My great, great, great grandfather Daniel Hackney, Jr., was appointed to chair a public meeting at Love’s Creek Baptist Church in Chatham County, North Carolina, on August 29, 1863. That was nearly two months after the Union victory at the Battle of Gettysburg in Pennsylvania. Hackney, a former politician, owned 14 slaves, served as a deacon at Love’s Creek Baptist Church, and was 3rd Lieutenant in Chatham County’s Home Guard. His report about that meeting was published in the September 10, 1863, issue of the Fayetteville Observer newspaper in Fayetteville, North Carolina.
After Hackney and other speakers addressed the assembly, those present declared “full confidence” in the Confederate government and “abiding faith” in Divine Providence. They expressed their opinion that “a reconstruction of the Union is a thing impossible” and disapproval of so-called “peace meetings” in various parts of the Old North State. Finally, they resolved that it was their duty “to sustain the President of the Confederate States and the Governor of North Carolina, in the discharge of all their constitutional duties.”
I have other relatives who were just as unwavering in their convictions as Hackney was, only not for his cause.
On November 10, 1862, Henry W. Ayer wrote his official report to Governor Zebulon B. Vance of North Carolina about war-related manufacturing contracts in Forsyth County. His letter ends, however, with a dire warning about Elkanah Willard, whose name comes from the father of the Prophet Samuel in the Bible. This Willard is my second cousin, fourth removed, and lived in Yadkin County, which is adjacent to and west of Forsyth County. Here’s what Ayer said about him, and note that Richard M. Pearson was the Chief Justice of the North Carolina Supreme Court:
I am authorized and requested by Chief Justice Pearson to lay before your Excellency the following facts, There is a man in Yadkin county near Mount Nebo . . . named Elkanah Willard, who openly defied the law, first, By rescueing his brother who is a conscript (he himself is not) from a guard who had him in custody by a display of arms and open force. Secondly, by putting Capt Fleming and the men accompanying him at defiance, in such a way that they were obliged to shoot him down or rush upon him armed as he was at the iminent danger of their lives The Capt says he could have shot him down or at the risk of his life have attempted to arrest him but as he was a man of most desperate character and has 5 older brothers as bad as himself, the better plan he thought was to let him alone — It is the opinion of the well affected neighbors in order to avoid bloodshed that the best policy would be to send an officer with 12 to 15 armed men — to arrest him, supposing that this display of force would let them see their resistance was hopeless and that they would surrender without opposition Whereas it tampered with and not put down at the start it may result in some dreadful evil. The effect of armed men in the neighborhood, would be wholesome in many ways, as there is some disaffection in that part of the County. This man Willard has said he would rather join the Federal Army than ours — The above statement are facts, vouched for by Judge Pearson. Any thing else coming to my knowledge will be promptly reported to your Excellency.
That same year, 1862, Elkanah Willard was indeed arrested for speaking in favor of the Union and rescuing a draft-dodging brother. But that was only the beginning. He was eventually released from custody, legally or illegally, before his next escapades.
15 men gathered in the Bond Schoolhouse, named for a Quaker and near the Deep Creek Friends Meeting House, in Yadkin County on the night of February 11, 1863. That group, which was evading the Confederate draft and making plans to cross over to Union territory in Tennessee, included William, Benjamin, and Lee Willard, who were three of Elkanah Willard’s brothers. Their number increased to 16 early the next day when another member of their party joined them with a newspaper. Anxious to hear news of the war, they forgot to post a guard. So they were caught by surprise when at least 12 members of the state militia, having been tipped off about their hiding place, rode out to the schoolhouse to arrest them. The shootout that ensued left two men killed on each side, two men wounded among the Unionists, including Benjamin Willard, and no one in custody after the state militia withdrew.
According to one recollection, “the Willard boys did most of the shooting.” The next day, February 13, they were named along with the other 11 surviving Unionists in a warrant for the arrest of all 14 of them for murder “with malice aforethought.” A few days later, four of them — but none of the Willard brothers — were in custody. That’s the context for attorney R.F. Armfield’s letter to Governor Vance about this incident and how it fit into political debates about the Confederate draft, which was extremely controversial in North Carolina because that draft was not controlled by the state. So states’ rights were, ironically, being trampled upon by the First Congress of the Confederate States of America for the sake of immediate necessity.
