ECW welcomes back guest author Michael Singleton
To a hiker on the Appalachian Trail, the cluster of headstones on Big Butt Mountain are a scene out of place to the famous footpath. Known as the “Shelton Graves”, this site along the Tennessee – North Carolina border marks the final resting place of three Civil War Unionists: David Shelton Jr., William Shelton, and Millard Haire. All three were killed in July 1864 in the bitter fighting that swept through the region.
Thousands of people hike past this spot every year, but few visitors gain a true understanding of the tragic incident that occurred there. In its guidebook, Appalachian Trail: The Thru-Hiker Companion, the Appalachian Long Distance Hikers Association (ALDHA) describes the incident by saying “While returning to a family gathering during the war, the uncle [David Shelton] and nephew [William Shelton] were ambushed near here and killed by Confederates.”[i] The story of what happened there is far more complex than that simple statement.
The Shelton killings are referenced in multiple other trail guides and resources, but the most detailed account is Maynard Scott Shelton’s book, A Family’s Civil War Struggles: Stories of My Ancestors of Shelton Laurel, North Carolina. Maynard Shelton (a descendant of David Shelton Jr.) relates that David and William were both Union soldiers from the mountain community of Shelton Laurel in Madison County, North Carolina. Both men enlisted in the 2nd North Carolina Mounted Infantry (U.S.) in September 1863, but deserted from their unit and returned home within a few months. Early in the morning on July 19, 1864, a force of Confederates from the 64th North Carolina Infantry ambushed the Sheltons, Haire, and eleven others while they resided in a cabin on Big Butt Mountain. Millard Haire, a 13-year-old Shelton relative, was killed in the first Rebel volley while he stood outside the cabin. Maynard Shelton further describes the incident:
The sleeping men in the shack woke up suddenly, ran out to see what the shooting was all about, and were met by a deadly hail of gunfire. David Shelton Jr. and William Shelton were killed and several of the soldiers were wounded, including Ephraim Hensley. Two older civilians, Isaac Shelton Sr. (William Shelton’s father and David, Jr.’s older brother), and Hampton Burgess, Sr. tried to escape by running away but the ensuing Rebels caught up with them about a fourth of a mile out the trail (now the Appalachian Trail) and shot them dead.
Three of the men escaped unharmed, and Ephraim Hensley hid in a Laurel thicket motionless and watched the whole ordeal. He was shot in the lower back, but survived the wound and lived until 1916. The source of this story mainly comes from his eyewitness account.[ii]
In total, five men were killed and six were wounded in the attack. Five of the wounded men were captured and taken to Warm Springs, NC (now Hot Springs). William Shelton, David Shelton Jr., and Millard Haire were laid to rest in their current location by relatives. The bodies of Hampton Bridges Sr. and Isaac Shelton Sr. were supposedly buried in an unmarked grave several hundred yards to the north.[iii]
The puzzling aspects of the incident surround the course of events that brought the Sheltons to the cabin on Big Butt Mountain. Why were the men hiding there? Were they even truly deserters at that time?
The theory proposed by author Maynard Shelton is that David and William spent the winter of 1863-1864 in the area avoiding Confederate patrols that scoured the region for guerillas, deserters, and conscripts. Shortly thereafter, Lt. John Shelton (David Shelton’s brother) led a detail from the 2nd North Carolina Mounted Infantry (U.S.) back to Shelton Laurel from Tennessee to recruit men and return deserters. John Shelton ultimately convinced David and William to return with him to the Union Army, and in the spring of 1864 led a group of men across the mountains to Knoxville, TN. The new volunteers (including David and William Shelton) fell in with Col. George Kirk’s 3rd North Carolina Mounted Infantry and later participated in a raid into western North Carolina in late June 1864. This raid was a success as Kirk’s command captured Camp Vance, a Confederate conscript camp near Morganton, NC.
In early July 1864, Kirk’s unit passed near the Shelton Laurel community on the course of their return to Knoxville. At the time, Kirk’s regiment was encumbered with numerous prisoners and was closely pursued by Confederates. As they approached their homes, David Shelton Jr., William Shelton, Ephraim Hensley, and an uncertain number of others supposedly fell out of the column without permission. Thus, absent without leave (again), the men ultimately hid in the cabin on Big Butt Mountain. There, along with other Shelton Laurel relatives and neighbors, they were attacked and killed two weeks later in the Confederate ambush.[iv]
In November 1868, David Shelton Jr.’s widow Elizabeth applied for and was granted a pension for her husband’s service in the Union Army. This original pension claim was largely based on the written testimony of David Jr.’s brother, John Shelton. Elizabeth Shelton later applied for an increase in the pension rate, and her new case was personally investigated by Special Agent G.H. Ragsdale from the U.S. Bureau of Pensions.
