Not the only incident in the turbulent wartime mountains, the Shelton Laurel Massacre of Madison County proved, writes historians John Inscoe and Gordon McKinney, that “guerrilla warfare blurred the lines between combatants and noncombatants and obscured the rules of war.” It also revealed that Confederate sympathizers were as willing as Union sympathizers to be bushwhackers and redefine mountain warfare.
Unionists and Confederates lived in Madison County, North Carolina. And allegiances changed, many times, depending on the prevailing military presence in the area. Many times familial allegiances and longstanding grudges heightened the tensions between Confederates and Unionists and may have been the predominant factor in precipitating much of the violence.
There are four major figures involved in the Shelton Laurel massacre: John Kirk, Union raider who fled to Madison County to escape pursuing Confederates and led a band of about 50 Union sympathizers and deserters; Confederate General Henry Heth, commander of the Department of East Tennessee, who ordered Lawrence Allen and James Keith to subdue the Kirk’s raiders and prevent more vandalism and looting;
Colonel Lawrence Allen, a Marshall resident and leader of the 64th North Carolina, who had a personal interest in stopping Kirk’s lawlessness; James Keith, second in command of the 64th North Carolina and the one who ordered thirteen executions.
Frustrated that Union guerrillas and deserters had attacked their hometown and communities (Allen’s wife and three sick children were harassed), Allen and Keith responded, under Heth’s orders, to crush the perpetrators and ensure Confederate rule and order. It all began in January 1863, when the guerrillas, under Kirk’s leadership, raided the town of Marshall in search of foodstuffs, especially salt, to survive the bitter winter months.
Approaching Laurel Valley, Keith’s and Allen’s men searched anxiously for those involved in the salt raid and arrested 15 along the way. No doubt thinking they were being transported back to Knoxville, Tennessee as prisoners of war, the fifteen prisoners were reminded differently. Two seized the opportunity to escape on the march. Eventually the remaining thirteen were told to kneel, in rows of three to five and summarily shot (two had escaped earlier). All of the executed were related to each other and many shared the same surname: Shelton. The next day, Shelton family members discovered their relatives partially buried bodies.
Confederate officials were infuriated at the 64th’s actions. Officials wanted the Unionists defeated and justice implemented, but they had warned the pursuers to separate personal animosities from mission objectives. Zebulon Vance was especially appalled. He demanded an investigation into the horrible incident. Keith was later court-martialed, resigned, and returned home to Madison County. Allen was only suspended from active duty for six months.
John C. Inscoe and Gordon B.McKinney, The Heart of Confederate Appalachia: Western North Carolina in the Civil War (Chapel Hill, 2000).