Backstory and Context
During the course of its’ history, North Carolina has been heavily involved in some of the more dramatic episodes of American History, particularly during the Civil War which produced several politics and military figures such as Governor Zebulon B. Vance , General Braxton Bragg and furthermore played host to up to twenty one battles during this bloody period. While there were several major events that took place, it was the smaller lesser known factors of the state that helped play an integral role in North Carolina’s history. One of these said lesser factors was Fort Hamby situate in Wilkesboro, North Carolina that is known for being the headquarters of a group of terrorists known as “Bushwhackers” that terrorized Wilkes and Caldwell throughout the winter and spring of 1865. To counter the gang’s terrorism a group of former Confederate soldiers surrounded the fort and set it aflame. While this tactic wiped out at least a few of these criminals, the leader of the gang somehow managed to escape and is believed to have gone to hide out in Iowa following this incident.
Throughout its’ history, Wilkesboro North Carolina has been known to many as “the bootleg capital of America.” Because of its’ long history involving the illegal practice of moonshining liquids for profit. Wilkesboro’s history extends far back prior to the time of the American Revolution. Originally called Mulberry Fields, the county was named in honor of English statesman John Wilkes who was an ardent defender of popular soveignty. Surprisingly, John Wilkes Booth the man responsible for the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln was related to the aforementioned John Wilkes through his paternal background. During the earliest part of its conception which included the American Revolutionary War, the community was home to patriot colonel Benjamin Cleveland who would be best remembered for the role he played in the Battle of Kings Mountain in 1780 that ended in a decisive victory for the patriots. In addition to the presence of Colonel Cleveland, Wilkesboro also served as execution grounds for any loyalist colonists or militia leaders by hanging them from a large oak tree that was named “Tory Oak” located behind the county courthouse. Following the conclusion of the American Revolution, Wilkesboro the community of Wilkesboro soon again became involved with the drama that would play out during the American Civil War.
With the growing divide that was coming into existence as a result of the war, several states were stuck in making the decision of which side they should take. Initially, the people of Wilkesboro chose to side with the Union. However, in the year 1865, Union Major General George H. Stoneman and his men passed through Wilkesboro raiding towns across the county. One witness to the violence ignited by Stoneman’s raids throughout North Carolina included a Charles Madison who while only a child gives a vivid description of the violence that occurred at the time. “Yankees came through the Buck shoals area ‘burning barns and taking whatever they wanted.” The raid itself began in Morristown Tennessee on March 23rd 1865. Following the movement of Stoneman’s Company through Tennessee, his troops moved on into the neighboring counties of Watauga and Boone County where part of Stoneman’s company led by Brigadier General Alvan C.Gillem burned the jail and all of Watauga’s records. Throughout the remainder of the war until the official surrender at Appomattox Court house in May 1865, Stoneman’s insurgents devastated the communities of North Carolina and Virginia that included destroying bridges and railroad tracks; as well as devastating the Jonesville Academy of North Carolina Among the troops involved in this campaign, two individuals by the names of Captain Michael Wade and Simmons deserted their units and would continue to maraud the south with violence.
After their desertion form the army, Wade and Simmons formed their own separate group of bandits in two separate locations with one led by Simmons in the Brushy mountains and another situated in the Yadkin Valley of Wilkes County led by Wade. The spot which Wade chose to operate held enormous strategic advantages for him and his gang, based on how it was situated on a high hull that gave the tenants a good view of the Yadkin Valley’s surrounding areas. This same hill was believed to had been used by Daniel Boone against hostile Native Americans. Wade and his men were well off in terms of firearms of the best caliber, furthermore they were capable of fending off attacks from all directions due to their location atop a steep hill that would be hazardous to reach for their enemies. The house was completely transformed into a fortress by Wade and after he obtained it he nick-named it “Fort Hamby” after the original owners named “Hamby” While it is unclear how many marauders made up the Bushwhackers gang, it is believed that the gang was comprised of no less than sixty members that were driven by a desire to plunder. As a result of their constant raids, the people of Wilkes County lived in constant fear from these things to which the Bushwhackers exercised extreme prejudice against without any form of sympathy. Throughout the duration of their violence, they managed to subdue all of Wilkes county and even extend their raids to the neighboring counties of Alexander and Caldwell. Following an incursion into Alexander to kill W.C. Green son of former Confederate Lieutenant Rev.J.R.Green, the Bushwhackers were met with opposition from the Green family who were informed of their malevolent intentions prior. Following this failed attempt to murder the Greens, the Bushwhackers retreated back to Wilkes County but with the authorities hot on their trail. Led by Colonel Sharpe the group that followed the retreating Bushwhackers was a company of twenty soldiers. As they began to attack the Fort, two of the pursing soldiers Jones Brown and James Linney were killed. As a result, Sharpe and his troops retreated after realizing the superior position the Bushwhackers possessed from their location atop Fort Hamby. The retreat and death of the two veteran soldiers Linney and Brown, created an atmosphere of sadness throughout the community of Wilkesboro. In response, Colonel Sharpe began to put together another operation against the Bushwhackers and put an end to their ongoing violence.
