My eyes strain to locate the marker as I pick my way through an overgrown thicket of briers, vines and saplings. An earthy odor fills my nostrils, and I begin to wonder if I have correctly followed directions. Finally, I make out what appears to be the object of my quest.
Scrambling on my hands and knees through the final 20 yards of tangled vegetation, I reach a gravestone well-camouflaged by vines and privet. A feeling of melancholy settles over me as I realize in all probability nobody has visited this gravesite since placement of the military marker here in 1974.
I feel a rush of emotions when I see the name etched in stone and put my hand on the dingy, algae-stained marble monument marking the place where he was laid to rest more than six-score years ago. At last I have made a physical connection to this man whose life and times I have been researching.
But the connection I am seeking will take more than laying my hand on his gravestone. It requires that I write about him and the events that led to his untimely death. For here lie the remains of William Clayton Fain, my great-great-grandfather’s first cousin. The story of his life and death needs to be told.
The thunder that rumbled across the mountains of North Georgia during the winter of 1860 and 1861 signaled more than just rain. Shortly after Lincoln’s election, South Carolina defiantly seceded from the Union, and one by one the other Southern states held their own secession conventions. Few understood the storm of pain and economic disaster that secession would bring.
It may come as a surprise to many readers that anti-secession sentiment was strong in the mountainous areas of the South. Referred to as Unionists by their friends and as Tories by their adversaries, many anti-secessionist southerners owned small farms and no slaves. Moreover, these mountain folk harbored some resentment towards those who wielded most of the political power in the state – the owners of the large plantations worked by slave labor.
Two delegates represented FanninCounty at Georgia’s secession convention in Milledgeville in January 1861. One of these men, Elijah Chastain, was a former state senator and United States Congressman. He was a lawyer, a large landowner, and one of the wealthiest men in the mountain country. He also owned six slaves and was an avid secessionist.
The second delegate, William Clayton Fain, was a Morganton lawyer who also farmed a few acres. In the 1860 slave census he is listed as one who “held in trust” a 19-year-old mulatto female for his underage daughter, Claire. This apparent anomaly indicates that not all Unionists necessarily opposed slavery, just as not all secessionists were slave owners.
Fain, a 36-year-old firebrand, was a staunch Unionist whose anti-secession speeches were widely circulated in North Georgia. During the late 1850s, he served in the Georgia Legislature, where he had a reputation as unyielding and uncompromising in his views. Despite his reputation, or possibly because of it, he exerted a great deal of influence in the tri-state area of Georgia, Tennessee and North Carolina.
The selection of these two men as delegates split the Fannin County delegation over the question of secession. The majority of FanninCounty residents were, however, opposed, as evidenced by Fain’s much larger share of the popular vote over pro-secession Elijah Chastain.
Asylum in the Mountains
Clayton Fain, and the many others who initially voted against secession, were unable to sway the majority of Georgia delegates, however, and on January 19, 1861, Georgia passed an ordinance of secession. In early February the seceding Southern states formed a provisional government of the Confederate States of America. Then, two months later, Confederate troops fired on Fort Sumter after the Union garrison refused to surrender.
All over the South men and boys joined hastily organized infantry, cavalry, and artillery units. The comparatively small number of volunteers from the mountain region, however, foreshadowed the bitter conflict to come.
By the spring of 1862 euphoria had worn off, and it was apparent the war would not end as quickly as many had first believed. In response, the new government passed the Confederate Conscription Act of 1862, calling for a military draft of all men from 18 to 35 years old who were not otherwise exempt. Six months later the maximum age increased to 45. Exemptions from the draft included those holding political office or involved in occupations deemed essential to the social, political, and economic stability of the Confederacy. Also, anybody who had money and a desire to avoid service could pay a substitute to serve in his place.
Staunch states’ rights advocates detested conscription as a form of central government power exercised over individual citizens. Georgia’s Governor Joseph Brown even considered conscription unconstitutional and did all he could to thwart it from being carried out. The practice was particularly unpopular in the mountainous areas of the state, alienating many of those who had initially supported secession and the Confederacy.
The additional hardship of the impressment of livestock, feed and crops from small mountain farms made matters even worse. Remote mountain areas began to fill with men evading the unpopular draft, as well as conscripts deserting from Confederate units. Home guard companies were formed to round up deserters and those evading conscription.
In July 1862, a little more than a month after conscription began, Captain William A. Campbell from FanninCounty wrote Governor Brown describing the dire situation in the mountains:
“A very large majority of the people now here perhaps 2/3, are Disloyal among whom are several of the most prominent, influential and wealthy in the county, viz. Jas. Parks, Clate Fain, E. Hunt, Wm. Umphrey, Col. L.B. Crawford & Maj. W.L. Vanzant and many others…These men have secretly & with greate success labered to keep up their Union party here ever since the state seeceeded…In the Districts over which Parks and Fain have unlimited influence, viz. Hot House & Cut Cane, not a ½ Doz. Men have gone into service & nearly every one of the others have runn away to E. Tenn.”
