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The site of the infamous massacre during the American Civil War. On January 18th 1863 a Confederate regiment in the Shelton Laurel valley executed thirteen accused individuals who were believed to be Union sympathizers. The massacre caused an outrage that expanded as far as Europe. Those leading the call for justice included North Carolina Governor Zebulon B. Vance and solicitor Augustus Merrimon. Although the leader behind the massacre Lieutenant-Colonel James A. Keith was ostracized for his role, he was never brought to justice.

  • The marker indicating the site of the Shelton Laurel Massacre.
  • The gravestones dedicated to the victims of the massacre, placed on the site where the massacre took place.
  • A close-up photo of the gravestones commemorating those who were killed in the massacre.
  • A drawing, created at the time of the massacre. The picture depicts the tragedy that followed the massacre as families in the area had lost one of heir loved ones who were convicted of being Union sympathizers within the Confederate state.

Shelton Laurel

            During the course of the Civil War, Americans had witnessed some of the most profound episodes of their history that had received reaction from the entire country. Many of the events following the war which exhibited this trait received reaction in a general way, such as the war’s powder keg when Fort Sumter was fired upon by Confederate forces, or the turning point of the war following the Battle of Gettysburg with the Union being more successful in their campaigns and the conclusion of the war following Lee’s surrender at Appomattox Courthouse. While these events received attention during the course of the Civil War, there were also several other events that played out in which more negative attention was given due in part to the brutality that took place during their occurrence. One of these events that displayed such brutality included the infamous Shelton Laurel massacre in Madison North Carolina, in which thirteen southerners accused of being Union sympathizers were executed by a regiment of Confederate soldiers in January 18th 1863. Because of the violence carried out in Shelton Laurel, there was not only nationwide but also a global outrage that extended as far as Europe. Despite the fury generated by this event, the man responsible Lieutenant Colonel James A. Keith was ever brought to Justice for his part in the massacre.

            Since its establishment by the Shelton family in the early 1790s, the community of Shelton Laurel was like most mountain communities, largely isolated from the rest of America. The Shelton Brothers David and Martin Shelton first came to the land that would become Shelton Laurel in the 1790s immediately after the land was taken from the Cherokee nation by the state in order to expand their growing slave society. However despite obtaining these lands thorough forced removal, when the Sheltons first arrived they found themselves surrounded by wilderness in an area so wild that it was not until 1815 that their land holdings were recorded. Although the area was gradually settled in with families in the first initial years that Shelton Laurel was established, it was not until 1826 that new families began to settle in the region. While this community was very isolated and oblivious to the events that were playing out throughout the rest of America, they would soon be thrust into the scene of tensions that would arise in response to the Civil War.

            In the initial stages of the war, it was assumed by most Americans that the state of North Carolina would be more on board with the ideology of the Union. “The Loyalists majorities in those sizeable highland regions led to the widespread conclusion that Unionism was a natural sentiment in the areas in which slavery played a minimal role and thus applied to all parts of southern Appalachia”[1] However in retrospect, the state of North Carolina itself did not want to be involved in the war in general. Despite their desire to remain neutral throughout this ordeal, there was a division brought about throughout North Carolina. This was because while there were some who identified more with the Union, there was a larger majority of the state who identified more with the Confederacy. North Carolina eventually seceded from the Union after President Lincoln demanded the state to give troops. In response to these demands, I became apparent among the people in North Carolina that the Union would use military force to bring the seceding states including North Carolina back into the Union’s order.  Throughout the course of the Civil War a majority of the Confederacy’s soldiers came from North Carolina with a total number  of 125,000 Confederate troops that included seventy-eight full regiments with twenty battalions. “By the end of the nearly one-fifth of the entire Confederate army would be made up of those from North Carolina even though the state had one ninth of the total southern population”[2] While the state of North Carolina served the Confederacy, a number of its isolated communities would provide aid and troops to the Union. One of these regions was Shelton Laurel’s County of Madison situated thirty miles north of Asheville bordering Tennessee.