The county of Wilkesboro was at last at an uproar against the Bushwhacker gangs and called for retribution to be given in wake of the death of veteran soldiers Linney and Brown. Colonel Sharpe hoping to redeem himself as well as honor the wishes of the people affected by the Bushwhackers, began to plan another strike against the gang in which he enlisted the help of toughened Confederate soldiers as well as a member of eager young boys. “I left my school in the hands of one of my pupils and joined the company, which numbered about twenty men.” On May 7th of 1865, Major Harvey Bingham alongside Colonel Sharpe, took a unit of half a dozen men from the neighboring countries of Caldwell and Watauga counties crossed into the Bushwhackers territory to begin to liberate the people of Wilkes County from the Bushwhackers. Sharpe began to make his move against Wade and his gang following one of the Bushwhacker’s incursions into the neighboring county of Caldwell. As militia began to close in on the Hamby stronghold Wade and his men were initially oblivious to the knowledge of Bingham and his troops presence despite being heavily guarded. It was not until Meg Hamby who heard the troops movement in the hills nearby alerted Wade and his gang that they began to act. Upon learning that there were militia troops closing in on their location, the Bushwhackers began to bar the cabin door. However, while the gang began to prepare for the inevitable confrontation, three of the Bushwhackers escaped from the scene to either flee from the battle or to alert the other group of Bushwhackers led by Simmons in the Brushy Mountains. By the time daylight had shone through, Sharpe and his militia had surrounded the Hamby grounds and following a shot that came from the house, the battle was on.
The battle between the militia led by Colonel RM Sharpe and the Bushwhackers at Fort Hamby continued throughout the day and night. During the course of the battle, the situation seemed almost impossible for the militia to take the Hamby stronghold and in turn there emerged a conflict among members of the militia as to whether they should keep fighting or should they forgo all further plans. “Some of the bravest men were in favor of giving up while other said death was preferable to ‘being run over by such devils”It was not until the 19th of that month that the militia’s lines began to move up closer to the Hamby house and to move up closer to the Hamby house and around 4:00Amin the morning, the militia leaders Sharpe, Wallace and WA crept up behind the side of the house and began to set the structure on fire. Through their stronghold was now being engulfed in flames, this factor seemed to do little to unnerve Wade and his men from fighting. “What will you give us?’ Cried out Wade. ‘We will shoot you, answered Sharpe from behind the burning kitchen.” Following daybreak of the morning, the militia began to make a rush towards the Hamby stronghold. In response, Wade himself made a rush towards the river through a body of the advancing troops to which the militia trips fired at upon his break only to have him escape into darkness. While this was a great disappointment to the militia, they managed to recover four of the high ranking Bushwhacker gang leaders with the names of Lockwood, Church, Beck and one other individual whose name is lost to the records.
In the aftermath if the battle that took place, the flames of the fire set to the Hamby structure were extinguished. Inside the house itself, the militia found fine ladies dresses and other items that were taken from the local dissolute women. In response, the items recovered including the house itself was returned to the Hamby family. Meg Hamby herself however, escaped alongside Wade during the heat of the battle and alongside Wade himself they disappeared without a trace for the rest of their lives supposedly. It is believed however that Wade himself had gone to hide out in Iowa. In terms of the Bushwhackers who were captured, they were placed on trial to which they were all declared guilty and were sentenced to death for crimes such as plunder, murder and for levying war against the citizens of Wilkes, Alexander and Iredell counties. Their sentence was carried out by a firing squad to which one of the Bushwhackers asked for it to “be quick and get it over with” the executions against the Bushwhackers, the bodies were buried near the fort itself.
Following the sequence of events that took place at the infamous hideout of the Bushwhackers remains in the annals of American history as an episode of violence brought on by men who used the power they held to harm innocent civilians. The incident of Fort Hamby may not had been as big as the other sequence of events that took place, but it certainly does stand out as a very violent and controversial moment in the period during and following the American Civil War. Today the location of what was Fort Hamby now serves as a campground for the public with 33 public campgrounds available that can accommodate a large number of families as well as a National Park that offers a wide variety of recreational activities to the public including fishing, playgrounds, hiking trails and other activities for the public to take up. Nevertheless, the Fort Hamby site remains as a grim reminder as to the gruesome battle that occurred there as well as the crimes committed during the period when the Bushwhackers were active throughout the Wilkesboro countryside.
 The Civil War and Yadkin County, North Carolina, Frances H. Casstevens, pg.100.