Essay by Timothy N. Osment
In late 1862, a rag-tag group of Union sympathizers and Confederate deserters spent several days terrorizing the citizens of Madison County, NC. They stole provisions and created such chaos that eventually several deaths were blamed on their activities. In response, Confederate officers James Keith and Lawrence Allen led their troops in search of the men. Many of the group were caught and immediately executed. However, the revenge sought by Keith and Allen did not stop there. They went on an obsessive, self-directed mission to locate and bring to justice anyone suspected of deserting or evading conscription. Instead of capturing and treating their prisoners by lawful means, the two men punished captives on the spot, beating, whipping, and occasionally ordering death by firing squad. These heavy-handed methods of enforcement soon made Keith and Allen two of the most despised and hated men in the western part of the state.
By 1863, the Civil War had decimated the mountains, both the land and its citizens. Residents were divided, with about half supporting the Union and the other in support of the Confederacy. The divide in the border counties of Yancey and Madison were especially problematic. In fact, tensions were so high in Yancey that the county actually split in two, with the pro-South, eastern part breaking away and eventually becoming the new county of Mitchell. To quell the abuses of Keith and Allen, Union Colonel George Kirk and his forces first ventured from Tennessee into North Carolina. They soon became more abusive and more feared than the men they were sent to stop. For the next five years mayhem, bloodshed, and controversy would follow “Kirk’s Raiders.”
George Kirk, born in East Tennessee, was the oldest of five sons. In his early 20s, he was a member of the Union’s 2nd NC Mounted Infantry in Knoxville. His regiment ventured into Western North Carolina, enlisting Union support, suppressing Confederate activity, aiding escaped slaves and deserters, and looting local communities. Noted for his bravery, Kirk also gained a reputation for being stubborn and reckless. Eventually, he was allowed to form his own command. He quickly organized the 3rd NC Mounted Infantry. Kirk’s regiment was comprised primarily of Union sympathizers from the South. Though based in East Tennessee, Kirk and his men would terrorize the mountains of Western North Carolina until the end of the war.
Kirk’s 3rd Infantry soon evolved into a guerilla organization – with Kirk its guerilla leader. Leading over 2,000 men against their fellow Southerners, Kirk carried out more than a dozen separate raids in East Tennessee and Western North Carolina. Viewed with contempt for their brutality, they were referred to as Tories, traitors, vagabonds, and scoundrels. Beginning in April 1864, Kirk’s Raiders rampaged through Burnsville and Morganton, were repulsed at Waynesville, and occupied Boone and Asheville. They left their trademark throughout the mountains: prisoners-of-war, dead defenders, pillaged supplies, and scorched buildings and farms.
“… it was the intention of these outlaws to waste our wheat fields, in order, if possible, to starve the people into submission to the hated and detested government of Abe Lincoln. Who but savages, yes, worse than savages, resort to such a mode of warfare? The history of the world does not contain an instance when it has been done.”
The Daily Watchman; Salisbury, NC; June 30, 1864 – on Kirk’s Raiders
In Waynesville, Kirk burned down the home of Colonel Robert Love, a local Revolutionary War hero. When the end of the war came in 1865, the region was relieved. However, Kirk and his men were not through.
The post-Civil War era of Reconstruction was difficult in North Carolina. Lincoln named William Holden as governor. Holden’s task was to eliminate lingering Confederate support while rebuilding the state’s shattered infrastructure and institutions. Many North Carolinians resisted this federal interference in their affairs, and their resistance frequently turned violent. The newly-formed Ku Klux Klan became active in the state, eventually numbering over 40,000 members. The KKK sabotaged reconstruction efforts and victimized reconstruction supporters. The piedmont counties of Alamance and Caswell descended into a state of insurrection. In 1870, the KKK was suspected in the courthouse stabbing death of Republican senator John Stephens. Holden could tolerate no more and asked permission of the federal government to suppress the growing insurrection in North Carolina. Granted his request, Holden called on none other than Tennessee’s Colonel George Kirk for assistance – and Kirk was happy to cooperate.
Arriving in North Carolina during the summer of 1870, Kirk wasted no time. After a brief meeting with the governor, he established his post in Alamance County. He and his men began arresting suspected enemies of Holden and Northern Reconstruction. Again, Kirk’s Raiders used the same heavy-handed tactics they employed during the Civil War. He quickly became known as an enemy of the people and a disgrace to any military standards. His wild antics earned him the nickname “Cut-Throat Kirk,” and his actions and methods soon became an outrage and embarrassment even to his supporters. A local paper commented that it was disgusted that “free-born citizens of the state were imprisoned, manacled, and even hung up by the neck, like dogs, to trees in the woods.”
The presence of Kirk’s Raiders actually increased the determination of Reconstruction resistors. Eventually, the state legislature brought charges against Governor Holden. He was impeached and Kirk was captured and incarcerated. Holden fled to Washington, D.C., where he worked for a newspaper. Kirk managed to escape and quickly made his way back to Tennessee. He became a miner and businessman. His later years were tranquil in comparison to his infamous past.
George Kirk and his Raiders played a significant role in North Carolina history. His raids during the Civil War served to rally and unite mountain citizens. Later, his activities contributed to the eventual failure of post-war Reconstruction. Kirk’s legacy is one of pain and death.
For more information please see:
- Kirk’s Raiders: a Notorious Band of Scoundrels and Thieves, Matthew Bumgarner, 2000
- Avery Museum.com
- Tarheel Press
- Raid On Morganton; Spies, Raiders, and Partisans
- George W. Kirk; Spies, Raiders, and Partisans
- Caswell County Historical Association