The Battle of Waynesville
Thomas’ Legion and the
Battle of Waynesville
Reunion of Thomas' Legion
“I say surrender, but a better word would be quit,
for I don’t think we really ever did surrender.
In fact, we just disbanded and carried our guns and cartridges homes with us."
By the spring of 1865, the South was in a prostrate position. Very little remained of the once proud nation. The overwhelming superiority of the Northern invaders had reduced the Southern defenders to a mere handful of starved, ragged volunteers.
General William T. Sherman and his huge army of Bummers had devastated Georgia and South Carolina. During his infamous raid across the State of Georgia, no person since, until Adolph Hitler in the 1940’s, has equaled the atrocities he committed against the civilian population of that state. For these actions, he has since that time been hailed as a national hero to the Northern population and is described as such in most northern history books.
General Lee had succumbed to General Grant on April 9th and General Johnston had surrendered to General Sherman on April 18th. To the rest of the South, the war was over, but not so in Western North Carolina. The word of these surrenders had not reached into this mountainous area. The Yankees in East Tennessee, knowing that the hostilities had ended, continued to push the war in this section.
One of the most unique units to serve the Confederate States of America during the War of the Rebellion was the Thomas’ Legion. This unit raised by William Holland Thomas was composed of mountain Whites from Western North Carolina and East Tennessee, and Cherokee Indians from the Qualla Boundary.
During the greater part of the war, the Whites of Thomas’ Legion had served in various elements of the Army of Northern Virginia, while the Indian companies had served mostly in East Tennessee and Southwestern Virginia.
By the opening of 1865, what remained of the Legion’s volunteers had reunited for the protection of Western North Carolina. General James G. Martin had been placed in command of the Western District with his headquarters in Asheville.
In the early part of February, Federal Colonel George Kirk with 400 cavalry and 200 infantry had left Newport, Tennessee and crossed the northern end of the Smokies at Sterling Gap.
Passing through the mountains he found only one company of Confederate Home Guards under Captain Robert Howell in his path. Howell attempted to delay Kirk but the superiority of the Yankees forced him to retire to Bethel. Kirk released his anger on the settlement of Waynesville on the 4th of February. This raider chieftain ordered the home of Revolutionary War hero Colonel Robert L. Love burned. He opened the Waynesville jail, turned its prisoners loose and destroyed the building.
After raping the village, Kirk moved southwest and took the Balsam Gap road, intending to cross the mountains there and camp for the night. In the darkness about 100 Haywood County Troops augmented by some farmers crept up on the far side of them and fired a volley into their midst. Kirk’s troops replied with some effect and the Confederates fell back.
The angry Southerners did cause Kirk to change his route of escape. Instead of crossing through Balsam Gap, he marched back to Waynesville and then hurried on to Soco Gap.
As he neared the gap, Lt. Robert Conley’s sharpshooters of Thomas’ Legion rose from their hiding places along the lane. They ambushed the Federals so effectively that the surprised Kirk ordered his exhausted troops to retire immediately.
Kirk was finally able to cross Balsam Gap on the 6th of February. He rode to Webster and then turned north, following the Tuskaseegee River, and headed in the direction of Quallatown. As he neared the town of Wilmot and attempted to ford Soco Creek, he encountered Major Stringfield and his Indian troops entrenched near an old Indian church.
Here the Legion fought Kirk with considerable determination, killing a few Federals, wounding several and capturing some horses. The Indians behaved with great coolness and fought well.
This little band of brave soldiers however were soon overpowered and, with the exception of an occasional shot from the Indians, Colonel Kirk passed on without being further molested.
The skirmish lasted for more than an hour, until Major Stringfield was forced to fall back to the creek and cross to Quallatown. But the Indians were still spoiling for a fight; the battle had taken place on sacred Indian ground where the Great Chief Tucumseh had held a Council of War in 1812. Despite the Indians eagerness Kirk got away and crossed the mountains through Indian Gap.
Throughout the South, Asheville was regarded as a secure haven. Wounded officers came here to convalesce. Here elements of Jeb Stuart’s Cavalry revived their gay spirits, played banjos, and rested their jaded horses. Here Lieutenant General Leonidas Polk sent his wife for safety after he dropped the Bishop’s frock and put on the gray uniform to campaign with the Army of Tennessee until he was shot down in front of Kennesaw Mountain in Georgia.
But now, during the waning hours of the war, Asheville was under a direct threat. Yankee Colonel Isaac M. Kirby, reached the outskirts of Asheville on April 6. Guns had been placed on the heights overlooking the French Broad River at a site that still bears the name of Battery Park. Another hastily gathered Confederate force met the Federals near the present site of Asheville-Biltmore College and drove them back.
