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Asheville Youth Lives a Life of Narrow Escapes: William Pleasant Craig, 14th North Carolina, 65th North Carolina

By: Judkin Browning, April 23, 2024

 

William Pleasant Craig (1840-1874) was a 20-year old shoemaker in Asheville when he enlisted in the “Rough and Ready Guards,” a company of infantry formed in his home towne on May 3, 1861. His father having died in 1858, William lived with his seamstress mother and younger sister. The 5 foot 10 inch , fair-skinned young man, known in the neighborhood as a boisterous young man who was too fond bottle and prone to get into scraps, likely talked with his drinking buddies and discussed the allure of military service. The appeal of the grand adventure proved too strong. He bid farewell to his family and joined the company recruited by former Congressman–and future Governor–Zebulon B. Vance, who was elected as its captain. (Vance served as leader of the company until he was elected Colonel of the 26th North Carolina Regiment on August 27, 1861.)



Zebulon B. Vance in 1859, 2 years before he was elected Captain.


The Rough and Ready Guards were eventually designated as Company F, 14th North Carolina Infantry, and ordered to Suffolk, Virginia, just a few miles west of the important port city of Norfolk, where, at the Gosport Navy Yard, Confederate engineers were busy salvaging and refitting a sunken U.S. frigate, the Merrimack. The southern naval architects reconstructed the ship as an ironclad vessel, and formally christened her the C.S.S. Virginia in February 1862 (though she was frequently called the Merrimack anyway after this). 



Major General Benjamin Huger (a West Point graduate of 1825) commanded the Department of eastern Virginia, which included Norfolk. Learning that the Virginia needed a crew of approximately 300 men to make her fully operational, he began assigning men from the Confederate units in the region to duty on the ironclad. William Pleasant Craig received the summons; on February 18, 1862, Craig was ordered to report for duty on the Virginia.  

  Craig served on board the Virginia when it made its maiden voyage into the harbor of Hampton Roads on Saturday, March 8, 1862, to tackle the Union blockading fleet. The wooden-hulled fleet found itself at the mercy of the ironclad. After several hours of battle, the Virginia had rammed and sunk the USS Cumberland, forced the surrender and burned the USS Congress, and forced the USS Minnesota to run aground in her haste to escape from the iron intruder. The Virginia returned to harbor, damaged but triumphant on the day. We do not know what position Craig held on board the vessel, but we do have testimony that he served with distinction in his post. Craig had been in the heat of the action, feeling the concussions from dozens of enemy shells clanging off the ship’s armor plating with a deafening din. The next day, March 9, the Virginia ventured back into the harbor to find a Union ironclad, the USS Monitor, and fought to a draw with its opponent in the first ever naval battle between ironclad vessels. Over the course of the next two months, the Virginia unsuccessfully tried to break the Union blockade. She was finally scuttled on May 11, 1862, when Confederate forces had to abandon Norfolk. Craig–the bootmaker from the mountains of North Carolina–had been part of a historic naval battle, but his future would lie in more terrestrial forces. 

Once discharged from his naval service, Craig appears to have returned home to the mountains for a while, and married 17-year old Sarah McDowell in Madison County on August 31, 1862. Perhaps he had satisfied his initial urge to participate in the martial adventure. However, at some point in the months after his marriage, he enlisted in Company D, 7th Battalion N.C. Cavalry, which was redesignated as Company C, 65th North Carolina Troops (6th Regiment N.C. Cavalry) in December 1863. The company originally formed in Henderson County in July 1862. We don’t know exactly when Craig joined the unit, but we do know that it did not appeal to him. He left the unit without authorization in the summer of 1863. The unit was stationed at Sweetwater, Tennessee, and many of the men (including Craig) were without mounts. A detail was authorized to head back to the mountains of North Carolina to procure more horses for the soldiers. Craig was dismayed to find his request to be part of the detail denied, and he decided to leave the unit anyway on July 18, 1863. He was reported as “absent without leave,” instead of as a deserter, though all subsequent sources indicate that Craig had no intention of ever returning to the unit. He hid from Confederate authorities, until he was arrested near his home and confined in the Buncombe County courthouse in Asheville on November 20, 1863. He escaped on the night of November 21 and returned to hide out in the woods near his mother’s home where his now-pregnant wife also lived (their son, Frank Harney Craig, would be born in May 1864).

While he was in hiding, Frank and Peter Penland (the latter a former lieutenant in the 29th North Carolina Infantry) came to his home and urged Craig to meet with them for some unspecified, but clearly nefarious, reason. Craig declined, and told his mother “that as long as people let him alone, he would let them alone.” But the Penlands were persistent, and Craig eventually went to meet them and a group of other men in February 1864. The Penlands proposed robbing some people in the neighborhood, and Craig initially refused to participate. Then the group changed tactics. As one observer reported, “they gave him liquor until he became intoxicated and at last he went with them.” It was well known in the community that the young Craig had this vice. As one reported in his court martial, Craig “was in the habit before the war of getting into drinking & fighting sprees.” Thus fortified with stimulants, Craig joined the group who then went off and robbed several homes, taking guns, swords, and ammunition.

