Battle of Asheville: American Civil War

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A Confederate Victory at the Battle of Asheville

Battle of Asheville, NC
Battle of Asheville.jpg
(Historical Marker)

Asheville had a population of 1,100 in 1860 and was the largest city in western North Carolina. During the Civil War (1861-1865) it hosted an armory, which manufactured Enfield type rifles until 1863, as well as some training camps and fortifications. For most of the conflict, while the Tar Heel State's coastal towns and ports had endured frequent Union bombardments and attacks, Asheville, besides being the object of a few raids, was absent any major Union assault.
The pristine mountain community, nevertheless, suffered the privations familiar to many other Southern cities. In the first week of April 1865 the dynamics of the conflict had changed, however, because Gen. Robert E. Lee, after a nearly ten month siege at Richmond-Petersburg, had moved the battered Army of Northern Virginia toward Appomattox, causing the Confederate capital of Richmond to capitulate on April 3, and less than one week later, on April 9, Gen. Lee would surrender to Lt. Gen. Grant. Emboldened by Richmond's demise, Union commanders were no longer appeased with their harassing raids against the mountain enclave, because Maj. Gen. D. S. Stanley, commanding IV Corps, Army of the Cumberland, having command over neighboring East Tennessee, issued orders for a direct assault on Asheville with the objective of capturing the city, if it "could be effected without serious loss of life."

On April 6, Colonel Clayton mustered a force of 300 Confederates and -- with two small brass Napoleon cannons -- marched them to rough earthworks on a hill that overlooked the French Broad route being used by Colonel Kirby’s 1,100-man brigade. When Kirby encountered the Confederates, he quickly maneuvered his soldiers to a safe distance and behind trees, and when the opposing armies engaged at 3 o’clock in the afternoon, they began firing. Although neither side sought to improve its position during battle, both armies continued to exchange small arms fire -- while Confederate cannons occasionally fired toward the Union position -- during the five hour fight, forcing the Union brigade to retreat.

High Resolution Map showing Battle of Asheville
High Resolution Map Battle of Asheville.jpg
High Resolution Map Showing Location of Battle of Asheville

Colonel Isaac Kirby.jpg
Colonel Kirby

Although Asheville -- a secluded mountain community nestled in western North Carolina -- hosted the most traveled route to and from East Tennessee, as well as a principal training camp and armory during the Civil War (1861-1865), it remained a contest of wills during the conflict. Asheville native George Wesley Clayton was a West Point graduate and descendant of Revolutionary War stock, and his adversary was famed Ohioan Isaac Minor Kirby, 101st Ohio Infantry, commanding First Brigade, a battle-hardened veteran of Stones River, Franklin, Nashville, and the Atlanta Campaign. Commanding the Western District of North Carolina from his headquarters at Asheville, General James Martin, who fell ill while leading a brigade under Lee, directed the Confederate forces in the area during 1865, while Kirby's brigade, operating in East Tennessee, March 15-April 22, 1865, was attached to 1st Division, IV Corps, Army of the Cumberland.

(Right) Col. Isaac Kirby, date unknown. At age 26 Kirby was elected captain on April 27, 1861, of Company I, 15th Ohio Volunteers. He later served as Colonel of the 101st OVI, and then as commander of First Brigade, First Division, IV Corps, Department of the Cumberland. On January 12, 1865, he was given a brevet promotion of brigadier-general for meritorious services rendered throughout the war.

On April 3, 1865, at 2 p.m., Colonel Kirby was near Greeneville, Tennessee, when he received orders to begin moving his brigade on an "expedition with ten days' rations along the French Broad with instructions to capture Asheville," and he was complemented by a number of deserters familiar with the terrain. Kirby was instructed "not to attack the enemy unless he could do so with every prospect of success and without serious loss of life." Conflicting Union reports indicated that the rebel strength at Asheville ranged from 400 to as many as 2,600 men, commanding 20 artillery pieces, but Kirby, on April 6, having been persuaded of the enemy strength during a conversation with a rebel deserter, a lieutenant, believed that the force awaiting him at Asheville numbered nearly 2,000 men plus twenty guns.

