NORTH CAROLINA CAVALRY, CSA
By J.C. Weaver -- 1994
Related article -- N.C. 64th Infantry Regiment
Table of Contents
Service in the Mountains
Compiled Service Records
I have long been interested in the history of the people of Appalachia. As a result of this curiosity, I have tried to understand the motivations and actions of these mountaineers during the Civil War. The notion of the Civil War being a war of brother against brother has largely overblown, except in Appalachia and in some border regions of the Confederacy, such as Kentucky.
The activities of McRae's Battalion North Carolina Cavalry are also fascinating. The notion of conscripts detailed to round up other conscripts is on the face of it ludicrous, however, McRae's men performed admirably in the arduous, thankless duty.
It is hoped that this information will add some small understanding of the troubled section of the Confederacy during the Civil War. The service of these men deserve some small degree of recognition.
On paper, McRae's Battalion North Carolina Cavalry was formed in September 1863 by order of the Confederate Secretary of War. Most of the men assigned to this battalion were liable to conscription, and were between age 18 and 45. Several officers assigned to this battalion were serving as conscription officers in various locations in the state. Captain James C. McRae was assigned to command the battalion, and was promoted to Major. This was a rank commensurate with the number of soldiers assigned to the battalion.
McRae took his assignment seriously, and proceeded to Camp Vance at Morganton, North Carolina. McRae's staff was limited, according to available records, to an Assistant Quartermaster. No other men were assigned to the field and staff section of the battalion. Other officers or men, however, were probably detailed to complete administrative duties. He soon began to get his limited service battalion in shape, and by November 1863, the unit was considered fully organized. McRae was able to raise four companies from conscripted men and was joined at some point by Captain McMillan's Independent Cavalry Company from Ashe County. Only two companies, C and E, have extant muster rolls. The data presented for other men serving under McRae has been gleaned from prisoner of war records, clothing receipts, and reenlistment bounty rolls. This information is further limited by the use of initials on these documents by many men. This makes further identification of them, prior and later service very difficult.
The subelements of McRae's Battalion North Carolina Cavalry were:
Captain George C. Stowe's Company. This unit was formed in October 1863 in Burke County and served with the battalion until it was disbanded on June 1, 1864. This company sustained the largest proportion of the limited battle casualties sustained by this battalion. Recruits serving in this company are known to have been primarily from the western portion of the Old North State, principally Yadkin, Surry, Caldwell, Iredell, and McDowell counties. Captain Stowe later raised a battalion of senior reserve soldiers, which were incorporated into the 5th North Carolina Senior Reserves. Stowe was made lieutenant colonel of this regiment, which was detailed for much of its existence as prison guards at Salisbury Prison. The 5th North Carolina Senior Reserves served under Brigadier General Bradley T. Johnson of Maryland.
Captain Atherton B. Hill's Company. This unit was organized in October 1863 at Camp Vance, North Carolina. While the names of many of the men who served in this unit have been identified, specific details of their service are lacking. Most of the men were recruited in the western portion of the state, although Captain Hill was a resident of Halifax County. Captain Hill resigned soon after been assigned to this duty and was succeeded by Captain John S. Hines of Raleigh. The company was disbanded on June 1, 1864, but later service for the men of this company is unknown.
Captain Andrew N. McMillan's Company. This unit was organized by Captain McMillan for local service before the organization of McRae's Battalion. It appears to have returned to that duty after the battalion was disbanded on June 1, 1864. It appears this company was functional as late as September 20, 1864 when Captain McMillan signed a bounty roll. It is the only company with a detailed roster extant, and for which a full slate of officers is known. McMillan previously served as Captain of Company A, 26th North Carolina Infantry where he served until severely wounded at New Bern in March 1862.
Captain Hugh L. Cole's Company. Captain Cole served as Captain of Company F, 2nd North Carolina State Troops and was on duty and enrolling officer for the First Congressional District before service with McRae. This company was organized at Camp Holmes in Raleigh in early September 1863. Most of the men in this unit were from central North Carolina, specifically Granville, Wake, Franklin, and Union counties. Many of the men of this company were assigned to the 9th North Carolina State Troops when the battalion was disbanded on June 1, 1864.
Captain Thomas H. Haughton's Company. This company was enlisted in September at Camp Vance in Burke County, North Carolina. Captain Haughton was a resident of Chatham County, in central North Carolina, but most of the recruits appear to have been from the western portion of the state. This company was, by far, the strongest of the battalion, but almost all records end with the December 5, 1863 roster. Captain Haughton was drillmaster at Camp Vance on organization of this company. He returned to that duty when the battalion was disbanded on June 1, 1864.