There were now four separate units of Thomas’ Legion operating in Western North Carolina. Major Stringfield commanded most of the five companies of Walker's Battalion, while Matt Love headed up a detachment of White men from the Indian Companies. There were Colonel Love’s companies and the Cherokees, who had no overall commander except Colonel Thomas. Colonel Love’s health had given way under the rigors of the Virginia campaigns and he was forced to go home to Jackson County to recover. Colonel B. G. McDowell of the 62nd North Carolina was temporarily put in charge of Love’s Regiment.
On April 26, General Simon B. Brown and his Federal Brigade surrounded Asheville, demanding its surrender. Under the circumstances General Martin had no choice but to comply. Thus Brown captured about 30 officers, chiefly from Love’s Regiment. The officers were ordered to report to General Stoneman in Knoxville while the men were paroled.
General Brown’s troops treated the citizens shabbily and there were many reports of cruelty. Women were searched in the middle of the street, houses were broken into, and everything of value taken.
On the morning of April 28th, General Brown left Asheville with his plunder and troops. In the afternoon Federal Brevet Brigadier General William J. Palmer, learned of Brown’s raid. He immediately wrote to General Martin and released all officers and men from their parole.
General Martin evacuated Asheville on Saturday, April 29th, and moved his headquarters to Waynesville. Asheville had been sacked, Kirk was everywhere, pillaging and destroying as he moved. General Martin was still able to take comfort in the knowledge that Colonels Thomas and Love were willing to fight to the bitter end.
While Martin and Love discussed their options, the Federals returned and occupied Asheville.
The Union troops under the command of General Davis Tillson were ordered by General Stoneman to assemble his division at Greeneville, Tennessee. Instructions were issued to send the 2nd North Carolina under Colonel William C. Bartlett, into the mountains west of Asheville, and the 3rd North Carolina under Colonel George Kirk, into the mountains south of Asheville. Their purpose was to clear the area of all Rebels.
While the Federals busied themselves with stealing horses and harassing the public, General Martin sent for Colonel Thomas and his Indian Battalion, who were at Quallatown. Thomas was ordered to link up with Love at Balsam Gap, which he did about May 3rd. Martin then directed Love to entrench his troops, numbering about 200, at the gap.
On May 5th, Lieutenant Conley was ordered to march with Colonel Thomas to Soco Gap and fortify it. In all Martin had about 500 soldiers, five companies at Balsam Gap and five at Soco Gap, to defend the Balsam Mountains.
Stringfield, now sporting his second star, which signified his promotion to Lt. Colonel, had been sent written orders by General Martin to carry to General Stoneman at Knoxville. Rumors of the surrender of Generals Lee and Johnston had to be confirmed. If the war was over Martin wanted to know so he detailed Stringfield to find out.
General Stoneman told Stringfield that he and his men would have to take the Oath of Allegiance to the United States. The war was over and flags of truce need not be observed. Upon his refusal to the take the oath, Stringfield and his small band were thrown in jail.
Early on May 6th, General Martin rode into Franklin to see if there was any news of Stringfield. He had been gone eight days, and should have returned by then. Martin did not know, nor did he learn until after the war, that Stringfleld was in prison.
In the dark as to whether the war was over, Martin headed back to his lines in the Balsams.
On the afternoon of May 6th, he reached the home of John B. Love, Colonel James R. Love’s father, and was having dinner when the front door burst open. In rushed Colonel Love, flushed with exciting news; Bartlett’s troops had finally made their move on Waynesville, and a sharp engagement had occurred that very day. Lt. Conley, enroute from Soco Gap to Balsam, had ran into the Federals while they camped at Sulphur Springs. A sharp engagement had ensued and one Federal was killed.
Martin and Love quickly mounted their horses and raced to Love’s headquarters at Balsam Gap.
About May 5th, Yankee General Tillson had ordered Colonels Bartlett and Kirk to move down to Waynesville and clear the area of Rebels. In his eagerness Kirk marched too far and separated himself from Bartlett.
When the battle and subsequent actions took place Kirk was on a ruinous raid in Henderson County, and was unable to lend any support to Bartlett.
On the morning of May 6th, Bartlett and his 2nd Regiment marched unopposed into Waynesville. He set up his headquarters in the Battle House on Main Street (the town’s only hotel) and stationed his troops on the old Love estate near the White Sulphur Springs.
