“There is no great genius without a touch of madness.” – Aristotle
May 6 will mark the 157th anniversary of the last shot of the of the Civil War fired east of the Mississippi, a shot fired here in Waynesville.
The anniversary also marks the close of the military career of Haywood County native and Cherokee chief William Holland Thomas, who surrendered the remnants of his Thomas Legion on May 9, 1865.
This surrender of the last Confederate force in the state was like no other, and would give revive rumors that Thomas was slipping mentally.
Thomas certainly behaved strangely in his last days as a Confederate colonel, but were those actions borne of genius, insanity, or a little of both?
Thomas, chief and colonel
At the age of 13, Thomas, who was born near Raccoon Creek, had become the manager of Felix Walker’s trading post on Soco Creek. Spending his youth among the Cherokee, “Little Will” became fluent in their language and was adopted into the clan of Chief Yonaguska. Thomas thrived as a businessman, owning a number of stores throughout Western North Carolina, but spent much of his time acting as chief and lawyer for the Cherokee people.
He lobbied successfully for the Quallatown people to remain despite the forced removal of most the Cherokee Nation to Oklahoma. He also purchased huge tracts of land that would later become the Qualla Boundary, or Cherokee reservation.
Thomas married Sarah Love in 1857, when he was 52, and had less than four years to enjoy married life before the Civil War in 1861. Thomas would have preferred the Cherokee remain neutral but realized this would be impractical, so he organized them into what became known as Thomas’ Legion.
That legion, which would eventually include about 800 Cherokee and at least 600 whites, would serve the Confederate Army largely by guarding the mountain passes during the war, though segments would be diverted to other combat. At one point, Thomas’ Legion was stretched so thin that it was charged with holding the mountain passes from Asheville south into Georgia.
The war took a particularly tough toll on Col. Will Thomas, who, according to some of his friends, was showing early signs of the insanity that would eventually force him into a mental institution in his last years. Thomas would certainly battle insanity only a few years after the war’s close.
Prepping for surrenderOn April 9, 1865, General Robert E. Lee and the Army of Northern Virginia surrendered to Ulysses S. Grant, commanding general of the Union Army. Conflicts continued, however, particularly Gen. George Stoneman’s raid into eastern Tennessee, western North Carolina and southwestern Virginia, where Stoneman was ordered to “dismantle the country.”
The same day that Lee surrendered, Stoneman’s troops entered North Carolina for a second time and proceeded to ravage the cities of Winston, Salem and High Point. Those troops then hit Statesville, Lincolnton, Taylorsville and Asheville.
On April 26, Gen. Alvan C. Gillem, Stoneman’s second in command, negotiated a truce with the city of Asheville and marched peacefully through it. But when Gillem left for Tennessee, Gen. Samuel Brown ordered those same troops to turn back to Asheville, where they pillaged the town and arrested every suspected Confederate soldier, preparing to take them all captive back to Tennessee. Brown’s move embarrassed even a number of Union officers.
Though Stoneman’s soldiers returned to Tennessee, about 1,000 cavalrymen under Col. William C. Bartlett moved in to occupy Waynesville, which they did without resistance.
Two Confederate units had not surrendered in Asheville and instead had escaped westward, led by Gen. James Martin and Col. James R. Love. After witnessing the sacking of Asheville, Martin decided to appeal directly to Stoneman in a hope to avoid a similar fate for other mountain towns.
He sent Confederate Col. W.W. Stringfield to the Union general’s headquarters in Tennessee, under a flag of truce. Instead of responding to Martin, Stoneman had Stringfield and those who traveled with him arrested for refusing to take the oath of loyalty to the Union.
Meanwhile, Col. Thomas and about 200 Cherokee had arrived near Waynesville to join Martin and Love. On May 6, a company of Thomas’ men encountered some of Bartlett’s men near the sulphur springs just south of Waynesville. They skirmished, and Confederate R.T. Conley shot and killed one of Barlett’s soldiers, James Arwood.
