The Shelton Laurel Massacre refers to the execution of 13 accused Union sympathizers on or about January 18, 1863 by a Confederate regiment in the Shelton Laurel Valley of Madison County, North Carolina at the height of the American Civil War. The event sparked outrage among North Carolina Governor Zebulon B. Vance and Solicitor Augustus Merrimon (the latter of whom investigated the event), and was published in numerous newspapers in northern states and as far away as Europe. While the massacre destroyed the military career and reputation of Lieutenant-colonel James A. Keith, the adjunct commander who ordered the executions, he was never brought to justice for the incident.
The events leading up to the massacre began in January 1863 when an armed band of Madison County Unionists ransacked salt stores in Marshall and looted the home of Confederate Colonel Lawrence Allen, commander of the 64th North Carolina Regiment. In response, General William Davis, stationed at nearby Warm Springs (now Hot Springs), dispatched the 64th under Lieutenant-colonel Keith (Allen was ill at the time) to the Shelton Laurel Valley to pursue the looters (Keith, like much of the 64th, was a native Madison Countian). In the skirmish that followed, 12 of the looters were killed and several were captured. Upon hearing of the events, Governor Vance (who grew up in nearby Weaverville) sent orders not to harm the captured Unionists and dispatched Solicitor Merrimon to monitor the situation.
In spite of the governor's orders, Keith, believing a rumor that the Unionist force was much larger than in reality, began frantically combing the valley for Union supporters. Realizing that the locals were unlikely to volunteer information, Keith rounded up several Shelton Laurel women and began torturing them in hopes of forcing them to give up their sons' and husbands' whereabouts. After several days of rounding up alleged supporters, Keith began marching the captives toward East Tennessee, which at the time was occupied by a substantial Confederate army. However, after two of the captives escaped, Keith ordered the remaining 13 captives into the woods, and had them shot execution style. Their bodies were dumped into a nearby trench. Among the executed were three boys, ages 13, 14, and 17.
Merrimon, stunned by the incident, reported it to Governor Vance shortly thereafter. The governor wrote that the affair was “shocking and outrageous in the extreme,” and ordered a full investigation. Family members of the slain (mostly Sheltons) moved the bodies to a new cemetery east of the massacre site and swore revenge against the perpetrators. Keith was ultimately tried for the massacre in civilian court after the war. After spending 2 years in jail awaiting trial, he escaped just days before a state supreme court decision would have provided him with vindication. He was never apprehended, and after two years the state dropped its prosecution.
A North Carolina Highway Historical marker recalling the massacre stands in the vicinity of the massacre site at the modern intersection of state highways 208 and 212. The graves of the slain are in a cemetery just off Highway 212, further up the valley.
Massacre at Shelton Laurel, a short film written and directed by Jay Stone, was shot in the fall of 2001 in Rutherfordton, North Carolina. The film was selected Best Docudrama at the International Student Film Festival Hollywood in 2004. It was selected to screen at the 2006 Carolina Film & Video Festival, the 2006 Asheville Film Festival, and the George Lindsey UNA Film Festival in March 2006 and at the 2006 Film Celebration at Piedmont Community College in May 2006.
Events of the Shelton Laurel massacre are described in The World Made Straight, by Ron Rash, a fictional book about western North Carolina during the 1970s.
- Manly Wellman, The Kingdom of Madison (Chapel Hill, N.C.: University of North Carolina Press, 1973), pp. 83-84.
- William Trotter, Bushwhackers! The Mountains (John F. Blair Publishers, 1991), pp. 224-232.
- Paludan, Philip S. 1981. Victims: A True Story of the Civil War. Knoxville, TN: The University of Tennessee Press. p. 144.
- North Carolina Highway History Marker Program: Madison County, Marker P-71
- North Carolina Visions: Season 12 Featured Films.
- Southern Writers: The World Made Straight.