            Because of the division that existed within the North Carolinians as a result of the existence of both Union and Confederate supporters resulted in an animosity between its residents that escalated to violent levels, especially among familial allegiances and longstanding grudges between its inhabitants. Many of the men conscripted from the surrounding county were members of the 64th North Carolina Volunteer Infantry. Led by resident Lawrence M Allen former high ranking member of the democratic party, as well as his cousin Doctor James Keith as his second in command; the regiment comprised of six full companies of men from Madison as well as Henderson and Polk County as well as two more from nearby Tennessee. While the county as well as the state was in service to the Confederacy, the residents who remained “pro-union present either ventured to join nearby Union regiments in Greensville, and Knoxville or stayed and refused to enter into Confederate Service . Some of these inhabitants included the Kirk brothers (ie, George, James, John Francis, William and George). The Union divisions were based in Tennessee which encompassed men mostly from Knox County, Kentucky as well as Greene, Cocke, Bradley, and Knox of Tennessee. However, as time passed, the membership only contained members from Bradley and Greene Counties of Tennessee as well as the Knox Brothers.

            Around January 1863, both sides suffered from a lack of resources as a result of the war. To be specific, food became scarce on both sides, salt supply had depleted , foraging units of marauding men at the home front began to slaughter and pillage civilian populations. To make matters worse, the government and authorities became involved with the famine of salt, in which they distributed salt rations only to local citizens who sympathized with the Confederacy. At the same time, withholding said rations from families who were known Union sympathizers many of which from Shelton Laurel were forced to put off their annual winter hog slaughtering because of the scarcity of salt. As a result, these families were in desperate need of supplies with the coming of the winter cold and in response the nearby Union forces chose to act on January 8th , 1863 when they raided a Confederate supply depot in the town of Marshall, North Carolina. Led by Captain John Peck, the Union forces began plundering the towns’ storehouse as well as the local homes throughout its’ vicinity. The Union forces made off with fifty bushels of salt, a number of batches of cotton gauze, additional food, clothing, blankets, money and even a few horses and mules. In response to this incursion, the Confederates sought to eliminate the threat of the Union sympathizers within their boundaries no matter the cost.

            The “Attack on Marshall” as it was called by Brigadier General William G.M Davis, created a feeling of paranoia amongst Confederates throughout the region of Madison. General Davis stated that the incident at Marshall “ has given rise to wild rumors of organizations of armed [unionists] throughout the mountains bent on sacking towns and the plunder of loyal men.”[3] It was decided by the Confederate leaders that affirmative action was needed in order to “suppress the insurrection.” To this end, the Confederate forces sent in a contingent of their troops into the Shelton Laurel region under the leadership of Laurence Allen and James Keith. Following their arrival into Shelton Laurel, they were cautioned by Governor Zebulon B Vance of North Carolina cautioned them not to be too brutal when handling supposed sympathizers, but at the same time he wanted to make sure the sympathizers were eliminated. “ I hope you will not relax until the [unionists] are crushed…But do not let our excited people deal to harshly with these misguided men.”[4] For the next two days, troops combed the entire Shelton Laurel region and arrested all male citizens which in total amounted to twenty citizens in custody. While conducting interrogations, Allen had stated that “no injury is done to the persons or property of peaceable citizens” [5] as he had done during similar operations in Kentucky and East Tennessee. However, Allen soon began to see these methods as inconclusive to this situation and therefore began to use more brutal methods against the suspected Unionists to get the answers they were looking for. Allen was even given the command to kill all the prisoners by hos commanding officer Brigadier General Henry Heth who said “I do not want to be troubled with any prisoners and the last one of them should be killed.”[6]Allen himself was even in favor of using any means necessary because he himself had his home raided by pro-Union rebels during one of their raids.

            Throughout the course of their occupation in the valley of Shelton Laurel, the Confederate troops initiated their violent means of achieving information through coerced confessions imposed on their suspected Unionist suspects. During the counsel of their investigation, Allen and Keith managed to recover a number of items which they had confiscated from their suspects and managed to round up a total of sixteen men from the area and were taken to the Judith Shelton Cabin in the Laurel Creek bottoms. On the morning of January 19th, the prisoners were awoken by a company of eight Confederate soldiers including Lt. Col. James Keith and were then escorted to walk two miles out towards the Hickey Fork Stream in a forested hollow. Once they had reached their destination, they were ordered to kneel, and almost immediately an order was given to fire. The executions themselves were not carried out all at once, rather they divided the prisoners into two groups of five and one group of four. Which by the time they got around to executing the final group, the prisoners were screaming for mercy which fell on deaf ears as they, like the others were executed by the Confederates’ bullets. Following the execution of the supposed Unionists, the bodies were rolled into a nearby ditch to which the Confederates yelled “Pat the Juba for me while I dance the damned scoundrels down into and through hell!”[7]