Service in the Mountains
McRae's Battalion North Carolina Cavalry was organized as a result of the serious depredations being committed in western North Carolina in 1862 and early 1863. Major McRae attributed this problem to the Confederate conscription act that drained the region of most all able-bodied men who were loyal or at least sympathized with the Southern cause. In this area loyalty did not have the same kind of connotation it held for more aristocratic Southerners in other portions of Dixie. Many mountaineers of the Blue Ridge and Great Smokey Mountains were highly individualistic and resented being sent to fight for a cause in which they had no vested interest. (1)
The Confederate Conscription Act, when it went into effect in April 1862 effectively required all able-bodied men aged 18 to 35 to join their relatives and neighbors in Confederate units in Virginia and eastern North Carolina. Many of the men subject to this law reluctantly acquiesced to the terms of the act. Several others, however, hid out in the hills and were variously known as "outliers," "scouters," or the more common, "bushwhackers." The term bushwhacker was also applied by Federals to mean almost any Confederate partisan, with or without permission from the Confederate Government to harass their troops. For Southerners, the term usually referred to a Confederate Army deserter, draft dodger, Unionist, or plain criminal hiding out in back-water provinces of the Confederacy. Western North Carolina was such a back-water province. The mountains afforded innumerable hiding places, was inaccessible, and was by September 1863 close to Federally held portions of East Tennessee.
There was a widespread perception in North Carolina in 1863 that the Confederacy had little use for Tarheels, except as cannon fodder. By the mid-point in the war, it was becoming increasingly obvious to tarheels that North Carolina soldiers were sustaining more than their share of casualties in the field. North Carolina was also serving as the bread basket for Virginia, and nearly all the food for Virginia's cities held by Confederates came from North Carolina as did as nearly all the food for the soldiers in the field. Western North Carolina also quickly became the location for quartering Confederate cavalry horses when not used in active campaigning.
Serious military reverses for the Confederacy at Gettysburg and Vicksburg in July 1863 meant replacement soldiers were desperately needed. The blind eye turned on the outliers had to end. Depredations committed by these outlier bands were becoming worse and worse. Something had to be done. Governor Vance repeatedly called on the Confederate Government to detail North Carolina Troops to assist with the outlier problem. The Confederate military establishment refused to relinquish any soldiers for this purpose. The Confederate War Department, however, agreed to assign a few conscripts to assist in restoring order in the mountains and foothills.
During the fall of 1863 the part of North Carolina west of the Blue Ridge Mountains was formed into a new military district, called the District of Western North Carolina. Brigadier General Robert B. Vance, brother of Governor Zebulon Vance, was assigned to command the district.
McRae soon reported to the principal collection center for conscripts in western North Carolina, Camp Vance, just outside of Morganton in Burke County. Morganton had an advantage no other town in the western part of the state did -- it was the western terminus of the only railroad in the area -- the Western North Carolina Railroad. This track facilitated the export of crops and men, and the limited importation of arms and ordnance.
McRae met the men who would become Company E there. It is likely that Captain Haughton's and Captain Mallet's men came with McRae. They were joined by Captain Alexander McMillan's Company from Ashe County. Captain A.B. Hill's and Captain Hugh Cole's cavalry companies soon arrived completing the battalion's organization by mid-November. Additionally, a section of artillery under Lieutenant Collins of Company F, Starr's [13th] North Carolina Light Artillery Battalion joined McRae. (2)
Companies C and E completed the only known muster rolls for this battalion on December 5, before leaving Camp Vance. These two companies reported 132 men present for duty then. Where the other three companies were then is unknown. (3)
By December, the situation west of the mountains had become increasingly dangerous. It was feared that George Washington Kirk, a Tennessean, who was operating in the North Carolina Mountains was preparing to attack Asheville. Kirk later organized a regiment, the 3rd North Carolina Mounted Infantry, for the Federal Army. This regiment was largely composed of mountaineer Unionists. One of their comrades in the 15th Pennsylvania Cavalry regiment characterized these men as only out for revenge. Kirk would be the main nemesis of McRae for most of the period the battalion was in service. Additionally, Kirk became notorious in North Carolina history as the military leader in the so-called Kirk-Holden War against the Ku-Klux-Klan in the reconstruction era. (4)