North Carolina Civil War Map.jpg
Battle of Asheville & Vicinity Map

Spanning seventy-five miles in length, the Buncombe Turnpike, which followed along the French Broad River from western North Carolina and into Tennessee, was the most traveled road in the region, with livestock and wagons traversing it annually. During the Civil War the Confederates cut down trees, hauled large rocks and other structures, and covered the turnpike with the intent of hindering any large Union force from rapidly advancing on the greater Asheville area. When Kirby marched on the road in 1865, he complained of its many obstructions impeding his progress. Although Kirby ordered his cannons and wagons to remain at Warm Springs, fearing if his horses were shot the Rebels would capture the spoils, the obstructions on the road enforced his decision to travel lightly.

But though Kirby, believing he was outmanned and outgunned by the Confederate force at Asheville, advanced cautiously along the French Broad River with his brigade of 900 infantrymen and 200 partisans, including deserters who had pledged an oath of allegiance to the United States, two cannon, and a train of wagons. Kirby's brigade, consisting of Ohio, Indiana, and Illinois regiments, bivouacked the night of April 4, at Warms Springs—present-day Hot Springs, NC, and located on the Tennessee-North Carolina line--and on the morning of the April 5, Kirby, having marched his force some four miles in the direction of Asheville, was met by three rebel deserters, including a lieutenant.

Hearing the words of the senior ranking deserter, Kirby now ascertained that the enemy he confronted was nearly 2,000 strong, had twenty guns, including twelve napoleons, held the high ground, and was supported by 600 men to the west, so he ordered his two field pieces and wagons back to the safety of Warm Springs, preventing the enemy from capturing them, and pushed his brigade toward the objective at midnight. And crossing the French Broad and burning two bridges on the morning of April 6, the Union force pressed toward the prized city.

While the Union brigade approached Asheville and was prepared to capture it, Colonel Clayton, commanding 62nd North Carolina, anticipating the Federal troops, was determined to hold the ground with a force of merely 300. Clayton, well-versed in the topography of Asheville, had graduated from West Point and battled Typhoid Fever in 1863, and the men forming the nucleus of his 300 strong force were 175 veteran soldiers from his regiment, the 62nd North Carolina, and they had a long-standing reputation for fighting bushwhackers while evading superior Union numbers.

The 62nd, having rebuffed repeated orders to surrender in 1863, was one of the Tar Heel State's last units to surrender during the war. The prevailing fragment of the regiment composed part of Palmer's Brigade at Asheville on March 10, 1865, and at the direction of General James Martin (nom de guerre of "Old One Wing" because of a wound sustained during the Mexican War), it remained under Clayton's command and engaged in the pitched battle against Kirby's brigade near Asheville, the most prominent city of the state's mountain region, on April 6.

Clayton was also assisted by a company of the Silver Greys and some Confederate soldiers at home on sick leave and furlough. The Silver Greys consisted of senior and junior reserves, which served as home guard, and totaled 44 men, including a 14 year old boy and a 60 year old Baptist minister. To the west of Asheville, 600 men of Thomas' Legion of Cherokee Indians and Highlanders, a diverse unit of the rugged region, having bivouacked between Waynesville and Warm Springs, were poised for action should any Northern troops exercise the thought of an intrusion. Although the service of Thomas' Legion was not requested nor needed against Kirby, the legion was as close as 20 miles from Warm Springs and 25 miles from Asheville.

Kirby's Brigade
Battle of Asheville.jpg
Union Order of Battle during Battle of Asheville

While the Union brigade was advancing on Asheville, the 300 commanded positions on the ridge, the high ground (the location is currently known as Broadway Street).

Kirby, having been convinced of the rebel strength by three Confederate deserters on April 5 (included one lieutenant who had remained in rebel service only to forward information to Union forces), "was of the opinion that there were 1,000 or 1,500 men in Asheville, and 400 cavalry on his left flank and 700 on his right."

Whereas the brigade closed ranks, it pressed the battle by charging the pickets on the Confederate left. While there was initial maneuvering, the armies fell back, held their position, and for five hours exchanged sporadic volleys until 8 o'clock that night. Although the Union army had greatly outnumbered the Confederates during the slugfest, the Yankees were compelled to retreat, and Union and Confederate casualties were reported as few.

