There are several differing accounts of the actual massacre. It says something of the times, that the murder of thirteen men by the Army was thought to need embellishment...
Within a few weeks of the event, NC Attorney General Augustus S. Merrimon was investigating the massacre. On Feb 16, 1863 he wrote to Governor Vance, that on his sweep through the valley Keith had captured fifteen men. Most were captured quietly at home or in the valley. A few tried to run and hide when they saw the troops coming but did not make it. Perhaps five of those killed had taken part in the Marshall raid. The other eight were not involved in that action, whatever their other crimes might have been. Merrimon described his information as coming from "one who got his information from one of the guilty parties."
The Memphis Bulletin carried a description of the massacre in its July 15, 1863 edition. This was a Union paper, Memphis having been in Union hands for some months. The source of the story was Colonel Robert Crawford who had learned of the massacre "from someone who had written down the information 'on the spot.'" The story was substantially reprinted in the New York Times and the New York Herald, in both papers on July 24, 1863. According to these accounts, on the morning of the killings the prisoners were roused and told to get ready to march. They had been told they were to go to Knoxville and face a military trial. They had been held over the weekend. Two had escaped during the night. The other thirteen proceeded with the soldiers several miles down the road to Knoxville. The suddenly the prisoners were stopped, at an open place, near the creek, where observers could see what happened to "bushwhackers" and "tories". There was no warning or explanation. Five of them were ordered to kneel down. Ten paces away stood a file of soldiers, thir guns ready. Then the prisoners knew what was going to happen. Sixty year old Joe Woods cried out, "For God's sake, men, you are not going to shoot us? If you are going to murder us at least give us time to pray." Someone begged Keith to remember his promise of a trial. He ignored both statements. He ordered his soldiers to fire. The prisoners put their hands over their faces and begged for mercy. The soldiers hesitated. "Fire or you will take their places" Keith told them. The soldiers raised their guns, the victims shuddered, the word to fire was given, and four of the men died instantly. A fifth had only been wounded. Writhing in agony from a wound in the stomach, he begged for mercy. One of the soldiers killed him with a shot to the head. Five more prisoners were ordered to kneel down. Among this group was David Shelton, age thirteen. He pleaded to be spared. "You have killed my father and brothers. You have shot my father in the face; do not shoot me in the face." The soldiers fired, again four died instantly, but David Shelton was wounded. He moved to an officer, pleading "You have killed my old father and my three brothers; you have shot me in both arms - I forgive you all this - I can get well. Let me go home to my mother and sisters." They dragged him back to the execution spot and shot him dead. Then the remaining three men were killed.
William W. Holden's North Carolina Standard, a Raleigh newspaper, had published a more heartrending version on March 18 and April 22, 1863. Holden was a virulent critic of the Confederacy in general and the Vance administration in particular. His newspaper office and press would be wrecked in September, by troops of Longsteets corps passing through Raleigh, going from Lee's Army to Chickamauga. The only reason they went this way, and were in Raleigh was because Burnside had captured Knoxville and the railroad that way was closed to them. Holden ran against Vance for Governor in 1864 and lost. Holden went on, of course, to be the reconstruction Governor of North Carolina and a principal in the "Kirk-Holden War" during that time, when he was allied with the very same Kirk of the 3rd NC (Union).
It is from Holden's and Ellis's versions that we have all the details of the women being hung and whipped and the other barbarities.
Also in the April 22 edition of the Standard was a letter from a mountain resident who said the victims were, in fact, "thieves and robbers", who, for at least a year, had been killing, stealing and forcing women and children "to strip off their clothes" in the dead of winter. Boys as young as ten had engaged in these outrages and were "the most active rogues in the company".
