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Fort Hamby

Wilkes County, North Carolina

March – May 1865

NOTE: This article was written by Finely Paul Curtis, Jr., and was published in April 1919 in the Confederate Veteran Magazine.

[The following narrative is intended as a sequel to the article in the Veteran for March which concerned the home guard organization and its nefarious enemy and as a substantiation by both a participant in and an eyewitness to the “Fort Hamby Affair” an irrefutable a posteriori testimony–of the base character of the home enemy. This narrative, a thrilling record of two Northern deserters, Wade and Simmons, guerrilla terrorists of Wilkes County, N.C., and the capture and destruction of their armed rendezvous, “Fort Hamby,” was published by my father’s old Chaplain Rev. W. R. Gaultney, chaplain of the 1st North Carolina Regiment of Infantry in the News and Observer, Raleigh, May 17, 1903. The author has been dead for some five or six years. He was an upright, honest, and withal a real man, having at his death served fifty years as a minister in the Baptist Church. The News and Observer containing his interesting narrative is a gift from my aunt, Miss Mattie Gertrude Curtis, and the story is reproduced complete, with an occasional correction –Finley Paul Curtis, Jr.]

In March 1865, General [George] Stoneman, left East Tennessee, moving on from Taylorsville, Tenn., though Watauga County to Deep Gap in the Blue Ridge. On the 26th of March he entered Boone, N.C., and on the following day the column was divided, one division under General Stoneman, marching toward Wilkesboro, while the other, under General [Averill] Gilliam, crossed the Blue Ridge at Blowing Rock and went to Patterson in Caldwell County, whence he joined General Stoneman at Wilkesboro. On the 31st of March General Stoneman moved over into Surry County in the direction of Mount Airy. During Stoneman’s march through this section of the State his men committed many depredations. After leaving Stoneman’s army and, with other worthless characters, led by two desperate men, Wade and Simmons, completely terrorized Wilkes and portions of other counties by their frequent raids. They organized two bands.

These bands would ride into a yard, dismount, place their guards, and enter the house, covering the cowering occupants with loaded pistols and warning them with oaths that “if you open your mouths, we will drop you in your tracks.” Some of the band would seize all the horses and cows, while others would search the house, rifling trunks, and drawers and taking anything they wanted. It must be remembered that at that time every man fit for military service was in the army, and the country was almost completely at the mercy of the robbers. Even after Lee’s surrender and the soldiers began to return home this state of affairs continued. These marauders then divided into two bands, one with headquarters in the Brushy Mountain, led by Simmons; the other with headquarters in the Yadkin Valley, in Wilkes County, led by the writer had to deal with Wade’s band and with it had a most lively experience, this article will be principally devoted to him and his fiendish work.

Wade came from Michigan and claimed the rank of major in Stoneman’s army. The house in which he was fortified (his headquarters) stood on the road leading from Wilkesboro to Lenoir and nearly a mile from Holman’s Ford, where the Valley Road crosses the Yadkin River. The house was situated on a high hill commanding a fine view of the Yadkin Valley and of the Valley Road for a distance of a mile above and mile below the ford. The house fronted the river on the south. On the west Lewis’s Fork, a stream smaller than the Yadkin, emptied into it. On the north and east lay a wide belt of thick woods. In this section were many sympathizers, if not aiders and abettors, of the band. From this position the Yadkin Valley and the surrounding country for half a mile in every direction could be swept and controlled by Wade’s guns. There is a legend that on this very hill Daniel Boone was fortified against the Indians. It would have been difficult to find a stronger location, both offensive and defensive, than this. The house was built of logs two stories high. The robbers had cut portholes for their rifles in the upper story. They had army guns of the best type and could command the approach to the house from all directions. Nothing could be more hazardous than to attempt to reach it. This house belonged to some disreputable woman by the name of Hamby, and after Wade had occupied and fortified it its name became “Fort Hamby.”

