By Marshall McClung
Graham Star Correspondent
Several 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.
Kirkland’s Bushwhackers were led by John Jackson “Bushwhacking” Kirkland, a former Second Lieutenant in Company B of the Third Tennessee Mounted Infantry (CSA), and a deserter from the Confederate Army.
There 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 Bushwhackers. Bob 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 Stratton’s 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.
The 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. Bas’s wife and John’s 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 (USA)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 Gray’s Calvary boots. Sometime after that, they killed two of Bas Shaw’s sons, Jim and Jeff Shaw of the Eleventh Tennessee Calvary, Union Army. They were Bushwhacking John’s first cousins.
After Bas Shaw’s sons were killed, he took part in a raid on Robbinsville with Captain Tim Lyons and the Third Tennessee Mounted Infantry (USA). Jesse Kirkland, Bushwhacking John’s brother was killed during the raid. Some of the Cherokee Indians loyal to the Confederate Army were also killed.
The 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 Kirklands 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.
The 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.
Perhaps the most shocking deed attributed to the Kirkland Bushwhackers occurred just outside of Graham County on the “Tennessee Mountain” close to Deal’s 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 Kirkland’s 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 infant’s 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.
Bushwhacking 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.