Friday, March 27, 2015

Rallying the Home Guard to fight the Yankees

     At the dawn of the Civil War, Boone was a prosperous little town with six stores, three sawmills, two hotels, and a saloon. But there was not yet a newspaper, telegraph, or railroad. Gossip was about the only media.
     The talk of the town 150 years ago today was the possibility of a Yankee attack. Residents worried about bands of "Home Yankees" who had become more aggressive as the Civil War tilted in the Union's favor. Nobody could imagine that Gen. George Stoneman and his 4,000 cavalrymen were headed their way, just beyond the western horizon.
     Seven weeks earlier, a band of 100 loyalists from Banner Elk under James Champion had captured and burned Camp Mast, the headquarters of the Watauga County Home Guard, where 60 of the 71 men voted to surrender without a fight. Another notorious Union man named Keith Blalock had been on the warpath since rebels murdered his step-father. Many were worried about another raid by James Hartley, a Union recruiter whose outfit had killed two home guards on the slopes of Beech Mountain in 1864.
     The Home Guard was a local militia responsible for hunting down Confederate draft-dodgers and deserters, as well as Union outlaws such as Champion, Blalock, and Hartley. With most of the men under 50 away in the Confederate army, the Home Guard was largely composed of older men and wounded veterans. 
     Their reputation was as tattered as their personnel. The Watauga guards had blood on their hands, too, and there were rumors that some of their officers had been complicit with the enemy in the Camp Mast debacle.
     Still, the Home Guard was the county's last vestige of law and order and the last line of defense against Union marauders. So Capt. Jordan Cook called a meeting for Tuesday morning, March 28, 1865, to reorganize a company of the Home Guard.
    Among those who were in town that Tuesday:
Sheriff A.J. McBride
(photo from Terry Harmon)

  • Sheriff Andrew Jackson "A.J." McBride, 42, a part-time preacher who had been captured at Camp Mast but promptly escaped.
  • Jacob Mast Councill, 35, nephew of "the father of Boone," Jordan Councill Jr. The Councill family owned over half the slaves in Boone. As the clerk of court and a mail contractor, Jacob was exempt from the Confederate draft. He had a hillside farm near where the Jones House now stands on King Street, and it was time for spring plowing. 
  • Waightstill Gragg, 25, one of 18 children in his family, a Confederate soldier in the famed 1st N.C. Cavalry who was home on furlough from Robert E. Lee's army.
  • Thomas Holder, 32, who lived on Howards Creek, several miles from Boone.
    Elijah Norris
  • Sgt. Elijah Norris, 21, and his father Ephraim Norris, 45, from the Meat Camp community. Elijah had been shot five times as a Confederate soldier and came home after a nearly fatal hip wound in September 1864.
  • Warren and Calvin Green, cousins once removed. Warren, 27, was a Confederate sergeant who was wounded in battles in 1862 and 1864. He was the father of three young children. The Greens were also related by marriage to McBride and the Norrises. 
     Before long, all these men would be related by Yankee lead.  
     At the meeting the next morning, Elijah Norris would be elected lieutenant of the Home Guard company under Capt. Jordan Cook. And when the first Yankees rode into Boone about 11 a.m. Tuesday, almost on cue, the battle-hardened Norris would be among the first to realize the awful truth. This wasn't Hartley's rag-tag outfit. And the Home Guard didn't have a chance.

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