This encounter became known as the last shot of the Civil War fired east of the Mississippi, and Arwood had the tragic distinction of being the last combat casualty.
Thomas, Martin and Love’s soldiers, about 500 men in all, converged on the ridges around Waynesville, looking down on a force of about 1,000 Union men.
Martin and Love knew of Lee’s surrender at Appomattox. They also knew, based on what had happened at Asheville, that a peaceful occupation of Waynesville did not guarantee continued peace. Martin in fact was already suspecting that Stoneman had treated Stringfield shamefully.
Waynesville had already suffered under Col. George Kirk’s raid, in which homes were robbed and burned, several men killed and the jail burned. Thomas, Martin and Love, then, seemed to have two goals: surrender on the best terms possible, and ensure some kind of protection for area citizens against pillaging.
Fire and war whoops
And so, that night, Thomas had his Cherokee men filter out along the ridges surrounding Waynesville. His men built fires all along the ridges and tore the night air with their war whoops and calls.
Thomas hoped sights and sounds of his men would convince Union officers that they were surrounded, even outnumbered, by Confederate and Cherokee soldiers, eager for bloodshed.
The next day, under a flag of truce, Thomas, Martin and Love entered the town. Though Martin outranked Thomas, it was the white Cherokee chief who seemed to take center stage, at least in the beginning. Thomas, like the Cherokee bodyguards who accompanied him, arrived stripped to the waist, painted as a Cherokee warrior.
He began the negotiations insisting that Barlett — not the Confederates — surrender or face scalping by his Native American forces. After two days of talks, the Confederate forces formally surrendered on May 9.
Strategy or insanity?Thomas’ appearance and ranting threats revived rumors of his mental stability, rumors that would become tragically accurate by 1867, when he was declared insane and sent to the Dix Hill mental asylum in Raleigh.
Thomas would spend the remaining years of his life in and out of asylums. During times of mental clarity, Thomas would return home where he would be tended by wife Sarah until he deteriorated to the point she could no longer manage him. This cycle continued until Sarah’s death in 1877. Thomas died in the Western Insane Asylum, now known as Broughton Hospital, on May 10, 1893, at the age of 88.
But was Thomas ruled by insanity or genius in those very last days of the Civil War? Consider that Waynesville was not plundered during the May occupation and surrender. Consider that at least some of Thomas’ men were able to keep their weapons at the time of surrender, while at Appomattox, soldiers surrendered all but their sidearms and pistols.
One eyewitness of the surrender, John Rice, wrote that of Thomas’ troops were allowed to keep their weapons. Rice’s account describes other concessions by the Union officers:
“Barlett agreed to send two men at once with a dispatch to Colonel Kirk at Franklin ordering him to return to Asheville with his command and to molest no more citizens or their property, which order was obeyed to the letter.” Stringfield wrote that Kirk was furious at the order and refused to abide by it, adding the Union colonel later relented under orders. But few, if any, accounts exist of Kirk actually returning plundered property.
Could these concessions have been influenced by the reputation Thomas had cultivated of his Cherokee forces as being particularly tough and savage? Rather than being a pitiful and disheveled close to his military career, is it possible that Thomas’ actions prevented additional suffering?
There is no concrete answer to that question, but given the “thin line” between genius and insanity, there is at least room to argue that before his tragic last years, Thomas displayed a last flash of brilliance that, at least locally, preventing one more round of suffering after four wretched years of Civil War.
Kathy N. Ross can be reached at email@example.com
Sources for this story include: The Heart of Confederate Appalachia: Western North Carolina in the Civil War by John C. Inscoe and Gordon B. McKinney; Confederate Colonel and Cherokee Chief: The Life of William Holland Thomas by E. Stanly Godbold, Jr. and Mattie U. Russell; the written memoirs of William W. Stringfield, which include the recollections of John Rice; and History, Myths and Sacred Formulas of the Cherokees by James Mooney.