Bushwhacker Blues: A Long Crawl Over the Hills
By J. Keith Jones
Oct. 20, 1863 – Marshall, North Carolina:
Battles raged in east Tennessee and north Georgia, but today Colonel Lawrence Allen’s concern was closer to his home in western North Carolina. He rode beside Major John Woodfin. Woodfin reached down and stroked Prince Hal’s mane. The sleek black stallion had carried him through many a hot battle. Woodfin had seen the elephant a number of times as had Allen. Allen had been sent down from Richmond then ordered by General Robert Vance to join his forces with Woodfin’s and lead them against George Kirk’s bushwhackers.
Kirk had banded together this bunch of deserters to form the Second North Carolina Mounted Infantry. This gang had terrorized the Confederate families of the mountain counties ever since. Allen had dealt with them before as had Woodfin. As the clerk of court in Marshall, Allen had seen many of them pass through his courtroom regularly before the war. As a lawyer in Asheville, Woodfin had no doubt dealt with some of them as well.
Woodfin grinned beneath his thick beard. He presented a dashing figure astride Prince Hal. Allen knew he was not nearly so handsome as his fellow officer, but both men’s soldiers would follow wherever they led. They had seen glory in Northern Virginia, but now their people needed them here.
The band worked their way through Jewell Hill, Stackhouse and Hurricane. Allen reined to a stop and glanced over at Woodfin. The Major stared down the road toward the French Broad River. Springs flowed just ahead near the river. The turnpike meandered beside a small shack alongside the stream on the opposite side of the river. They were shielded from the view of the shack by a slight crook in the road. Several bushwhackers milled about the ragged building.
Allen held up a hand and turned in his saddle to face his men. Giving the signal, he prodded his horse forward at a trot then spurred him to a gallop. They bore down on the shack, quickly capturing it. Allen hastened across the bridge with Woodfin and several men on his heels. Another stream ran along the opposite side of the river. It was covered in thick underbrush. Suddenly smoke belched from the small gully. He turned to see that the bridge was now blocked and the men were retreating in the direction of Marshall. Allen looked toward Woodfin. The two officers and seven privates were all that remained.
Allen waved his pistol toward a spot down the river away from the shots. His men returned fire as they galloped away. They soon found themselves against a steep mountain. They were in a protected spot for now, but that wouldn’t last long. My God! It’s nearly straight up, Allen thought, but it is the only way out. He knew that once they started up the hill they would be completely exposed. They must move quickly.
“John!” Allen shouted and pointed up the slope, “Up there, it’s the only way. Come on boys!” His horse struggled up the hill. Dirt kicked up and tree branches cracked all about him. A shot whizzed by his ear and he turned to see Woodfin tumble from his horse. Several of the other men were already down. “Yahh!” Allen spurred his horse harder, urging him up the incline.
Fallen trees and boulders littered the top of the hill. Allen worked his way through them, keeping low to avoid the shots. The fallen timber was heavier now and filtered out the fading light. Allen was separated from the few men who had made it. He wasn’t sure when their courses diverged. He paused and looked around, it was mostly quiet now. An occasional shot rang out in the distance and the sun sank below the horizon. The crackle of riders came through the brush. Allen couldn’t tell from where, it seemed to be all around. He had to get his bearings, which direction was Marshall? A crashing through the trees off to his side jerked him around. That was too close. They were about on him. Allen stuck his heel into his horse’s side and galloped off. A shot rang out and splintered a branch on a felled tree beside him. He reined his horse down into a holler, temporarily losing his pursuers. They would find him, this he was sure of.
The downed timber became so thick that his horse refused to go further. He must dismount… that was the only way. Allen grimaced as he climbed down. The bushwhackers were not far back. He had to keep moving. Capture would mean death. These unionists were not like the Yankee soldiers, they were more interested in profit and revenge than victory and Allen knew his head would occupy a prized space on any of their mantelpieces.
Colonel Allen lay still under a bush. The riders milled about just yards away now. They raised the alert when they found his horse. The dense brush and timber hampered their efforts like it had his progress, but they still grew closer. In the open he would already be a dead man. If he stayed here, it wouldn’t much matter. They would find him.
