History & Writing About The Massacre

It began with the bare facts: During the Civil War, in the western North Carolina county where I live, thirteen men and boys, suspected of supporting the Union, were captured by the Confederates and shot by a firing squad. Some called it a military action. Around here, it’s remembered as a massacre. And the bitter strife between divided local inhabitants gave the county a nickname that still endures—Bloody Madison.

Shelton Laurel Massacre historic marker

I’d seen the historical marker many times over the years as we drove out to Shelton Laurel to visit friends. I’d walked through the house in Marshall where Lawrence Allen, the commanding officer of those same Confederates had lived. (More about that here.) And though Civil War history had never been of particular interest to me, I began to realize that there was a novel waiting to be written, right here under my nose.

Lawrence Allen's former home

As I began to dig deeper, I found a compelling story. Voters in Marshall, county seat and home to the more affluent, slave-holding citizens, backed secession from the Union. The non-slaveholder farmers of Shelton Laurel opposed secession and, according to some accounts, were prevented from voting. Some entered the Union Army, many stayed at home, resisting, often violently, conscription by the Confederates. When salt was declared a vital resource and put under control of the Confederate government, the Laurelites were not allowed to purchase any. And salt was necessary to preserve meat, to make it through the winter. In early January, just prior to the massacre in Shelton Laurel, a force of fifty-some men, most of them Laurelites on leave from the Union army, rode into Marshall to obtain the salt their families needed. They raided the town’s salt repository and went on to ransack stores and houses, including Colonel Allen’s, even pounding up the stairs to rip the very blankets from the beds where the colonel’s children lay desperately ill with scarlet fever.
A few days later, a troop of Confederate soldiers from Allen’s command made its way to the Laurel Valley in search of the perpetrators of the raid. Women were tortured in a vain effort to make them tell where their men were hiding, At last, thirteen random men and boys were rounded up—some deserters from the Confederate Army, most probably not a part of the raid on Marshall. They were told they would be taken to Tennessee for trial and were housed overnight in a cabin belonging to Judy Shelton. The following day they would be marched a few miles away and shot.

Remnant of a chimney

The more research I did, the more I encountered the name Judy Shelton—still remembered in Shelton Laurel as Aunt Judy or Granny Judy. When I had begun to plan my novel, Judy wasn’t even on my radar; but once I stood where her cabin had been and laid my hand on the chimney that remains, once I began to puzzle out how Judy fit into this story, she came to life and, in many ways, became the linchpin of my story.
As far as I could tell from my research, Judy never married. Born in 1833, between 1850 and 1864 she had seven children by Sol Chandley (who married another woman in 1858.) Also in 1858, Judy’s father died and she inherited the homeplace where she would live the rest of her life. Later (1867-1873) Judy had three children by A.G Tweed (said to be her childhood sweetheart but married to another.)
Well. There was enough romance in those bare facts to visualize Judy entire—a strong-minded mountain woman, determined not to marry and so lose control of her inheritance. Add to this, that it was Judy who, with the help of others, rescued the bodies of the massacre victims and buried them.
I visited that lonely gravesite and wrote about it here.

David Shelton's headstone

I grew so fond of Judy that, as the months went on and I still hadn’t finished the book, I found an anonymous picture on the web that looked like my idea of her and used it for my desktop wallpaper. Judy was talking to me.

A few words of encouragement

Yes, Judy sprang to life almost at once. The others were slower to emerge.

On the Confederate side were Col. Lawrence Allen and his wife Polly (Mary.) I could find almost no information on Polly so used my imagination to conjure up the feelings and struggles of a loving wife and devoted mother in the midst of a civil war, its privations and dangers growing ever closer to home.

Col. Lawrence Allen and his wife Polly (Mary)

Lawrence’s career is fairly well documented, down to a last sad newspaper article.

Newspaper article from the late 1800s

I interviewed a descendant of the Allen’s, who showed me a pamphlet recounting Lawrence Allen’s heroic deeds. The descendant was passionate in his defense, saying that the so-called massacre was a justified military action, taken against dangerous men (yes, and boys) who had been carrying on guerilla warfare against the Confederate troops. “Nothing but a bunch of savages!” he insisted. And with that I had a line that would be used and reused in my telling.

Col. Keith, the officer generally held responsible for the massacre, was a bit of a puzzle to me. As I tried to humanize him, to suggest motivations for his behavior, he persisted in acting like a villain. I had been talking about my work in progress on my blog and was surprised to receive, almost like a voice from the grave, an email from a Keith descendant. She asked that I treat her ancestor fairly and noted that he had ended his days as a highly respected member of his community.

The new information shaped my final chapters and lent an ironical twist to the fates of the two colonels.

And what of my two other main characters: Marthy and Sim? Marthy is based on a real person-a so-called ‘idiot girl’ who was one of the women tortured. I could find little other information about her and she appeared to have died young. So I felt free to treat her almost as fictional, making her mute, but not an idiot, and giving her a sweetheart and an integral role in my story.

Sim, a young man from Tennessee and an unwilling conscript to the Confederate Army, is wholly fictional. But there were many like him, caught up in a war they wanted nothing to do with. His character made it possible for me to pull together the disparate voices and turn history into a novel.

I had no idea when I began what a balancing act it would prove to be—weighing the known facts against the demands of story-telling, of constructing an arc for the plot and for each character, at the same time sticking to what is known while embellishing with what might have been. And all the while, these characters were looking over my shoulder, breathing down my neck, whispering in my ear . . . No. that wasn’t it . . . Be sure to tell about . . . Yes, I think that’s close . . .

I listened to those voices. And now I hope they’re all satisfied—Polly and Lawrence Allen, James Keith, Marthy and Sim. And especially Judy.


An excellent overview of the Massacre

Civil War Message board—full of interesting tidbits

Soldiers’ food

Sobering interactive look at Civil War sites then and now


Paludin, Phillip Shaw. Victims: A True Story of the Civil War. Knoxville, Tennessee: University of Tennessee Press, 1981.

Trotter, William R. Bushwhackers: The Civil War in NC, The Mountains. Winston-Salem, North Carolina: John F. Blair Publishers, 1988.


Ellis, Daniel. The Thrilling Adventures of Daniel Ellis: The Great Union Guide Of East Tennessee For A Period Of Nearly Four Years During The Great Southern Rebellion (1867): (Facsimile) Johnson City, Tennessee: Overmountain Press, 1989.

Gaston, A.P. Partisan Campaigns of Col. Lawrence M. Allen, Commanding the 64th Regiment, NC State Troops, During the Late Civil War. Raleigh, North Carolina: Edwards and Broughton, 1894.