The Civil War record of Seth Freeman

I’ve told the story of my great-great grandfather Obadiah Jarrett during the Civil War, and how he narrowly escaped being shot as a deserter from the Confederate army. On a recent visit to the Freeman Gap Baptist Church Cemetery in Madison County, North Carolina, I was reminded that my grandmother’s side of the family also saw service during the conflict, and with a clear day yielding a good shot of Seth’s tombstone (above), I thought it would be a good time to learn a little about what he had done during the war.

The tombstone provides us with the obvious first clue: Seth served in Company C of the 2nd North Carolina Mounted Infantry—a Union regiment. The Second was formed in Knoxville in the fall of 1863, and Seth was one of several Freeman boys from Buncombe County (none his direct kin, though presumably some were cousins) who enlisted; he joined up on September 26, 1863, at age 18.

According to National Park Service records, the new regiment was ordered to Greeneville about three weeks after Seth enlisted, then headed to Bull’s Gap before marching across the Clinch Mountains to the Clinch River, where Seth and the regiment saw action at Walker’s Ford on December 2. The regiment then was moved down to Mississippi through February before returning to Cumberland Gap. The regiment moved into Western North Carolina in late March and early April, 1865, and served until August 16, 1865 when the unit was mustered out.

As part of these events, the Second advanced on Asheville, but was unable to take it from the 62nd North Carolina Infantry. They later were directed to Swannanoa Gap, where on May 6, 1865 they encountered a Confederate force led by General Thomas. In the ensuing skirmish, Union soldier James Arwood was killed. This event was recorded as the last battle and last casualty of the Civil War, coming weeks after Lee’s surrender at Appomattox.

The one event in Seth’s service that has a definitive record of his participation happened in 1864, when Major-General Schofield ordered a detachment of the 2nd to join the 3rd on a mission to make a raid against the enemy and destroy bridges. Due to a classic military clerical error, the men of the detachment were erroneously listed as deserters in the rolls of their regiments. It took until 1869 and an act of Congress to correct the error in their record. I’m going to need to dig a little more into what happened here; an entire detachment being “accidentally” marked as deserters is interesting. (See below for update.)

Seth returned home, married Cyntha (or Syntha or Cynthia) Dent Lunsford in 1866, and died in 1914. It’s said that his faithful dog was so heartbroken when Seth was buried that he dug down into his grave three feet to try to get to the casket.

Update 4/22: The Third North Carolina Mounted Infantry Regiment is an interesting unit. Known as “Kirk’s Raiders” and “bushwackers,” the unit became known for its guerilla tactics. Seth’s records show that he was detached to the Third in June of 1864 and did not rejoin the Second until April 1865. During that time, the unit fought at Bulls Gap and Red Banks in Tennessee, and led Stoneman’s Last Raid.

Deserter pardoned: the Obediah story

Obediah Jarrett’s tombstone, Antioch Ponder cemetery

A few years ago I shared a pointer to my sister Esta’s oral history record with my uncle Forrest, including his telling of how my great-great-grandfather, whose name is varyingly spelled Obadiah or Obediah, was personally saved from being executed as a deserter by North Carolina governor Zebulon Vance. It’s a great story, one that he told over and over and over.* But there’s always been a small question in the back of my mind: where was the evidence? What was the rest of the story?

Well, last night sitting with Esta and my parents after the funeral, I went looking for the evidence. And I found it, in a 2012 book by Aldo S. Perry, Civil War Courts-Martial of North Carolina Troops. And, astonishingly, the family story is true! Mostly. And the parts I didn’t know are stranger than fiction.

So, then. Obediah Jarrett, together with his brother Jacob P. Jarrett, enlisted in the North Carolina Fifth Cavalry on May 14, 1862 in Marshall, North Carolina. The unit was, essentially, a “mountain boy” division, made up of folks from western North Carolina and eastern Tennessee, and they saw a fair bit of action over the next year all over the southeast, including battles at Brandy Station, Virginia on June 9, 1863, described as the largest cavalry battle ever fought in North America and as a pivotal turning point in the Civil War, and at Chickamauga, Georgia on September 20, later that year. Chickamauga in particular appears to have been a bloodbath; 20% of the Confederate forces were killed.

Just exactly when Obediah attempted to desert is not clear. One source I consulted says that he deserted on August 7, 1863, between his unit’s two battles, but I think that’s unlikely unless the policy toward deserters changed. Because at his desertion recorded on August 1, 1864 in Concord, Tennessee, he was arrested, court-martialed, and sentenced to be executed.

Side note: Perry’s history of Obediah’s division records that the Fifth Cavalry merged with the Seventh Cavalry to form the Sixth Cavalry within the 65th Regiment, and that this merger may have been the reason for the desertion of Obediah and others. In fact, the unit led the Confederacy with 31 absences per company, 10 courts martial, and 7 death sentences. Perry notes that the North Carolina soldiers volunteered into North Carolina units of company size, but found themselves realigned into a huge regiment that included companies of Virginians and was led by a Virginian. In 1864, the captain of Obediah’s company, Company I, resigned his commission because “my command has deserted to the enemy and to the mountains of western NC and after attempting I find it impossible to get them together.”

