Written by Leisa Greathouse; Edited by Cheri Todd Molter
The area along the Tennessee and North Carolina boundary became a haven for bushwhackers, Civil War deserters, and others who found themselves on the wrong side of the law. Although desperate deserters could be dangerous to some, bushwhackers were known to ambush and rob unsuspecting people and sometimes murdered their victims in the process. Those outliers clashed with both Union and Confederate troops. One such engagement happened in present-day Robbinsville. At the time it was Cherokee County. Today it is Graham County, which was established in 1872, named in honor of William Graham: a United States Senator, governor of North Carolina, secretary of the Navy, and a Confederate States Senator.
Though not financially reliant on the system of enslavement like the central and eastern parts of the state, the predominant livelihood in Appalachia was farming and agriculture. Many families were struggling to survive on subsistence and wished to remain neutral during the conflict that divided the nation but found themselves pressured by those who either were staunch Unionists or Confederate ideologists to take sides.
An example of the depredations was provided by the following letter by Captain Nathaniel Green Philips (sometimes seen in records with the spelling Phillips) of Company I, Thomas’ Legion of Cherokee Indians and Highlanders. (Original spelling and lack of punctuation remain intact.) The letter is addressed to Colonel Cathey, (likely Joseph Cathey of Haywood County, N.C.)
Valley Town, [Cherokee County] NC
Dec 24 1863
Col Cathey sir the condition of this county renders it untenable the yankies and Bushwhackers have Ruined it, & I will have to move my family out & as I will soon have to Return to the army I want to move them in to your county & my Father is a good miller & if you have a good mill he will take it, & he can bring as good a Recommendation as you may desire. I want a house & 8 or ten acres of land for my family & my father & mother want to go with me I hope you will try to help me I have been in the Service nearly three years & my family has not got provisions to Do them a month & the frost & the Bushwhackers & Yankies has Ruined this County so it is impossible for them to stay here Let me hear from you by the first mail as what I do I must do promptly
Direct your letters to Valley Town
On November 18, 1864, The Daily Progress, a Raleigh newspaper, reported two incidents of bushwhackers terrorizing people in the mountains. The first notified readers that Capt. J. H. Bailey of the 58th NC Regiment was shot through the leg by bushwhackers in Mitchell County while visiting friends. The second happened in Watauga County: Readers were warned that the “Bushwhackers are becoming very bold, robbing our citizens and shooting men occasionally.”
During the same month in what is now Graham County, Company H, 69th North Carolina Infantry, occupied a site in present-day Robbinsville. Company H was part of Thomas’ Legion, which was to defend the area from Union incursions. At the intersection of what is now East Main Street and Court Street in Robbinsville, Cherokee soldiers from Thomas’ Legion and Companies C and G of the 3rd Tennessee Mounted Infantry, U.S.A. fought each other. The 3rd Tennessee Mounted Infantry consisted of Confederate and Union deserters.
One of the most infamous bushwhackers was John Jackson “Bushwhacking” Kirkland who, ironically, had served in the 3rd Tennessee Mounted Infantry for the CSA as a Second Lieutenant but deserted. “Bushwhacking John” and his gang terrorized areas of western North Carolina. John Jackson Kirkland was never held accountable for his atrocities. Though murder indictments were made against him, he was never arrested or even served papers.