En route to support Kirby was McConnell's brigade, which had been ordered by Gen. Wood at 8 a.m., April 6, to move from East Tennessee to Warm Springs. At about 3 p.m. on April 6, Kirby found the enemy in a position less than two miles northwest of Asheville  "occupying the high hills." Determined to march on the streets of Asheville, he forwarded his brigade and drove back the Confederate left, only to view the enemy's right flanking the Union rear. During the demonstration, five rebels, a wagon and team of mules were captured. Kirby, in another report, was under the impression that the force he confronted belonged to Gen. Martin, consisting of "not less than 1,000 men and six guns, and could be re-enforced before morning with 400 or 500 more men," while another man stated that 300 rebels had already camped behind the Federal position, thus cutting off the principal route of retreat.

Not willing to "sacrifice the life of one man for the town of Asheville," reported Kirby, he consulted with one Colonel Yeoman and other Union officers, who were of the opinion that the "the enemy meant to fight." Although reporting in one account that he awaited McConnell to move from Warm Springs to Asheville, McConnell, on the other hand, reported that he had been waiting for Kirby to fall back to his position. Having two men seriously wounded in the battle, Kirby, retreating to Warm Springs and finding McConnell's rested brigade, continued the Union contingent in an orderly retreat back to Greeneville.

Earthworks at the Battle of Asheville
 Civil War Battle of Asheville Earthworks.jpg
North Carolina Office of Archives & History

Battle of Asheville
Battle of Asheville.jpg
View of the Asheville battlefield

(Left) The site of the breastworks, or earthworks, is now part of the campus of the University of North Carolina at Asheville. (Right) View of the Asheville battlefield. Confederate artillery was placed on the hills across the road. The battle's historical marker is also in the background.
Kirby's actions showed that he lacked conviction to press the assault on Asheville, not to mention capturing it, because he left his field pieces and wagons, having been stocked with ten days' rations and supplies, some 50 miles to the north at the safety of Warm Springs, which allowed the brigade a quick exit should those contrived 1,100 cavalry thrash his position. Absent was also any maneuvering of his brigade, for he had ample time, five hours, to ascertain the position and strength of the enemy, which he later conceded was merely a small force of rebels with two cannons that entertained him from two field works on a hill. Whereas Kirby refused any flanking movement, he did perform a demonstration before the Confederates, who had used the topography to its advantage. Perhaps he was hoping that the Confederates would exhaust their ammunition and withdrawal, or melt away like fluke flurries in the springtime, and then he would move toward the city in piecemeal fashion.
Both his plans excluded his artillery and wagons, which contained  rations, supplies and provisions necessary for a prolonged fight, and corroborated a common thought by Kirby -- although instructed to capture Asheville -- he had no intention on risking any loss, for he conceded by saying that "he would not sacrifice the life of one man for the town of Asheville."
Kirby, however, was informed not sustain severe casualties, but if the Tar Heels would have withdrawn at anytime during the five hour ordeal, then perhaps he would have pressed and settled into a defensive position until McConnell's brigade or Kirk's two regiments, which he knew were operating in the area, reinforced or relieved him.
After General Robert E. Lee surrendered the Army of Northern Virginia to General U.S. Grant on April 9, 1865, the Confederates serving with Col. Clayton in Asheville withdrew and returned to their homes. The Rebels never swore the oath of allegiance as required by Federal authorities, and Lt. Col. Byron Gibbs McDowell, serving with the 62nd, wrote that "No braver or nobler hearted men ever lived than those composing the Sixty-second North Carolina." McDowell, having survived the shots of bushwhackers during his many engagements, was a citizen of Waynesville, near Asheville, and was the savior of the six hundred, including many of the 62nd North Carolina, because he had led the troops during the heroic charge through Union lines in the Cumberland Gap to evade capture, then reform, and later fight at the Battle of Asheville.
Although Asheville had averted capitulation, it was soon captured, April 26, during Stoneman's Cavalry Raid. The city's fall, however, occurred almost two weeks after Lee's surrender to Grant at Appomattox, but coincided with Gen. Joe Johnston's surrender to Gen. William T. Sherman at Bentonville, North Carolina.
Col. Kirby would leave his 2 field pieces and wagons at Warm Springs guarded by "two regiments," so if overrun by the 1,100 cavalry that he opined to be on his flanks, he could quickly withdrawal without loss of the guns and wagons. While the Buckeye would receive one dispatch informing him that a brigade was en route to reinforce his position, he remained convinced of a superior Confederate force awaiting him at Asheville. Kirby, however, believed that he had an opportunity to assist Gen. George Stoneman, who was also operating in the area, by forcing, thus detaining, the larger Rebel force to engage his brigade at Asheville. By making a demonstration before the mountain city, it would keep the Confederates from pursuing Stoneman, and then Kirby could casually retire to the safety of Tennessee. But just as Kirby was readying his brigade in East Tennessee for its move down the Old Buncombe Turnpike and into North Carolina, jubilant news arrived. General Lee had abandoned Richmond and the Confederate capital had been captured! It was at that time that Kirby, having already embraced a trepid approach toward Asheville, was determined not to press the battle and risk any losses -- because the war was all but over. After the engagement, and with conviction, Kirby wrote that he "would not sacrifice one man for the town of Asheville." Having good reason not to force the battle, Kirby had averted unnecessary loss of life for both Union and Confederate forces that day. Three days later Lee surrendered to Grant.
In the Atlanta Campaign of 1864, Kirby was given command of the First Brigade, First Division, 4th Army Corps and led that brigade through the remainder of the war, including battles at Franklin and Nashville. He was wounded five times June 27, 1864, at the battle of Kennesaw Mountain, Georgia. Kirby (February 10, 1835 - May 30, 1917) was given a brevet promotion of brigadier-general to date January 12, 1865, for meritorious services rendered throughout the war. He was mustered out with the 101st Ohio on June 12, 1865.
Whereas Lee would surrender to Grant the 28,000 men of his greatly diminished Army of Northern Virginia on April 9, the war was far from over, because Bentonville, located in the state's Piedmont region, would witness the parole of 90,000 Confederates in the single, largest  surrender of the entire war on April 26. The final Confederate troops to surrender east of the Mississippi would occur 18 days later at Franklin, N.C., on May 14. (See Official Order of Surrendering Confederate Forces.)