Special Agent Ragsdale’s final investigation report included testimonies from soldiers and Shelton relatives that were presented as evidence. One such affidavit was given by John Shelton, who’s statement largely matches the narrative proposed by author Maynard Shelton. John Shelton stated that in May 1864 he led a group of men (including his brother David Shelton Jr.) from the Shelton Laurel area to rejoin the army at Knoxville, TN. Furthermore, he claimed that the men participated in the Camp Vance raid with Kirk’s 3rd North Carolina. Where the account differs though is that John Shelton claimed:
His brother [David] accompanied the expedition to Morganton and back as far as his home in Madison Co. NC. John said he gave his brother verbal leave to stop and rest. He had given out on account of an old wound (cut of an axe). John thinks that Major Kirk also gave David verbal permission to stop. This was the last of June or the first of July, and while home on the 19th of July 1864, David Shelton was captured by the enemy and killed.[v]
Interestingly, Special Agent Ragsdale came to a different and more damning conclusion regarding David Shelton Jr. While acknowledging the truthful possibility of John Shelton’s claim, Ragsdale finally concluded that on the raid:
This man [David Shelton Jr.] and a number of others fell out of line and refused to go any further. They found other associates with whom they had been laying out. They made their hiding place on Butt Mountain and supposed the rebels could not find them and could not get up the mountain even if this hiding place was known. From this location they made raids and pressed whatever property they could find. The rebels regarded them as a band of robbers and were anxious to find them. They finally succeeded in slipping up on the party and almost annihilated it.[vi]
Special Agent Ragsdale’s final assertions were based on the affidavits of men in Kirk’s 3rd North Carolina, principally a Lt. J.M. Sprinkle. Sprinkle testified that it was not reasonable that permission was given for men to depart Kirk’s command because of the large number of prisoners held by the regiment and the closeness of Confederate pursuit. Furthermore, Ragsdale concluded that it was ultimately irrelevant to the case if John Shelton or Kirk gave authorization to leave because the men:
were deserters before they went on this raid and all but one was shot soon after they fell out of the command and stopped at home. They were not with any command at the time they were shot but were with other men who were known as common robbers.[vii]
In 1877, Ragsdale’s report resulted in a loss of pension benefits for Elizabeth Shelton, a mother to four children. Despite this decision, David and William Shelton were granted veteran headstones in 1915 for their graves on Big Butt Mountain.[viii] A headstone for Millard Haire was later placed alongside the Sheltons by his descendants.
Regardless of the investigation’s outcome, the Sheltons lost five relatives and neighbors in the attack on July 19, 1864. Viewed against the Civil War’s larger scope, the incident on Big Butt Mountain is a meaningless event. It was simply one of the countless acts of violence that only added to casualty lists and broadened the war’s savage reach. For the victim’s families though, it was a disaster with an incalculable cost.
For many of the Appalachian Trail hikers that pass them, the Shelton Graves might be the first (and only) Civil War site they visit in their lives. To that end, let the graves serve as a permanent testimonial to the complexity of allegiances, and the dangers of life, behind the lines in the Civil War. Likewise, let them stand testimony to the viciousness of the fighting that raged far beyond the war’s major battlefields.
Michael Singleton received a B.A. in History from the Virginia Military Institute in 2013. Upon graduation from VMI, he received a commission in the U.S. Army and served on active duty from 2013-2020. Michael is a student in the U.S. history graduate program at the University of Southern Mississippi.
[i] Appalachian Trail Thru-Hiker’s Companion, ed. by Robert Sylvester (Harpers Ferry, WA: Appalachian Trail Conservancy, 2018), 45.
[ii] Maynard Scott Shelton, A Family’s Civil War Struggles: Stories of My Ancestors of Shelton Laurel, North Carolina (Mosheim, TN: The Tennessee Publishing House, 2014), 60-64.
[iii] Shelton, 64.
[iv] Shelton, 61-63.
[v] Shelton, 65-66.
[vi] Shelton, 69.
[vii] Shelton, 70.
[viii] Shelton, 70-71, 64.