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  • Executions, Justice, and Reconciliation in North Carolina's Western Piedmont, 1865-67
  • David C. Williard (bio)

In the closing weeks of the Civil War, Americans on both sides of the conflict sought to come to terms with a death toll unprecedented in the nation's history and unfathomable to its antebellum sensibilities. The Confederacy's white population had suffered particularly staggering losses: approximately one-quarter of the South's population of white men eligible for military service perished. Amid such widespread mortality, exploring the circumstances that surrounded the deaths of five men from piedmont North Carolina—men nearly anonymous to contemporaries and historians alike—may seem inconsequential. Indeed, the first public mention of the deaths of Samuel Kelly, David M. Huff, James Flynt, Jacob Loss, and a fifth person named only as "Spears" showed little concern for the identities of the departed. On March 29, 1865, the Salem (North Carolina) People's Press noted only, "Some five men, we learn, have been shot in this [Forsyth] county (two of them from Yadkin,) by the military: We know nothing of the circumstances in connection with the shooting, except that some of them were executed for desertion."1

Yet when members of the 1st Battalion, North Carolina Sharpshooters executed their five victims, they engaged in a battle over loyalty that began during the Civil War and ended almost two years after its conclusion.2 Among those executed were two deserters, two white men with known unionist sympathies but no record of service to the Confederacy, and a free black man. The March 1865 executions resulted from a bitter and longstanding conflict between supporters of the Confederacy and unionists, deserters, and draft-dodgers in Forsyth County. When the commander of the 1st Battalion's Company A, Capt. Reuben E. Wilson, and his subordinates shot five men without trial and in broad daylight on March 15, 1865, leaving their bodies unburied along a public thoroughfare, they attempted to demonstrate the Confederacy's continued power in Forsyth County by punishing men they deemed disloyal—both to the cause of southern independence and to the community in which they resided. By including [End Page 31] a black man among their victims, the perpetrators of the Forsyth County shootings confronted one of the Confederacy's central contradictions: they recognized that the contours of loyalty extended beyond the boundaries of citizenship. By early 1865, deserters, unionists, and African Americans had all struck resounding blows against the Confederacy's national project.3

Three weeks later, the first organized Union forces arrived in Forsyth County, coinciding with the breakup and surrender of the Confederacy's major field armies. Throughout the South in the spring of 1865, communities experienced a transition in legal authority from the Confederacy to the United States that inverted wartime relationships between national loyalty and local power. With the Union victory, Confederate officials changed from enforcers of government authority to unlawful rebels and presumed traitors to the United States. In Forsyth County, unionists and deserters who had feared the Confederacy's power to compel obedience lost no time in exploiting the change, imploring Union military officers as well as court officials in North Carolina's provisional and state governments to prosecute the perpetrators of the executions. When North Carolina's Reconstruction legal system examined the Forsyth County shootings and tried Wilson and his subordinates for murder, the need to soothe seething wartime tensions and rebuild the relationship between local courts and communities would lead both local courts and the state legislature to declare the months surrounding the Confederacy's destruction beyond the temporal scope of their authority. Even as questions of wartime loyalty figured heavily in postwar social and political conflicts, North Carolina's governing bodies chose to construct the Civil War and Reconstruction as discrete, separable legal periods. Unionists and others seeking redress for wrongs that occurred late in the war would find that their cases fell into a void between collapsing Confederate governing institutions unable or unwilling to hear their complaints and a restored U.S. authority that valued reconciliation over retribution.

The turbulent process by which the Confederate government lost—and the civil and military offices of the United States and reconstituted state governments...


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