Total Pageviews

Friday, October 28, 2011

Wilkes and the Wars: The Civil War (1861-1865)

Oh, the horrors of war!
Only one generation, 78 years, separated the Revolutionary War and the Civil War.  The war began when Fort Sumter in South Carolina was attacked by the Confederate Army and President Lincoln called for a volunteer army to recapture this site.  Since I am also descended from the Land family through my 2nd great grandmother, Nancy Land, wife of Alexander Balus West, I find it most interesting that Anne Sumter (1735-1790), sister of the Revolutionary War General Thomas Sumter, was my 5th great grandmother.  Anne Sumter was married to Thomas Land (1734-1832).  Fort Sumter was named for her brother, a founding father of South Carolina who was often called “the Fighting Gamecock of South Carolina.”
What was the attitude of the residents of Wilkes County toward secession?  According to Bass, Earp, and Pea in Images of America, Wilkes County, even though over 1000 men from Wilkes County fought in the Civil War, the county overwhelmingly opposed secession.  Bass, Earp, and Peña indicated that most of these soldiers did not own slaves but fought for their honor, for their families, or because they were required to fight.[i]  Peña, in her collaboration with Laurie B. Hayes in Wilkes County, A Brief History, indicated that Wilkes Countians were independent thinkers.  Before the Revolutionary War, many residents felt underrepresented and distrustful of government; they believed that the Federal government favored the eastern counties and did not serve their needs.  By 1861 the tenants of freedom and independence offered under the idea of states’ rights were appealing to those supporting secession.  On the other hand, other residents wished to preserve the Union.[ii]
After the attack on Fort Sumter, bloody battles ensued mostly throughout the South in the Confederate states.  North Carolina was not among the first group of states to secede from the Union.  Delegates at the first secession convention narrowly defeated the motion to secede.  Soon after April 15 the second secession convention in North Carolina voted to secede from the Union. Therefore, on May 20, 1861, North Carolina seceded from the Union.
By the end of the war 620,000 men were killed.  This number represented 10% of all Northern men between the ages of 20 and 45 and 30% of all Southern men between the ages of 18 and 40.[iii]  Recent preliminary research indicates that of these casualties approximately 33,000 to 35,000 men fighting in North Carolina regiments, some of whom were from other states, were killed in the war while fighting for the Confederacy.[iv]  Also, we must be mindful that the war often pitted North Carolinians against North Carolinians.  Hence, about 8,000 (3,156 white, 5,035 black) North Carolinians fought for the Union.[v] 
With the use of railroads, telegraph, steamships, and mass-produced weapons, the Civil War is often referred to as the first industrial war.  For the first time, the war saw the use of trench warfare around Petersburg, Virginia, and the strategy of total warfare such as that carried out by Sherman as he marched through Georgia.  These same strategies and resources were employed in World War I in Europe.
Back in Wilkes, the county’s most notable Civil War leader was James B. Gordon.  Brigadier General Gordon was born at Oakland, east of the Reddies River on the Yadkin River.  He received his early education in Wilkes in the common schools and academies and his graduate degree from Emory and Henry College.  He was involved not only in the mercantile business but also was very active in local politics. In 1850 he was elected to the General Assembly.  Being one of the first to join the Confederate Army, he served in many battles throughout the war.  During the retreat from Petersburg to Appomattox, the Confederates found that the bridge at Sailor’s Creek had been burned.  Gordon’s Regiment held the enemy at bay while the Confederate Army continued its retreat.  Again, at Hagerstown he held back Union forces saving the Confederate trains.  He received a mortal wound on May 12, 1864, and died six days later.  A historical marker on US421 in North Wilkesboro pays tribute to him and his service to North Carolina.
What about those other brave men from Wilkes County who volunteered in the Confederate Army?  In April of 1862 the 53rd Regiment of the North Carolina Infantry was organized at Camp Mangum near Raleigh.  Men often enlisted in a company that was recruited in the counties where they lived.  Frequently, companies were combined due to the numbers wounded or killed.  Company K, known as “Wilkes Rangers,” was made up of many volunteers from Wilkes County. 
In November of 1864, the 53rd Regiment had approximately 900 men.  However, by March 1865 fewer than half of those remained.  By April 26, 1865, the 250 remaining men surrendered.  What an enormous loss! 
Alexander Balus West, my 2rd great grandfather, and Thomas Charles “Tommy” Land, my 2nd great grand uncle were two of the men in this 53rd Regiment from Wilkes County.   Alexander Balus served as a private and later a corporal, while Thomas Land was a lieutenant and later a lieutenant colonel.  Alexander Balus West reportedly served under his brother-in-law.  Last, but not least, was my 2nd great grand uncle, Franklin West, the brother of Alexander Balus West.  Franklin was too old to join the regular troops but served on the home front as a private in Captain Adolph Russau’s Company K, 5 North Carolina Senior Reserves (Confederate).  He enlisted on July 7, [1864?] and was discharged during January-February 1865.[vi]
