Saturday, July 30, 2011

64th North Carolina Infantry

Have you seen the movie 'Cold Mountain' or read the book? Remember the scene where the Home Guard tortured Sally to make her give up her sons who were deserters? Or the scene where the Yankee soldiers tied Sara up and exposed her baby?

Both these things actually happened in the mountains of North Carolina during the Civil War, but they were perpetrated by the men and officers of the 64th North Carolina Infantry, CSA, during what is known as the Shelton Laurel Massacre.

East Tennessee and West Virginia were not alone in being bastions of Union sentiment in Southern states - all up and down the Appalachian chain, mountaineers sided with the Union, and the Confederates fought back. Union sympathizers took to the woods and hollows, some passing through the lines and joining the Union Army, some staying close to home and becoming 'bushwhackers' or guerrillas. They stole arms or provisions, but were no real threat to military operations - their primary threat to the Confederacy was ideological rather than military.

In Madison County, the Confederate officials withheld salt from the Union sympathizers in Shelton Laurel. Now, in the days before refrigeration, salt was a  necessity, without which people could not survive the harsh mountain winter. A band of around 50 men then raided the store and liberated the salt. Many of these men were deserters from the 64th North Carolina Infantry, and they made the mistake of also attacking the home of its Colonel, Lawrence M. Allen. Col. Allen was not home, only his wife and three children, who were ill with scarlet fever.

Rumors of large bands of bushwhackers ran rampant, and the governor of North Carolina asked the 64th to investigate and round up the band who had stolen the salt. Col. Allen was not in command of the regiment at that time, having been relieved of duty for drunkenness and incompetence. In command was Lt. Col. James A. Keith, Allen's first cousin. Keith had a grudge against the inhabitants of Shelton Laurel - they had aided in the escape of the killer of a friend of his, said killer then crossing the lines and joining the Union Army. He used this opportunity to get even, with a vengeance.

Women were tortured for information - including one woman tied to a tree and made to watch her baby die. Old women were hanged and flogged. The few men in the settlement were rounded up, some as old as sixty, some boys as young as thirteen. Told they were being taken to Knoxville for trial, they were instead taken out into the woods and made to kneel down and summarily executed by the soldiers of the 64th. When some of the soldiers protested this proceeding, Keith threatened that they'd be executed in the same way themselves if they did not comply.

The men and boys were buried in a trench too shallow to contain them all, and left for their families to find.

When news of this leaked out, the governor of North Carolina called for an investigation, sending A.S. Merrimon, of the Attorney General's office. Merrimon was appalled by his findings and recommended that Keith and several others be charged with murder. Keith and a sergeant, NDB Jay, were forced to resign. Keith then turned guerrilla himself, leading a band of marauders in the North Carolina mountains until the end of the War.

Keith was finally arrested on charges of murder, arson and robbery in 1867, but he managed to escape from jail and was never tried. He was pardoned under President Johnson's amnesty in 1868.

The 64th had operated primarily in East Tennessee, which may account for the large number of East Tennesseans in its ranks. It also had an extremely high desertion rate - when captured at Cumberland Gap, it had less than 300 men out of more than 1,000 once active. Many more 'took the Oath' after capture and joined Union regiments. The remnant was sent to Camp Douglas until the end of the war.

More information on the Shelton Laurel massacre can be found here. Official documents and newspaper accounts can be found here. An extremely whitewashed regimental history, written by BT Morris, Captain of Company E, can be found here.


  1. DR. J.A. KEITH, physician and merchant, Booneville, Ark.
    Among the people of Logan County the name of Dr. Keith is not an
    unfamiliar one, for he has not only won an enviable reputation as
    a physician, but as a business man and citizen, he is respected by
    all. He owes his nativity to Buncombe County, N.C., born December
    16, 1824, and his parents, Rev. William and Sarah (Allen) Keith,
    were native Virginians, the father born in 1777, and the mother in
    1778. Their nuptials were celebrated in North Carolina, and of the
    nine children that blessed that union, only three children are the
    living representatives of this family: Nancy (wife of Alfred Murry),
    and Sarah A. (wife of O.H. Ramsey.) Those deceased were named John,
    Henry, William M., A.F., R.C. and Jackson. The father was a farmer
    by occupation, but was also an ordained minister in the Baptist
    Church. He was a soldier in the War of 1812. The parents both died
    in North Carolina, the father in 1853, and the mother in 1867. The
    latter was also a member of that church. Dr. J.A. Keith commenced
    the study of medicine in Tennessee, in 1853, attended lectures at
    Augusta, Ga., in 1858 and 1859, and after graduating, commenced
    practicing at Mars Hill, Yancy County, N.C. He has practiced his
    profession ever since, and is ever to be found at the bedside of
    the sick and afflicted. He was a soldier in the Mexican War, was
    also in the Confederate Army during the Civil War, and was brave
    and fearless in the discharge of his duty. During the last named
    war he enlisted (1862) in Company A, Sixty-fourth North Carolina
    Infantry, and was elected commander of his company in March of that
    year, and lieutenant-colonel on the organization. He was in the
    battles of Chickamauga, Chickasaw Mountain, Perryville, Knoxville
    and a number of skirmishes, serving until 1865. Previous to the war,
    or in 1856, he was married, in Greene County, Tenn., to Miss Margaret
    Jones, daughter of Thomas Jones, and a native of Greene County,
    Tenn., born January 6, 1831. Her father died in 1867, and her mother
    many years previous, or in 1849. Dr. and Mrs. Keith are the parents
    of five children, three now living: James F., Laura (wife of W.D.
    McInturf), and Mattie E. The two children deceased were Laura
    (No. 1) and William B. After the war Dr. Keith engaged in the
    practice of his profession, and emigrated from North Carolina to
    Arkansas in 1869, locating in what is now Logan County.

  2. Sent a piece on James A Keith's history after the war. Everyone seems to think he just disappeared... some "histories" even state that he changed his name in disgrace and was never heard of again. In truth, he moved to Arkansas and practiced medicien there (as he had prior to the war years in WNC).

    1. Thanks for the information. A lot of people took the 'geographical cure' after the war, including some of my own relatives.

      Have you checked the entry at Renegade South, referenced in the blog post? Prof. Vikki Bynum has written several books and keeps a blog about Southern Unionists, as well as running a FaceBook group dedicated to the topic.

      There's quite a discussion of the Shelton Laurel massacre on her blog, and I'm sure your information would be welcome there, and probably much more widely read than it is here.