(Sources listed at bottom of page)

Related Reading:

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Recommended ReadingConfederate Military History Of North Carolina: North Carolina In The Civil War, 1861-1865.  Description: The author, Prof. D. H. Hill, Jr., was the son of Lieutenant General Daniel Harvey Hill (North Carolina produced only two lieutenant generals and it was the second highest rank in the army) and his mother was General “Stonewall” Jackson’s wife's sister. In Confederate Military History Of North Carolina, Hill discusses North Carolina’s massive task of preparing and mobilizing for the conflict; the many regiments and battalions recruited from the Old North State; as well as the state's numerous contributions during the war. Continued below.

During Hill's Tar Heel State study, the reader begins with interesting and thought-provoking statistical data regarding the 125,000 "Old North State" soldiers that fought during the course of the war and the 40,000 that perished. Hill advances with the Tar Heels to the first battle at Bethel, through numerous bloody campaigns and battles--including North Carolina’s contributions at the "High Watermark" at Gettysburg--and concludes with Lee's surrender at Appomattox.

Recommended ReadingThe Civil War in North Carolina. Description: Numerous battles and skirmishes were fought in North Carolina during the Civil War, and the campaigns and battles themselves were crucial in the grand strategy of the conflict and involved some of the most famous generals of the war. John Barrett presents the complete story of military engagements across the state, including the classical pitched battle of Bentonville--involving Generals Joe Johnston and William Sherman--the siege of Fort Fisher, the amphibious campaigns on the coast, and cavalry sweeps such as General George Stoneman's Raid. Also available in hardcover: The Civil War in North Carolina.