Alexander Balus West enlisted in K Company of the 53rd North Carolina Infantry on April 30, 1862.  On August 1, 1862, he was promoted to the rank of corporal.  For an unknown illness, he was in the hospital at Wilson during the muster roll taken for July-August 1862, returning to duty for the roll taken in September-October 1862.  He was wounded in the foot during the Battle of Gettysburg on July 3, 1863, and was hospitalized either in the Wayside Hospital or the General Hospital No. 9 in Richmond.  These two different names may represent the same site.  He returned to duty for the September-October 1863 muster roll and was present and accounted for through August of 1864.  On September 19, 1864, he was killed in action at Winchester, Virginia.  Because of poor communication and inadequate record-keeping associated with the war, he was initially listed as a prisoner of war but was later confirmed as killed in action.
Also, as I mentioned in a previous blog post, I find it extremely sad that, apparently, his body was never returned to Wilkes County, and his family may not have been aware of his death for quite some time.  Recently, in my research I learned that an event such as this was a common occurrence.   Soldiers killed in action were frequently buried where they fell.  Indeed, from eye-witness descriptions many soldiers who were killed in action during the Third Battle of Winchester were buried where they fell. Throughout all of the Civil War battles, many soldiers were reported as missing in action but actually had been killed in action. A number of others who died shortly after being captured were listed as prisoners of war.  Most often, families discovered the death of their loved ones through lists published in newspapers, word of mouth, or correspondence from fellow soldiers.  Neither the Union nor the Confederate armies provided any official notification of deaths to families.  These deaths were confirmed after the war, if at all.  For decades following the war, many families continued to seek answers from the Federal government concerning the fate of their loved ones who had been prisoners of war in Union camps.[vii]
At the outbreak of the war, Thomas C. Land joined Colonel Sidney Stokes’ company as a private. He served as a corporal in Company B, 1st Regiment, North Carolina State Troops.  He was wounded in the Seven Days Battle around Richmond in June 1862.[viii]  On August 2, 1862, he was appointed 3rd lieutenant of Company K in the 53rd Infantry Regiment, North Carolina Troops.  Land was present through February, 1863.  He was hospitalized at Richmond, Virginia, with “remittent” fever and was furloughed for 30 days on or about August 3, 1863.  During this furlough he was appointed lieutenant colonel of the 53rd North Carolina Regiment.  Lt. Col. Thomas Land returned to duty for the September-October 1863 muster roll and was reported present through August 1864.  He was wounded at Winchester, Virginia, on September 19, 1864, the same day that his brother-in-law, Alexander Balus West, was killed.  He returned to duty for the roll in January-February 1865 but resigned from the army on March 11, 1865, because he was “unable to perform the duties of a soldier as a result of wounds received in action.”  His resignation was accepted on April 1, 1865.[ix]  Land is described by John Crouch as a literary person who wrote poems and wrote the ballad, “The Death of Laura Foster,” describing the infamous Tom Dula murder trial of Wilkes County.[x]  One must assume that Thomas Land must have been the one who carried the news of the death of Alexander Balus West, his brother-in-law, to the family in Wilkes County.
The battle at Winchester on September 19, 1864, was known as the Third Battle of Winchester and was also called the Battle of Opequon.  It must have been a horrific battle which began about 1 a.m. on September 19, 1864, and lasted until nightfall of that same day.   The particular leaders in this battle were Union officers Sheridan, Wright, Emory, Grovers, Brige, Dwight, Russell, Duval, Hayes, and Thoburn.  The Confederate officers were Early, Ramseur, Rhodes, Gordon, and Cullen.  The battle took place, apparently, just northeast of Winchester, in woodlots called the First Woods and the Second Woods, in a field called the Middle Field, and on the banks of a stream or marsh known as Red Bud Run.  Union General Philip Sheridan had 39,000 officers and soldiers.  Confederate General Jubal Early had a mere 14,000 men.  In spite of their numbers, the Confederates fought a hard battle but finally had to fall back to positions near Winchester.  By nightfall, the city of Winchester belonged to the Union Army.
In order to capture the horrors of the Third Battle of Winchester, which many historians consider to be the most important conflict of the Shenandoah Valley, I would like to share the following quotation from Garry Adelman’s on-line article:
The Third Battle of Winchester was the bloodiest battle ever fought in the Shenandoah Valley, producing more casualties than the entire 1862 Valley Campaign. Sheridan lost 12 percent of his army with 5,000 of 39,000 soldiers killed, wounded and missing. Early suffered fewer casualties but he lost 25 percent of his army.

