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War Times and Afterwards

A Hopeless Task

It would take several volumes the size of this to give the history of the troops sent from Watauga County into the Civil War. Their record is partially preserved in Clark’s North Carolina Regiments, Moore’s Roster and elsewhere. Only some of the principal events which occurred in this county and in those portions of this section which were once a part of Watauga County can he given.

There were at least one thousand men from Watauga in the Confederate army and one hundred in the Federal, Company I of the Thirteenth Tennessee Cavalry having no less than thirty-three Wataugans in its ranks. Col. George N. Folk was the first to enlist volunteers in this county, and the response which his call met with was but the forerunner of many more enlistments soon to follow. Many men composing the Fifty-Eighth North Carolina Regiment, Col. J. B. Palmer’s, went from this county, though a large part of it was then embraced in the newly formed county of Mitchell.

Indeed, Colonel Palmer’s home on the Linville River had been in Watauga from the time it was purchased and the residence built in 1858 till the new county was formed in 1861. The old county line then ran below his residence along Pisgah Ridge, and a voting precinct, at Levi Franklin’s house, now the upper part of Potter Brown’s meadow, is still remembered by some of the older residents of Boone and vicinity.

It was the most remote of all in the county, and the messenger bearing the returns usually did not arrive at the court house in Boone till after midnight. That he managed to get here even as late as that was due to the practice prevailing at the time, of keeping “tab” on the votes as they were cast, removing them from the hat into which they were usually deposited, examining them, and crediting each candidate for whom they had been cast with the vote to which he was entitled. Thus, the count was kept as rapidly as the ballots were deposited. But, and this seems to have been an important feature of the matter, some ballots were always left in the to show that the voting was still going on, or that the precinct had not closed. Consequently, when the sun set on the first Thursday in August of election years, there were but a few ballots remaining to be counted, which was soon done and the messenger dispatched with the result to Boone.

Captain Willie M. Hodges, still hale and active at the age of eighty-three, remembers attending that precinct in 1850 or 1852 in the contest between Michael Cook and Jack Horton for sheriff. He took some of the juice of the peach with him, a gallon and a half, to be exact, and carried the precinct overwhelmingly for Cook, his uncle, or, to be exact again, thirty-eight out of forty votes. Th dancing which took place at Franklin’s house during that day in which barefoot girls and women joined, was the most vigorous, if not the most graceful, he ever witnessed. He still wonders how it was that those bare feet did not wear through to th quick.

“Keith” Blalock

It might seem almost as if the history of the Civil War in Watauga were inextricably interwoven with the life and adventures of W. M. Blalock, commonly called ‘Keith” Blalock, a nickname given him because of the fact that Alfred Keith, of Burnsville, was a great fighter during Blalock’s youth, and as he was something of a fighter himself, his boy companions called him “Keith.”

Keith and his wife, born Malinda Pritchard, lived “under the Grandfather” when the Civil War commenced, and both became members of Zeb Vance’s 26th Regiment, he as W. M. and she as Sam Blalock. She wore a private’s uniform and tented and messed with Keith. She watched the men “when they went in swimming” near Kinston, but never went in herself. Keith was a Union man and joined only to avoid conscription and in the hope that opportunity might offer for him to desert to the Union lines. But the fortunes of war did not afford this chance as speedily as he wished, so he went into the bushes and covered himself with poison oak. When this took effect the army surgeons were puzzled as to the nature of his complaint, but they agreed that he was then unfit for service and discharged him. Then “Sam” presented himself and convinced his colonel, Zeb Vance, that he was no longer fit for duty either, his lawful tent and messmate having been discharged. They returned to their home under the Grandfather, but it was not long till Keith had cured his infirmity by the frequent application of strong brine to the affected parts, brine being nothing more or less than strong salt water. Then Confederate sympathizers wanted to know why he did not return. Keith showed his discharge, and they answered by trying to arrest and conscript him. He and “Sam” retreated still further up under the Grandfather and lived in a rail pen. But they were followed even there, and on one occasion Keith was so hotly pursued that he was shot in the left arm, and had to take refuge with some hogs which had “bedded up” under the rocks. Keith then went through the lines into Tennessee and became recruiting officer for a Michigan regiment stationed in Tennessee.