McRae's men were then ordered to Asheville, county seat of Buncombe County and key city in all the trans-Blue Ridge Mountains. At the end of December, the battalion had a present for duty strength of over 140 men. Several men were on detached duty when the returns were completed. By this time, most of the battalion's men had found mounts, and the battalion could claim the title cavalry. While mounted, the McRae's men were not cavalry in the true sense of the word, and were not even good mounted infantry, but they were all who were available. (5)
The approach of reinforcements caused Kirk to rethink whatever plan he had in mind, Asheville was not attacked. In any event, McRae reported to General Vance and was subject to his orders. Vance took his newly arrived troopers down the French Broad River to Marshall and Paint Rock in Madison County in search of the elusive Kirk before abandoning the chase. McRae's Battalion camped in Madison County for "some time patrolling that section and making occasional excursions into East Tennessee for the protection of the people." (6)
Madison County may have been the most Unionist county in western North Carolina. In 1863, one pro-Confederate resident claimed three-quarters of the people were for the Union in a letter to Governor Vance. The division between the haves and the have-nots here was as pronounced as in any part of the South, and the have-nots resented the well-connected of that county. These people had little to gain in the out-come of the war, one way or the other. But when the elite of this county sided with the Confederacy, they supported the Union for contrariness. The Southern faction of Madison County was led by Lawrence Allen, commander of the 64th North Carolina State Troops. Allen had led a punitive expedition into the Shelton Laurel section in January 1863 and his men executed all those they were able to catch rather than send them to Libby or Salisbury Prison. Allen, though, had been provoked in the minds of many residents of the area. The Unionists living in Shelton Laurel Valley had raided Marshall before his expedition to obtain salt. While raiding the county-seat, the bushwhacker's visited Allen's home and terrorized his family. Allen's family consisted of his wife and three children, two of whom were ill with scarlet-fever. These two children died, and Allen blamed the Shelton Laurel gang for making them worse by scaring them. (7)
The western North Carolina winter was difficult in peace-time, let alone during a war, especially a guerrilla war. McRae established his headquarters at Asheville, but most of his men were detached in small parties and sent to far southwestern North Carolina where their services were more urgently needed. These detachments never met the enemy in force, but were subjected to the same kind of harassment inflicted on Colonel Allen's men the preceeding winter. This usually took the form of a man or two lying out in thick laurel groves, commanding a good view of the road, and firing when McRae's patrols passed by. The bushwhackers could snipe at the patrols and vanish in the thickets before the cavalrymen could gain their bearings and react. There were laurel thickets in these mountains then and now miles thick, which require great skill to navigate. These thickets became the homes of the bushwhackers for months, and they developed great skill in negotiation paths and intricate tangles of vines, bushes and laurel.
In early January 1864, General Vance was ordered to assist General James Longstreet in east Tennessee. He led a small command into Tennessee and quickly captured a large Federal wagon train. The size of this train has been variously estimated to have consisted of from between 25 and 80 wagons. This initial success gave him more confidence than he ought to have had considering the quality of soldiers under his command. These soldiers included several small detachments from McRae's Battalion. Vance was surprised on January 14 in Cocke County by a Federal patrol. At the time, Vance's men were scattered and had not paid particular attention to his instructions. If Vance's forces been concentrated he might have been able to escape or fight his way out of the trap, but they were not and nearly all the men with Vance were captured. Sixteen of these men were members of McRae's Battalion. The enlisted men were hurried off to Rock Island, Illinois where half a dozen of them died of disease, for a mortality rate of 37.5 percent. (8)
John B. Palmer from Mitchell County assumed command of the District when Vance was captured. Palmer was Colonel of the 58th North Carolina State Troops and was at home recovering from wounds received at Chickamauga when Vance was captured. He never rejoined his unit in the Army of Tennessee, but devoted considerable energy, if not talent, to defending the mountains of western North Carolina. Troops then in the District included the remnants of the 62nd and 64th North Carolina Infantry Regiments, MacBeth's South Carolina Artillery from Charleston, Lieutenant Colonel J.L. Henry's 14th Battalion North Carolina Cavalry, part of Thomas' Legion, in addition to McRae's Battalion. (9)
None of these soldiers except MacBeth's Battery and Thomas' Legion were any good. The 62nd and 64th North Carolina Regiments were only the small remnants that had escaped from Cumberland Gap with Colonel Campbell Slemp of the 64th Virginia on September 9, 1863. Additionally, these men's loyalty to the Confederacy was highly suspect -- most were forced into the Confederate Army by Colonel Lawrence Allen's high-handed enforcement of the conscription act.