It is not known just how many men were engaged in these depredations. Perhaps the number actually engaged was not more than thirty. A list of eighteen names was found when the fort was taken, but more than that number were known to cooperate with them. They showed a spirit of revenge and a desire for plunder in all their raids. Indeed, they seemed to think that they must treat with the utmost cruelty all who were not in sympathy with them. They were brave men and well drilled. All the people of Wilkes County lived in constant dread of them, frightened by every bark of a dog or the rattling of leaves. Life seemed worse than death. All Wilkes County was subdued by them. They made several raids into Alexander and Caldwell Counties, robbing the citizens and subjecting men and women to the grossest insults.

On the 7th of May, 1865, they made a raid into Caldwell County. Maj. Harvey Bingham, with a few men, made a well planned movement on the fort the Sunday night following. It seems that Wade and his men announced their helpless condition and begged for their lives. No guns being seen, Bingham believed them his prisoners. He gave Wade and his men time to dress, after which, at a moment when their captors were off their guard, they rushed to their guns, which were concealed about their beds, and opened fire on them. The result was that Clark, a son of General Clark of Caldwell County, and Henly, of the same county, were killed. The other escaped leaving the bodies of Clark and Henly.

The Saturday night following the raiders crossed into Alexander County, intending to capture and kill W. C. Green son of Rev. J. R. Green, who had been a lieutenant in the Confederate army. Rev. Mr. Green had been informed of the expressed purpose to kill his son and was on the lookout for them, ready to give them a warm reception. They surrounded the house. Wade, as usual when he wanted to enter a house without force, was wearing a Confederate gray uniform. He claimed to be an officer in the Confederate army returning home and desired a night’s lodging. The moon was shining brightly, so Mr. Green could easily see him and his men. “I know you,” he said, “and you cannot enter my house unless you enter it over my dead body.” Brave Mr. Green had his position at the door with a pistol in one hand and a shining dirk in the other. His son was at the front window and his daughter was at another window armed with a knife of long, keen blade. They had taken five of their servants into their confidence, had armed them also, and had placed them in the rear of the house. Three of the gang were about to enter through a window in the rear of the building when Lieutenant Green, leaving his position in the front, rushed to the place, knocked out a pane, and fired into the trio, slightly wounding one of them. Where upon the robbers withdrew, leaving two of their horses and two or three of their hats, and went in haste back to the fort. The next day (Tuesday) Colonel Sharpe gathered together about twenty men, soldiers who had returned from Appomattox, and pursued them. Crossing the Yadkin River they rushed up to within a few feed of the fort; but two of his men, James Linney, brother of Hon. R. Z. Linney, and Jones Brown, were killed and left in the yard. The rest of the pursuers, some of them springing from their horses and running zigzag on foot, escaped. They managed to get together, however, at Moravian Falls and returned home greatly dejected, while the robbers were much emboldened by their two victories in one week. The tragic death of Linney and Brown cast the darkest shadow of gloom and sadness over the whole community.

“What shall be done?” Every one asked the burning question. Some thought there was little or no hope of anything being done. Some who had been in pursuit were really afraid to go again, and they did not go.

Now I must speak as an eyewitness of all that follows. Upon my return from the army I took a small school in Alexander County and boarded in the home of Ellis Haynes, Esq. The company which was driven from the fort the Sunday before was made up in this community.

Colonel Sharpe called together and held a consultation with a number of toughened Confederate soldiers, and it was soon decided that another effort should be attempted to dislodge Wade and his gang from the fort and put an end to the work of plunder and murder. I left my school in the hands of one of my pupils and joined the company, which numbered about twenty men. We started on Tuesday afternoon following the Sunday on which our Alexander men had been repulsed. Having crossed the Brushy Mountains at Cove Gap, just before reaching Moravian Galls, in Wilkes County, we met a man from near Holman’s Ford who informed us that Wade was looking for us and that he hoped we would come on. We halted, held a consultation, and sent one of our men into Iredell County to ask Col. Robert V. Cowan, who had commanded the 33d Regiment of North Carolina State Troops in the war just closed, to gather up all the returned soldiers he could and to come to Holman’s Ford with all possible speed. We sent another one of our members to the headquarters of a portion of the Federal army encampments near Lexington, N.C., to inform them of the condition of things in Wilkes County and to ask them to send and relieve the situation as early as they possibly could do so. We then continued our march, reaching Moravian Falls about sunset, where we remained until near midnight; then we moved slowly and cautiously up the road leading to Holman’s Ford. The night was dark, especially the latter part of it, and all felt that the march was fraught with danger. Coming within a mile or less of the ford, a voice sharp and clear called out: “Halt! Who goes there?” “Men from Alexander.” Replied Colonel Sharpe. “Who are you?” Oxford’s men from Caldwell County,” came the quick response. “Advance!.”

