The deaths of thirteen men and boys at the hands of Confederate soldiers in the Shelton Laurel area of Madison County in January 1863 constitute one of the most tragic events in North Carolina history. Within days of the killings, Governor Zebulon B. Vance wrote that the affair was “shocking and outrageous in the extreme.” Writer Wilma Dykeman in 1955 observed that “nowhere is there a microcosm more chill and revealing than this episode of war at its heart and core.” Parallels have been drawn with the My Lai incident in Vietnam. An in-depth study by Phillip S. Paludan, published in 1981, looked at the affair using the tools of the psychologist, sociologist, and anthropologist. Still, the events surrounding what has come to be known as the Shelton Laurel Massacre remain difficult to reconstruct. Even the date of the murders is a subject of some question. Paludan makes a strong case for January 18, 1863, based on petitions filed by the widows; however, he allows that the events may have taken place during the week of January 25 - February 1.
Original Date Cast:
The incident grew out of a series of raids on the town of Marshall by fifty to sixty Unionists claiming that Confederate authorities had denied them salt and other provisions. Brig. Gen. Harry Heth at Knoxville was commander of forces at the scene. With retribution in mind Keith and his men went into the Shelton Laurel area and marched three boys, ages thirteen and seventeen, and ten men, twenty to fifty-six, out from their homes and into the woods. They were ordered to kneel. Hesitating on Keith’s first command to shoot the thirteen, the troops complied with the second. In addition, “several women were severely whipped and ropes were tied around their necks.” Most of what we know of the affair comes from a report prepared for Governor Vance by A. S. Merrimon. No one was ever prosecuted for the killings.
The cry of “Bloody Madison!” and a reputation for violence that has dogged the county for over a century are thought to have originated with this incident. In 1968 William and Bud Shelton placed new granite stones at the graves of family members slain in 1863. Six of the thirteen killed were Sheltons.
Phillip Shaw Paludan, Victims: A True Story of the Civil War (1981)
Wilma Dykeman, The French Broad (1955)
Glenn Tucker, Zeb Vance: Champion of Personal Freedom (1965)
Manly Wade Wellman, The Kingdom of Madison (1973)
John Angus McLeod, From These Stones: Mars Hill College, The First Hundred Years (1955)
Leon M. Siler, “My Lai Controversy Recalls 1863 Tragedy on the Shelton Laurel,” The State, February 1, 1970, pp. 9-10