Whether true or not, Blalock believed that Robert Green, who then lived in the Globe, but had also a place at Blowing Rock, was in the party that had wounded him. Accordingly, when he and some of his comrades met Green one day while he was driving his wagon from the Globe to Blowing Rock, he shot Green as he ran down the side of the mountain, breaking his thigh. Green’s friends say that Blalock’s crowd left him lying as he had fallen, and that he managed to regain his wagon, turn it around and drive back home. Blalock’s friends say that after he had wounded Green, shooting him through his wagon body and afterwards bragging on his marksmanship, he went to him, and finding him unconscious, took him to his wagon, put him in it, turned the wagon around and started the team in the direction of Green’s home. This is doubted by Green’s friends, however. Robert Green was the father of the late Judge L. L. Green, of this county.

Four Coffey Brothers

To go back a little, Keith Blalock’s mother had married Austin Coffey, while Keith was a very little boy, and Coffey reared him to manhood. Austin Coffey lived almost in sight of the home of his brother, McCaleb Coffey, in the Coffey Gap of the Blue Ridge and on the old Morganton Road.

McCaleb was rather a Confederate sympathizer, having a son, Jones, in the Confederate army. Austin was rather a Union man, though too old to be drafted into the service. Of course, he sheltered and fed Keith and his comrades whenever he or they came to his home. But William and Reuben Coffey were pronounced Southern men, and active in forcing outliers and others subject to conscription into the ranks of the Confederate army. Meantime, Blalock was taking recruits through the lines into the Union army in Tennessee. Thus, a natural antagonism sprang up between him and William and Reuben Coffey.

Danger from Tennessee

Up to the spring of 1864 the Union element in the mountains had been rather timid, but as the tide of battle turned against the Confederacy, and recruiting officers, of whom James Hartley was a conspicuous example, increased throughout the mountain region, Union men and women grew bolder. Then, too, there had been numerous desertions from the Southern army, and men not only from these mountains, but from Tennessee, Georgia and Virginia, were lying out in the mountains almost everywhere. Of course, they had to live, and if those who could would not feed them, they naturally tried to feed themselves. To do this they had to pilfer, steal and finally, in bands, to rob outright. A state of guerrilla warfare was thus imminent, when an event occurred which almost revolutionized matters in the mountains.

This was Kirk’s raid through the mountains to Camp Vance, six miles below Morganton. That it had been successful was almost a miracle, and the leaders of the Southern Confederacy realized the vulnerability of its piedmont region to like incursions from East Tennessee. It should he remembered that General Burnside had long been in possession of Knoxville, Tenn., and that he might at almost any time send a large force through the mountains and destroy the railroad from Richmond to Columbia, the main artery of the Confederacy.

To guard against this contingency, General Robert B. Vance, of Asheville, had been placed in command of the Military District of Western North Carolina, as it was officially designated. Also, that on the 7th of July, 1863, the General Assembly of North Carolina had provided for the organization and equipment of the Home Guard, officially designated as “The Guard for Home Defense,” to be composed of all males between eighteen and fifty years of age. In April, 1864, Gen. John W. McElroy, commanding the forces around Burnsville, wrote to Governor Vance that “the county is gone up,” and that there was a determination on part of the people generally “to do no more service in the cause.”

Longstreet’s Withdrawal

General Longstreet had been detached from Lee’s army in Virginia and sent to East Tennessee in 1863, where, after the Battle of Chickamauga, he drove the Federals back into Knoxville and besieged that place. But Lee could not long do without Longstreet, and so, in January, 1864, Longstreet tried to withdraw from Knoxville and return to Richmond with his army. No sooner, however, had Longstreet started than Burnside started after him. In anticipation of this, General Vance was ordered to cross the mountains through Haywood County and attack Burnside in flank as he pursued Longstreet. Vance, however, was captured as soon as he reached the western slope of the Smoky Mountains, and sent to prison, his force of about I,200 men of all arms retreating back to Buncombe as best they might.