This was indeed good news to us. We found Oxford’s men all sleeping soundly in the woods near the road, except two or three who were walking the sentinel’s beat. We shared their bed of leaves till break of day, when the call came to “rise and fall inline.” The two companies together numbered not more than forty men. We left the road leading to the ford and turned up the river to the left and crossed at a small ford on the farm of a Mr. Tolbart, then ascended a hill to the Valley Road and, dismounting, fed our horses, opened our haversacks, and are breakfast in the yard of Mr. Tolbart. In his house a woman was dying who, with her husband the day before, was approaching the ford in a wagon and was shot by one of the robbers from the fort, more then a quarters of a mile distant.

Mr. Tolbart was a very nervous man. It was little wonder living so close to those fortified devils. “You men may easily judge,” he told us, “what my fears of these robbers are and what are my feelings towards them; yet I dare not say a word. My advice to you all is that you go back home, for with that force you will not be able to take them. They are on the lookout for you, and they have doubtless sent to their sympathizers for recruits; and should you fall into their hands they will surely kill you. No doubt they are lying in in those thickets in ambush for you and as soon as you turn the top of that hill you are in danger of sudden death.”

Tolbart’s words struck fear into many of our men. We held a council of war. A few of our bravest men were in favor of going back and waiting until we could get a larger force, but by a large majority it was decided to go on. After passing the top of the hill and coming to a little narrow footpath heading through a long stretch of thickets and old field pines, the Colonel turned to me. “You take these five men, Gaultney,” he commanded, “and follow this path until you reach the hill yonder on the west of the fort, between which hill and fort runs Lewes’s Fork. Feel your way carefully through the thicket, and when you reach the hill scout it thoroughly and see that there is no one on it. I will take the company and station them on the north and east of the fort, thus having them surrounded, with the Yadkin River on the south. When the men are all stationed, a gun will be fired on the east to let you know that we are all in place.” So saying, he marched away with the company.

I took the five men, and we followed the narrow, dark path in single file, expecting every moment to be ambushed. We breathed not a free breath until we had reached the hill, scoured it, and happily, found no one on it. We had been in many dangerous places during the war, but never was our courage tried more thoroughly than in creeping over that dark, narrow path. We felt that the enemy, whom we could not see, was about launch us into eternity. Never were we so conscious of safety as when we reached that hill, where we felt that in the fight we could see the foe. We had been on the hill only a few moments when one of the robbers was seen leaving the fort and going into the field below, where several fine horses were grazing. He bridled one of them, and while he was doing so I ran down the hill about twenty yards toward the creek (Lewes’ Fork) and from a pine tree tried to get a shot at him. But, there being so many trees in the way, he led the horse rapidly away beyong some thickly timbered land, and so was out of sight. In less than five minutes I heard him behind me on the hilltop one of my men snap his gun. Turning I saw that he was pointing his rifle toward the creek below me. His piece snapped several times. I knew he was trying to shoot one of Wade’s band; and though I could not see him, I felt that the man was between me and the creek. Then I saw another one of my men hand his gun to the one whose rifle would not fire.

Raising the rifle to his shoulder, he pulled the trigger. I have never heard a gun roar any louder. He had shot at one of the robbers sitting on the bank of the creek, but missed him. The fellow pitched forward into the creek and ran down the Yadkin. The creek was so thickly overhung with dense growth that we saw no more of him. We supposed that he was then watching our approach. If he knew of our presence till fired on, we knew not. The warning he got saved his life, for he did not return to the fort. Our men kept up firing on the fort all day, and they returned our fire and shot with such accuracy that we had to keep at a great distance behind logs and trees. In a very few minutes after the shot was fired at the robber on the creek bank one of the men from the east of the fort fired his gun to let us know that all the men were stationed. Then such a yell was raised in the fort as we never heard before nor since. Most fearful oaths! It was more like the howling of devils, cursing us and daring us to come on, trying evidently to make us believe that they were there in strong force.

