PoP's Southern Thangs: North Carolina Patriots of ’61 – Thomas Legion Highlanders


North Carolina Patriots of ’61 – Thomas Legion Highlanders

North Carolina War Between the States Sesquicentennial
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North Carolina Patriots of ’61 – Thomas Legion Highlanders

The Thomas Legion was formed to defend the mountainous region of North Carolina, eastern Tennessee and southwest Virginia from Northern invasion.

William Holland Thomas was born in 1805 in Waynesville and was 56 years old when the war began. A successful businessman and veteran North Carolina legislator, Thomas recruited mountaineers and Cherokee Indians near Waynesville, many of whom he had known since childhood.

At the age of twelve, Thomas had been adopted by Yonaguska, chief of the Oconaluftee tribe of the Cherokee Nation, and given the name of Wil-Usdi, meaning “Little Will.” A successful merchant and trader, by 1861 Thomas had amassed 34,000 acres of land and was one of western North Carolina’s largest landholders. His first company of Cherokee volunteers was named the “Junaluska Zouaves,” and on April 9, 1862 the unit was mustered into Confederate service at Qualla Town by Major George Washington Morgan, an Indian, with William Thomas serving as captain.

Thomas petitioned Governor Zebulon Vance to authorize a guerilla force of his own selection in North Carolina, and adopted the name “Highland Rangers.” By late September 1862 he had raised an 1100-man regiment, which included two companies of Cherokees. Their first assignment was to round up deserters and men fleeing from conscription, and later saw action in east Tennessee. In a fierce counterattack against Northern forces, Lt. John Astooga Stoga was killed, and his enraged braves reportedly scalped Northern soldiers who fell into their hands.

In the late fall of 1862 the Legion was sent to Madison County to suppress Yankee bushwhackers in that area; by spring 1863 the Thomas Legion had added Levi’s Light Battery of artillery, and had grown to an 2800 man force.

In the Battle of Limestone Station, Major William C. Walker’s battalion of the Legion captured 314 Northern prisoners; shortly thereafter Lt. Colonel J.R. Love’s 600-man regiment charged the 5th Indiana Cavalry who fled the field in disorder. Love’s men would fight under General “Grumble” Jones at Piedmont in early June, 1864; then under General Jubal Early’s command for the 1864 Shenandoah Valley Campaign. Though battle wounds and death had diminished the ranks by March 1865, more recruiting had brought the Legion up to 1200 effectives. By May of 1865, the Thomas Legion was the only Southern unit east of the Mississippi that had not capitulated to Northern forces.

Having surrounded a Northern mounted infantry unit with the Cherokee battalion and Love’s regiment near Waynesville on May 10th, the Legion disbanded and returned to their nearby homes and farms. Thomas was bankrupted by the war and spent most of his postwar life in asylums; he died on May 10th, 1893 in Morganton.

From Free North Carolina


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