When Colonel Thomas discovered Bartlett’s advance, he moved the Indian Battalion and Conley’s sharpshooters from Soco Gap to Tito (now known as Dellwood).
Thomas ordered Pvt. John S. Rice to change into civilian clothes and to spy on Bartlett. Part of Rice’s mission was to supply the enemy with exaggerated reports of Thomas’s number. Meanwhile Thomas decided to bring up Love’s Regiment from Balsam Gap toward Waynesville, hoping to trap the Federals in town.
Meanwhile Love moved his companies around Waynesville and hooked up with the Cherokee’s right. Thomas ordered hundreds of fires built on the slopes of the mountains so that from the town, it appeared as though thousands of Confederates were assembling. The bonfires and hideous yells from the Rebels and the Indians had the desired effect.
The following morning Colonel Bartlett sent out a flag of truce, asking for a conference. Colonel Love, with several men, and Colonel Thomas with 20 of his largest and most warlike looking Indians, stripped to the waist, painted and feathered in fine style, entered the town.
General Martin led the Confederate flag of truce on May 7, 1865, but it was Colonel Thomas who dominated the parley. Thomas told Bartlett that if he did not immediately surrender and make haste to get away from Waynesville he would turn his Indians loose on the Yankee Regiment and have them all scalped.
Moving the conference to the Battle House for further consultation, it was then that General Martin learned that the war was truly over. Upon learning of the surrender of Lee and Johnston, Martin proposed surrendering his entire district to Bartlett.
The Federals agreed to parole the officers and men, and the Confederates would be allowed to retain their arms and ammunition. In return Bartlett would leave Waynesville and Kirk would stop his plunderous raiding.
The last drum roll the Indians and Mountaineers would ever hear began on May 9, 1865, one month after Lee met Grant at Appomattox, Virginia.
This was the last shot fired east of the Mississippi during the War of the Rebellion.
In the last land battle of the war, Cherokee leader Brigadier General Stand Watie surrendered a battalion formed by the Indians in the Oklahoma Territory on June 23, 1865.
One Mountaineer quoting about the surrender said, “I say surrender, but a better word would be quit, for I don’t think we really ever did surrender. In fact, we just disbanded and carried our guns and cartridges homes with us."
Through it all, good and bad, Thomas’ Legion persevered. In the end the Mountaineers came to realize that they had been part of a strange and unique command that had served the South well. They had given the full measure of their devotion to the Confederacy and that is what they would remember most.
William W. Stringfield’s association with the Indians began where Thomas’ left off. The Cherokees liked Stringfield, not only because he helped lead them in the war, but also because he befriended them afterwards. Stringfield once said; “all the old, and many young Indians know myself and my wife. Ours is the only house around here where they can spend the night. We frequently have 8 or 10 of them.”
The Cherokees even gave Stringfield an Indian name, Cho-Ga-See. In front of the Stringfield home near the White Sulphur Spring is an undersized hill where the Indians often conferred with Stringfield. Called Indian Mound, it can still be seen today.
During a reunion of the United Confederate Veterans, General Julius S.Carr, commanding the veterans, remarked: “For the first time in history of these reunions a camp of native Cherokee Indians was in attendatice. Under the supervision of Colonel W. W. Stringfield, they were the cynosure of all eyes.”
The Cherokees were so proud of their service in Thomas’s Legion that in 1900 they organized a United Confederate Veterans Camp of their own. The camp was called Sou-Noo-Kee in honor of an old Indian who joined the Southern Service and had been killed in a skirmish at Cumberland Gap.
Following this “Great unpleasantness,” one of the soldiers lamented: “Durn Yankees--tryin’ to destroy our Southland--and nearly did. General Lee wouldn’t never have surrendered you see-but he just had to do it. They was too strong, havin’ all the army and means behind them like they had, against the ragged footsore, starvin’ soldiers we had.”
“Shucks--Grant wuzn’t half the General our good Rob Lee was. Why, if he’d had as many of our Southern men and the means, guns and ammunition to fight with as the Yankees had, General Lee woulda wooped them in six mouths, and jist look, it took them four long years to beat us. We weren’t wooped then - jist overpowered and starved out.”
The Legion’s Battle Flag is now on display at the Cherokee Museum in Cherokee, North Carolina.
Excerpts from the preceding were taken from "Storm in the Mountains,” by Vernon H. Crow, and “History of the 16th North Carolina Regiment,” by George Henry Mills.
© copyright 1994 Jim Howell
Music playing is "Dixie" sequenced by a talented
Haywood County donor who wishes to remain anonymous.
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