A rider dismounted. The horse’s breath blew loudly and the bushwhacker’s boots crunched on the twigs. Slow deliberate steps snapped sticks and crushed leaves in his direction. He gripped the butt of his pistol tightly, cradling the barrel in the crook of his left arm. He wouldn’t go without a fight. The man spit into the bush, tobacco juice landing by his head. Allen tensed, ready to fire, if he had the chance. Then the boots began to crunch in the opposite direction followed by the squeak of the saddle straining under the weight of a rider pushing himself up in the stirrups.
His heavy cavalry boots had to come off. The bushwhackers had been listening for their heavy crunching since he dismounted as surely as he knew when that scalawag had approached him. He reached down and quietly slipped them off and crawled away between the trees.
Two days passed with Allen hiding in the underbrush. He shivered as his stomach rumbled. Not a morsel of food and if not for the constant driving rain, he would not have had any water either. Much more of this and he would welcome a Yankee bullet. He had suffered two nights and it was dark again. The damned home Yankees patrolled the roads searching for him, so he had crept along the peaks and high ridges. Through bushes and scrub trees. He managed to find every briar, thorn and burr in the entire mountain range. Bushwhacker campfires dotted the hills. He stood and staggered across the uneven ground. Deep cuts crisscrossed the bottoms of his feet. Blood lined his tracks. The pain of each step kept him alert.
A cacophony drifted over a ridge about a hundred feet off to Allen’s left. He turned and listened then drifted toward the pale glow outlining the ridge. Laughs and shouts rolled over the hills. He crouched and peered through the trees. A crowd of blue clad bushwhackers danced around a roaring bonfire. They stopped as one tossed his hands about excitedly and spoke. The voice boomed, but Allen couldn’t make out what he said. The man threw his head back as they all laughed. Allen crept down the hill closer to the fire and hid behind a bush at the base of an oak tree. The loud man jumped up on a tree stump and began flapping his arms and threw his head back and crowed like a rooster.
Allen could now make out what the Rooster said next. He was bragging about someone they had killed. Allen struggled to control his breathing. The Rooster mocked how a young man’s father had pleaded with them to spare his son. He instinctively grasped his pistol. The Rooster crowed again then continued about how they had taken young Jesse Cranes away from his father’s house then killed him. Allen began to shake. He knew the Cranes. Jesse’s father had returned home on sick leave. Jesse was a good boy, but now…Murderers, Allen wanted to scream.
He pulled his pistol and took careful aim. Allen squeezed the trigger and the Rooster pitched face first into the fire. The others scattered from the fire, diving into the bushes. Allen smiled, looking around for another target. One cautiously stuck his head out and Allen took aim. He began to squeeze off the shot then thought better of it. No, he would give his position away.
“Did anybody see where it came from?”
“Damned rebel sniper.”
“Did anybody see him?”
“No, somebody come out and draw his fire so I can see where he is.”
“Do it yourself Bob. I ain’t getting myself kilt.”
Allen eased back over the ridge and scurried off in the opposite direction.
Sunrise found Lawrence Allen trudging into Marshall. The Colonel limped into town and collapsed with relief.
February 14, 1864 – Asheville, North Carolina:
Colonel Lawrence Allen lay awake. The moon filtered through the curtains of the hotel room casting shadows on the wall. A bed of coals smoldered in the fireplace. Allen interlaced his fingers behind his head watching the glow. It did little to fight off the night chill, but it was far better than sleeping on the ground with only one thin blanket. He had done plenty of that and would do more in the nights to come.
Deep lacerations had etched the bottoms of his feet. The sharp rocks and brambles of the hills had sliced through the soles nearly to the bone. The need for fresh recruits was dire and it was many days before he was able to wear his riding boots again so General Vance had ordered Allen to recruit replacements. His dedication to crush Kirk had driven Allen since his return. Many days and nights were spent in the saddle. He owed Woodfin and Jesse Cranes that.
Southern men going against their own kind… Allen ached to make them pay. He had two hundred ready to mount and ride at dawn. They would head west and drive the criminals out of North Carolina. He intended to pursue them across the Smokey Mountains and out of Tennessee if at all possible.
