Rumors preceded Stoneman's Federal cavalry raiders, indicating that a force of ten, fifteen, thirty, or even sixty thousand was on its way. In preparation, residents of Boone, the county seat of Watauga County, “toted” their hams to mountain pastures, set them on boulders, and covered them with moss.
Although nestled deep in the mountains and distant from any front, Watauga County and the rest of western North Carolina had witnessed untold strife. In fact, there was a direct relationship between East Tennessee and Western North Carolina – the two areas were mirrors of each other. When the war began, many residents of Western North Carolina supported the Confederate cause. About twenty thousand men from the region flocked to the Confederate banner. But as in East Tennessee, mounting hardships bred Unionism. Casualties at the front, depredations of foragers from both sides, the Conscription Act, inflation, and the Confederate government’s tax-in-kind policy – which required farmers to turn over one-tenth of their crops to the government – left many mountain residents hungry and destitute. Wives begged their soldier husbands to come home. As dissent grew, Western North Carolina became the dominion of guerillas, deserters, and raiders. This was an ugly internal war, and both sides had blood on their hands. As a result, Unionism peaked around the time George Stoneman arrived.
For the balance of the war, Watauga County had been better prepared than most to deal with such internecine conflict. The local home guard, Maj. Harvey Bingham’s 11th Battalion, was uniquely able. Bingham, a Caldwell County native in his twenties, was a twice-wounded, discharged veteran of the 37th North Carolina Infantry Regiment. Invited to take command of the local home guard, Bingham wisely recruited other discharged veterans wherever possible to lend backbone to his force. He ultimately raised two home guard companies from Watauga and neighboring Ashe County, and stationed them at Camp Mast. Although an unimpressive array of Mexican War surplus tents, shacks, and works, Camp Mast became one of the Confederacy’s few secure positions north of Asheville. Bingham kept one company on alert constantly, while the men of the second company stood down and went home. This system proved effective, and Bingham made his presence felt in battling Keith Blalock and other Unionists. In February 1865, however, the tide turned. About one hundred Unionists surrounded, hoodwinked, and captured Camp Mast, ejecting a home guard company from the war and sending the local force into disarray.
The Boone home guard meeting on March 28 was an effort to regroup in the wake of the Camp Mast debacle. This was not just a gathering of green teenagers and old men beating their chests. Many of those present were furloughed, paroled or recuperating Confederate soldiers, home from the front. Organizationally, the men wisely emphasized experience, and elected new leaders with that in mind, including Lt. Elijah J. Norris, a twenty-one-year-old veteran of the 18th Tennessee Infantry who bore scars from five wounds. The men agreed that the reconstituted company’s task was to keep order and prevent depredations. The first opportunity for the unit – officially Company B of the 11th Battalion North Carolina Home Guards – came all too quickly.
Boone was a town of several log cabins, a handful of larger homes, a courthouse, an inn, and a general store, surrounded by laurel tree-covered hills and high mountains. It was about 11:00 a.m. on March 28 when Keogh and his men rode into town. At that moment, about one hundred home guardsmen were drilling at the muster grounds near the courthouse. More men watched from the upper story of the home of Jordan Councill, another home guard captain.[v] Suddenly, gunfire erupted. According to one account, it started when someone accidentally fired their weapon. However, it is more likely that the surprising sight of blue-clad cavalry in town sparked a deliberate reaction. Some of the home guardsmen had been off duty when Camp Mast surrendered. Some had escaped the surrender. Others were just Southern sympathizers, ready to serve. All were still smarting from the rough handling they had taken. They resolved not to be beaten this time – but they did not realize the power of the force headed their way.
For more, see Chris J. Hartley, Stoneman's Raid, 1865.
Excerpt from Stoneman's Raid, 1865, (c) Chris J. Hartley