Thomas Legion and the
Reunion of Thomas' Legion
I say surrender, but a better word would be quit,
for I dont think we really ever did surrender.
In fact, we just disbanded and carried our guns and cartridges homes with us."
By the spring of 1865, the South was in a prostrate position. Very
little remained of the once proud nation. The overwhelming superiority
of the Northern invaders had reduced the Southern defenders to a mere
handful of starved, ragged volunteers.
General William T. Sherman and his huge army of Bummers had devastated
Georgia and South Carolina. During his infamous raid across the State
of Georgia, no person since, until Adolph Hitler in the 1940s,
has equaled the atrocities he committed against the civilian population
of that state. For these actions, he has since that time been hailed
as a national hero to the Northern population and is described as such
in most northern history books.
General Lee had succumbed to General Grant on April 9th and General
Johnston had surrendered to General Sherman on April 18th. To the rest
of the South, the war was over, but not so in Western North Carolina.
The word of these surrenders had not reached into this mountainous area.
The Yankees in East Tennessee, knowing that the hostilities had ended,
continued to push the war in this section.
One of the most unique units to serve the Confederate States of America
during the War of the Rebellion was the Thomas Legion. This unit
raised by William Holland Thomas was composed of mountain Whites from
Western North Carolina and East Tennessee, and Cherokee Indians from
the Qualla Boundary.
During the greater part of the war, the Whites of Thomas Legion
had served in various elements of the Army of Northern Virginia, while
the Indian companies had served mostly in East Tennessee and Southwestern
By the opening of 1865, what remained of the Legions volunteers
had reunited for the protection of Western North Carolina. General James
G. Martin had been placed in command of the Western District with his
headquarters in Asheville.
In the early part of February, Federal Colonel George Kirk with 400
cavalry and 200 infantry had left Newport, Tennessee and crossed the
northern end of the Smokies at Sterling Gap.
Passing through the mountains he found only one company of Confederate
Home Guards under Captain Robert Howell in his path. Howell attempted
to delay Kirk but the superiority of the Yankees forced him to retire
to Bethel. Kirk released his anger on the settlement of Waynesville
on the 4th of February. This raider chieftain ordered the home of Revolutionary
War hero Colonel Robert L. Love burned. He opened the Waynesville jail,
turned its prisoners loose and destroyed the building.
After raping the village, Kirk moved southwest and took the Balsam
Gap road, intending to cross the mountains there and camp for the night.
In the darkness about 100 Haywood County Troops augmented by some farmers
crept up on the far side of them and fired a volley into their midst.
Kirks troops replied with some effect and the Confederates fell
The angry Southerners did cause Kirk to change his route of escape.
Instead of crossing through Balsam Gap, he marched back to Waynesville
and then hurried on to Soco Gap.
As he neared the gap, Lt. Robert Conleys sharpshooters of Thomas
Legion rose from their hiding places along the lane. They ambushed the
Federals so effectively that the surprised Kirk ordered his exhausted
troops to retire immediately.
Kirk was finally able to cross Balsam Gap on the 6th of February. He
rode to Webster and then turned north, following the Tuskaseegee River,
and headed in the direction of Quallatown. As he neared the town of
Wilmot and attempted to ford Soco Creek, he encountered Major Stringfield
and his Indian troops entrenched near an old Indian church.
Here the Legion fought Kirk with considerable determination, killing
a few Federals, wounding several and capturing some horses. The Indians
behaved with great coolness and fought well.
This little band of brave soldiers however were soon overpowered and,
with the exception of an occasional shot from the Indians, Colonel Kirk
passed on without being further molested.
The skirmish lasted for more than an hour, until Major Stringfield
was forced to fall back to the creek and cross to Quallatown. But the
Indians were still spoiling for a fight; the battle had taken place
on sacred Indian ground where the Great Chief Tucumseh had held a Council
of War in 1812. Despite the Indians eagerness Kirk got away and crossed
the mountains through Indian Gap.
Throughout the South, Asheville was regarded as a secure haven. Wounded
officers came here to convalesce. Here elements of Jeb Stuarts
Cavalry revived their gay spirits, played banjos, and rested their jaded
horses. Here Lieutenant General Leonidas Polk sent his wife for safety
after he dropped the Bishops frock and put on the gray uniform
to campaign with the Army of Tennessee until he was shot down in front
of Kennesaw Mountain in Georgia.
But now, during the waning hours of the war, Asheville was under a
direct threat. Yankee Colonel Isaac M. Kirby, reached the outskirts
of Asheville on April 6. Guns had been placed on the heights overlooking
the French Broad River at a site that still bears the name of Battery
Park. Another hastily gathered Confederate force met the Federals near
the present site of Asheville-Biltmore College and drove them back.
On April 26, General Simon B. Brown and his Federal Brigade surrounded
Asheville, demanding its surrender. Under the circumstances General
Martin had no choice but to comply. Thus Brown captured about 30 officers,
chiefly from Loves Regiment. The officers were ordered to report
to General Stoneman in Knoxville while the men were paroled.
General Browns troops treated the citizens shabbily and there
were many reports of cruelty. Women were searched in the middle of the
street, houses were broken into, and everything of value taken.
On the morning of April 28th, General Brown left Asheville with his
plunder and troops. In the afternoon Federal Brevet Brigadier General
William J. Palmer, learned of Browns raid. He immediately wrote
to General Martin and released all officers and men from their parole.
