Avery's Battalion North Carolina Troops

Historical Notes:

Avery's Battalion North Carolina Troops

A. C. Avery, Major

When Longstreet's Corps moved North, and reunited with Lee's Army in the midst of the battle of the Wilderness, the whole of East Tennessee was immediately occupied by the Federal army, and North Carolina would have been invaded by a separate army, had our Western railroad been built, and possibly, if the high mountains on our Western border had been traversed by such turnpike as had then been constructed across the mountains in Virginia. After Longstreet went North, most of the troops that were left to guard the frontier of the State were posted from a point almost due west from Asheville to the southwestern border of the State. The country north of Madison County was patrolled at most by a company of cavalry, and picketed by small squads of that company. Major Harvey Bingham had two full companies in camp in Watauga and Captain Price, who had been discharged from the First Cavalry, commanded a small, but active company in Ashe County. These troops rendered efficient service by driving back small predatory bands, who were continually coming into the State from upper East Tennessee. The approaches covered by the borders of Mitchell and Yancey were comparatively unguarded.

General R. B. Vance had been in command of the district composing Western North Carolina; but had been captured while making a raid into Cocke County, Tennessee. Colonel J. B. Palmer, who had been detached from his regiment, the Fifty-eighth North Carolina, then in the Army of Tennessee, at his own request, for the purpose, succeeded General Vance as commander of the district.

Colonel George W. Kirk, who, afterwards acquired an unenviable celebrity by his connection with the Holden-Kirk war, and who had been allowed by the Federal Government to organize a regiment, composed for the most part of North Carolina deserters, in June, 1864, led an incursion across this unguarded portion of our frontier and surrounded a conscript camp at Berry's Mill Pond, six miles below Morganton, just above what was then the terminus of the Western North Carolina Railroad. He surprised and captured at that place over one hundred of the Junior Reserves, who had been gathered there to be organized into a battalion. While the militia and citizens who did not belong to the Home Guards were gathering on the day of the capture at Morganton, 28 June, one of Kirk's scouts was shot but a half mile from Morganton by R. C. Pearson, a leading citizen of the town. On the second day thereafter a small squad of mounted men fired into the van of Kirk's command at the foot of the Brown Mountain, but he eluded them and reached the Winding Stairs, a narrow path near the top of Jonas Ridge, where he posted a strong detachment, while his prisoners were being moved on into East Tennessee. Here he was attacked by a body of men, composed of a few regular soldiers on furlough and several hundred militia, hurriedly gathered together from the counties of Burke, Caldwell, Catawba and Rowan, the whole body being under the command of Colonel H. A. Brown, of the First North Carolina Regiment, who had just recovered from a wound and turned out of his way to his command at Salisbury to help his neighbors. In the attempt to take this narrow path, Hon. W. W. Avery was mortally wounded and Calvin Houk and a number of others were seriously injured.

The excitement caused by this invasion induced the War Department at Richmond to order General Martin to establish headquarters at Morganton and assume command of the District of Western North Carolina. The writer, who was serving on the staff of Lieutenant-General Hood at the Chattahoochee river, first secured a leave of absence by the kindness of General Hood, and was then transferred to the Department of North Carolina in consequence of the death of all of his older brothers and the desperate illness of his father, and ordered to report to General Martin as Adjutant-General of the district. In the fall of the same year, when the writer was about to resign, and General Martin was contemplating the removal of his headquarters to Asheville, the General insisted that a number of local companies then formed and being formed, should be organized first into a battalion and then into a regiment, and obtained authority from the War Department for the writer to organize a regiment of mountaineers to protect the northwestern frontier of the State.

Major Gordon, in his history of the organization of troops (North Carolina Regiments, Vol. 1, page 22) accounts for the organization of the battalion and the proposition to enlarge it into a regiment as follows:

The War Department, at the suggestion of the General Martin, who commanded this district at the close of the war, suspended the conscript law, and there were no more runaways. Major A. C. Avery was also authorized to raise a regiment for local service. Some progress was made in recruiting several companies for this regiment, but the Major was captured during Stoneman's raid. The regiment was never organized, and, as far as known, the Major did not get his Colonel's commission. This was the last effort made to raise troops in the State before the war closed.

Accordingly, in February, 1865, Captain John Carson's company (Company A, of Avery's Battalion); Captain Nelson A. Miller's company (Company B), of Caldwell County, and Captain W. L. Twitty;s company (Company C), from Rutherford, were ordered to assemble at Morganton, where they were furnished with arms, ammunition and equipments, which Governor Vance had shipped at the request of the writer from the State arsenal at Raleigh. At the same time the Governor had forwarded a sufficient number of improved arms to supply the companies of Major Bingham in Watauga, and a few weeks later, the battalion composed of these three companies was ordered to go to Watauga County and provide Bingham's companies with the arms and munitions shipped for them. It was a part of the plan to organize Price's company, another company in Mitchell, still another in Madison, and a second company in Rutherford County, out of the body of young men just reaching the age for service and those persons exempt from service, some of them having been discharged on account of wounds and others not being liable because they were State officers, but all of whom were willing to do duty in defense of their State and their own immediate homes.

In fact many officers and soldiers of the battalion had rendered efficient service i n the armies in the field and had resigned or been discharged because of disability caused by wounds. Captain John Carson had been a First Lieutenant in Company D, of the Sixth Regiment, and was lamed by a wound received at Sharpsburg. He had partially recovered and had become anxious to serve the cause again somewhere and in some capacity. He was but a type of the older men who belonged to these companies. The boys, who had passed beyond parental control because of their liability under the 17 year conscript act, were the very best material for making good soldiers. Had the war lasted another year they would have been better known.