Thus the Military District of Western North Carolina was left without a general. But Col. J. B. Palmer, of the 58th North Carolina, asked to be placed in command, and he was accordingly transferred early in 1864 from his regiment in the western army and placed in command. But General Lee wanted a West Point man in charge of this most important region, and assigned General James G. Martin to that position.

Meantime, Keith Blalock was passing hack and forth between the lines and keeping the Federal authorities informed of conditions around his old home “under the Grand-father.” The mountains were at that time practically defenseless. Camp Vance with a few hundred recruits was the only force of moment between Knoxville and Salisbury, where were confined thousands of Federal prisoners. Blalock had grown up with Joseph V. Franklin, who was reared near Linville Falls and knew the country like a book. Col. George W. Kirk was then in command of the Third North Carolina Mounted Infantry, United States Army, and persuaded the military authorities to allow him to make a raid to Camp Vance, release the conscripts there, steal an engine and train, cut the wires, go on to Salisbury, release and arm the prisoners there and turn them loose on the country. It was a daring scheme, and the wonder is that Kirk was allowed to make the venture.

Kirk’s Camp Vance Raid

With 130 men, including twelve Cherokee Indians, on foot and carrying their rations and arms and blankets, Kirk left Morristown, Tenn., June 13, 1864, and marched via Bull Gap, Greenville and the Crab Orchard, all in Tennessee, crossed the Big Hump Mountain and went up the Toe River, passing the Cranberry iron mine, where from forty to sixty men were detailed by the Confederate government making iron, when they camped near David Ellis’ house and where rations were cooked for Kirk’s men.

On the 26th they scouted through the mountains, passing Pinola and crossing Linville River. The following day they got to Upper Creek at dark, where they did not camp, but keeping themselves in the woods all the time, got to Camp Vance at daylight. Here they demanded its surrender, which was agreed to. It had been Kirk’s plan to take a locomotive and cars and such arms as he might find at the Camp and go to Salisbury, where the Federal prisoners confined there were to be released. Failing in that, he wanted to destroy the bridge over the Yadkin, but a telegram had been sent before they could cut the wire and that part of their scheme was abandoned. They captured 1,200 small arms, 3,000 bushels of grain, 279 prisoners, thirty-two negroes and forty-eight horses and mules. Kirk also got forty recruits for his regiment, and then, after destroying the locomotive he found there, three cars, the depot and commissary buildings, he started to return.

R. C. Pearson shot Hack Norton, of Madison County, one of Kirk’s men, at Hunting Creek, but Kirk got over the Catawba River and camped that night. The next day they crossed John’s River and Brown’s Mountain, where they were fired into by pursuing Confederates at 3 :30 pm. Kirk put some of his Camp Vance prisoners in front, and one of them, B. A. Bowles, a drummer, was killed and a seventeen year old boy wounded. Colonel Kirk was himself wounded here with several others of his command. This was at Israel Beck’s farm.

They camped that night at top of the Winding Stairs Road, where they were attacked next morning. Col. W. W. Avery and Phillip Chandler were mortally wounded, Col. Calvin Houck was shot through the wrist and Powell Benfield through the thigh. The attacking party then retreated and Kirk continued his retreat, passing by Col. J. B. Palmer’s home and burning it that morning. Kirk and all his men escaped without further mishap.

On July 21, 1864, General Stoneman, wiring from Atlanta, thanked and complimented Kirk, but instructed General Scofield at Knoxville not to allow him to undertake another such hazardous expedition. Joseph V. Franklin, now living at Drexel, N. C., was the guide. A man named Beech, who had been wounded, was left at John Franklin’s, near Old Fields of Toe, where he was attended by Eleazer Pyatt. At Henry Barringer’s, on Jonas’s Ridge, some of Kirk’s men threw off some of the plunder they had captured, lest its weight should retard their retreat.

