Friday, February 22, 2008

The Ballad of Bill Birchfield

Better, I say, to break sod as a farm hand
for some poor country man, on iron rations,
than lord it over all the exhausted dead.

- The Odyssey, Book 11
My great-great-grandfather William M. Birchfield departed this life 100 years ago today.

He was born in Carter County, Tennessee in November of 1840, a fourth-generation descendant of Welsh immigrant Samuel Burtchfield (b. 1660). His family moved into Cade’s Cove, Blount County, where Bill grew up learning the art of whiskey-making.

By 1860 Bill was living near Fort Montgomery (now Robbinsville) in the extreme northeastern section of Cherokee County (now Graham County), North Carolina. He had a sweetheart, Cinthy Linn, a part-Cherokee girl from nearby Monroe County, Tennessee. Unlike Bill, Cinthy was literate and taught school near Fort Montgomery. They planned to marry.

In the summer of 1861 their plans changed. North Carolina seceded from the Union, and on the first of July, Bill enlisted in Company D, 25th North Carolina Infantry at Valleytown, NC. His enlistment card read, Occupation: Farmer, whiskey maker. Height: 5’, 7.” His company was transported to Camp Patton in Asheville, where they were outfitted in gray NC Depot sack coats and kepi’s, then sent by rail to Camp Davis at the opposite end of the state, near Wilmington.

He was 440 miles away from Cinthy, in the heat and humidity of the Carolina coast.

At Camp Davis the boys were issued .58 caliber Enfield rifles – a far cry from the shotguns they had hunted game with in the mountains. The Yankees were threatening amphibious assaults along the South Carolina and Georgia coasts, so the 25th was sent to Grahamville, SC. They spent a boring winter drilling, marching, and playing cards. The attack never came.

In the spring of 1862 the 25th was placed under Major General Robert Ransom’s brigade and sent to the Tidewater of Virginia. McClellan’s Army of the Potomac had launched its “Peninsula Campaign,” and Ransom’s formed part of the defenses up the James River near Williamsburg. In July, Bill was admitted to the Episcopal Church Hospital in Williamsburg, suffering from diarrhea. He returned to his company just in time to play a small part in history.

In September, Ransom’s brigade was attached to James Longstreet’s Corps of Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia, as it pushed into Hagerstown, Maryland. The intent was to put pressure on Washington, DC, and draw Federal forces out of Virginia. The plan worked, and on September 17th the Union and Confederate forces clashed at Sharpsburg. The 25th lost only 15 men that day, but Bill looked on in horror as his regiment marched south along the Hagerstown Road, stepping over the bodies of scores of dead Southerners along a fence. A total of 3,654 men were killed in an afternoon – the deadliest single day in American history up to that time.

In December the Southern army retired below the Rappahannock, on the bluffs overlooking the town of Fredericksburg, VA. Burnside’s Union army, which outnumbered the Confederates 2 to 1, had ransacked the town and looted it. In the thick fog on December 13, six Union divisions crossed the river and marched to their suicides up the slope along Marye’s Heights. They were devoured by relentless artillery and musket fire. Crouching behind the stone wall on the heights, Bill was among the men muzzle-loading, cocking, passing, and firing rifles in rapid succession. The thick smoke of 19th century warfare, mingled with fog, created an envelope of terror. Only the standards could be spotted, intermittently, poking through the marshmallow clouds sticking to the muddy earth.

That night Bill lay on his tarred ground cloth, covering his ears as writhing, wounded Union soldiers, lying just beyond the stone wall, screamed for mothers and wives and sweethearts…

After these horrors, in the spring of 1863, Longstreet’s Corps was sent into eastern North Carolina, fighting defensive battles at New Bern and “Little Washington,” and then on to the area of Virginia near Suffolk. The record does not describe what he did, but at some point during Longstreet’s Tidewater campaign Bill Birchfield distinguished himself in battle, and was nominated for the Roll of Honor.

He never received the citation.

In July 1863 the word spread like wildfire through the beleaguered camps: Lee had invaded a foreign country (Pennsylvania) and been defeated. He lost 4,700 men the South could ill-afford to expend – most of them Tar Heel boys. Swatting mosquitoes and fighting disease in the Dismal Swamp, Bill and some others devised a plan. They took their Enfield’s, filled their tarred pouches with parched corn, and deserted the camp.

On August 4, 1863 a Roll of Honor card was filled out for Pvt. William M. Birchfield, Co. D, 25th North Carolina State Troops. At the bottom of the card was written, “Deserted.” Had Bill stayed on, he would have been in “The Crater” at Petersburg, where several of his former comrades were killed…

Bill married Cinthy in 1864. They went on to have eight children, my great-grandfather being the fifth. From there the story is no longer documented in the state archives; it is the stuff of legend. The family moved across the line into Blount County, TN in the late 1880’s, to a remote area beyond the “Parson’s Toll Gate,” on what is now US Highway 129 (for motorcycle enthusiasts, the “tail of the dragon”). When my great-grandfather was around 10 years old (1890), he was present with his father and two older brothers as they minded a still. They were surprised by armed revenue agents. The agents tied up Bill and the two older boys, and one of agents pistol-whipped the 10 year old. Bill said, “If I wasn’t tied up you wouldn’t be a-doin’ that. Let him alone, he ain’t but a boy.” As the agents were leading the Birchfields down a steep trail, the oldest son Sam broke free, took the gun of the man who had hit his younger brother, and shot him dead. Sam was dragged to Kingston, TN, where he was scheduled to be hanged. A broken broom handle was passed to him through the bars of the prison; he escaped by digging his way through the dirt floor of his cell, then swam across the Clinch River with his boots tied around his neck. He disappeared into the mountains and was never brought to justice.

When Bill died in 1908, Cinthy moved back to North Carolina, to the little community of Proctor, where she could collect a pension for Confederate widows.

Bill is buried in the Calderwood Cemetery, by a long-abandoned Methodist church, beside the Little Tennessee River, just below the massive, horseshoe-shaped Calderwood Dam, off US 129 in Blount County – near the place where, in his youth, he learned to farm, shoot and make whiskey.

As the motorcyclists and Miata drivers wind their way through the endless curves on the “tail of the dragon,” they have no idea how many lifetimes lay beneath the sod in that plot at the edge of a quiet little graveyard.

2 comments:

Marsha said...

I'll have to slow down enough one of these trips across the dragon to go down and find that old cemetery. Have you ever been there?

Chuck said...

Yes, I have. I placed a Confederate flag on Bill's grave back in 2006.

The gate on 129 is open from 8-5 most days.