Night came on, and it was very dark and cloudy. Another council of war was held. Some advised that, in view of our small number and the probability of their bringing in recruits that night and surrounding us, it would be the part of wisdom to withdraw and wait till we could rally greater forces. Others said that if we did not dislodge them then they would never return for another effort. A majority of us declared that we could whip all the recruits that might come and that we must stay till the fort was taken, saying: “Death is preferable to the miserable life which they are causing us to lead, and, live or die, let us stay till the work is done.”

We stayed. And in the darkness we constructed a new line of breastworks nearer the fort and kept on shooting at the house for some time after dark. The enemy fired no more after it became too dark for them to see us. We had in our Alexandria company a man from Iredell County by the name of Wallace Sharpe. His station was near the spring, and between him and the fort and very near it stood the old kitchen built of pine logs, covered with boards, and it was very old and dry. “Wal” Sharpe, as soon as he could see signs of approaching day, pulled off his shoes and very quietly made his way to the old kitchen, pushed some dry trash into a crack, struck a match to it, and then ran back to his station. Soon the entire kitchen was ablaze, and you may be sure that no fire was ever watched more eagerly. Very soon the sparks began to fall onto the roof of the fort, and then little blazes sprang up here and there on the roof, whereupon our men raised a shout of joy.

And then the robbers raised a yell. One of our men called loudly for their surrender. They asked what we would do with them if they surrendered. “Wal” Sharpe replied with an oath: “We will kill the last one of you.” Then they came out, with Wade in front. He raised his hat and touched his head, as though he would surrender, then darted like an arrow down the steep hill toward the river, and so on through our lines, our men firing several shots at him; but, it being too dark to see, not a single shot struck him. He sped across the bottom to the Yadkin River and hid under the bank of the river. With all our searching we failed to find him. He told afterwards that some of our men came within six feet of him. We tracked him to the river, but could get no further trace of him. Such leaps as he made across the bottom, according to his tracks, it seemed impossible for a man to make. As soon as the others came out of the fort they were seized by the soldiers, and it seemed that they would be torn to pieces. They were in the hands of men whose mothers, wives, and Sisters they had insulted. The whole company was for a little while an infuriated mob. Then for the first time some of us were impressed with the fact that there is nothing to he feared so much as a company of men so enraged as to lose their heads.

Men were commanded to climb to the top of the fort and extinguish the fire, so that sufficient time would be had to ascertain what was concealed therein. Property of nearly every description was found and many fine dresses and ladies hats which they had taken for the dissolute woman who occupied the house. About twenty fine horses were in the pasture near by. They were returned to their owners. Stakes having been erected for their execution, the guerrillas were told that they must die. They begged to be imprisoned for life, but were told that they must be disposed of as they had disposed of Clark, Henley, Linney, and Brown. Passing with them through the yard to the place of execution. Colonel Sharpe told them that they could have a little while to make any preparation for death should they desire to do so. They began praying, but their whole prayer was: “Men, save us.”

“Don’t pray to us,” exclaimed “Wal” Sharpe with an oath. “Pray to God; he alone can save you.” Some of the men still burning with rage, began to ridicule and mock them.

“Men,” said “Wal” Sharpe, “we have given them time to repent, and you shall not bother them.”

Colonel Sharpe then commanded every one to be quiet. All was still. He turned to me and asked me to pay for them.

“Colonel,” I replied, “I cannot, for I have never had such feelings as I have now. I feared to approach the throne of grace just then, lest I might come into His presence without sincere desires. Rev. Isaac Oxford, captain of the Caldwell company, said to me: “Hold my gun, and I will pray for them.”

I took his gun, and he thanked God that none of us were killed and that justice had overtaken them at last, and this was about the burden of his prayer, which was more than a thanksgiving.

