" In 60's, Town Misses Being Burned To Ground By Margin Of One Day"
By James Robinson Daniels
(Published in The Franklin Press, June 16, 1955)
If General Lee had surrendered one day later, Federal troops would have burned Franklin to the ground in 1865. A town in ashes might never have recovered. Or it might have been rebuilt on a different site. Certainly our community would be the poorer without the time-mellowed homes that date from "Before The War".
All this is speculation. The grim fact is that Col George W Kirk marched his Union regiment from Asheville to Macon County in the twilight of the Confederacy. He was intent on arson because: "I have heard that Franklin is the hottest hole in Rebeldom." Kirk planned to make it even hotter.
The day before his mounted infantry reached here, however, a courier brought him word of the surrender at Appomattox. Kirk kept on. Those Secesh needed a lesson, anyway.
Detouring widely, Kirk's troops entered Franklin by every possible road. They converged on the Courthouse, and sought to overawe the citizens. On their bridle reins jingled silver spoons, looted from homes all the way to Tennessee. Ropes for torture and for hangings were part of their equipment.
Stomping into Dixie Hall, on Main Street next to the Courthouse, Kirk declared it was now his headquarters. He met an icy reception from Mrs Julius T Siler, its mitress.
Her only son, William P Siler, had enlisted at 15 and was with the Army of Northern Virginia. Her husband, a Captain, CSA, was on sick leave. Her son-in-law, Capt James L Robinson, was likewise an ill man. The Army doctors had sent him home to "die." He didn't, for I am his grandson. Both the captains, to avoid capture as prisoners of war, had taken to the woods an hour before. Kirk's "lambs" were ruthless with Rebel officers.
Throughout Macon County the situation was the same. Only old men, boys, and the physically unfit remained. The rest were in the Confederate Army, though some were now being paroled and starting the long journey back.
At the door of Dixie Hall Mrs Siler had a warning for Col Kirk. "If your men pull up all the vegetables and ransack the smokehouse, you will have nothing to eat." He gave an order, and the senseless destruction stopped instantly. George Washington Kirk liked his vittles and plenty of them.
His order, of course, did not extend to nonedible booty. Some of Kirk's men were honest Unionists. Others were deserters from both the Blue and the Gray, with a liberal mixture of just plain criminals. They had joined his outfit in the expectation of little fighting and a lot of stealing. And they were not disappointed.
Riding up to a Macon homestead, they would ask: "Got any gold or silver? No? Well, we'll burn your house." After piling straw around the outside, the scoundrels would strike a match. "Your last chance to save the place. Sure you ain't got no hard money?" They would light the straw. Generally the owner would break under this pressure and reveal his little treasure. If an owner held out stoutheartedly - or if he actually had no money - Kirk's ruffians might put out the fire and go on to the next farm. Or they might apply greater cruelty.
At the home of Barak and Mary Nicholson Norton, in Whiteside Cove, the so-called soldiers strung up Mary by her thumbs. Her husband was in hiding to escape a worse fate. She refused to give up her gold. A razor slashed her throat, not deeply, but enough to make the blood drip fast. She would not tell, and they grudingly cut her ropes. That same night Kirk's ruffians murdered her son, a former Confederate soldier, at his nearby home.
Perhaps they would have killed Jesse Siler Robinson at Dixie Hall if they had realized what he did on May 11, 1865. Jesse, younger brother of James L Robinson, returned from service in the 6th NC Cavalry on that day. He was compelled to take the oath of allegiance before Col Kirk. In swearing, Jesse held up his left hand "out of disrespect for Kirk, and not for the US Government."
Jesse's parole, signed by the Colonel at "Headquarters, Franklin, NC," is still in the possession of his children. Years later he married the granddaughter of the unvanquished Mary N Norton.
Maybe Kirk didn't know a left hand from a right. He wasn't too stupid, though, to miss the act of Alice Siler Robinson, daughter of his unwilling hostess. If he had seen it. Alice, aged 17, was bursting with contempt for the rascals who were disgracing the Federal Army. She expressed it in the only way she could:
Quietly, her hoopskirts rustling, she crept up to the second story porch of Dixie Hall. From the railing hung the sign of Federal headquarters: the Stars and Stripes. With great deliberation, Alice spat upon the flag.
Then she went downstairs and told her mother, Great-grandmother Siler instructed Alice to say nothing to anyone about this insult to the invaders. Great-grandmother had her house overrun by a band of power-drunken gorillas in blue uniforms. She must feed the beats, and hope that they would stay reasonably peaceful, choking her fears and loathing.
Besides the outrages which Kirk's gangsters were committing in Macon, Mary Coleman Siler knew how they had treated her father's home in Buncombe County. Opening the spigots of the molasses barrels, the despoilers had flooded the cellar with stickiness. The contents of feather beds were then stirred into the mess. Finally, bucketsful of molasses-and-feathers were flung onto walls, ceilings, and furniture.
This it seems to me, is the ultimate in ingenious deviltry.
Would Kirk leave a similar remainder when he left Dixie Hall? Nightly Great-grandmother prayed against the possibility. The prayers of the righteous are answered. As Kirk prepared to depart he told her, politely enough:
"I regret, Madam, that I am unable to pay for the hospitality you have extended to me and my staff. Unfortunately, in fording one of your swift mountain streams, my purse was swept away." He bowed graciously.
Anxious to get him out at any cost, she said not a word as an orderly clanked past with the swords of Capt Robinson and Capt Siler. The garret hiding place had been discovere. The silver, in a secret hold under the house, was safe.
So George Kirk and his ruffians rode away to even greater infamy in Eastern North Carolina during the troubles of Reconstruction.
The Macon County people whose ancestors he robbed and murdered are completely Reconstructed nowadays. If you don't believe it, look at the front of the Courthouse. Julius T Siler donated half the land on which the Courthous stands, and all of the open square on the west side of it. This was his contribution to the public welfare.
On that Courthous wall appear in bronze the names of descendants of Rebels who have fought - and died - in the two World Wars for our United States.
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