So the other day I learned something new about the past. Turns out there was a Civil War battle fought in Jackson County. When the skirmish took place, the site of the battle was in Jackson, but that changed in 1871 after Swain County was created from Jackson and Macon.
The Battle of Deep Creek was fought on Feb. 2, 1864. A federal cavalry detachment from East Tennessee, the Fourteenth Illinois, led by Major Francis Davidson, left Knoxville and surprised the Thomas Legion, which was camped along the Tuckaseigee River at the mouth of Deep Creek. Also known as Thomas’ Legion of Cherokee Indians and Highlanders, and sometimes as the 69th North Carolina Regiment of the Confederate Army, the unit was organized in 1862 by William Holland Thomas.
Accounts of the outcome of the battle vary. According to Noel Fisher’s book, “The Civil War in the Smokies,” Davidson “boastfully and implausibly” claimed to have captured 22 Cherokee and 32 white troops while killing another 200, explaining the high casualty rate by saying that after one of his officers was wounded, his men took no more prisoners.
Davidson took the Cherokee captives to Knoxville, where they were supposedly offered $5,000 in gold if they would kill Thomas, and then released; most of the former captives returned to Thomas and continued to fight for the Confederacy.
Thomas on the other hand offered a far different version of the battle, saying he had inflicted 12 casualties on the Union forces while suffering the loss of only five men killed and wounded.
Research done by brothers Bill and Frank Crawford of Sylva, along with three of their first cousins (Ann Melton, Nancy Wilson and Mary Katherine Lowder), supports Davidson’s summary of the fighting at Deep Creek. Though in his 40s when the Civil War broke out, their great-great-grandfather, Asaph Wilson Sherrill, enlisted in the Thomas Legion. In their 2007 book tracing the lineage of their grandparents, “The William Robert Sherrill and Mary Mabel Cowan Sherrill Family,” the cousins describe Thomas’ unit as a “citizen brigade for the purpose of defending against local raids,” and report that Asaph Sherrill was captured along with 31 other white Confederates and 22 Indian soldiers. They also discovered the report that the Indian captives were offered a reward to kill Thomas, citing a Raleigh newspaper that existed at that time as the source.
Asaph was apparently taken first to Knoxville, where his name appears on a register of prisoners of war dated Feb. 7, 1864. He was then sent to Nashville, where he was held until Feb. 28. The next day he was sent to Louisville Military Prison in Kentucky and then on to Fort Delaware in Delaware, arriving there on March 4. Asaph remained a prisoner of war at Fort Delaware until his death almost exactly a year later. He died of dysentery on March 2, 1865, just over a month before the war ended.
Googling “Battle of Deep Creek” yields a Feb. 2, 2016, post on “This Day in North Carolina History,” a blog from the state Department of Natural and Cultural Resources. It also supports a Union victory (though it mistakenly says the battle was in Haywood rather than Jackson County) but offers different prisoner numbers and an alternate story of the Cherokee captives and their allegiances. Titled “Illinois Soldiers Overrun Thomas’s Legion, 1864,” the blog post reads as follows:
“On February 2, 1864, Union Maj. Francis M. Davidson and the 14th Illinois Cavalry engaged in a skirmish with the Thomas Legion, a Confederate company of Cherokees led by Col. William Holland Thomas, on Deep Creek near Quallatown in Haywood County.
“Accounts differ as to what exactly occurred that morning, but Union forces apparently surprised the Confederates and overran them. On the Union side, two men were killed and another six were wounded, while Thomas most likely lost 10 killed and 32 captured.
“Eighteen Confederate Cherokees were taken prisoner. The captives were imprisoned in Knoxville, then under Union control, where all of the Cherokees took the oath of allegiance to the United States in early March. The event was a turning point in Cherokee allegiance to the Confederacy.
“The affair at Deep Creek undermined Thomas’s recruiting efforts among the Cherokees. The event coincided with internal conflicts, skyrocketing food prices due to inflation, a harsh winter and an increase in starvation among Indian families.
“Thomas attempted to assuage the food shortages by purchasing grain from South Carolina, but the raids into western North Carolina, such as that at Deep Creek, led to the desertion of the Eastern Band from the Confederate cause.”
Lynn Hotaling was editor of The Sylva Herald for 18 years, retiring in January 2016. She is the author of two books on local history.