In 1869 eight widows from Shelton Laurel petitioned Congress for pensions, under a recent law that allowed unremarried widows of soldiers eight dollars a month. Only five of these womens' husbands had been killed in the Shelton Laurel Massacre, the other three having apparently lost their husbands at some other time. North Carolina Governor Holden endorsed their petition. By now we have a vivid tale of husbands "fighting for the old flag until overpowered." There were descriptions of Confederate soldiers "with orders to kill old and young, especially little boys saying that 'pigs would make hogs'" By now the youngest victim was said to have been eleven, and children were said to have been tied together with their fathers, "led out and brutally murdered." Wives and mothers were allegedly present at the scene, begging for mercy. Then the helpless women were whipped as they watched "their husbands and children dying in their sight, and their dwellings in flames." Their only bitter consolation was hearing their loved ones exclaim, "They kill us because we are loyal; we die for our country." This original petition passed the US Senate but died in committee in the House. The widows did not give up. They gathered additional supporting statements, including one from a neighbor who had been a Major of US Volunteers, who certified "that he has resided near the homes of the petitioners for many years, and knows the facts set forth to be true." Colonel David Fry gave a statement, stating that all the victims were enlisted in a company he had organized in mid-November of 1861. The company had tried to march to Federal lines, but had been unable to do so due to the proximity of Confederate troops. Therefore Fry had told the men to return home and "hold themselves in readiness to start at any time that he should notify them." Fry was certain the men had been in the Federal Army at the time they were killed. With this new evidence appearing, a North Carolina Senator reintroduced the petition to the US Senate in 1874. The Senator was the former NC Confederate Attorney General, Augustus S. Merrimon. This petition ultimately failed because, though it was accepted that the men might have enlisted in Fry's company, "so long a period intervened" between the time of their enlistment and the killings "as to raise the presumption that they had abandoned all intention of trying to make their way to the Federal Army."
Confederate military law did not have specific jurisdiction over major felonies. Military law did prohibit acts in violation of the "customs of war", and also "Illtreating or beating any citizen" was a court martial offense. Prosecution would have to be in the state courts of NC for the murders. But the perpetrators were with the army, in a command headquartered out of the state.
Vance ordered Merrimon to prepare a vigorous state prosecution, and also wrote in late February 1863 to Confederate Secretary of War James Seddon, sending supporting materials naming Keith as the officer responsible for the killings and urgently requesting that the War Department take action.
Of course the Confederate War Department was delighted to have this scandalous atrocity dumped in its lap.
By the end of February 1863 Captain A. M. Deaver of the 64th NC was relieved of duty. By mid-April three other junior officers had appeared before investigatory boards. Two had offered their resignations and the other was relieved of command. These were William and Thomas Keith and S. E. Erwin.
Vance waited over two months for word from Seddon on the progress of the military investigation. Then word came, not from Seddon but from Merrimon, who had heard that Keith was going to be allowed to resign. Vance wrote to Seddon on May 18, 1863 demanding an explanation. Seddon sent an evasive and contradictory reply, stating that Keith had been investigated for other infractions than the massacre. Apparently the Adjutant and Inspector General's Office had been unaware of the massacre at the time. He had been found guilty of unspecified offences and allowed to resign, and had departed from the Army. Seddon also informed Vance that Keith and two other witnesses had implicated department commander General Heth, in statements given concerning the massacre. Keith had not been held for civilian prosecution. The Army could not punish him for the murders.
Despite this, Vance still hoped for a state prosection, and had Merrimon organized for one. The Army ordered witnesses from the 64th NC to Marshall, where the trial would be held. The president of the military court in Knoxville sent Vance affidavits containing eyewitness statements. But Keith, though he was apparently spotted from time to time hiding in the mountains, eluded capture.
If Keith did lead a band back in to Shelton Laurel in September of 1863, and murder additional Unionists, as Ellis claims, this was extremely foolhardy. Certainly it was done without any pretence of Confederate authority, if it happened. The North Carlina authorities would have been delighted with an opportunity to apprehend him within their jurisdiction. Moreover, the Shelton Laurel Massacre had done nothing to stop Unionist activity in the mountains, and by the summer of 1863 Vance was getting a stream of letters from the mountains describing the raids and depredations of the various bands of "tories". These became bolder and more numerous after the Federal Army captured Knoxville in early September of 1863. It seems Shelton Laurel would have been an extremely dangerous place for Keith in September of 1863. By April of 1864, Kirk was operating out of Shelton Laurel.