While Martin and Love discussed their options, the Federals returned
and occupied Asheville.
While the Federals busied themselves with stealing horses and harassing
the public, General Martin sent for Colonel Thomas and his Indian Battalion,
who were at Quallatown. Thomas was ordered to link up with Love at Balsam
Gap, which he did about May 3rd. Martin then directed Love to entrench
his troops, numbering about 200, at the gap.
On May 5th, Lieutenant Conley was ordered to march with Colonel Thomas
to Soco Gap and fortify it. In all Martin had about 500 soldiers, five
companies at Balsam Gap and five at Soco Gap, to defend the Balsam Mountains.
Stringfield, now sporting his second star, which signified his promotion
to Lt. Colonel, had been sent written orders by General Martin to carry
to General Stoneman at Knoxville. Rumors of the surrender of Generals
Lee and Johnston had to be confirmed. If the war was over Martin wanted
to know so he detailed Stringfield to find out.
General Stoneman told Stringfield that he and his men would have to
take the Oath of Allegiance to the United States. The war was over and
flags of truce need not be observed. Upon his refusal to the take the
oath, Stringfield and his small band were thrown in jail.
On the afternoon of May 6th, he reached the home of John B. Love, Colonel
James R. Loves father, and was having dinner when the front door
burst open. In rushed Colonel Love, flushed with exciting news; Bartletts
troops had finally made their move on Waynesville, and a sharp engagement
had occurred that very day. Lt. Conley, enroute from Soco Gap to Balsam,
had ran into the Federals while they camped at Sulphur Springs. A sharp
engagement had ensued and one Federal was killed.
Martin and Love quickly mounted their horses and raced to Loves
headquarters at Balsam Gap.
When the battle and subsequent actions took place Kirk was on a ruinous
raid in Henderson County, and was unable to lend any support to Bartlett.
On the morning of May 6th, Bartlett and his 2nd Regiment marched unopposed
into Waynesville. He set up his headquarters in the Battle House on
Main Street (the towns only hotel) and stationed his troops on
the old Love estate near the White Sulphur Springs.
When Colonel Thomas discovered Bartletts advance, he moved the
Indian Battalion and Conleys sharpshooters from Soco Gap to Tito
(now known as Dellwood).
Thomas ordered Pvt. John S. Rice to change into civilian clothes and
to spy on Bartlett. Part of Rices mission was to supply the enemy
with exaggerated reports of Thomass number. Meanwhile Thomas decided
to bring up Loves Regiment from Balsam Gap toward Waynesville,
hoping to trap the Federals in town.
Meanwhile Love moved his companies around Waynesville and hooked up
with the Cherokees right. Thomas ordered hundreds of fires built
on the slopes of the mountains so that from the town, it appeared as
though thousands of Confederates were assembling. The bonfires and hideous
yells from the Rebels and the Indians had the desired effect.
The following morning Colonel Bartlett sent out a flag of truce, asking
for a conference. Colonel Love, with several men, and Colonel Thomas
with 20 of his largest and most warlike looking Indians, stripped to
the waist, painted and feathered in fine style, entered the town.
Moving the conference to the Battle House for further consultation,
it was then that General Martin learned that the war was truly over.
Upon learning of the surrender of Lee and Johnston, Martin proposed
surrendering his entire district to Bartlett.
The last drum roll the Indians and Mountaineers would ever hear began
on May 9, 1865, one month after Lee met Grant at Appomattox, Virginia.
This was the last shot fired east of the Mississippi during the War
of the Rebellion.
In the last land battle of the war, Cherokee leader Brigadier General
Stand Watie surrendered a battalion formed by the Indians in the Oklahoma
Territory on June 23, 1865.
One Mountaineer quoting about the surrender said, I say surrender,
but a better word would be quit, for I dont think we really ever
did surrender. In fact, we just disbanded and carried our guns and cartridges
homes with us."
William W. Stringfields association with the Indians began where
Thomas left off. The Cherokees liked Stringfield, not only because
he helped lead them in the war, but also because he befriended them
afterwards. Stringfield once said; all the old, and many young
Indians know myself and my wife. Ours is the only house around here
where they can spend the night. We frequently have 8 or 10 of them.
During a reunion of the United Confederate Veterans, General Julius
S.Carr, commanding the veterans, remarked: For the first time
in history of these reunions a camp of native Cherokee Indians was in
attendatice. Under the supervision of Colonel W. W. Stringfield, they
were the cynosure of all eyes.
The Cherokees were so proud of their service in Thomass Legion
that in 1900 they organized a United Confederate Veterans Camp of their
own. The camp was called Sou-Noo-Kee in honor of an old Indian who joined
the Southern Service and had been killed in a skirmish at Cumberland
Following this Great unpleasantness, one of the soldiers
lamented: Durn Yankees--tryin to destroy our Southland--and
nearly did. General Lee wouldnt never have surrendered you see-but
he just had to do it. They was too strong, havin all the army
and means behind them like they had, against the ragged footsore, starvin
soldiers we had.
The Legions Battle Flag is now on display at the Cherokee Museum in Cherokee, North Carolina.
Excerpts from the preceding were taken from "Storm in the Mountains, by Vernon H. Crow, and History of the 16th North Carolina Regiment, by George Henry Mills.
© copyright 1994 Jim Howell