Saturday, March 28, 2015

Blink and you'll miss the 'battle' of Boone

BOONE, N.C.
     The "battle" of Boone was over so quickly that no one was quite sure what happened. The historical marker at the Watauga County courthouse is correct in describing the action 150 years ago as nothing more than a skirmish.
     Gen. Stoneman barely mentioned it in his official report: "We arrived here in the A.M., captured the place, killing 9, capturing 62 home guards and 40 horses."
     Boone actually lost only three men. Stoneman had no reason to exaggerate, given his orders "to destroy and not to fight battles," and it is possible that he meant to use the standard military parlance, "killing or wounding 9," which would have been accurate.

     According to Stoneman's second-in-command, Gen. Alvan Gillem, the Union cavalry was approaching Boone at 10 a.m. on Tuesday, March 28, 1865, when they learned from locals that the Confederate Home Guard was assembled at the courthouse. Major Myles Keogh, always eager for a fight, led a detachment from the 12th Kentucky Cavalry up Daniel Boone's old Wilderness Trail (now the route of U.S. 321 and West King Street) and they arrived in Boone about 11 a.m. The weather was fair. The impending battle, not so much.
Myles Keogh, "the Irish Knight"
     The Home Guard was preparing for a rumored attack by a small band of Home Yankees. One account says 100 men were conducting drills at the courthouse when the first "blue-jackets" appeared.
     A solitary gunshot rang out from the Home Guard. It may have been a warning shot, or it may have been a muzzle-loader triggered by accident. That was all it took to provoke Keogh and his Yankees to charge down what is now King Street. By the time the Home Guard realized that they were facing an entire army, it was too late.
     A southern apologist named Cornelia Phillips Spencer described the scene in her 1866 book, The Last 90 Days of the Civil War in North Carolina. Her source was probably Sarah "Sally" Councill, the Boone matriarch who was indignant that Stoneman had taken her last firkin of butter:
The village was completely taken by surprise. No one was aware of the approach of an enemy till the advance-guard dashed up the main street, making no demand for surrender, but firing right and left at every moving thing they saw. Mrs. James Councill [Sally Councill's daughter-in-law], hearing the noise, stepped into her piazza with her child in her arms, and immediately a volley of balls splintered the wood-work all around her. She, however, escaped unhurt. The people of this county had been warmly attached to the Confederate cause, and had bravely resisted East-Tennessee raiders and marauders. The county-seat was therefore, perhaps, especially obnoxious; and whatever may have been General Stoneman's policy, there were subordinate officers in his command who were only too happy in the opportunity to retort upon a defenseless and unresisting population. ... Several citizens were shot under circumstances of peculiar aggravation.
     Sarah Councill's nephew was one of those. Jacob Mast Councill was the clerk of court for Watauga County, which exempted him from the Confederate draft. Spencer describes him as "a prudent, quiet man, who had taken no part in the war." But he was a Councill, and he may have paid for the perceived rebel sins of his cousin James, who evidently was not in Boone during the raid.
     James Councill (the son of Sarah and Jordan Councill Jr.) represented the county at a statewide convention in May 1861 and had voted for secession, even though Watauga had voted 536-72 to remain in the Union. No doubt, certain Union families held the Councills responsible for some of their hardships during the war.
     (In defense of James Councill, we should note that the convention came just after two provocative events: the Confederate attack on Fort Sumter and Lincoln's call for North Carolina troops to help suppress the rebellion. Three months after the referendum where North Carolina voters narrowly rejected secession, 47,323-46,672, the convention delegates voted 120-0 to leave the Union.) 
     According to local historian and Councill descendant Terry Harmon, at the time of the raid Jacob Councill was farming in what is now downtown Boone, near the current location of the Jones House on King Street. There's no indication that he was armed or involved in the Home Guard activities that day. The only accusation against him was from a black woman named Phoebe, who told approaching Yankees that Jacob was "an infernal rebel," according to Spencer.  
