The Impact of the Shelton Laurel Massacre in Madison County

Mar 29, 2022

and the crows took their eyes book cover

Somehow, I missed Vicki Lane’s lyrically written historical novel, And the Crows Took Their Eyes, when it was published in 2020. I should have known better. I enjoyed all of her previous Elizabeth Goodweather Appalachian Mystery Series, set in modern Madison County. 

On one research visit, Lane invited me for a mug of hearty soup in her mountaintop cabin outside Marshall. There, through the savory veil of steam, she offered some valuable insights on an early draft of what would become Met Her on the Mountain.

The Stain of the Shelton Laurel Massacre

Crows is set around a real event during the Civil War, the Shelton Laurel Massacre, whose legacy left the enduring stain of “Bloody Madison” on the county.

As the Civil War approached, Madison County was divided, almost equally, between Confederate Democrats, mostly in the towns, and Unionist Republicans, in the rural hollers. In 1861, a fiercely contested vote in the county seat of Marshall, over whether North Carolina should join the Confederacy, was decided by a vote for secession. A drunken melee spilled out into the street, in which a Shelton Laurel man fatally shot the county sheriff, a Democrat, and escaped.

By 1863, many men from each side joined respective uniformed armies, although some conscripted by the Confederacy deserted and joined the Union army in Tennessee. Others, known as “outliers” and “bushwackers,” hid out to avoid formal combat and terrorized those civilians who remained. Equally murderous were members of the Confederate Home Guard.

Like other versions of the massacre, Crows relies heavily on the slender but durable Victims: A True Story of the Civil War by Phillip Shaw Paludan (until now, the definitive account) and a private Shelton family history, both of which were invaluable to me in researching Met Her on the Mountain. Curiously, Lane does not include in her source notes Wilma Dykeman’s classic, The French Broad.

Paludan’s Account of Victims: A True Story of the Civil War

As Paludan recounts, a raid by Shelton Laurel Unionists, desperate for salt to preserve their pork for winter sustenance, on the county seat of Marshall, led to more mayhem. Some looters broke into the home of an absent Confederate colonel and snatched the blankets and bedclothes from two of his children, who were likely suffering from scarlet fever. In the days that followed, they died. 

Informed of the raid, the colonel and his cousin, also a Confederate colonel, led a reprisal raid on the Union stronghold of Shelton Laurel. But as their column traveled up the Laurel River valley, they were tormented by Unionist sharpshooters who fired from the woods. Further enraged, the soldiers tortured local women, who refused to say where the raiders were. Thirteen men, including some who were very old, as well as a 13-year-old boy, were rounded up and told they would be taken to Tennessee for trial. Instead, they were herded into a wooded ravine and shot to death, their partially buried bodies left for the crows and wild pigs.

The executions outraged even the secessionist North Carolina governor, Zebulon Vance, a native of the area. Investigations followed, but neither of the two Confederate colonels were punished, leaving a lasting scar on Madison County.

Almost no one who writes about Madison County can avoid the massacre. I include a section on it in Met Her on the Mountain. The acclaimed Western Carolina novelist Ron Rash put it at the center of one of his short stories in Nothing Gold Can Stay, and even Charles Frazier uses a version of it in his best-selling Cold Mountain.

And the Crows Took Their Eyes by Vicki Lane

Vicki Lane, the author, moved to Madison County from Florida in 1974 (four years before I made my first visit) – part of the post-1960s “back to the land” movement. A keen observer, she has developed an acute outsider/insider perspective on Madison County’s present and, now, its past.

Lane retells the massacre story mainly in the first person, in rotating voices of multiple characters on both sides of the fighting. Most of the novel’s characters are drawn from history, although their thoughts and words are imagined. One fictional character is a wise but enigmatic Jewish peddler (be still, my heart).

Lane tries her best to be fair, examining all the complexities that led up to the massacre, but in the end, as the saying goes, an explanation is not an excuse.

Given her 50-years of living in the county, Lane has the language and rhythm down tone perfect. Still, several characters’ casual use of the N-word, while historically accurate to the time period and the Southern Appalachians, is still jarring. One character, in East Tennessee, a Quaker abolitionist involved in the Underground Railroad, reproves her sweetheart, telling him she “can’t abide that word.” 

At the time, Democrats routinely referred to their adversaries as “black Republicans,” despite the fact that there were few slaves and fewer free people of color in the county. It is still jarring to hear the N-word used today in Madison County, where there are still few African Americans to be found. 

The Connection to Met Her on the Mountain

Interestingly to me, one of the main characters has the same name as one of those people I identify in Met Her on the Mountain as being involved in the kidnap, rape, and murder of Nancy Morgan.


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Additionally, I will be at the Madison County Public Library (1335 N. Main Street) on Tuesday, April 5th at 5 p.m. EST; Penland & Sons Department Store (50 S. Main Street) on Thursday, April 7th from 2 to 4 p.m. EST; and Chestnut Hall in Hot Springs (64 S. Spring Street) on Thursday, April 7th from 6 p.m. EST. No registration required. I hope to see you soon!

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