Hack Norton sat astride a horse. He was lucky to have it, many of the men still walked. They had taken all they could from the rebel families in the county. After they had killed and scalped Major Holcomb and that other damned rebel, James Arrington they caught old man James Garrett at his front gate and gunned him down. He had walked these hills seventy years, but the rebel sympathizer would do so no more.
While that old fool Garrett grew cold on the ground of his front yard, they paid a visit on old man William Peek. Peek had horses they needed. They took his shoes then forced him barefoot across the cold, hard ground of his pastures. Peek complained about the sharp rocks and Norton laughed at the blood stained foot prints. He put his boot against the old man’s rear and shoved, nearly knocking him to the ground. Next time you open your mouth it had better be to tell us where them horses are you old rebel! Norton cocked the hammer of his pistol for effect.
Norton had quickly taken possession of this horse for his own. He patted the mare’s head with an amused grin. He had taken his place on her back early that morning as they rode out of Warm Springs. Today the rebel citizens of Asheville would pay for their treason.
“Colonel,” the captain reined up beside Allen. “A small band of ‘em on the road below. Another ‘un about a mile back.”
“Is there a way we can slip around and flank them?”
“Yes sir,” he caught his breath, “there’s a pig path just beyond the next holler. Narrow, but passable.”
“Lead on Captain,” Allen nodded toward the trail ahead. “Lead on.”
Feb. 20, 1864 –near North Carolina/Tennessee line:
The first glow of daylight filtered into the camp. Allen and his men had selected this spot to bivouac due to its location between two roads. Now his pickets could watch both roads while the remainder rested. Allen didn’t want to stop, but the men were pushed past their limits. They had spent two days and nights in the saddle. Constant fighting, the men and horses were worn out.
After their dash on Sevierville, where they stampeded a large force of enemy cavalry, Allen began to realize he was too deep in enemy territory. So they began their withdrawal back into North Carolina. No sense pressing their luck. He really would have liked to ride all the way back to Asheville without stopping, but at 10:00 the night before, man and beast exhausted and navigating mountain passes in the dark, he gave the order to stop.
Allen should have trusted his judgment and put more miles between his force and the bushwhackers, but how could he have pushed the men any further? Even so, if he had, he would not be awakened with the news that they were cut off by Kirk’s regiment. Well, it was done now. He buttoned his uniform jacket and smiled. It was important to present an image for the men. If he looked beaten, they would all wear defeat into battle. Allen could not have that. The men were formed and he climbed upon his horse. He rode up and down the line before his troops, studying them as he rode. Allen made eye contact with each man in the front, giving each a confident look. Colonel Lawrence Allen resplendent in his full uniform stopped in the middle and turned his horse to face his men. He drew his saber and pointed out toward the woods. Through those trees, the enemy awaited and he would give them a warm reception.
“We will cut through their lines,” he pulled back on his reins causing his horse to rear slightly. He twisted his face angrily and looked from one end of the line to the other, stopping to study each man, “or this day our wives will be widows!”
The men erupted into cheers. The angst and gloom the news had brought was now replaced with eager anticipation. Allen smiled, but kept the determined set to his eyes. This would not be easy, but he must not let the men see him show fear. He wheeled his horse to the right when the hoots began to subside.
“Captain Anderson!” He shouted.
“Yes sir!” Anderson called out.
“Take your men through those woods and engage the enemy in their front.” Allen looked sternly at Anderson and eased his horse closer. “When you are fully engaged, I will attempt to flank them to the right if practicable. If not, we will attempt to escape. In either event when I do so, you are to drop back and fall in behind us.” Anderson’s head bobbed slightly. “Do you understand Captain?”
“We are depending on you Captain. I know you will not let us down.” Allen smiled, “You may deploy your men.”