One of the homes pilfered belonged to Wiley F. Parker, Captain of Company F, 14th Battalion N.C. Cavalry. When Parker returned to his home on April 10, 1864, he discovered nearly $500 worth of items missing, including a rifle, a shot gun, and a prized sword. After a few days' investigation, Parker learned that Craig, foolishly, had been seen wearing the sword. Parker sent one of his lieutenants and 12 men to go to Craig’s home and arrest him on April 26, 1864. When the posse appeared at the house, Craig tried to escape out the back, but was captured and brought to Parker. Parker reported, “I demanded my fine sword of him… told him I would give him one hour to produce it & upon failure his life should pay the forfeit.” Craig delivered the missing item, and promised to be a “good & faithful soldier hereafter, & fight during the continuance of the war.” Parker had heard such promises before from many other captured deserters. Parker returned Craig to military jail in Asheville and formally court martialed him for desertion in early August 1864. The court found him guilty and sentenced him to be executed by firing squad. 

Desperate appeals began immediately after the verdict was rendered. Aura Craig, William’s mother, approached John Lancaster Bailey, a judge in Buncombe County, to appeal to Governor Vance and President Jefferson Davis on her son’s behalf.

She enlisted the support of several other prominent men in the county to sign a petition indicating that “though his conduct has been bad, [William Craig] ought not to suffer death” for it. Bailey agreed to write to Governor Vance, and penned his first letter on August 5, with a copy of the Court Martial testimony. He noted that Aura Craig tried to accept the blame for her son’s desertion. She declared that he had always been a dutiful child and obeyed her, and as such, “while absent from his command, she advised him not to return, kept him out and harbored him.”

Judge John Lancaster Bailey

intervened on behalf of Craig’s mother.


More than three weeks later, on August 29, 1864, Bailey wrote a second letter to Vance, including a petition he had drafted to Jefferson Davis, and a copy of the charge and specifications of the court martial. Craig had been transferred to the Confederate Military Prison at Salisbury to await his fate, and the proceedings of the Court Martial had been sent to Richmond for review. Immediately upon receiving this letter, Governor Vance–who may have had a passing acquaintance with Mrs. Craig or her husband before the war–took up his pen and wrote to Jefferson Davis to appeal for mercy for the deserter. Vance began, “This boy is the only child of his mother who is a poor widow in my native town Asheville, N.C. He volunteered in my old Company F, 14th N.C.T. served until the career of the ‘Merrimac’ began, was one of her crew until she sank & afterwards joined the Regt from which he deserted.” Vance recognized the seriousness of the crime and of the Confederate government's draconian stance to deter desertion at this stage of the war. “I do not know a word that I can truthfully say in negation of his great crime,” the governor admitted to Davis, “but for the sake of his mother I am induced to ask that his sentence may be commuted to hard labor in some fort.” The letter had arrived in the President’s office by September 5, and a review of the evidence and petitions began. On September 12, 1864, the President decided in Craig’s favor, and the War Department sent a telegram to General John Bell Hood, in charge of the army to which Craig’s unit was attached, suspending the death sentence. Craig was allowed to return to his unit, and the last surviving military record shows that he was present with his regiment as late as November 14, 1864. Whether he remained with his unit is unknown, but he survived the war. 



Governor Zebulon Vance’s appeal to President Jefferson Davis on Craig’s behalf, from Craig’s 14th North Carolina Infantry Compiled Service Record File, fold3.com.


At some point after the war, Craig and his wife and child moved to the township of Marshall, in Madison County (about 25 miles north of Asheville), where he became a farmer with a modest landholding. He and Sarah had four more children until her untimely death on February 23, 1873, likely from complications related to the birth of their daughter, Eliza, who had been delivered only 7 weeks earlier. Eliza died two years later, but before she passed, another tragedy struck the Craig family. On the afternoon of Wednesday, July 8, 1874, with storm clouds overhead, 33-year old William was working in his fields. While hauling hay in a one horse conveyance, lightning struck, instantly killing Craig (and his horse). William Pleasant Craig–the indomitable, hard-drinking youth who enlisted in a patriotic fervor in May 1861, served in the most famous naval battle of the war at Hampton Roads in March 1862, deserted, engaged in banditry, was arrested twice, court martialed, sentenced to death, and finally reprieved at the eleventh hour by the governor’s intervention–died in a sudden and dramatic fashion that had nothing to do with the war or any act of man. The four surviving children (all boys) were raised in Buncombe County by their grandmother, Aura Craig, who had worked so feverishly and successfully to gain clemency for her only son. 


Asheville Weekly Citizen, July 16, 1874


Sources:


* Louis H. Manarin and Weymouth T. Jordan, comps., North Carolina Troops: A Roster (1968, 1975), Vol. 2:471,799, Vol. 5:447 


* 1850 U.S. Census; 1860 U.S. Census; 1870 U.S. Census; 1880 U.S. Census, found at Ancestry.com


* Compiled Service Records, W.P. Craig, 14th North Carolina Regiment, found at fold3.com.


* John Lancaster Bailey to Zebulon B. Vance, August 29, 1864, Governors Papers, State Archives of North Carolina, Raleigh


* Asheville Weekly Citizen, July 16, 1874

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