In January 1863, the Sixty-fourth North Carolina Troops, while on an expedition to ferret out suspected “Tory” or Unionist groups operating out of Madison County, North Carolina, arrested and later killed thirteen men and boys. Information concerning the atrocity was initially hard to discover, except through the work of Governor Zebulon Vance’s solicitor, Augustus Merimon, as we have detailed through a previous blog post.
By May 1863, Governor Vance was attempting to hold someone accountable for the crimes committed in Shelton Laurel in January 1863. It was not important that the military operation that resulted in the deaths of a number of men and boys was originated by calls by both Governor Vance and local politicians to suppress a “rebellion” in Madison County. Vance needed to show his constituents that he was willing to stand up to the Confederate government over the murders. Vance focused his attention on Lieutenant Colonel James Keith, who was the commander of the troops that had committed the killings during the “Laurel Expedition.”
Vance began a series of correspondence with the Confederate Department of East Tennessee, and then later with the Confederate Secretary of War, James A Seddon to find information on Lt. Colonel Keith and his April 1863 court martial and resignation. Secretary Seddon’s response admitted that Keith’s resignation from the Confederate Army was accepted on May 15, 1863. He also disclosed to Governor Vance that the Confederate War Department had no knowledge of his crimes committed in Madison County upon acceptance of his resignation. Seddon also informed Vance that Keith was under a verbal order from Confederate Brigadier General Henry Heth not to bring back any prisoners to departmental headquarters in Knoxville, Tennessee, and that was substantiated by a “Dr. Thompson.” Unfortunately, Dr. Thompson was not completely identified in Seddon’s letter, and General Heth was now a divisional commander in the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia participating in the move north to Pennsylvania.
On May 29, 1863, the widows of the men murdered in Shelton Laurel made application for relief to Governor Vance. They stated that troops had come into their region, took their provisions, and “…killing our men and property.” While politicians traded letters on who was to blame on the murder of men and boys in a mountain hollow in Madison County, the true suffering of the surviving family members only became worse throughout the war. It is not known whether these women ever received any relief from the Confederate government.