McRae's Battalion was stationed for much of February 1864 with the 62nd North Carolina on Big Laurel and Shelton Laurel in Madison County. Their primary mission was to patrol the county to Marshall and Warm Springs. (10)
Part of McRae's men were also detached to assist the 64th North Carolina who were surrounded on an island in the French Broad near Marshall. McRae's men, in fact, appear to have saved Allen's men from a more inglorious end than most had met at Cumberland Gap. It was here that the only known bullet injured a member of McRae's Battalion, Samuel McNeely of Company C was wounded. (11)
Parts of McRae's Battalion then moved into Henderson and Polk counties on the extreme southern border of the old North State. These counties were a welcome change from the wilds of the Great Smokies. Captain Mallet's men apparently patrolled this district without great difficulty. Captain Cole's Company was transferred to patrol the banks of the French Broad near Brevard and Toxaway. McRae noted that when this company left Transylvania County, pro-Confederate families came out with them because they feared the resurgence of the bushwhacker parties in that section of the state. (12)
Major McRae continued his account of his men's activities and wrote:
The whole command passed through Haywood, Jackson and Macon to Franklin, and Captain Hines' Company, finding the road blocked by great stones, near Monday's, crossed the "Chunky Gal" Mountains by a trail and went into Clay County, that now peaceful Utopia, and spent some time on Shooting Creek, whose name was not an inappropriate one them.
The term of special service was quickly ending, and the men were needed at home, but the Confederate powers in Richmond felt their services were needed worse in the trenches around the Confederate capital. The battalion entrained at Morganton and steamed to Raleigh, reaching there by June 1, 1864. The battalion was formally disbanded at Raleigh on June 1. Most of remaining men were assigned to the 9th North Carolina State Troops (1st North Carolina Cavalry). Some were beyond the age of active campaigning, and Captain McMillan was able to keep some of his men together. They returned to Ashe County to patrol the western border of that most loyal of western North Carolina counties. Despite being largely pro-Confederate, there was a sizable part of the population that belonged to the Heroes of America. Major McRae took an assignment on Brigadier General Lawrence Baker's staff and served out the remaining months of the war with him. (13)
McRae also lamented that George Washington Kirk, now an official member of the Federal Army led a raid on Camp Vance less than a month after McRae's men were withdrawn from the western portion of the state. (14)
McRae summarized the service of his battalion when he wrote for Clark's North Carolina Regiments:
The service, while it afforded no field for glorious achievement, was arduous and important, requiring constant watchfulness, quickness of movement and energy; and while the danger was not great it was of that hidden kind which admitted of no direct and vigorous attack upon an embodied enemy, the bullet of the bushwhacker not infrequently laying low some gallant fellow who was worthy to have died upon the field of battle.
There were many stirring adventures and brave and venturesome acts by these men, whose history ought to have been better preserved, but the memory, from which I write entirely, of the details of that winter spent upon the Blue Ridge and along the slopes of the Great Smokies, across the Balsam, over the Cullowhee and the Nantahala has passed away like the other dreams of the young Confederate soldier.
This battalion was enabled to do good service in protecting the people who were true to the Confederacy from marauding attacks of bushwhackers and deserters from both Confederate and Federal armies who then found hiding places in the mountains, but some of whose names may not now be unknown to the pension rolls of the United States. (15)
McRae's characterization of the service of his battalion seems, in large part, to be historically accurate. The comment about former bushwhackers being on the pension rolls of the United States is undoubtedly true. Federal commanders, like Southern ones before, did not ask too many questions, so as not to bother their sleep, about activities in the western North Carolina mountains. An implicit understanding about these actions was the rule of the day. Anything which did nothing to rile the partisan interests of the groups each side considered loyal was fair game.
1. McRae, James C. "McRae's Battalion North Carolina Cavalry, sketch for Clark, Walter Histories of the Various Regiments from North Carolina in the Great War, Vol. IV. pp. 379-382. Campbell, John C. The Southern Highlander and his Homeland. Various portions of this text attest to the notion of individuality among the mountaineers. The fact that the mountaineers were not entirely loyal to the Confederate cause has been documented in various letter presented in the Official Records of the War of the Rebellion (Armies). Correspondence in Zebulon Vance's personal papers from his term as governor of Confederate North Carolina further document the problem.