We then moved on to the place of execution and bound them to the stakes. But before they were executed I turned to Colonel Sharpe and said: “Colonel, I believe I feel a desire to pray for them now.” He said he would be glad for me to do so. I tried to pray for their forgiveness and salvation with all the earnestness of my soul. In a moment the command was given to fire, and they were sent into eternity.

The following incident may be of interest in this connection:

In our Alexander company there was a young man by the name of Froney Roseman, who could shoot a rifle with great accuracy. He was a devoted friend of James Linney, who was killed there the Sunday before. He learned from one of the robbers that Will Beck was the one who had killed Linney. They had dug a hole into which they had thrown Linney’s body and had covered him up. Taking up his body, it was found that the Minie ball had entered just above his right eye. Roseman asked Colonel Sharpe to appoint him as the detail to execute Beck. The request w. man turned to us and said: “Now I am going to hit him just above the eye in the same place as he shot my friend Linney.” And he did exactly what he had said he said he would do, as though he had placed it there with his fingers.

The question then arose as to what we should do with the house. Without much parleying it was consigned to the torch. Several barrels of unshelled corn were taken from the upper story of the building. When the flames had reached the lower basement the report of loaded firearms resounded like a lively skirmish. How many guns and how much ammunition they had stored away we were unable to determine. Such was the fate of “Fort Hamby.”

Wade was seen by some one in that vicinity not many days afterwards. He said he lay all day under the bank of the river, and sometime in the night he came out, walked around, discovered what had been done, and then went away. He said he should leave that part of the country very soon. He has never been heard of since.- What a pity that he too did not suffer death!

On our way back to Alexander County we met Colonel Cowan, of Iredell Cdunty, with twelve or fifteen men, coming to our assistance. We also met some of the citizens of Wilkes County coming with wagonloads of provisions for us. When they heard what had been done they must have been thrilled as deeply with joy as were our forefathers when they heard of the victory of Yorktown.

The next morning before starting to my school I saw coming down the road from the direction of Fort Hamby twelve men on horseback. They wore, like all the robbers, Northern blue uniforms. Naturally I supposed that they were some of the recruits who were expected to defend Fort Hamby and that they were after wreaking vengeance on all who had taken part in the extinction of Wade’s band. As they approached the gate (I was boarding in the home of Ellis Haynes, Esq.) I turned back to my room, which was on the first floor, locked myself in, and examined several guns, which I always kept loaded, determined to sell my life dearly. They dismounted and came in, asking if they could get breakfast and their horses fed. Mr. Haynes told them they could. They seated themselves on the porch and entered into a lively conversation with Mr. Haynes. Of course I was listening. From all I could gather, they were not the men whom I had supposed them to be, so I walked out into their midst. They asked me if I knew anything of a band of robbers near Holman’s Ford, in Wilkes County. I told them I did. They said they had heard that the fort had been taken and the band dislodged, asking me if this was true. It was, I told them. Was I there, and did I take part in it? Yes, I told them. Still uncertain as to who they were and what their mission might be, I determined not to tell who else helped to take it. They then asked me what we did to those robbers, and I replied that we had tied them to stakes and shot them.

“I am glad of it,” said the lieutenant in command. “You have saved us the trouble of it; for had they fallen into our hands, we should have executed them.” He then told us that the message which we had sent while on our way to Fort Hamby had reached their headquarters, and they were on the way to settle all these troubles and to put an end to all lawlessness. It can be truthfully said that no men, from whatsoever section, ever came into that part of our State who were more cordially welcomed. The lieutenant had thirty-one men in his command on that trip, but two other divisions of them had gone to other places for breakfast.

They went on into the mountains and captured the notorious Simmons, whose name has been mentioned in connection with that of Wade’s. They took him to their encampment near Lexington, N. C., and put him in the guardhouse. While plundering and murdering in the mountains Simmons had supplied himself with a good deal of gold and silver, where with he succeeded in bribing his guard and making his escape. He has never been heard of since in those parts. May a deserving fate have overtaken him!