The dead and wounded were everywhere. One soldier of the 12th Connecticut recalled, "the Rebel dead lay thickly in the fields beyond, and were piled upon each other in the yard of a large stone mansion [Hackwood] ... A ghastly row of gray-clad corpses lay along a wall, behind which some Rebel brigade had evidently found shelter; and the fields and hillsides as far as Winchester were dotted with the fallen.

The dead were buried where they fell. Many were later moved to the nearby Winchester National Cemetery or the Stonewall Cemetery. Some 8,000 Union and Confederate soldiers from the many battles around Winchester rest in these cemeteries today. The wounded were treated in a variety of field hospitals until better facilities were established. Captain Ira B. Gardner of the 14th Maine, wounded in the arm in the Second Woods, walked back across the Middle Field to a field hospital on Red Bud Run. He soon joined some 300 wounded men at the nearby home of Charles L. Wood where his arm was amputated near the shoulder, wrapped in cloth, placed in a box, and buried in the yard. Thirty years later Gardner returned and was told that Mr. Wood had unearthed his arm and reburied it in the Winchester National Cemetery.[xi]

While such events as the Third Battle of Winchester and many others were occurring throughout the South, how did the war transpire in western North Carolina?  Probably the most horrible campaign seen in Wilkes was that of Union Major General George Stoneman in what is known as “Stoneman’s Raid.”  Stoneman, who was commander of part of the Union army called the “District of East Tennessee,” marched his cavalry throughout western North Carolina.  This raid, which coincided with Sherman’s march through Georgia, continued from late March until May 1865 and is known as one of the longest cavalry raids in history.   Stoneman’s objective was to destroy, not to fight battles, in an effort to bring about an immediate close to the war.  He divided his 5,000 cavalrymen into detachments that marched over 1,000 miles throughout western North Carolina destroying factories, bridges, and railroads.  They secured their food and supplies by pillaging from local residents.
What happened specifically in Wilkes County?  Guerrilla warfare was rampant in the mountains.  During the latter stages of the war, the mountain settlers experienced Union attacks and occupation, the most famous of which was the campaign by Stoneman in which his detachments surrounded much of western Wilkes County.  On March 28, 1865, Stoneman’s army entered North Carolina at Boone on its way to Wilkesboro.  He divided his cavalrymen into two groups.  Maps illustrating the encirclement of much of the area on both sides of the Yadkin River also appear to include those areas of the Stony Creek and Mount Zion communities where the West and Land families lived.  Gillem’s troops moved northeastward paralleling the Yadkin River. He passed through Deep Gap on March 29 and reached Wilkesboro that same day. Their route followed what is presently Highway 268.   As they tried to cross the swollen Yadkin River at Holman’s Ford on March 29, they lost some artillery and ammunition.   The other detachment under Stoneman was taking the southern route on its way to Wilkesboro.  This group left Boone on March 28 following a southeastern route through Blowing Rock and reaching the Yadkin River on March 28.  From there they moved southward to Patterson’s Factory.  At some point along their route, which most likely was at Patterson’s Factory, they found Cub Creek too high to ford.  Therefore, Stonemen and his 25,000 men camped on the upper side of the creek for several days.  They spent this time plundering and burning the surrounding area.  Additionally, they found several moonshine stills, became drunk, and “rode roughshod over the town of Wilkesboro.”[xii]  Stoneman was angered by the actions of his men but was unable to stop them.  He and his men left the area and marched toward Virginia, their ultimate destination.  On this route toward Virginia, they marched through Ferguson and rendezvoused with Gillem at Wilkesboro on March 29.  As they continued their trek, Stoneman’s troops reached Elkin on April 1 and Dobson and Mount Airy on April 2; they entered Virginia on April 3, 1865 ending their rampage in western North Carolina.[xiii] 
Another devastating incident was that conducted by a band of deserters from Stoneman’s forces and some other deserters and robbers.  This event is referred to as “Fort Hamby.”  Fort Hamby was located on the north side of the Yadkin River near the mouth of Lewis Fork and about eight miles west of Wilkesboro.  Originally, Fort Hamby was a log house whose first occupants had been a group of “questionable” women.  The house served as a hide-away and staging point for approximately 18 to 30 deserters who wreaked havoc on residents in Wilkes, Watauga, Caldwell, and Alexander counties.  The renegades were led by a Union deserter named Wade.  Because a system of law and order after the war was lacking, these raids continued until a group of residents “took matters into their own hands.”  After the failure of their first attempt to end the lawlessness of the deserters, residents of the counties that had been ravaged and plundered by these renegades banded together, surrounded, and attacked “the fort” early one morning and set the kitchen on fire.  The fort was burned to the ground, and four captured deserters were court martialed and shot on site “at the stake.”  Wade escaped retreating to the river.  Later, however, he returned to the site where he found four of his followers dead at the stake.  He left and was never found.  A historical marker describing this episode in Wilkes County is located close to the Wilkes Heritage Museum in Wilkesboro, North Carolina.  Today, the actual site of Fort Hamby is under water, but the approximate location serves as a compound named Fort Hamby which is operated by the US Army Corps of Engineers for the W. Kerr Scott Dam and Reservoir and is also the home of the Forest Edge Amphitheater. 
Apparently, the mountains and foothills of western North Carolina were havens for many groups of robbers and Union deserters.  Men of such persuasion were labeled “bushwhackers.”  Since most able-bodied men were serving in their respective armies, women, children, and property were at the mercies of these bushwhackers. The home guards, composed of men who were too old to fight with the regular troops, were of little protection.  The thought of being a mother with small children alone on an isolated mountain farm during these tumultuous times is terrifying.  What strong women they must have been.
Nancy Land West, my 2nd great grandmother, must have been one of those strong women with a strength and determination that I see in many female West-Land descendants today.  Somehow, she endured the guerrilla warfare that was rampant in the mountains.  Even though, she apparently lived in close proximity and had the support of her Land and West families, she was surely quite fearful for herself and her young son. By the time Stoneman and his deserters were ravaging Wilkes County, Nancy West, along with her young son, my great grandfather, Thomas Harvey West, were mourning the death of her husband and his father.  Alexander Balus West was killed in the Third Battle of Winchester about six months earlier.  Also, Nancy Land West must have experienced concern about the injuries that her brother, Thomas C. Land, had sustained in that same battle.  If only she could tell her story!
As I read such horrifying accounts of the guerrilla warfare, the Third Battle of Winchester, Stoneman’s Raid, the deserters of Fort Hamby, and the other “bushwhackers” who combed the mountains of Wilkes County, I can’t help but think of the aching hearts and the fears of those left behind on the home front.  Unless one has had loved ones in a war, one cannot fully understand the fears and sadness these people encountered.  Likewise, those of us who have never experienced a war on our “home front” cannot comprehend what it must have been like.