While Avery's Battalion was en route for Watauga, and before it reached there, a detachment from Franklin's Division of the Federal army, which had been sent from upper East Tennessee, had surprised Bingham's camp and captured all of his men, who did not at the time happen to be at their homes. While the battalion was camped in Watauga, information was received of a proposed incursion from Tennessee into the upper part of Burke County, and after sending a detachment direct to Mitchell County, the battalion was moved through the upper part of Burke and went to that county. The invaders were a small predatory band, some of whom were overtaken by the men sent in pursuit and a portion of their booty was recaptured. About this time Franklin's whole Corps moved up to Bristol and Major-General Stoneman, with a Division of splendidly equipped cavalry, passed up the Watauga River near Valle Crucis, along the turnpike by Blowing Rock, burned the cotton mill at Patterson, passed down through Taylorsville and then moved north towards Virginia. Meantime Kirk with two regiments of deserters had established an outpost of Franklin's command on the turnpike at Blowing Rock. Avery's battalion was moved back across the mountains. It had from its organization up to that time been able to protect the upper mountain counties from constant robberies and had driven out of the State and into the Federal Army some organized bands of raiders. But in the face of a division of Federal soldiers, with outposts occupied by regiments, the battalion was withdrawn to the foot of the mountains. Kirk sent out but one raiding party from Blowing Rock. That part had gone but a short distance below the head of Johns river when they found that a squad (Miller's Cavalry) of Avery's Battalion could beat them at their own game of bushwhacking.

Meantime, after receiving information as to the number and disposition of Kirk's men at Blowing Rock, and after reading a dispatch from General Lee to General Martin, in which the former expressed the opinion that Stoneman's Raiders would return to upper East Tennessee by way of the lead mines in Smith County, Virginia [sic--actually Wythe County, Virginia], the writer boarded the train for Salisbury with the purpose of pressing an application previously made to have a battalion detached from the garrison at Salisbury and moved up on the train at night to aid his battalion in a proposed night attack upon Kirk's camp at Blowing Rock. When he reached Salisbury, he found that General Bradley Johnson had gone to Greensboro, and General Gardner, in command there, was preparing to meet an attack from Stoneman's Division, which had crossed the Yadkin at Shallow Ford and was then moving on Salisbury. The result was that the writer was captured with Colonel Stone of the Second Mississippi (since three times Governor of his State) and seven or eight hundred other officers and men, and was marched by Taylorsville, Lenoir and Blowing Rock under guard.

Meantime, upon the return of Stoneman's Division, Miller's Company, a portion of whom were mounted, met the vanguard of the division near the Caldwell line and skirmished with them till they reached the town of Lenoir. They narrowly escaped capture in the town itself by riding up to the top of Hibriten. A portion of Stoneman's command was sent across the mountains to deliver the prisoners to Colonel Kirk, but most of his division moved to the west in two bodies, one by way of Beattie's Ford and Lincolnton to Rutherfordton, and thence across the Blue Ridge; the other by way of Lenoir and Morganton to Swanannoa Gap.

Major-General McGowan of the Confederate Army, happened to be at Morganton about this time. The citizens had obtained, through Governor Vance, a small field piece and had erected some breastworks and placed this piece so as to command the crossing of the river at the Rocky Ford, on the road from Lenoir to Morganton. Lieutenant George West, previously Aide-de-Camp on the staff of General D. H. Hill, had hurriedly organized and drilled a squad of young men who had charge of this gun. Captain Twitty's company of Avery's Battalion, removed from the western part of Burke County, when Stoneman's command approached Morganton and occupied some rifle pits along the bank of the river near Rocky Ford. The Home Guard under Colonel T. George Walton, were posted higher up the hill, and were supporting the field piece. This field piece, with the help of the infantry under General McGowan, chiefly that of Twitty's sharpshooters, prevented Stoneman's men from crossing at that point for several hours. Captain Twitty finding that the Federals were going up the river, took a squad and went up to Fleming's Ford. When the information was received that Stoneman had send men to a ford still farther up, all of the soldiers on the river retreated and evaded capture. Twitty's men fought with the coolness and courage of veterans in this, their only skirmish, with trained troops. A portion of Carson's company watched from the hills and mountains the advance of Stoneman to Swanannoa Gap, and pounced down upon detached squads of Federals, where they saw that they would not be outnumbered.

In May, 1865, the whole mountain and Piedmont Country was infested with robbers claiming to have been enlisted in the Federal army and it became absolutely necessary for the boldest among the returned soldiers of the Confederate Army to organize and strike terror into these bands of marauders. A party of desperate robbers were pursued by a number of Ex- Confederate soldiers, and took refuge in a sort of block house in Wilkes County, which was called Fort Hamby. In a charge upon this house, when it was captured Second Lieutenant Henly, of Miller's company, was killed. There was not a more daring man in any army. The storming of Fort Hamby 14 May, 1865, is the subject of an interesting article by Hon. R. Z. Linney in this volume. The men who fought and fell there imperiled their lives for the protection of their friends and families and moreover incurred the risk of being punished by the Yankees, at the instance of their irregular soldiers, who were in sympathy with such robbers.

A. C. Avery
Morganton, N.C.
30 May, 1901
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