At any rate, Obediah deserted on August 1, 1864, together with a fellow Madison County soldier, Jobe R. Redmon. They were court-martialed on separate days and both sentenced to death. Redmon wrote a letter home on November 2, 1864 from his imprisonment in Kinston, North Carolina, telling his family:

“My dear wife and children I seate myself this morning with a troubbeled harte and a destrest mind to try to rite a few line to let you no that I hird my sentens red yesterday and hit was very bad I am very sory to let you no for [one line not legible] all ready I hafte to bee shot the 9 of this month I am sory to in form you that I have but 7 days to live But I hope and trust in God when they have slane my body that God will take my sould to rest.”

Redmon’s descendants kept this letter and read it every year on the anniversary of his execution.

So what happened to Obediah? Well, it’s remarkably like what my Uncle said. A man named H. H. Baird prepared a request for pardon for both men to Jefferson Davis, and separately sent a letter to his cousin, governor Zeb Vance, appealing the decision, and specifically citing the change in terms of his commission as a reason for clemency. In a postscript, he emphasized, “The day has not as yet been appointed for the execution of Private Obediah Jarrett.” Whatever happened, Obediah’s death sentence was remitted by SO #260, issued on November 1, 1864—strikingly a day before Redmon’s letter home. Redmon’s sentence was not commuted and he died.

Why Obediah was spared and Redmon executed is unknown, as is why Redmon had a date for execution before Obediah despite having been court-martialed six days later. The record is silent, but suggests that there was some sort of favoritism shown to my great-great-grandfather—and thank goodness.

At any rate, Obediah, his death sentence commuted, remained in prison until Union forces defeated the remainder of the 65th at the Battle of Wyse Fork, fought March 7-10, 1865, near Kinston. He was taken prisoner of war by the Union troops but released after taking an oath of allegiance to the United States, and from thence headed home.

The last part of the story as my Uncle tells it, is that my great-grandfather Zebulon B. Jarrett was named for the North Carolina governor who saved his father’s life. That part is almost certainly true. However, genealogical records give us one last wrinkle: Zeb Jarrett was born three years and 11 months before his father was freed, and a year before he enlisted. Zeb was almost certainly named after Zebulon Vance, but he had a different name at birth, which has sadly been lost due to the destruction of our family Bible when my Aunt Jewell’s dorm burned in a fire.

This is why I study history: truth is not only stranger than fiction, it’s sometimes downright weirder.

* The last “over” there goes to the Applachian Barns Project’s documentation of the 19th century barn on my grandmother’s farm, documented from my uncle’s stories.

The Shelton Laurel Massacre

Courtesy Asheville and Buncombe County on Flickr.
Courtesy Asheville and Buncombe County on Flickr.

The ongoing standoff at the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in Oregon reminds me of other breakdowns in law and order. With the fundamental question of private property vs. the federal government, it’s not quite as dramatic as the American Civil War, but it’s a dramatic standoff nonetheless.

But the Civil War seems to lurk everywhere I look. The photo above showed up on my Flickr home page today and sent me off to learn about the Shelton Laurel Massacre, in which a Confederate Colonel, Lawrence Allen, from my dad’s home town of Marshall, North Carolina and his lieutenant colonel James A. Keith went hunting for Unionist sympathizers in Shelton Laurel Valley. After torturing local women, including the 85 year old Mrs. Unus Riddle, and burning houses and slaughtering livestock, they rounded up fifteen suspected sympathizers, all related and most with the last name Shelton, and began to march them toward East Tennessee where the Confederate army lay. Along the way two escaped, so Keith ordered the remaining thirteen captives shot, including three boys aged 13, 14 and 17. Keith evaded the law after the war but eventually was tried for the massacre after the war in civilian court, and would have been vindicated by the state superior court had he not escaped two days before the verdict was returned; he was never recaptured.

Learning about the massacre hits home. My great-great-grandfather was a Confederate army deserter who only wanted to plow his fields; it’s likely, had he been in Shelton Laurel rather than in the caves in the hills above Marshall, that he would have been rounded up by Keith’s soldiers as well.

Some more resources on the massacres: a letter by Col. William R. Shelton giving an oral history perspective on the incident; a 2013 blog post in the New York Times providing some historical and legal perspective on the issue; an essay discussing some of the deep divisions in the mountains; an essay by a novelist and a descendant of a possible participant in the massacre; and a recent article discussing other accounts that cast doubt on Keith’s responsibility for the massacre and suggesting that he may have been framed by Augustus Merrimon, who wrote the report on the massacre for Governor Zebulon Vance.