[i] Bass, Misty, Christy Earp, and Jennifer L. Pea. Images of America, Wilkes County. Charleston, South Carolina: Arcadia Publishing, 2007, p. 106.
[ii] Peña, Jennifer L. and Laurie B. Hayes. Wilkes County, A Brief History.  Charleston, South Carolina: The History Press, 2008, pp. 67-77.
[iii] American Civil War, Wikipedia,
[iv] Howard, Joshua B. “North Carolina Civil War Death Study,”
[v]  “Civil War,” North Carolina’s History Project.  Raleigh, NC:  John Locke Foundation, 2011.
[vi] Franklin West. NC 5 Senior Reserves. pp. 1-3,
[vii] Howard, Joshua B. “North Carolina Civil War Death Study,”
[viii] Crouch, John.  “Historical Sketches of Wilkes County, 1902,” New River Notes,
[ix] Jordan, Weymouth T., Jr. North Carolina Troops, 1861-1865, A Roster, Vol. XIII Infantry, 53rd-56th Regiments.  Raleigh, North Carolina: Division of Archives and History, 1993. p.161.
[x] Crouch, John.  “Historical Sketches of Wilkes County, 1902,” New River Notes,
[xi] Adelman, Garry. “The Third Battle of Winchester,” American’s Civil War Battlefields, Civil War Trust,
[xii] Explore Wilkes, Wilkes County Heritage, Civil War,


  1. I am wondering about your writing of "Men often enlisted in a company that was recruited in the counties where they lived." Does this mean that men from Wilkes were recruited there and enlisted at the Companies destination? My three gr gr uncles (Alfred, Owen & Benjamin Absher, enlisted near Petersburg, VA, they were in the 52nd Regiment, North Carolina Infantry,Company F; only Benjamin returned home. That would explain why they traveled so far to enlist? Any help you could give me to better understand, will be greatly appreciated.

  2. Hello Anonymous, I apologize for not replying earlier to your comment. I had to do some research regarding your inquiry. From what I have learned, it appears that regiments for the Civil War were raised in various ways. Often men of the community who had been active in the local militia would recruit others for service in the Civil War by circulating enlistment papers requesting their participation. If communities were too small to secure enough men to form a regiment, the men would register in a neighboring community. Many men registered at their state capitals. Sometimes, a large group of men would go together to a enlistment location and enlist together. I hope this will be helpful to you. There doesn't appear to be a lot of information available as to how the men were recruited and where they enlisted. Perhaps, other readers of my blog may be able to contribute additional information. Thanks for your readership, your interest, and your questions.


Thank you for your interest in my blog and for your comment. I have the option of allowing your comments to become public. I will not publish comments with home addresses, phone numbers, or email addresses unless the responder gives permission. I receive notification when someone adds a comment. However, I cannot reply directly to these comments. In order to see my reply, you will need to check the post again.

You may click on photos to enlarge them.