion, orders the 64th North Carolina home from Tennessee to defend the mountain border and dispatches battalions of cavalry west to Warm Springs.
In another skirmish, Keith is shot through the left hand.
The depredations continue in “Bloody Madison,” Watauga, and other mountain counties. One of the victims is Malinda’s young cousin, Thomas Pritchard, also working as a Union scout.
He is captured by a guerrilla troop under R.C. Bozen, jailed at Elizabethtown, and beaten for several days, then marched to the woods beyond town, where Bozen’s men shoot and club him to death. According to a witness, “They then left him and rode on up the road, laughing and talking as if the bloody tragedy in which they had just been participating had afforded them the most pleasant and agreeable diversion.”
What little restraint Keith and the other scouts showed earlier now vanishes. They ambush Home Guards wherever they find them — on patrol, at home, working in their fields. There is no longer even the pretext of a fair fight. Keith explains their cold logic: “We all tried to do to them before they did to us.”
When Gen. George Stoneman leads 6,000 cavalry troopers, split into two columns, into the state from the west to free the prisoners at Salisbury, Keith rides with him, wearing a double-breasted officer’s frock coat and canary-striped trousers. To one Confederate observer, they resemble “as much Cossacks as soldiers.”
In January 1864, the Coffey-Blalock truce comes to a bloody end. Keith and his men capture William Coffey, Keith’s step-uncle, and hold him captive at a sawmill. One of Keith’s men, George Perkins, at last puts a pistol to the 62-year-old man’s skull and pulls the trigger. Partisans on both sides will long dispute Keith Blalock’s role in the killing, but neighbors generally agree that, whoever pulled the trigger, Keith gave the fatal order.
In January 1865, Keith and his men once again assault the Carroll Moore farm. Again they stumble into an armed camp. In the attack, a round from one of the Moores’ rifles catches Keith in the right eye, blinding him and smashing the socket and cheek. The Union men retreat in disorder, but Keith survives to fight another day.
In February 1865, Major Bingham’s Home Guards, supported by a company of regular troops under Capt. James Marlow, known for his ruthless pursuit of outliers, surround Austin Coffey’s home. They suspect he is harboring Unionist fugitives. In his basement they find one: Thomas Wright. They arrest him, but Austin is nowhere to be found. John Boyd arrives with another squad, bearing the news that Coffey has been seen at his brother McCaleb Coffey’s house — vacant since the murder of William Coffey.
The troops mount and ride hard for McCaleb’s farm. There they arrest Austin Coffey, bind him with rope, and lead him away on a horse, while Keith’s mother watches from the woods. They stop to spend the night at the home of Tom Henley, another guardsman, on the Blowing Rock road. While the men cook a meal, white-haired Austin Coffey dozes by the fire.
Suddenly, Captain Marlow orders one of his men, John Walker, to execute Austin Coffey. Walker, stunned, refuses. Marlow orders a second soldier, Robert Glass, to shoot Coffey. Glass falls to one knee, raises the barrel of his revolver to Coffey’s temple, and fires. Marlow orders the body taken outside, where his men dump it onto the snow.
When Keith learns that his revered stepfather has been murdered — and that John Boyd had a hand in his capture — he vows he will kill Boyd “if it took 40 years after the war to do so.”
Keith and his band join an assault on Camp Mast, hoping to find Boyd and others who participated in the murder of Austin Coffey. They surround the camp and force its surrender, but the men they seek are not there.
At the end of February, the band stages a brazen daylight raid on McCaleb Coffey’s house — the site of Austin Coffey’s capture. Again they miss the men they are hunting, but they burn the house to the ground.
With Gen. Joseph Johnston’s surrender to Gen. William T. Sherman at the Bennett farm on April 26, 1865, the war in North Carolina comes to an official close. But for Keith Blalock, it is far from over.
Blind in one eye, wounded in the hand, worn out from years of living on the run, he receives a medical discharge from the army.
But he has not forgotten about his vendetta with Boyd. He tracks Boyd, waiting for his chance.
On February 8, 1866, Boyd is traveling to Blowing Rock in the company of William T. Blair. Keith and his companion, Thomas Wright, confront the men “in a narrow path at the head of the Globe.”
Blalock calls out, “Is that you, Boyd?”
“Yes,” Boyd says, swatting at Keith’s head with his walking stick. Keith catches the blow on his arm, then steps back, raises his Sharps rifle, and fires. Boyd sprawls on the ground, face-down. Keith orders Blair to turn the body over so he can make sure Boyd is dead. The vendetta satisfied, Keith goes on his way.
Malinda dies in her sleep on March 19, 1903. Keith temporarily goes out of his head with grief, and his son, Columbus, assumes legal guardianship of his affairs. The two live together in Hickory. But Keith recovers and lives another decade.
On April 11, 1913, at the age of 75, still vigorous, he is pumping a handcar along the railroad tracks outside Hickory, when he approaches a sharp curve carrying too much speed. The car jumps the tracks and catapults into a gorge, crushing Keith underneath it.
Some claim that members of the Boyd and Moore families were spotted in the vicinity just before his death — but it is never proven that Keith’s death is anything more than a violent accident.
Keith Blalock, who fought with such spirit, courage, and brutality for the Union and against the Confederacy, is finally betrayed by his headstone. His epitaph reads “Soldier, 26th N.C. Inf., CSA.”