THE KIRKLAND BUSHWHACKERS
Graham Star Correspondent
groups of outlaws commonly referred to as bushwhackers
operated in the mountains of what is now Graham County and nearby areas of east Tennessee.
The Kirkland Bushwhackers are probably the most well
known group and were considered by many to be the most
vicious and bloodthirsty.
They operated for the most part during the closing
years of the Civil War and perhaps for a time thereafter. At times, deserters
from both the Union and Confederate ranks could
be found in these outlaw gangs.
Kirklands Bushwhackers were led
by John Jackson Bushwhacking Kirkland, a former Second Lieutenant in
Company B of the Third Tennessee Mounted Infantry, and a
deserter from the Confederate Army.
are graves scattered throughout the woods of Graham County and adjoining sections of Tennessee containing the remains of
victims of deadly ambushes set by the Kirkland
Stratton, the man Bob Creek and Bob Stratton Bald in the
Santeetlah area fell victim to them in Monroe County, Tennessee near the community of Ball
Play on September 2, 1864.
The Kirklands wanted Strattons new
breech-loading Spencer rifle, so they set an ambush for
him. They placed a
piece of paper in the road as a distraction, and waited
hidden in the bushes. Soon, Bob Stratton and Jack Roberts
who were hunting for their cattle came along. As they
stopped to examine the piece of paper, the Kirklands
opened fire killing Stratton on the spot and wounding
Roberts who crawled to safety, but died two days later of
his wounds. There is
a grave located near the Mud Gap Trailhead on the
Cherohala Skyway containing the body of an unknown man
killed by the Kirklands.
Kirkland Bushwhackers did not seem to draw the line at
killing relatives, sometimes murdering their blood kin
and kin by marriage. Bas
Shaw was the uncle of Bushwhacking John Kirkland by marriage. Bass wife and
Johns mothers were sisters. The Union Army burned
the family gristmill on Turkey Creek above Tellico Plains, Tennessee.
At this point, John Kirkland swore an oath against the
Union and headed a band of outlaws
that would become known as The Kirkland Bushwhackers. They roamed mostly in
the mountains between Robbinsville, N.C. and Madisonville, Tennessee, raiding homesteads often void
of able bodied men who had gone to the war, and ambushing
returning soldiers, Union and Confederate alike. The Kirklands killed
Captain Joe Gray of Company H, Third Tennessee Mounted
Infantry at his home near Sweetwater, Tennessee.
That night, as they were celebrating in a wild,
drunken party, their women took turns dancing around the
campfire in Grays Calvary boots. Sometime after that,
they killed two of Bas Shaws sons, Jim and Jeff
Shaw of the Eleventh Tennessee Calvary, Union Army. They were Bushwhacking
Johns first cousins.
Bas Shaws sons were killed, he took part in a raid
on Robbinsville with Captain Tim Lyons and the Third
Tennessee Mounted Infantry.
Jesse Kirkland, Bushwhacking Johns brother was
killed during the raid.
Some of the Cherokee Indians loyal to the Confederate
Army were also killed.
Union counterpart to the Kirkland Bushwhackers was a
group of outlaws known as the Laney Gang. They were headed by
Randolph Laney and James Elliot. Buck Highway ran from Ball Play, Tennessee down Kitchen Mountain and crossed Citico Creek. Here at the creek
crossing, the Kirklands set an ambush for the Laney Gang. As eight of the group
on horseback forded the creek, the Kirk lands opened up
on them at close range with rifles. Caught in the middle
of the creek by surprise, seven of them were shot from
their saddles and fell into the creek. Only one man escaped. Among those killed
were the leaders, Laney and Elliot.
Kirklands had several hideouts in and around Graham County.
One was located at what was then called Kirkland
Springs near Avey Branch below present day Horse Cove
Campground. They had
a corral there where they kept stolen livestock, often as
many as thirty horses and mules. Another hideout was
located at Kirkland Gap in the vicinity of Old Field Gap
near the Meadow Branch section of Graham County.
The Kirklands also reportedly hid out in Slickrock
Creek from time to time, ambushing people in Big Fat Gap
and Yellowhammer Gap.
the most shocking deed attributed to the Kirkland
Bushwhackers occurred just outside of Graham County on the Tennessee Mountain close to Deals
Gap. The Kirkland
Bushwhackers were hid in ambush to attack some soldiers
thought to be carrying a military payroll. An unsuspecting man,
his wife, and infant child came along. The Kirklands quickly escorted them
off the trail and out of sight in the woods. The baby was startled
by this and started crying.
Fearful that the infants crying would alert the
soldiers; they killed the baby and stuffed its body in a
hollow log. The
bereaved parents later buried it in an unmarked grave
close to where it was killed.
John Kirkland survived the Civil War, and numerous
skirmishes, ambushes, and shoot outs. Although several
murder indictments were handed down against him, he was
never tried, arrested, or even had papers served on him. Most of the military
and law enforcement officers of the day knew that to ride
into the mountains of Graham County where he lived would have
been in their words committing suicide. John
Bushwhacking Kirkland was living here when this
became Graham County in 1872, having stayed here
after the Civil War ended in 1865. He owned several
tracts of land here. John
Bushwhacking Kirkland moved to Polk County, Tennessee and lived out his last years,
dying in 1902 at age 75.