2. McRae. p. 379.
3. Analysis of the CSR, Companies C and E, McRae's Battalion.
4. McRae, pp. 379-380. VanNoppen, Ina. Stone- man's Last Raid.
5. McRae, p. 379-80. Manarin, Louis. North Carolina Troops, A Roster Vol. II, p. 697. CSR, McRae's Battalion NC Cavalry.
6. McRae. p. 380.
7. Trotter, William, Bushwhackers, Chapter 19.
8. McRae, p. 380. CSR. Trotter, Chapter 19.
9. McRae. p. 380.
10. McRae, pp. 380-1.
11. McRae p. 381. CSR
12. McRae. p. 381.
13. McRae. p. 381-2. Oral Tradition, McMillan Family, Ashe Co., NC. CSR.
14. McRae. p. 382.
15. McRae pp. 381-2.
Public Documents and Records
Ashe County Historical Society.
Cemetery Records of Ashe County, North Carolina, Ashe County Historical Society, West Jefferson, North Carolina.
Federal Census Records for 1860 for:
Ashe County, North Carolina.
Watauga County, North Carolina
Alleghany County, North Carolina
Compiled Service Records of Confederate Soldiers Who Served in Organizations From the State of North Carolina. Microcopy 270, Roll 46, McRae's Battalion North Carolina Cavalry.
Compiled Service Records of Confederate Soldiers Who Served in Organizations From the State of North Carolina. Microcopy 270, Roll 579, Capt. McMillan's Company [Infantry].
Letters Received, Confederate Secretary of War, Record Group 109, Microcopy 437.
Letters Received, Confederate Adjutant and Inspector General Office, Record Group 109, Microcopy 474.
Letters Received, Confederate Quartermaster General, Record Group 109, Microcopy 469.
Records of the Adjutant General's Officer, U.S. Army War Department. "The Ainsworth Papers," Record Group 94, Microcopy T-814.
The Confederate Veteran. 1892-1932.
North Carolina Historical Review. Vol. 41, "Inconstant Rebels: Desertion of North Carolina Troops in the Civil War." by Bardolph, Richard.
Arthur, John Preston. Western North Carolina: A History from 1730 to 1913. Raleigh, North Carolina, 1913.
Arthur, John Preston. A History of Watauga County, North Carolina with sketches of prominent families, The Overmountain Press, Johnson City, Tennessee (reprint), 1992.
Ashe, Samuel A. History of North Carolina, 2 Volumes, Raleigh, North Carolina, 1925.
Blackmun, Ora. Western North Carolina Its Mountains and Its People to 1880. Appalachian Consortium Press, Boone, North Caroli- na, 1977.
Campbell, John C. The Southern Highlander & his Home- land. The University Press of Kentucky, Lexington, Kentucky 1969.
Clark, Walter, editor. Histories of the Several Regiments and Battalions from North Carolina in the Great War 1861-65, Broadfoot Publishing, Wilmington, North Carolina 1987 reprint of 1904 edition.
Crow, Vernon H. Storm in the Mountains, Thomas' Confederate Legion of Cherokee Indians and Mountaineers, Press of the Museum of the Cherokee Indian, Cherokee, North Carolina, 1982.
Duke, Basil W. A History of Morgan's Cavalry, Indiana University Press, Bloomington, Indiana.
Ellis, Daniel. Thrilling Adventures of Daniel Ellis. The Over- mountain Press, Johnson City, Tennessee, 1989.
Fletcher, Arthur L. Ashe County (North Carolina) A History, Ashe County Research Association, Inc., Jefferson, N.C. 1963.
Johnston, Frontis W., editor. The Papers of Zebulon Baird Van- ce, North Carolina Department of Archives and History, Raleigh, North Carolina 1963.
Lonn, Ella. Desertion During the Civil War, Century Co., New York, 1928.
Pollard, Edward A. The Lost Cause, New York, E. B. Treat and Company, 1867.
Scott, Samuel W., and Samuel P. Angel. History of the Thirteenth Regiment Tennessee Volunteer Cavalry U.S.A. The Overmountain Press, Johnson City, Tenn., reprint of 1903 edition, 1987.
Trotter, William R. Bushwhackers, The Civil War in North Carolina, Vol. II: The Mountains. Signal Research, Greensboro, N.C., 1988.-
U.S. War Department. A Compilation of the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies. 128 vols. Government Printing Office, Washington, D.C., 1880-1901.
VanNoppen, Ina W. Stoneman's Last Raid. N.C. State University Print Shop, Raleigh, N.C., 1961.
VanNoppen, Ina Woestemyer. Western North Carolina Since the Civil War, Appalachian Consortium Press, Boone, N.C., 1973.
Yearns, W. Buck, and John G. Barrett (editors). North Carolina Civil War Documentary, The University of North Carolina Press, Chapel Hill, N.C., 1980.
Related article -- N.C. 64th Infantry Regiment