In his “Reminiscences of Caldwell County” (p. 51), G. W. F. Harper gives an account of an attack upon Kirk’s retreating men by ten men, including himself, at Moore’s Cross Roads, where they captured one prisoner, two mules and some arms. No mention of this is made in the official report. (See Rebellion Records, Series i, Vol. XXXIX, Part I, p. 232.) Harper also states that the detachment which attacked Kirk at the head of the Winding Stairs was under command of Col. Allen Brown, from the garrison at Salisbury, with militia and volunteers from Burke County, and was well armed. The pursuing party was composed of about 1,200 men.

Death of William Coffey

Kirk’s raid in 1864 emboldened the Unionists in Watauga County, and Blalock went about in Federal uniform, fully armed. Between August, 1864, and February, 1865, the people of this section were harassed beyond measure, for not only had the deserters and outliers to be fed by submitting to their thefts and robberies, but a body of men calling themselves Vaughan’s Cavalry, and claiming to be Confederates, came from Tennessee to Boone on their way to Newton for the purpose of recruiting their horses, it was alleged, but to keep out of danger also, most probably. These men were worse than Kirk’s or Stoneman’s men, according to old people still living, stealing horses and mules and everything else they fancied. What they did not like they destroyed, throwing out of doors many of the household goods of the defenceless women and children. Col. W. L. Bryan and J. W. Councill followed them to Newton and recovered two horses they had stolen from the latter in 1865.

In these circumstances, there is no wonder that Blalock hunted out his enemies. Reuben Coffey was first sought, but he was not at home when Keith called. He and his aids then went to William Coffey’s field, forced him to go half a mile with them to James Gragg’s mill, and to sit astride a rude bench, where he was shot, Blalock turning over that act to a man named Perkins, because of the fact that William Coffey was the brother of Austin Coffey, Keith’s step-father.

In 1864 Keith also had what he called a “battle” with Jesse Moore in Carroll Moore’s orchard, in which Jesse was wounded in the heel and Keith had an eye shot out. Pat, a son of Daniel Moore, had a thigh broken in same fight. This was in the Globe, in CaIdwell, however.

The Murder of Austin Coffey

These activities soon brought some of Colonel Avery’s battalion on the scene, and a party of Captain James Marlow’s company went to McCaleb Coffey’s house in the Coffey Gap. There they found Austin Coffey, who was recognized by John B. Boyd, and arrested. Boyd left his prisoner with Marlow’s men and went on home in the Globe. That was Sunday, February 26, 1865. Nothing was seen of Austin Coffey after that till his body was discovered a week later in the woods by searchers sent out by his widow.

All sorts of stories have been circulated as to what really happened to Austin, and it was only recently that what is probably the true account was obtained from J. Filmore Coffey, of Foscoe. This gentleman is a son of Austin Coffey, having been born in 1858. When he became a man and had married he stopped one night in 1882 at the house of a man named John Walker, near Shelby. When Walker learned Coffey’s name and that he was the youngest son of Austin Coffey, Walker told him that he, Walker, had been a member of Marlow’s company when Austin was turned over to them; that they had taken him to a vacant house about half way between ’shull’s Mills and Blowing Rock, known then as the Tom Henley place, where Nelson Coffey now lives, one-half mile west of the Blowing Rock Road. There a fire was kindled and Coffey went to sleep on the floor before it. While he was sleeping this John Walker was detailed to kill Austin Coffey, but refused. It was then that a base-born fellow, named Robert Glass, or Anders, volunteered to do the act, and while the old man slept shot him through the head. The body was taken to a laurel and ivy thicket near by and hidden. One week later a dog was seen with a human hand in his mouth. Search revealed the body. Glass, after suffering much mental torture, died long before 1882 in Rutherford County. J. F. Coffey acquits both John Boyd and Major A. C. Avery of all complicity in his father’s death.