After summarizing details of the shootout, Armfield ended his letter to Governor Vance with some cautionary advice. Although the governor was strongly opposed to the Confederate draft on the basis of states’ rights, he zealously rounded up deserters and returned them to their regiments in the Confederate army. That would bring him into conflict with the chief justice of the state supreme court, who did not believe that the governor had authority to do that. So Armfield wrote:
But my principle object in writing this letter is to ask you what we shall do with those four murderers we have and the others if we get them? Suppose we try them for murder, do you not believe our supreme court will decide the conscription act unconstitutional and thus leave these men justified in resisting its execution? I believe they will, and tremble to think of the consequences of such a blow upon the cause of our independence. It would demoralize our army in the field and bring the first horrors of civil war to our own doors and then perhaps subjugation to the enemy, which no honorable man ought to want to survive. . . . I hope you know I am conservative for the rights of the citizens and the States, but for my country always, and for independence at all hazards.
Not surprisingly, therefore, Chief Justice Pearson had the four men who were being held in custody released on a writ of habeas corpus. He believed their detention was illegal. The General Assembly of North Carolina would keep trying to increase the governor’s authority in what would become a continuing legal battle with the state supreme court. So these would not be the last arrests made in this particular case.
More than a year later, in the summer of 1864, three of the 14 surviving Unionists, including William Willard, were captured as they tried to cross the mountains. Those three men were taken to the Yadkinville jail in Yadkin County. But they were rescued in a jail break by a group of armed men, led by Elkanah Willard. The editorial from the Weekly Confederate newspaper in Raleigh, North Carolina, that concluded my last post in this series began with a description of that jail break and claimed that my Willard cousins and others in league with them belonged to an organized resistance movement known as the H.O.A. or Heroes of America.
The New York Times multi-year series Disunion included a post on the shootout at the Bond Schoolhouse called “Blood in the Carolina Hills.” That post contains this interesting sentence: “It proved harder to keep the Willards jailed than to keep a beagle in a pen.” It also offered a description of the work of the Heroes of America:
The [H.O.A.] undermined the Confederacy primarily by encouraging and aiding draft resisters and deserters. An “underground railroad,” operated in cooperation with abolitionists, led deserters and conscripts to safety in Tennessee and Kentucky, where many enlisted with the Union. The organization’s badge, a red string attached to a coat lapel or a home’s threshold or window, gave the Heroes the nickname the Red Strings. The device was adopted from the biblical Book of Joshua, in which a woman in Jericho concealed from capture two Israelites on a reconnaissance mission, then helped them escape by lowering them down the city wall on a red rope. They promised that on their return as conquerors, she and her family would be protected by a “scarlet thread” she was to fasten to her window.
After the Yadkinville jail break, Elkanah, William, Benjamin, and Lee Willard joined a large party of men with arms and ammunition stolen from the Home Guard and, on July 10, 1864, headed toward Tennessee to try to reach the Federal lines there. This group divided into two companies, each one led by an individual “who had from time to time been successful in piloting many conscripts across the line.” While one of the companies arrived safely on the other side, the other one, which included my Willard cousins, was surprised and attacked by the North Carolina militia.
Although many of the men in that company were killed, the Willard brothers were captured and taken to Camp Vance, which was six miles outside of Morganton, North Carolina. They escaped from Camp Vance but were captured again.
At that point, Elkanah Willard was sent to the Morganton jail, from which he escaped on his own. And his brothers were sent to the Forsyth County jail, from which a sister helped them make a daring escape.
The report about that jail break by the Winston Sentinel newspaper in Winston, North Carolina, was republished in the Daily Conservative newspaper in Raleigh on January 31, 1865. As seen above and to the right, it appeared right below a call for prayer and thanksgiving in a proclamation by Jefferson Davis, President of the Confederate States of America. Here’s a 1906 account of this final jail break story:
The last place [William, Benjamin, and Lee Willard] broke jail was Winston [in Forsyth County, North Carolina]. A sister of the Willard boys secreted an auger and a chisel upon her person, left her home in Yadkin county and went to Winston and after undergoing a rigid examination by the jailor, she was permitted to go up stairs to see her brothers. When she left the jail she left the auger and chisel with them. With the auger and chisel, they bored and cut out of the jail and made good their escape, and avoided being shot or hanged, as a detachment of state militia had been ordered there to take them out and hang or shoot them, and arrived the day after they escaped.
Soon after this the welcome word “peace” was heralded from Florida to California, and from the Atlantic to the Pacific Ocean. And they like thousands of others, at the close of the war, returned to their shattered homes penniless. All indictments against them was nole prosceivied [sic].
In other words, the murder case involving William, Benjamin, and Lee Willard and the other 11 men who had been at the Bond Schoolhouse during the shootout with members of the state militia would not be pursued after the Union army arrived.
Click here to read all of the reflections in this series.