The Beginnings and Organization|
William H. Thomas was a state legislator from Jackson County, NC. At the beginning of the Civil War he was fifty-six (56) years old. For many years, Thomas or "Wil Usdi" as he was known by the Cherokee Indians of western North Carolina, had worked to help the Eastern Band of Cherokees (approximately one thousand Cherokee who had escaped removal during the "Trail of Tears" or Indian removals) to remain in their traditional homeland, the Smoky Mountains.
By the fall of 1861, Thomas had convinced the Confederate authorities that it would be worthwhile to enlist Cherokees into the army for local defense. He raised a company which was mustered at Qualla Town, NC, on April 9, 1862. Company elections were held and Thomas was elected Captain. Thomas was immediately ordered to take his company to East Tennessee.
Upon his arrival in Tennessee, Thomas divided his large company of Cherokees into two (2) companies and designated it the "North Carolina Cherokee Battalion". Thomas was then made a major.
Thomas petitioned Richmond to authorize the raising of additional "Indians and such whites as I may select". His purpose was to raise a "full battalion" and ultimately a mounted regiment to act as "a guerilla force...for the local defense of the Carolinas, Virginia and East Tennessee" in pro-Unionist East Tennessee and Western North Carolina. Jefferson Davis, according to Thomas' writings had agreed to arm and equip such a unit.
By the summer of 1862, Thomas had raised a regiment of five (5) companies; three (3) white and two (2) Cherokee. In addition, he formed a new battalion of two (2) white companies commanded by Captain William C. Walker. The people of this mountainous area were sometimes referred to as "highlanders" and as such, the local citizenry began to refer to Thomas' units as the "Highland Rangers".
On September 27th, 1862 Thomas was elected Colonel of a now designated regiment of mounted volunteers known officially as the "1st Regiment, Thomas Legion". The other officers of the regiment were Lieutenant Colonel James R. Love, a veteran of Seven Pines in Virginia and formerly of the 16th North Carolina Infantry and Major William W. Stringfield a young East Tennessean. By this time, the regiment numbered approximately, 1,100 men divided into ten (10) companies; eight (8) white and two (2) Cherokee.
The other unit of "the Legion", William C. Walker's battalion held elections on Oct. 1st, 1862 and now comprised seven (7) white companies; three (3) of cavalry and four (4) of infantry in all, approximately seven hundred (700) men. In April of 1863 another company of infantry, one company of "miners and sappers" and a unit of artillery, known as "Levi's Light Battery" was added to Walker's battalion. The ten (10) companies of Thomas' regiment and Walker's Battalion, including the additions of April, 1863 represent the complete organization referred to by historians as "The Thomas Legion". The average size of the Legion ran between 1500 and 2000 men during this period, now a sizable little army created from the humble beginnings of one company of Cherokee led by their old "white chief".
The Fighting Begins
In September of 1862, a contingent of the legion was ordered to Powell's Valley near the Cumberland Gap. Included were the two (2) Cherokee companies, one of which was commanded by Lieutenant John Astooga Stoga, a full-blooded Cherokee. Astooga Stoga was revered by his men and was the grandson of a great chief. The regimental historian described him as "a perfect specimen of Indian manhood". On the march one of the Cherokee companies was "waylaid and bushwhacked". Astooga Stoga bravely led a counterattack driving off the Federal soldiers but was mortally wounded in the process. Incensed by the loss of their young leader the men of his company proceeded to commit an act which gained them great notoriety in the Northern newspapers. They scalped a small number, probably three, wounded or dead union soldiers in a moment of passionate outrage. Cooler heads quickly rushed to control the incident and as a gesture the grisly trophies were returned to the Union authorities to be buried with their owners.
This behavior was Thomas' greatest fear. All of his life Thomas had worked for the benefit of the Cherokee and to overcome prejudices and stereotypes by the whites. This affair, though minor as far as numbers are concerned, Thomas knew would rekindle old fears and animosity. Upon their return to camp Thomas ordered the white soldiers not to utter a word regarding this incident and strongly chastised the Cherokee commanders for the behavior of their troops. This tactic seems to have worked as their are no other reported incidents of this type occurring in Thomas' command.
After this engagement Thomas' men spent the balance of the year guarding the East Tennessee and Virginia Railroad, a vital link between Virginia and the heartland of the Confederacy.
In late 1862, Confederate authorities ordered the three (3) cavalry companies of Walker's battalion to join two other Confederate regiments. At about the same time Thomas with his Cherokee were order to Madison County, North Carolina to hunt bushwhackers. The balance of Walker's battalion was also ordered to special duty rounding up deserters. Upon Thomas' return from Madison county he was met with the news that "his Legion" was now a part of Brigadier General Alfred E. Jackson's command. Thomas had no problem with the reorganization other than the fact that the legion comprised "all" of Jackson's Brigade. This confusing command structure was headed for trouble and it wasn't long before Thomas and Jackson were bitter enemies.
The situation ultimately got so bad that Jackson had Thomas arrested in June of 1863 charged with "disobedience of orders". Thomas was sent to Knoxville, Tennessee for trial but Union general Ambrose E. Burnside's East Tennessee invasion intervened. Confederate General Simone B. Buckner, commander in Knoxville adeptly handled the situation by assigning Thomas and his Cherokees directly to himself. Burnside's campaign and Buckner's action seemed to settle the issue, for the moment.
