One of the grisliest mass murders of Southern Unionists occurred in 1863 in Madison County, North Carolina. Popularly known as the “Shelton Laurel Massacre,” this Civil War story was told by the late historian, Philip Paludan, in his moving book, Victims: A True Story of the Civil War (1981). Robert Moore revisited the story on Southern Unionist Chronicles in 2008, and you can also find detailed descriptions of the murders on the Southern Unionist Forum hosted by Genforum.
Back in 1983, while researching my first book, Unruly Women, at the North Carolina State Archives in Raleigh, I transcribed and copied several documents detailing this case that I would like to share with you. In the Governors’ Papers, for example, I found S. A. Merrimon’s report of Feb. 24, 1863, to Governor Zebulon Vance. Merrimon told Vance that at least 13 men and boys were taken into the woods, made to kneel down, and shot to death on the mere suspicion that they had participated in a robbery in the town of Marshall. Three of the murdered “men” were described as 13, 14, and 15 years old. Merrimon added that “several women were severely whipped and ropes were tied around their necks.”
The man who ordered the murders was Lt Col. James A. Keith of the same county. In his defense, Keith claimed that Brigadier General Henry Heth had directed him to kill the Madison County Unionists and deserters, to take no prisoners, and to file ”no reports” of the matter. Heth responded that he had advised Keith to take no prisoners only in the event that there was an “engagement” between forces, but denied that he had authorized maltreatment of prisoners, women, or children. (Some believe that Gen’l Heth was indeed complicit.)
The Governors’ Papers also contain a petition signed a few months later, on May 1863, by eleven Shelton Laurel women who requested that Gov. Vance appropriate money for them to buy provisions, “being as we will be bound to suffer on account of [Confederate] troops eating up all our provisions & killing our men and property and destroying the country.” The women included seven with the surname Shelton–Judah, Sarah, Marthy Jane, Rachel, Elizabeth, Polly, and Margaret–as well as Rody Hall, Nancy King, Liney Norton, and Emeline Riddle.
Efforts to prosecute James A. Keith dragged on for years. You can clearly see Sheriff S.G. Brigman’s frustration and desperation to apprehend Keith in the two letters he wrote to Provost Marshal Edward W. Hinks on September 18, 1867 (the letters are quoted below). Those letters apparently resulted at long last in Keith’s arrest on several counts of murder. On February 22, 1869, however, Keith escaped from the Buncombe County Jail along with two other prisoners (see reward notice, above). Keith was never recaptured. But even had he not escaped, President Andrew Johnson’s Amnesty Act of 1868 caused all charges against him to be dropped.
[Excerpt from letter #1 from Sheriff S.G. Brigman to Provost Marshal Edward Hinks]:
Col: In compliance with your request endorsement Sept. 3, 1867 I have the honor to make the following report of James A. Keith – He is full six feet high, Dk hair, and very heavy black beard, generally wears his beard long,–weighs 180 to 185 lbs,–rather slow spoken but very intelligent and well posted on matters of history, etc.—was in the Mexican War and practicing physical while in this county. Age, about 43 or 45 and, while talking or interrogated, keeps one eye shut. The said James A. Keith was at one time a Col in the Rebel Army but was dismissed for robbery, murder, and a general plunder. He then organized a band of robbers and went about plundering & murdering on his own hood. He remained in the county (Madison Co) until about the time of the surrender, when he left and went to Greenville Dist., South Carolina, where he now lives.—Keith formerly lived in this County, in fact he has lived here all his life until he left about the [time of the] surrender. He bought the farm formerly owned by Col. L. M. Allen on South Tiger River 3 miles or 6 miles from Weavers old factory .— He bought this farm with property stolen from this country —.
His residence is 18 miles from Greenville C.H. North near the Spartanburg Dist. Line, not very far from the foot of Blue Ridge – Near a road leading from Henderson, N.C. to Spartanburg C. H., S. C.— Lives in a nice small white house [with] a portico in front, stables, and out houses below, stairway going up in center. It appears from the statement that the officer who made the search did not go near the directions, as this man Keith who he arrested lived in Pickens Dist., while James A. Keith lives near the Spartanburg line, the opposite direction. South Tiger River is very noted and he lives ¼ of a mile of said river. This same man Keith was seen but a few weeks ago lurking in this county and is well known and feared by every man in Western Carolina.
Keith has a wife and one or two small children, his wife’s maiden name was Jones and lived in Tenn – Keith was [arrested?] one time before the war for forging a Bank Check.
Keith’s Post Office is Travellers Rest.—I forwarded you last Mail affidavits of his guilt and Certificates of Clerks. I have capias, State warrants, and all manner of papers against Keith. He would likely be very easily arrested now, but soon he will commence his ramble of plunder.
If anything further is required of me you will advise me of the same.
I am Col Very Respectfully
Your Obdt Servant
S. G. Brigman
Sheriff of Madison Co., N.C.
[Excerpt from letter #2]:
I have the honor to forward affidavits of Several persons in regard to James A. Keith murdering several union men in this county. I can if you require send more than fifty affidavits of this kind. There are several true bills against him in the courts of this county for murder and one for arson for burning Thos. S. Denver’s mills long after the surrender. The said James A. Keith . . . intended to burn and destroy every union man in the county –commencing on T. S. Denver, a leading union man.—Denver has again rebuild his mills at the cost of several thousand dollars. Keith has since been seen lurking about and has said they should not stand long. I have had capias and papers against him and have them now but he is [beyond?] our search. If Keith could be arrested and brought to the county there is sufficient charges against him to hang 500 men.
S.G. Brigman, Sheriff of Madison Co., N.C.