In August, 1865, I was asked to take a school in Wilkesboro and entered upon the work the first of September. The schoolhouse stood off a high ridge west of the town, nearly a mile from the courthouse. I boarded in the home of Mr. Hezekiah Curtis [my grandfather-P. P. C., Jr.] at the ford of the Yadkin River on the road leading from Wilkesboro, in Ash County. It was just about a mile from Mr. Curtis’s to the courthouse and about a quarter of a mile to the school house. I went to my boarding place each day for my dinner, as did also his son [Finley P. Curtis, my father-F. P. C., Jr.], his daughter [my aunt, Miss Mattie Gertrude Curtis-F. P. C., Jr.], and a young lady [Miss Eva Baker] who was boarding there. The first week in October the first court that had been held in a long time was in session, presided over by Judge Anderson Mitchell, of Statesville.

One day during that week, just after dinner, while in the sitting room with the two sons and three daughters of Mr. Curtis and the young lady who was boarding there, two men rode up to the gate, into the yard, and right up to the window of the room in which we were sitting. and one of them asked Judson, the eldest sbn of Mr. Curtis [my uncle, now living in Spencer, Ind.-F. P. C., Jr.], for some powder to load his pistol, saying with an oath that he had just shot at a Rebel and must have powder to reload. Judson told him he could not get it. He then swore he would come in and take it by force. Whereupon Judson turned to me and asked: “What must I do, Mr. Ganltney?”

“Do not let him have it,” I advised him earnestly, “from now till doomsday; and if he attempts to come in here, we will kill him.”

On two occasions before this the Hamby gang had entered this home, rifled every trunk and drawer, and broken up furniture, and these men were known to be their sympathizers. He then rode to a negro cabin near by and, learning where Mr. Curtis was at work, galloped up to him and, pointing his pistol at his head, demanded: “Give me powder to load my pistol, or I will blow your brains out.”

“If you get any powder from me,” Mr. Curtis replied “it will be burnt first.” [This was the second time my grand father had uttered this ultimatum to bushwhackers-F. P. C., Jr.] He came to the house and told his son Finley to go into the small room in the rear of the building and “load” those guns as quickly as possible,” Finley and I had them loaded in less than five minutes.

“I want you to understand, Mr. Curtis,” I said, taking my place by the front window, “that I purpose to kill him instantly if he attempts to enter this house.”

“That is exactly what I want you to do,” he replied.

The young bushwhacker had dismounted and was throwing his bridle rein over the horse rack. At this moment Mr. Curtis’s eldest daughter came to me frantic with fear, begging me to put down the gun and have nothiug to do with the man, saying that some one would be killed. I begged her to go at once to the rear part of the house, where she would be out of danger, saying that I had rather die than live in this way. Finley had taken his stand at the front door and his father at the parlor window. Seeing that we were armed and ready, the bushwhacker hastily remounted, leaving his confederate at the gate. “Remain here until I return,” he said. “I will go to town, collect my band, and come back to get what I want.”

He galloped away toward town. I went out to the gate and told the guard to take his companion away as soon as he returned; that we did not wish to hurt any one.

“You have guns in that house, haven’t you?” he asked me.

“It is our business to know that,” I replied.

Meanwhile we had sent Judson Curtis through the bottoms to the courthouse to inform the judge and sheriff of what was transpiring. I sent the two young ladies to the school-house to tell the young men, who had served in the war, to come immediately to me. They came, and I had not more than time to tell them what was up when the guerrilla leader, with several other men, came galloping down the road, brandishing their pistols. As they approached the gate we moved into the house and took places with our guns. When they reached the gate the leader stopped and said: “Here is the place.” But, seeing our increased force and the advantage we had in the house, the others took his horse’s bridle and said: “Come on, fool; come on.” And on across the ford and so out of sight they went. That night the sheriff with a posse pursued them and captured the first two mentioned and carried them before Judge Mitchell, who imposed a fine upon each and sent them to jail for a term of months. When the Judge sentenced the young man to jail he told him that had he persisted in going into that house he would have been killed. In a few days the young man sent his mother word to sell his pistols, saying that he would never buckle on another. They served out their time in prison, and both became good citizens, and, so far as I know, they may be living to-day. This was the last of the troubles which followed the war in all that section of the State.