Phil Luciano: Peoria unit rode into Civil War history
During the Civil War, a peculiar and brutal Confederate legion terrorized Union camps in western North Carolina and eastern Tennessee.
Eventually, Union leaders called on a regiment from Peoria to take care of the problem. The key battle has largely gone forgotten in the South, but that might change.
North Carolina might officially memorialize that battlefield, a move that would recognize Peoria's role there to streams of tourists and Civil War buffs. But that effort sorely needs help from Peoria to detail one of the oddest tales in this country's military history.
"It's just crazy," drawls Terrell Garren, an amateur historian spearheading the recognition effort.
At the center of the story is William Holland Thomas, a North Carolina native who grew up with the Cherokee. So close was he to the tribe, as an adult he acted as the Cherokee agent in Washington, D.C. Adopted as a son by Chief Yonaguska, he was elected chief upon Yonaguska's death - the only white man to serve as head of a tribe. Meantime, he served in the state legislature from 1848 to 1860, during which time he served the Cherokee nation well.
When the Civil War broke out, he organized for the Confederacy the Thomas Legion of Cherokee Indians and Highlanders. The battalion of 400 men included the curious sight of whites (in Confederate uniform) and Cherokees (in traditional Indian war dress).
"There's never been another battalion quite like it," says historian Garren, 58, a retired educator.
The legion was never completely defeated by the Union. It grew a feared reputation, especially after 1862's Battle of Baptist Gap. An ambush by Indiana soldiers cut down a beloved legion lieutenant. Incensed, legion Cherokees chased down fleeing Union soldiers, scalping 10 of them.
"There wasn't another incident like that for the rest of the war," Garren says. "But it got in all the northern newspapers, and even got in newspapers in Europe."
After further success by the pesky legion, Union Gen. Samuel D. Sturgis called on the 14th Illinois Cavalry "to pursue this force and destroy them," Sturgis would later recall. The unit had formed in Peoria in late 1862, comprised of soldiers throughout the state.
The 14th, with about 250 soldiers by early 1864, searched for the like-manned Thomas legion near Bryson City in western North Carolina. To get there, the regiment pushed through high mountains to get to the site, horses dragging artillery cannons all the way, often through torrents of rain, according to 1898's "History of the Fourteenth Illinois Cavalry."
On Feb. 2, the cavalry received intelligence that the Thomas legion was camped at the confluence of the Tuskeegee River and Deep Creek. The cavalry advanced carefully, as "final success and even preservation of our precious scalps depended upon our taking the enemy by complete surprise," Sturgis would recall.
Early that morning, upon the order to charge, the cavalry attacked, "drawn sabers slashing in the sunlight, like an avalanche tearing down the side of a steep mountain," Sturgis would say. The legion was surrounded on three sides. Casualty counts differ by source. Sturgis claimed 60 legion soldiers died; however, historian Garren can confirm just 10.
Union casualties included just four definite deaths. One was Lt. Horace Capron of Peoria, who commanded one of the cavalry's two companies. He would die four days later.
"Lieutenant Horace Capron was one of the most bold and skillful line officers in the regiment, and as a man and comrade he was beloved by all," Sturgis would say.
He was laid to rest in an unmarked grave at Springdale Cemetery; however, local war researchers found the site and put a marker there in 2000.
Another Peorian, Pvt. Harmon Huck, probably died from injuries in the fray. Garren, however, can't positively say that Huck, who died the next month, was hurt in that battle. Huck's resting place is unknown.
Union leaders were pleased with the cavalry's performance. Ulysses S. Grant sent a special dispatch lauding the soldiers for their efforts.
After the Battle of Deep Creek, the Thomas Legion continued to fight, but never as well.
"It was a blow to their prestige," Garren says. "It was a blow to their security."
After the war, Thomas would continue to minister to the Cherokee. However, he soon suffered from what might've been Alzheimer's disease, and he spent most of the rest of his life in mental institutions. He died in 1893.
Over the ensuing decades, memory pretty much died out regarding The Battle of Deep Creek. But Garren, author of four books on the history of Civil War in western North Carolina, recently realized the battle's significance as that with the most casualties in that area. So, he has been petitioning the North Carolina Office of Archives and History to officially recognize the battlefield. A marker for the site would make it part of the Civil War Trails system and part of the tourism circuit.
The state agency could decide the matter next month. To bolster his research, Garren is looking for helpers from Peoria. If you're interested, you can contact him at email@example.com.
If approved by the state, the designation might make for heightened tourism - and a nod to Peoria. The site, not far from the entrance to Great Smoky Mountain National Park, makes it a natural draw for visitors.
"This (battle) just happened to have happened at one of the most beautiful places on earth. ..." Garren says. "In the long run, I think this has a lot of potential."
Peoria Journal Star columnist Phil Luciano can be reached at (309) 686-3155 or firstname.lastname@example.org.