Other Activities

About this time Levi Coffey, a son of Elisha, threw in his fortunes with Blalock and his companions, and when Benjamin Green and his men tried to arrest Levi at Mrs. Fox’s house, above what is now Foscoe, the latter ran out of the house and was shot in the shoulder, but he escaped. This was during the autumn of 1864, as well as can now be determined. This caused the bushwhackers, as Blalock and his followers were called, when they were not called robbers outright, to turn against the Greens, and finding that Lott Green, a son of Amos, was at his home near Blowing Rock, they went there at night to arrest or kill him. Lott was expecting a physician to visit him that night, and when someone knocked at his door, he, thinking that the doctor had arrived, unsuspectingly opened it. Finding who his visitors really were, he drew back, slamming the door to. It just so happened that there were at that time in the house with Lott his brother, Joseph; his brother-in-law, Henry Henley, the latter of the Home Guard, and L. L. Green, afterwards a judge of the Superior Court, then but seventeen years old, but also a member of the Home Guard.

The bush-whackers are said to have been Keith Blalock, Levi Coffey, Sampson Calloway, son of Larkin, Edmund Ivy, of Georgia, a deserter from the Confederate army, Adolphus Pritchard, and Gardner, of Mitchell. Blalock demanded that all in the house surrender, whereupon Henly asked what treatment would be accorded them in case they surrendered, and Blalock is said to have answered: “As you deserve, damn you.” Henley then slipped his gun through a crack of the door and fired, wounding Calloway in the side. The bushwhackers then retired, and the Green party, who followed, saw blood. Calloway was left at the house of John Walker, two miles above Shull’s Mills. Henly led the party at Green’s house, excepting L. L. Green, to Walker’s, and surrounded it. Henly was at the rear and shot Edmund Ivy as he ran out, killing him. Blalock called to a woman to open the gate, and Mrs. Medie Walker, born McHaarg, did so. Through this gate Blalock and his company escaped.

A little later on, February 26, 1865, Captain James Marlow’s infantry, expecting to unite with a detachment of cavalry under Nelson Miller at Valle Crucis, went to Austin Coffey’s house and arrested Thomas Wright and Austin, Alex. Johnson, who claimed to be a recruiting officer for Kirk, having just left and gone to McCaleb Coffey’s house. The infantry followed, taking Wright with them, but Wright’s wife and Blalock’s mother, then Mrs. Austin Coffey, went a nigh-way and gave warning to the inmates of McCaleb’s house before the infantry arrived by calling out in a loud voice that the “rebels” were coming. Thereupon, Johnson dashed out of the door, and although fired on, escaped unhurt. Most of the infantry followed Johnson, but John Boyd, in charge of four or five men, entered the house, where they found Sampson Calloway, he having been removed from the Walker house which Henly had attacked. Calloway got into bed and was not arrested, but Austin Coffey was arrested, as before related. All now agree that Austin Coffey did not deserve his fate: that he was a big-hearted man, who had fed Confederates as well as Union men at his house. He was a Union man, but not active in arresting Southern sympathizers, and had tried to prevent the raids on Lott Green’s and Carroll Moores’ houses.

Two Michiganders Escape

Reuben Coffey, sick of living in a turmoil with his neighbors, had left the Globe and moved to a house on Meat Camp, but needing some household articles he had left at his Globe home, returned during this winter, accompanied by his daughter, Millie, who was riding a white horse. The robbers had taken all of McCaleb Coffey’s horses, and when the white horse appeared McCaleb threw a “grise” of corn over his back to be taken to Elisha Coffey’s mill by Miss Millie. On their way down the mountain Reuben and his daughter met two men, who said they were from Michigan and had escaped from prison. They were not in uniform, neither were they armed. Reuben had a gun and arrested them, after which he took them by McCaleb Coffey’s house to David Miller’s, one mile away, hoping to get Miller to go with him and them to Camp Mast on Cove Creek, but Miller excused himself, and Reuben went on alone with his prisoners. When they got to the intersection of the turnpike with the old Morganton Road, about two miles above Shull’s Mills, one of the prisoners called Reuben’s attention to some rude benches standing on one side of the road, and when he looked in the direction indicated the other seized his gun, while his companion struck Reuben a blow on the back of his head with a heavy stick. In the ensuing scuffle the two overcame Reuben and took his gun away from him. At that moment, after having tried to shoot him and failing only because the cap snapped, they heard Wilson Beech, a boy, returning at a gallop from the mill, when they ran off and escaped. This boy, now an elderly man, remembers that he was working in the field at McCaleb Coffey’s, with Polly Hawkins as a helper, when they saw James C. Coffey coming down the road on foot. He said, “Hurrah! the war is over.” This, however, was in April, 1865.

