Asheivlle – Broadway Street in Asheville may contain more historical markers than any other road in the county. This week’s marker, like the last two weeks comes from there and reads, “Battle of Asheville: On April 3, 1865, Union Col. Isaac M. Kirby left East Tenn. with 1100 men on a raid against Asheville. On April 6, Kirby’s force was defeated by local militia under Col. G. W. Clayton. Earthworks remain 100 yds. N.”
In the annals of Western North Carolina’s Civil War history, April 3, 1865, stands as a day of tension and turmoil, as Colonel Isaac M. Kirby, at the helm of the 101st Ohio Infantry, received orders to embark on a critical mission – to scout the enigmatic terrain in the direction of Asheville. Colonel Kirby, at the helm of 900 troops, found himself navigating the rugged landscape of the region, his ranks further augmented by an estimated 200 partisans and Confederate deserters who had pledged their loyalty to the United States.
Departing from Greeneville, Tennessee, Kirby’s expeditionary force embarked on this audacious journey into the heart of Confederate territory. On their first night, they encamped at the restorative haven of Warm Springs. Realizing the challenges ahead, Kirby made a calculated decision – to leave behind his cumbersome cannons and wagons, stationing them under vigilant guard at Warm Springs. With unyielding determination, he pressed onward towards Asheville, now with only his infantry at his side. The march was not without consequence, as Kirby’s men resorted to burning two bridges along their route, cutting off potential avenues of pursuit.
Word of Kirby’s approaching force reached Colonel George W. Clayton, Asheville’s highest-ranking officer at the time. Understanding the gravity of the situation, Clayton hastily summoned the Home Guard to the city’s defense. This motley crew, consisting of the forty-four member-strong “Silver Grays” – a group that astonishingly included a 14-year-old boy and a 60-year-old Baptist minister – was bolstered by approximately 250 additional men. Clayton’s leadership was characterized by a mix of persuasion and coercion as he cajoled, argued, and even shamed these reluctant defenders into taking up arms to safeguard Asheville’s future.
Colonel Clayton assembled his hastily-formed militia, arming them with two diminutive brass Napoleon cannons. Together, they marched to rudimentary earthworks strategically positioned to overlook the path along the French Broad River, which Kirby’s forces would likely traverse.
When the two opposing forces clashed on that fateful day at 3 o’clock in the afternoon, there were no elaborate tactical maneuvers; instead, the battlefield resounded with the relentless crack of musket fire punctuated by sporadic cannon volleys. This intense exchange of gunfire and artillery barrages persisted for approximately five grueling hours.
As night fell, it was Kirby’s men who retreated in haste along the very route they had taken during their approach. In their wake, they left behind a trail of abandoned rifles, canteens, and haversacks. Colonel Kirby’s accounts of the engagement reveal a certain level of misinformation regarding the strength and numbers of his adversaries.
Reports concerning casualties from this engagement vary, with some claiming none and others suggesting up to three. Yet, the morning after the skirmish, Confederate forces inspecting Kirby’s abandoned position made a gruesome discovery – the leg of a Union soldier still encased within a boot.
Regrettably, apart from a few fragmentary entries in the Official Records of the War of the Rebellion, our understanding of this encounter remains shrouded in historical obscurity. However, one intrepid historian, Forster A. Sondley, who chronicled the history of Buncombe County, also had a personal connection to this engagement. Sondley had his Shetland pony stolen by Kirby’s troops on their way to the engagement, an unfortunate incident that underscored the tumultuous nature of this chapter in Asheville’s history.
Today, the very site of the breastworks where this dramatic confrontation unfolded has become an integral part of the campus of the University of North Carolina at Asheville.
Nevertheless, a lingering controversy endures among historians and residents alike – was the skirmish of April 3, 1865, truly a battle, a mere skirmish, or perhaps an engagement? In the context of what little is known about this event, it is plausible to regard it as an engagement, falling short of the scale and intensity typically associated with full-blown battles, yet more substantial than a mere skirmish, forever etching its place in the intriguing tapestry of Western North Carolina’s Civil War history.