            In the weeks that followed the massacre in Shelton Laurel, North Carolina’s governor Zebulon B Vance began to learn of the details regarding the operation of Shelton Laurel and sent Ashville prosecutor Augustus S. Merriman to investigate around mid-February. Upon learning the Lieutenant Colonel James A. Keith was in command of the executions, Vance immediately demanded action to which he called on the assistance of Confederate Secretary of War James A. Seddon to bring those responsible to trial. While Colonel Laurence Allen denied his involvement in the massacre, Keith never denied his role as he was given explicit orders by his superior General Heth. Believing his actions to benefit the “Greater Good” Keith expressed no regrets for his actions whether it was the massacre or the brutal methods which he carried out against the people of Shelton Laurel. “The prisoners were shot…but the shooting was considered a military necessity and absolutely necessary to protect the loyal citizens of that country.”[8] Over the course of the next following weeks Vance continued to put pressure on Secretary Seddon to take action against all those involved. However, it was not until April 26th, 1863 Colonel Keith and four other junior officers who participated in the massacre turned in their resignations and were allowed to resign solely for the “Interest of the service.” This was followed up by the resignation of Colonel Allen but despite his involvement, General Henry Heth got away with the massacre ad was later promoted to the rank of Major General who was transferred to the Army of Northern Virginia. The incident itself reached attention far beyond the Appalachian Mountains to even worldwide attention where countries such as Germany were commenting on the events that took place in Shelton Laurel. “The terrible execution of Union men by the rebel Colonel Keith, who must be a monster, as he spares neither age nor infancy.”[9] The result of Vance’s aggression towards those involved came up short as none of those involved were brought to justice despite the amount of attention it brought and the testimonials made by those involved.

            The incident of Shelton Laurel itself, represented the most extreme manifestations of escalating tensions between troops and civilians as well as the frustrations of soldiers confronting an elusive enemy that caused the forces involved to resort to more brutal methods to eliminate an enemy who was using the same tactics against the enemy that existed within their midst. Therefore, the Shelton Laurel massacre is forever remembered as an episode where those who carried it out decided to counter these terrorist actions caused by the rebellions within their territories they opted to use the same tactics to reassert their control no matter the cost.   

[1] The Heart of Confederate Appalachia: Western North Carolina in the Civil War, John C. Inscoe and Gordon B. McKinney, pg.83.

[2] War of Vengeance: Acts of Retaliation Against Civil War POWS, Lonnie R. Speer, pg.59

[3]War of Vengeance: Acts of Retaliation Against Civil War POWs, Lonnie R. Speer, pg.62.

[4] War of Vengeance: Acts of Retaliation Against Civil War POWs, Lonnie R. Speer, pg.64.

[5] War of Vengeance: Acts of Retaliation Against Civil War POWs, Lonnie R. Speer, pg. 64.

[6] Historical Dictionary of the Civil War, Volume 1, Terry L. Jones, pg. 1296.

[7] War of Vengeance: Acts of Retaliation Against Civil War POWs, Lonnie Speer, pg.67.  

[8]War of Vengeance: Acts of Retaliation Against Civil War POWs, Lonnie Speer, pg.68.

[9] War of Vengeance: Acts of Retaliation Against Civil War POWs, Lonnie Speer, pg.69.

American Civil War, “Shelton Laurel Massacre,” Accessed April 26th, 2015, Inscoe, John, C. and Gordon B. McKinney, The Heart of Confederate Appalachia: Western North Carolina in the Civil War, (University of North Carolina Press, 2000). Learn NC, “The Shelton Laurel Massacre,” Accessed April 26th, 2015, North Carolina History Project, “Shelton Laurel Massacre,” Accessed April 26th, 2015, Paludan, Phillip, Shaw, Victims: A True Story of the Civil War, (University of Tennessee Press, Knoxville, TN, 1981). Phillip Gerard, “Atrocity at Shelton Laurel,” Accessed April 26th, 2015, Speer, Lonnie, R., War of Vengeance: Acts of Retaliation Against Civil War POWs, (Stackpole Books, Mechanicsburg, PA, 2002).