The Sins of the Children

Leading up to the surrender of this camp are several more distressing circumstances. Levi Guy, who lived on Watauga River near its falls and its passage into Tennessee, was an old man during the Civil War. His three sons, Canada, Enoch and David, were active Union men. Their enemies called them robbers. There were near the head of North Fork of New River several men of the name of Potter and others named Stout. Thomas Stout, another old man, had three sons, Abram, Daniel and John, who, with the Potters and Guys, were charged with many depredations throughout this region. One night in 1863 a band of men, among whom were supposed to have been the three Guy “boys,” as they were called, went to the home of Paul Farthing on Beaver Dams, where Lewis Farthing now lives, and after demanding his surrender, fired into the log walls of his residence. It had been agreed by the people of this neighborhood that, in case any house should be attacked, horns or trumpets should be blown, so that all who heard the signal might hasten to the assistance of those in trouble. This alarm was sounded from the upper story of Paul Farthing’s house by his women folk, while he fired at the at-tacking party from the rooms below. Several neighbors heard the alarm and started to the rescue. Among these was Thomas Farthing, and he was shot dead as he approached the house, the robbers taking flight immediately thereafter. Some time later Levi Guy was captured by some of the Confederate Home Guard and hanged, although he protested that he had done nothing more than shelter his own sons when they came to his house for food and beds. Paul Farthing was falsely charged with having been concerned in this deed.

While Isaac Wilson, son of Hiram, was ploughing in his field at the head of the North Fork of Cove Creek, bushwhackers, among whom are supposed to have been Potters and Stouts, slipped up on him and shot him dead. Soon thereafter Canada Guy and a boy named Jacob May, a son of Jeff May, of Roan Creek, Tenn., were captured by Daniel Sheppard and some of Captain Price’s men of Ashe County, near Sutherland, and hanged, though it is said that May was innocent and was exonerated from all complicity by Guy before he was killed. It is said that Sheppard was afterwards captured and hanged on a dogwood in Johnson County, Tenn., but that the rope broke. Jeff May, his captor, then took the halter from Sheppard’s horse and strangled Sheppard to death with it.

After this it is claimed that Paul Farthing’s house was again attacked at night, but that he returned the fire and wounded or killed one of the assailants, as blood was seen on the road leading away from the dwelling. Then, sometime afterwards – dates are lacking all through this period – Old Man Thomas Stout, father of the Stout boy or boys charged with having been concerned in the killing of Isaac Wilson, was captured by Confederate Home Guards in the spring of 1864 and taken to Hiram Wilson’s on Cove Creek, where he was kept all night. Big Isaac Wilson, a cousin of “Little” Isaac, the slain man; Jay or Jehu Howington and Gilbert Norris are said to have started with Stout next day for Camp Vance, below Morganton, and after having been told to go “the nigh-way.” Thomas Stout was never seen alive again.

Two months later James H. Presnell was cow-hunting on Rich Mountain and found a shoe. He reported this to his brother, Col. W. W. Presnell, when he got back to their home on Brushy Fork. The next day the two brothers went back to the place at which the shoe had been found, and within fifty paces they found what remained of the body of Thomas Stout, including his gray hair. It had been placed in the cavity formed by the blowing down of an oak tree; logs had then been placed beside the body and the whole covered with brush and leaves. Not far off, dangling from a leaning white oak, was the hickory thong by which he had been hanged, with the noose still in a circular form, though it had been cut in two when the body was removed. Colonel Presnell reported these facts to Abram Lewis, an officer at Camp Mast, and soon afterwards Thomas Stout’s widow had the remains removed and buried near her home.’ Thus was the Bible promise reversed, that the sins of the fathers should be visited upon the children; but, alas, the sins of the children are much oftener visited upon their fathers!


The History of Watauga County North Carolina with sketches of prominent families, John Preston Arthur, Copyright 1915.