     Historian John Preston Arthur wrote in 1915, "He had been ploughing and was putting his harness up when one of Stoneman's men came to the door and shot him dead, notwithstanding his protestations." Other accounts say he was shot in his field as he pleaded for mercy. 
     In a terrible coincidence, Stoneman's rear guard was foraging at the home of Benjamin Councill, Jacob's father, at the very same hour that Jacob was killed. Benjamin's house is the spot boldly marked "Council-rebel" on Sgt. Angelo Wiser's map (below). 
     Warren Green, a twice-wounded Confederate veteran, was killed while holding up his hands in token of surrender, according to Spencer. One source suggests that Green may have been killed by the notorious Union outlaw Keith Blalock, using the raid as cover for murder. This does sound like Blalock, but others discount the story. Another account says Green accidentally fired the first shot of the skirmish and then was killed by Myles Keogh. 
     Warren's cousin Calvin Green was pursued and shot at when he tried to surrender, so he returned fire and shattered the arm of one of the Yankees before he was wounded and left for dead.
     Sheriff A.J. McBride fought the invaders until he took a bullet in the chest. Confederate veteran Elijah Norris also held his ground after yelling for his father Ephraim to run and hide in the cliffs on Howard's Knob. As Ephraim Norris fled, he was killed by a shot in the back. Arthur reported that except for McBride, all of those wounded were shot from behind. 
     Thomas Holder was wounded in the hip. John Brown suffered a broken ankle as he tried to get away. Waightstill Gragg, a Confederate veteran who was in the group that fired the first shot, was also wounded but not seriously. 
     Jacob Councill's home became a morgue as well as a hospital, according to historian Shepherd Dugger, who was an 11-year-old living near Banner Elk at the time of the raid. Sheriff McBride laid face-down on the plank floor as a Yankee surgeon, operating without anesthesia, cut out a bullet that had followed a rib and lodged near his spine. Calvin Green also was treated and somehow survived. 
     Stoneman did not report his own casualties, which were minimal. There is a credible story of a 15-year-old Boone boy named Steel Frazier who killed one or two Yankees and got away. The Union soldier shot by Calvin Green had to have his arm amputated. 
     As soon as Stoneman gained control of Boone and assessed the situation, he dispatched Gillem and the 2nd Brigade south through Blowing Rock and over the Blue Ridge to raid the Patterson Mill north of Lenoir. The 3rd Brigade followed them later in the day and burned the cotton mill on March 29.
    Meanwhile, some of the soldiers set fire to the Boone jail and burned the Watauga County records. Some blame this on Gillem and say that Stoneman reprimanded him for it. However, Gillem was probably miles away by the time the jail was torched. 
     Stoneman spent the night at Sarah Councill's house, which was located where the downtown Boone post office now stands. The 1st Brigade camped in the bottomland that is now the State Farm field and the Boone Greenway, across the New River from the Blair House, which was built in 1844 and is the oldest house in Boone. 
     That evening, Stoneman sent this report back to Gen. George Thomas in Nashville: "We arrived here this a.m., the Twelfth Kentucky in the advance, captured the place, killing 9, capturing 62 home guards and 40 horses. We are getting along very well. Last night, in crossing Stone Mountain, one caisson and one ambulance fell over the precipice and were lost, several horses and men disabled. I shall be compelled to alter slightly from the proposed route on account of the great scarcity of forage and subsistence for the men. Our advance is the first indication the people have had of our movements. We shall, with ordinary good luck, be out of the mountains to-morrow." That would be the last Thomas heard from Stoneman for three weeks. 
     Stoneman and the 1st Brigade marched Wednesday, March 29, via Deep Gap toward Wilkesboro, leaving Boone to be occupied by a second wave of Yankees. We'll have that story April 6.



The Blair House was built 21 years before Stoneman's 1st Brigade camped on the farmland nearby.
This map drawn by Sgt. Angelo Wiser shows the families and landmarks Stoneman's Raid encountered on their way into Boone. Notice the crossed sabers at Boone, indicating the site of a skirmish. To see the map full-size, click here. The Taylorsville mentioned on this map is now Mountain City, TN.



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