Anderson departed with his company. Colonel Allen gave the order for the rest of the men to follow him as he eased his mount forward at a walk. They maneuvered on through the woods; he looked about trying to hide his anxiety. Suddenly the forest began to crash and thunder a few hundred yards to his front. Anderson had found the enemy. Allen pressed on at a slow pace. The bang of rifles and the crack of pistols filled the air. His horse continued forward, his men’s eyes shifting around nervously. Allen looked back giving them a confident nod. The battle was now nearly in sight. He could just see the flash of the guns accompanied by an occasional glimpse of gray or blue. He picked up the pace slightly. They were now in full sight of the enemy line. The bushwhackers were rallying on Anderson’s front. Allen saw a bushwhacker officer pointing his way and shouting instructions at his reserves. The remainder charged forward into Anderson’s line.
The Colonel held up a hand and looked around, then ordered a right face. Once the line turned, Allen charged forward at full pace. The ground did not lend itself to the flanking attack he had planned, but there was an open road before him. He looked back. Anderson had fallen in behind him as ordered. He booted his horse. The beast snorted, steam shooting out his nostrils into the cold morning. Ahead the road threaded through a gap in the mountain. Allen’s heart sank when he saw it fill with blue coated riders. He pulled his pistols, pointing them forward.
“Open up on ‘em boys,” Allen began firing first one then the other.
His men fired as they rode. Allen kicked his horse pushing it on faster. Rifles flashed from the gap. Bullets zipped past him and over his head. He pulled himself lower, pressing his face into his horse’s mane and continued firing. First one pistol clicked on an empty chamber then the other. The Yankees were now less than fifty yards to his front. He felt his left foot sting sharply. Allen pulled his sword from the scabbard and pointed it forward. One of the bushwhackers moved forward to meet him. Allen swung with a slashing motion catching the man across the belly. The bluecoat tumbled to the ground. Two more of the home Yankees rushed forward toward Allen. Allen slashed the one to the left across the throat. Blood flew through the air, spattering the horses’ coats. The other man turned slashing Allen’s right thigh with his saber. Allen howled in pain. His hand went to his leg and he saw blood streaming from his left boot as well. The bushwhacker raised his saber to strike Allen again. One of Allen’s soldiers caught the man in the back of the head with the barrel of his rifle. The rider pitched face first to the road and lay still. The other bushwhackers scattered.
Allen urged his men forward into the now disarrayed enemy. The gray coated men ripped on through leaving the road clogged with bodies. Speed would be their friend. Allen knew this. They crested a rise in the road and he looked back to see Anderson form his men up along the side. They fired a volley then continued on down the road. The rearguard would do so several more times until the bushwhackers ceased their chase.
Allen struggled to stay in the saddle. The woods seemed to drift by. He turned to look at the trooper beside him. He seemed to be looking through gauze. Allen couldn’t give up now. He had to get his men out. They needed more space. The Colonel rode on, hanging onto the neck of his horse as it charged along with the others. How long they had ridden, he was not sure, but finally the huffing horses slowed. A soldier reached out and took the reins of his horse. Allen felt like he was swimming in molasses. His vision blurred and darkened as if it was midnight, but he knew it was mid day. Hands tugged at his arms pulling him from his horse. He tried to stand and heard a yelp as he set down on his left foot and could feel it squish as blood flowed out of a hole in the boot. He wondered whose scream he had heard, then realized it was his own.
Allen heard a stream flowing beside him as he lay on the ground. A soldier took off his shirt and tore it into strips and began wrapping them around his leg. Allen gritted his teeth and turned to look at the gurgling water as another trooper pulled his boot from his left foot.
“It ain’t stopping,” Allen heard the soldier say.
He thought he heard another say, “He’ll bleed to death like this.”
“The crick, put it in the cold water,” another said.
Pain radiated up his leg as rough hands tugged. Another set of hands slipped under his shoulders lifting him up then setting him down beside the stream. His foot was set into the water. The iciness of the mountain stream nearly took his breath. He gritted his teeth and the light faded to black.
Lawrence Allen rested in a horse drawn hack. He had spent the first day being dragged on a crude litter his men had thrown together for him. They had obtained the hack late the previous night. Most of the men remained in the field continuing the fight, but Allen knew that his battle was over.
J. Keith Jones, a native of Georgia who lives in North Carolina, graduated from the University of South Carolina and is the author of one novel, "In Due Time," and the editor of "The Boys of Diamond Hill: The Lives and Civil War Letters of the Boyd Family of Abbeville County South Carolina."