By the winter of 1863, the burden of the conflict was taking its toll on the population of North Carolina. The First Conscription Act removed the majority of the white male population between the ages of eighteen and thirty-five, and effectively undercut the agriculture production within the Piedmont and Western North Carolina. Conscription also had the reverse effect in destroying the support for the war within the state. The very population needed to harvest crops in the fields was now called upon to fight in bloody engagements in Tennessee and Virginia. The stress of the war coupled with shortages of basic commodities needed for food and clothing served only to enflame the discontent within the state. Despite apparent successes on the battlefield, the war was being lost on the home front.
This internal stress was turning the home front into a battlefield for the survival of the Confederacy. With their families suffering, men were refusing to join the Confederate Army, and were resisting any attempt to force their enrollment. Confederate officials now faced the need to employ force to fill ranks of depleted regiments, and assert the authority of the new nation within areas in open rebellion against it. This collision of desires led to the spilling of blood within the communities throughout the state.
Within Madison County, North Carolina, pre-war political and social strife led to open warfare. Men began to leave their communities to hide from Conscription officers and to steal from stores that refused to sell them the basic goods needed to preserve their harvest. In addition, bands of Unionists began to use Madison County, specifically the Shelton Laurel area, to conduct military operations against Confederate forces and governmental offices in Western North Carolina and East Tennessee. To counter that threat, the Sixty-fourth North Carolina Troops was organized to patrol the community and reassert Confederate authority.
In January 1863, a group of men raided Marshall, the county seat of Madison County, to obtain supplies for their families, that was previously refused to them. During the raid, these men also broke into a number of houses, including those belonging to governmental officials and officers of the Sixty-fourth North Carolina Troops. Governor Zebulon Vance appealed to Confederate Brigadier General Henry Heth, the departmental commander, to send troops to suppress this lawlessness. General Heth ordered Lieutenant Colonel James A. Keith to mount an operation in the Shelton Laurel area to break up these roving bands of Unionists and to reassert Confederate authority. Lt. Colonel Keith’s regiment had lost a number of men to desertion, and it was believed that these deserters were hiding out in the Shelton Laurel area. After intimidating a number of families, Lt. Colonel Keith captured a group of men and boys ranging from the ages of 13 to 56, and started to move them toward the Confederate authorities in East Tennessee. After several prisoners escaped during the night, Lt. Colonel Keith ordered the remaining prisoners, thirteen in number, to be shot and buried in the Shelton Laurel community.
News of the massacre slowly began to seep out of Western North Carolina to Governor Vance. In a letter dated January 31, 1863, Solicitor for the Eighth District, Augustus Merrimon, wrote to Governor Vance concerning the end of the “Laurel expedition,” and informed him that “a number of prisoners were shot” and that he hoped that these rumors were untrue. Merrimon confirmed that the rumors were true in his second letter to Governor Vance dated February 16, 1863. As solicitor of the region, Merrimon interviewed sources to confirm the killings to Governor Vance, and requested to prosecute Lt. Colonel Keith and others of his command for murder. Vance had reason to believe Merrimon, since he was a personal friend and former law partner in Asheville, North Carolina. Vance appealed to Confederate Brigadier General Heth over the atrocity committed in North Carolina, and vowed to prosecute those responsible. By April 1863, Lt. Colonel Keith resigned from the Confederate Army claiming that his ability to command was being compromised by his fellow officers. Keith later claimed that he acted on the verbal orders of Confederate Brigadier General Heth to not take any prisoners from insurgents in the county.
By 1864, further events in the war soon overshadowed the massacre that occurred in Madison County. Brigadier General Heth ended the war as a divisional commander in the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia. Lt. Colonel Keith went into hiding after his resignation, and was arrested after the war for murder, but escaped the Buncombe County jail on February 21, 1869. Keith was proclaimed innocent by the North Carolina Supreme Court, due to the application of U.S. President Andrew Johnson’s Amnesty Act of 1868. He later escaped to Arkansas, and no longer took an active role in public life. As U.S. Senator, Augustus Merrimon attempted to obtain pensions for the surviving widows of the victims, but his efforts were defeated in committee. To this day, descendents of the men and boys killed in January 1863 still live in the area in and around Shelton Laurel.
Please attend our free “Second Mondays” lecture pertaining to the Shelton Laurel Massacre on Monday, February 11, 2013 from 10:30 am to 11:30 am in the Auditorium of the Archives & History Building at 109 East Jones Street, Raleigh, NC.