Appalachian Civil War story

April 1, 2019

West Virginia will forever be connected to the Civil War. It was created when it became the first and only state to secede from the Confederacy on June 20, 1863, after years of neglect by the plantation-owning aristocracy in greater Virginia that was determined to continue slavery instead of paying their southern brethren a living wage. That is how some would view the conflict anyway, as others fought for the South and what they viewed as their besieged homeland.

West Virginia was also the perfect example of brother fighting brother and cousin fighting cousin during the War Between the States. The truth is that Union sympathizers and soldiers could be found in every Confederate state except for South Carolina. The Free State of Jones existed in Mississippi, the thousands-strong Hill Country Militia was located in Texas, the Mountain Feds were based in Arkansas, the Jayhawker fighters fought in Louisiana, the Winston County soldiers came out of Alabama, the Independent Rangers held court in Florida, the Pickens County brethren were from Georgia, and thousands of Eastern Tennessee fighters fought with the Union forces.

Western North Carolina was no different, and that history includes the true story of Sarah Malinda “Sam” Blalock. “Sam” Blalock was one of only two female soldiers who disguised themselves as men and fought during the Civil War. Her story is well-documented throughout history.

Montezuma Cemetery is located on highway 181 in-between Linville, North Carolina and Newland, North Carolina, sitting up on a hill on the southern slope of Sugar Mountain. This area in the western third of the Tar Heel State features the highest mountains east of the Rockies. Just a few hundred yards from the cemetery is a turn in the road that unveils a beautiful view of nearby Grandfather Mountain, which is 5,945 feet in elevation.

In the old cemetery is a tombstone that reads “Sarah M., wife of William Blalock, Born March 10, 1839 — Died March 9, 1903.” Commonly known as Malinda Blalock, she grew up in a time period when life was very hard. The life expectancy in the 1800s was short, even during the times when there was no war. A few feet away from Blalock’s grave are headstones that tell that story.

A couple known as L.B. and E.L Townsend, for instance, lost a nine day old infant in 1892, lost a two year old daughter named Doshia in 1896, and they lost another infant in 1908. A few yards away are the tombstones of the Bumgarner family, which sadly includes four gravestones depicting the death of the infants born to W. and C.E. Bumgarner. Wife Celia E. Bumgarner, says her epitaph, was born in 1857 and died just 37 years later. The couple did raise a son into adulthood named Ira, but he died just a few months shy of his 20 birthday in 1892.

As for Sarah Malind a Pritchard, according to an article by Kelley Slappie for northcarolinahistory.org, she met and married William ‘Keith’ Blalock in 1839, even though the Pritchard and Blalock families had been feuding for over 100 years. Keith was by all accounts a bit of a rough cob and ten years older than Malinda when they joined forces. Once married, they lived on and around Grandfather Mountain, where there was plenty of game and fresh water.

As the Civil War approached, both Keith and Malinda Blalock became Northern sympathizers. What happened next has not only become a part of American lore, it is also a matter of historical fact. An important witness named James Moore recalled this true tale in The Morning Post newspaper in February of 1900.

Moore was a Confederate soldier in charge of rounding up draftees as a member of Captain Rankin’s Company F of the 26th North Carolina Regiment, and that was when he came across the Blalocks.

Keith Blalock had a plan. The goal was to join the Confederate forces and then defect to the Union troops once they were engaged in battle somewhere north. Joining him in the Army was his brother Samuel Blalock and they were now led by Colonel Zeb Vance, a future governor of North Carolina.

As it turned out, “Samuel” Blalock was in fact Malinda Blalock, Keith’s wife. She wrapped down her breasts and cut her hair short and successfully passed as a male soldier.

Said Moore in his sworn newspaper account, “I was not present at the battle of New Bern, being absent on detail at home to get recruits. I brought back with me about 45 men, among whom was a young man who went by the name Samuel Blalock. It turned out that he was a woman, the wife of Keith Blalock, but no one in the company knew of it until she and her husband confided it to me in secret at Salisbury (NC) on our way to Kingston to join the regiment. They told me of this, as they said, because, from my remark that ‘this recruit resembles Keith’s wife so much,’ that I suspected she was his wife, and they concluded it was best to make me their confidant so I would not tell anyone about it. I never told anyone about it except my brother-in-law, Isaac N. Corpening, who was also in the Company.”

It is safe to say that Malinda “Sam” Blalock was already well-versed in all things firearms and holding her own, probably both due to training with her husband and living the backwoods life of the 1800s. We know this because she was a soldier in good standing for at least two months in the company of men.

Said Moore, 119 years ago. “Sam Blalock’s disguise was never suspected. She drilled and did the duties of a soldier as any other member of the company and was very adept at learning the manual and drill.”

The Blalocks never found themselves near any Union troops, however, so they decided to find a way to leave the Confederate Army. Keith came up with an idea that was crazy and agonizing, yet it worked. He found some poison ivy, some say poison oak, and rubbed it all over his body. Once the welts and rash had become horribly obvious, he played it off as a disease along the lines of small pox and they quickly let him go. “Sam” wanted to leave as well so she could follow her husband, but her furlough was initially denied. It was then that she confessed to being a woman and proved it to Col. Vance.

Once back home, the Confederate draft enforcers soon realized that the Blalocks were healthy as well as deceptive and they tracked them down near their hideout on Grandfather Mountain, a craggy and thick-wooded summit. The couple escaped, albeit with Keith getting a bullet wound for his troubles. It was then that they became guerilla fighters, known then as “bushwackers.” Some say they crossed into Tennessee and joined another bushwacker group known as Kirk’s Raiders.” Michael C. Hardy, however, the author of the book “Kirk’s Civil War Raids Along The Blue Ridge,” says that there is no official record of the Blalocks and Kirk ever meeting each other.

Either way, Keith and Malinda “Sam” Blalock engaged in lethal raids together all over western North Carolina during the second half of the Civil War. As fate would have it, one of their raids involved James Moore’s family.

“One night while I was home on furlough from wounds received at Gettysburg, in the spring of 1864, her husband and his gang attacked my father’s home at the Globe in Caldwell County,” said Moore, 35 years after the end of the war. “We had a regular battle with them, in which my father was severely wounded. And, we wounded two of them, one of whom, it was said, was this one-time member of my Company who I enlisted, Malinda Blalock.”

Malinda was believed to have taken bullets to her shoulder. After Moore left to return to the war, the Blalocks raided his homestead again in the fall of 1864. This time, Keith had his left eye shot out of his head and the Blalocks soon left North Carolina for, as Moore remembers, ’either Colorado or Montana.”

After the Civil War ended in 1865, the Blalocks came home to western North Carolina, settled down and started a family that included five kids. Malinda “Sam” Blalock died of natural causes in 1903 at 64 years of age. Her husband Keith died a decade later in Hickory, NC.

How the folks of that area dealt with each other immediately after the end of the war is left to history. It was probably hard to be cordial to a couple that shot bullets at you just a few months earlier. One thing is for sure, however, no matter what side of the conflict you were on; Malinda “Sam” Blalock was a force to be reckoned with during a very dangerous time in our nation’s history.