Recommended ReadingTouring the Carolina's Civil War Sites (Touring the Backroads Series). Description: Touring the Carolina's Civil War Sites helps travelers find the Carolinas' famous Civil War battlefields, forts, and memorials, as well as the lesser skirmish sites, homes, and towns that also played a significant role in the war. The book's 19 tours, which cover the 'entire Carolinas' (Coastal Plain to Mountain; from Lowcountry to Upstate) combine riveting history with clear, concise directions and maps, creating a book that is as fascinating to the armchair reader as it is to the person interested in heritage travel. Below are some examples from this outstanding book:

1. Fort Fisher - the largest sea fort in the war that protected the vital town of Wilmington N.C., and the blockade runners so important for supplying Lee's Army of Northern Virginia.
Charleston - where the whole shootin' match started.
Bentonville - the last large scale battle of the war.
Outer Banks - early Union victories here were vital to capturing many parts of Eastern North Carolina from which the Union could launch several offensives.
Sherman's March - the destruction of certain towns in both Carolinas (particularly South Carolina) further weakened the South's will to continue the struggle.
I also enjoyed reading about the locations of various gravesites of Confederate generals and their Civil War service. Indeed, if not for this book, this native North Carolinian and long-time Civil War buff may never have learned of, and visited, the locations of some of the lesser-known sites other than those mentioned above.
Johnson's writing style is smooth--without being overly simplistic--and contains several anecdotes (some humorous ones too) of the interesting events which took place during the Civil War years. Highly recommended!

Recommended Viewing: The Civil War - A Film by Ken Burns. Review: The Civil War - A Film by Ken Burns is the most successful public-television miniseries in American history. The 11-hour Civil War didn't just captivate a nation, reteaching to us our history in narrative terms; it actually also invented a new film language taken from its creator. When people describe documentaries using the "Ken Burns approach," its style is understood: voice-over narrators reading letters and documents dramatically and stating the writer's name at their conclusion, fresh live footage of places juxtaposed with still images (photographs, paintings, maps, prints), anecdotal interviews, and romantic musical scores taken from the era he depicts. Continued below.
The Civil War uses all of these devices to evoke atmosphere and resurrect an event that many knew only from stale history books. While Burns is a historian, a researcher, and a documentarian, he's above all a gifted storyteller, and it's his narrative powers that give this chronicle its beauty, overwhelming emotion, and devastating horror. Using the words of old letters, eloquently read by a variety of celebrities, the stories of historians like Shelby Foote and rare, stained photos, Burns allows us not only to relearn and finally understand our history, but also to feel and experience it. "Hailed as a film masterpiece and landmark in historical storytelling, it should be a requirement for every student."

Sources: Clark, Walter. Histories of the Several Regiments and Battalions from North Carolina in the Great War 1861-65, Volume III; Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies (ORs), especially Kirby’s report of April 13, 1865, Series 1, Volume. XLIX, Part 1; Forster A. Sondley, A History of Buncombe County (North Carolina), The Union Army (1908), Vol. IV; Story of the One Hundred and First Ohio Infantry. A Memorial Volume by L.W. Day. L.W. Day. 464 pgs. 2 vols. (1930); O.R., Series 1, Vol. XLIX, Pt. 1, pp. 19-32; Ohio In The War-Volume II. Whitelaw Reid. Moore, Wilstach & Baldwin. Cincinnati. 1868; The W.M. Bayne Printing Co. Cleveland. Ohio. 1894; Unit Bibliography. U.S. Army Military History Institute. Carlisle Barracks. PA. 1995; William R. Trotter, Bushwhackers: The Civil War in North Carolina, The Mountains (1988); National Archives (NARA); Library of Congress (LOC); National Park Service: American Civil War (NPS); North Carolina Office of Archives and History; North Carolina Museum of History; Weymouth T. Jordan and Louis H. Manarin, North Carolina Troops, 1861-1865; Joseph H. Crute, Jr., Units of the Confederate States Army; D. H. Hill, Confederate Military History Of North Carolina: North Carolina In The Civil War, 1861-1865; John C. Inscoe and Gordon B. McKinney, The Heart of Confederate Appalachia: Western North Carolina in the Civil War (2000); Asheville Citizen-Times, April 30, 2005; John G. Barrett, The Civil War in North Carolina (1963); Dyer's Compendium.

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