With Burnside in East Tennessee the Legion found itself divided with Thomas' Cherokees on one side of Burnside's army and Walker's Battalion and the balance of the 1st Regiment on the other. With Thomas absent from the regiment the commanded devolved to Lieutenant Colonel Love. Buckner withdrew and Jackson with a small brigade retreated to Bristol, Tennessee. Burnside ordered a part of his army up the East Tennessee and Virginia Railroad and Jackson's situation soon became desperate.
On September 8th, 1863, Jackson sent Walker's battalion with approximately two hundred (200) cavalry of the 1st regiment under Major Stringfield in the direction of Telford's Station. Their they ran into the 100th Ohio Regiment commanded by a Colonel Hayes. The union regiment was outnumbered and after a short skirmish withdrew to a "blockhouse" at Limestone Station for protection. After a quick review of the situation, Stringfield attacked the blockhouse. The fighting was heavy and the advancing Confederates met "a shower of Minie balls." The Federals realizing their hopeless situation surrendered. The three hundred and fourteen (314) prisoners were immediately placed in boxcars and sent to Richmond.
Shortly after this action, General John S. Williams arrived from Virginia with his cavalry and assumed command. Williams command of approximately 1700 men moved to Blue Springs, Tennessee with Burnside's army just nine miles away at Bull's Gap. On October 10th, General James M. Shackelford, commander of Burnside's cavalry attacked Williams. The fighting continued until 5:00 PM when Union infantry support arrived and helped drive off the Confederates. When the Confederates withdrew toward Henderson's Mill they discovered a rude surprise as the 5th Indiana Cavalry was positioned directly in their path. Caught between two enemy forces the Southerners realized their only choices were capitulation or to fight their way out. The chose the latter. Major Stringfield recalls what followed:
"Our men realized at once that quick and deadly work must be done or we would all be captured. The entire 600 men (Love's regiment) at sunrise dashed forward at the enemy in a heavy skirmish line, Love upon the right and I upon the left, with company officers all in place, all cheering and directing their men."
Their efforts were successful and a few days later General Williams wrote an official letter of thanks to the men of the Thomas Legion that included the following:
"Such exhibition of valor and soldierly bearing will receive, as it deserves, the ever lasting remembrance of a grateful Country and ever be an object of pride to their General."
The Confederates retreated to Abingdon, Tennessee. General James Longstreet's advance from Chattanooga to Knoxville took the pressure off of the Legion and they were able to gain a much needed rest for the balance of the year at Carter's Station.
In the meantime, Thomas and his Cherokees had spent the remainder of 1863 chasing bushwhackers in western North Carolina. Thomas was not at all happy with this situation. He urged the Confederate authorities to return the command to him for its initial purpose of local defense. On April 22nd, 1864 his request was approved in Special Order Number 105 and the Legion was ordered to North Carolina. However, due to Union invasions in the Shenandoah Valley the implementation of the order was delayed six (6) months.
In the Shenandoah
To help confront the Union advance of Union Major General David Hunter and his 16,000 man army the Thomas Legion, now just 500 strong was brigaded with the 36th, 45th and 60th Virginia regiments under Colonel William H. Browne in Brigadier General Gabriel C. Wharton's Brigade. The Confederate army commanded by General William E. Jones met Hunter at Piedmont, Virginia on June 5th. The results were disastrous for the Confederates, Jones was killed and over 1,000 Confederates were taken prisoner. The Confederates fielded fewer than 8,000 men.
Confederate Major General Jubal A. Early arrived from the Army of Northern Virginia with his division and took command of the shattered remnants of Jones' Army. Early rejuvenated the army and began a well-known campaign which retook the Shenandoah and did not stop until it reached the outskirts of Washington, D.C. The Legion participated in all of the battles of the campaign and grew ever smaller due to mounting casualties.
Back to North Carolina
When the order to return to North Carolina finally arrived the veterans of the Thomas Legion who marched out of the Shenandoah Valley were fewer than 100 strong. As an explanation to Colonel Love from General Wharton their Division commander on why they were not returned to North Carolina sooner, Wharton stated:
"The gallant conduct of your command rendered your efforts to rejoin you command in North Carolina abortive, and the constant refusal to your many applications for transfer is complimentary evidence of the esteem in which you were held, and a grateful acknowledgement of the services you could render."
The Confederate authorities meanwhile had ordered Thomas in North Carolina to raise two (2) additional companies of Cherokees and form an Indian battalion from the four units. Love began to recruit actively upon his return and by April 1, 1865 the Legion reported 1200 men of which 400 were Cherokees. Robert E. Lee would surrender just eight days later a short distance away at Appomattox Courthouse, Virginia.
The Final Days
The Thomas Legion's final moment of glory came on May 9, 1865, one month after Lee's surrender when Lieutenant R. T. Conley of Company "F" of Love's regiment, encountered Lieutenant. Colonel W. C. Bartlett's 2nd North Carolina (Federal) Mounted Infantry at Waynesville, NC. That night Bartlett and his men were surrounded in the town by both the Indian Battalion and Love's regiment. The Confederates called for a meeting with Bartlett on the morning of May 10th. Confederate General James G. Martin overall commander, Thomas and Col. Love all met with Bartlett. They were escorted by "twenty of the biggest Cherokees" Thomas could roundup. The Confederates surrendered to Bartlett realizing further fighting was fruitless. Bartlett was apparently impressed by the Confederate leaders and their escort as his terms allowed the Legion to keep their arms and equipment with a promise that he; Bartlett, and his troops, would leave the area.
This final encounter is considered "the last shot" of the Civil War in North Carolina.
Copyright © 1996 James W. Martin