One of the unique aspects of this whole affair is that the victims and the perpetrators, though the perpetrators were in uniform, all were neighbors. All of the victims were related to one another. The officers and six of the ten companies of the 64th NC were all from Madison County. They undoubtedly all knew each other before the war. Madison County had only a few thousand citizens in the 1860 census. The fact that 600 men were still there in 1862 to be "enlisted" in these six companies when the 64th NC was formed says something about how warm the people had been for the Confederacy. Many who went in, no doubt did so under the more or less imminent threat of being "conscripted", which was a lowly status. Many no doubt went home just as soon as they could get away. Supposedly many of the "salt rioters" were deserters from the 64th NC. It may be that those who were safely back home by their hearth, sleeping with their wives, were resented by those who were still with the 64th.
Keith was finally captured by Union troops as the war was ending. He was held in Castle Pinckney for eight months, then sent to Raleigh, and then on to Marshall.
Meanwhile the Reconstruction legislature in Raleigh passed a law in December 1866 granting "full and complete amnesty, pardon and discharge" to all officers and soldiers of both armies who in the course of duty , or under orders of a superior, had committed "any homicides, felonies or misdemeanors." Furthermore, anyone committing such acts was presumed to be acting under orders, unless the prosecution could prove the contrary. This was apparently broad enough to pardon even Keith, but he stayed in jail. Certainly Governor Holden and President Johnson, whose home was about a days ride from Shelton Laurel, were not too sympathetic to Keith.
Keith was indicted thirteen separate times, once for each victim of the massacre. He spent more than two years in jail awaiting trial. His lawyers got a change of venue from Madison to neighboring Buncombe. An Asheville jury acquitted him of one of the killings, on Dec 9, 1868. The prosecutors had him charged with another killing on the 10th, and yet another on the 11th. By the time he was in court for the second killing, his lawyers had finally discovered the 1866 amnesty act. But still there was an obstacle. The 1868 Reconstruction constitutional convention (which wrote the constitution NC still uses) included a provision that possibly wiped out the amnesty given by the act of 1866. The prosecutors agreed to consolidate their seven best cases and send the question to the North Carolina Supreme Court in Raleigh. In State v. Keith that Court ruled that, at least as far as the one indictment upon which Keith had been tried (for the murder of Roderick "Stob Rod" Shelton), he had amnesty under the 1866 act. If any question remained as to his prosecutability, they were gone after President Johnson's amnesty.
So, despite the fact that no one doubted a bit that he was responsible for the thirteen murders, there would be no further prosecution.
Meanwhile, on the night of Feb 21, 1869, a few days before he was sustained by the state supreme court, Keith took matters into his own hands and escaped from the Buncombe County jail. An order for his arrest was issued, but he wasnt found. On June 26, 1871, the state finally dropped its prosection.
Keith, who may have been a kinsman of Colonel Lawrence Allen of the 64th, may have also gone to Arkansas where Allen lived for a time after the War. Allen was never prosecuted by anyone for the massacre. He had been suspended from duty before the massacre for corruption, involving a substitute scheme, and was eventually court-martialed for other offenses and forced to resign from the Army. His troubles prevented him from being with his regiment when they were surrendered at Cumberland Gap in September 1863. He was so indiscrete as to return to Madison County in the 1890s, where he circulated copies of a self promoting pamphlet, in which he claimed to have been wounded while killing his opponent in a duel fought in Sonora Mexico in defense of southern womanhood. His opponent was a former Yankee soldier who had said that the women of the south were comparable to New York City streetwalkers. The eventual fate of Keith is unknown.
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