Exacerbating the situation in this region, the impressment of farm products and livestock by Confederate forces hit small farmers hard. Human nature being what it is, Tory farms were preferred targets over those loyal to the Confederacy. Disparities like this, coupled with the conscription of individuals who were often a family’s only adult male, fostered resentment that resulted in an increasingly hostile environment.
Fannin County, along with adjacent Gilmer and Pickens, became one of the hottest spots in North Georgia. Many families, including one of Fain’s brothers and two of his cousins, ultimately found the lawless conditions there unbearable and left.
Later in 1862, Campbell again complained to the governor, this time about a conspiracy of disloyal Unionists including Clayton Fain and Solomon Stansbury. He claimed they were trying to sabotage the Confederate conscription act by “refusing to enroll able-bodied men and protecting dissenters from military service with false exemptions.”
A year later the situation hadn’t improved. Ebenezer Fain, a state legislator from Gilmer County who was an avid Rebel and a first cousin of Clayton Fain, wrote in August 1863 to his future son-in-law serving in the Confederate army in Virginia: “Many are ready to give up but I’m not ready to give up the ship of Liberty yet three companies organized in Gilmer for home defense, two inf. And one cavalry I am member of the latter…some refused to join either of the companies.”
Ebenezer’s daughter, Hulda, noted in a letter written a month later: “The home guard will go the Morganton to meet Col. Lee…40 deserters showed up Saturday from Col. Robertson’s Co…they later thought the cavalry was coming for them and they scattered, but later came back.”
By early 1864, Union troops were amassed and poised for a push south from Chattanooga towards the critical transportation and supply city of Atlanta. By this time Confederate desertion was commonplace and causalities had taken a heavy toll on muster rolls. In a desperate effort to put more men in the field, a new conscription act made boys as young as 17 and men as old as 50 subject to conscription.
Clayton Fain, a “forgeman,” was one of the Fannin County men granted a temporary exemption from the draft. Hemptown Iron Works, just outside Morgantown, and another iron mill just over the state line in North Carolina owned by Clayton’s brother, Mercer, produced iron for munitions essential to the Confederate cause. One of these mills was likely Fain’s place of so-called employment as a forge operator. This may have been the kind of “false exemption” referred to by Captain Campbell in his 1862 letter to the governor.
Given Fain’s strong Unionist convictions, he surely wouldn’t have complied with the conscription act. And although he was exempt from the draft given his work at the iron forge, his enemies may have been working to have the exemption revoked. While conscription may or may not have been likely, it seems that the merest possibility was a contributing factor in the fateful decision Fain was about to make.
Gone to Yankeedom
For three years Fain had been at odds with Elijah Chastain and other pro-secession rivals. To this point, he had resisted authorities to the degree possible without being charged with treason. By March 1864, however, he had made the risky decision to devote himself fully to overt opposition to the South. This incautious decision meant he would have to abandon his home, law career and extended family in Morganton.
In early March 1864 a fellow Unionist, Jasper Gant, introduced Fain to Maj. General D.S. Stanley, commanding the 1st Division, IV Corps of the Union Army. The meeting took place at Blue Springs, near Cleveland, Tennessee. Fain’s reputation preceded him, and General Stanley was impressed enough to authorize Fain to raise a Union regiment in the tri-state area.
On Fain’s return to Georgia he stopped at the Fannin County farm of his brother-in-law, George A. Thomas (no relation the Union General George H. Thomas) and showed him his authorization papers. In a deposition in later years Thomas confirmed, “At the same time he asked me for assistance to furnish wagon and team to help move his family north to Tennessee and I did help move his family as requested.”
Word spread rapidly through Fannin County that Clayton Fain had “gone to Yankeedom,” but was now back raising a Union regiment. A number of Confederate deserters and Tories who had been laying out immediately joined him. This band of recruits began combing the mountains for others of like mind.
On March 8, 1864, militia officer Stephen Dobbs reported to authorities in Atlanta that a band of about 25 armed and well-mounted Tories wearing Federal uniforms had raided Morganton. These raiders had “induced to leave” seven slaves from four Fannin plantations. At the W. A. Morris farm the Tories wounded the eldest son when he resisted and knocked two of the women to the ground with rifle barrels. Dobbs didn’t specifically mention Clayton Fain in the raid, but did mention that Fain was seen later “as he conducted the negros through to the enemy” (presumably to Cleveland, Tennessee).
Similar raids were occurring at this time in Gilmer and Pickens Counties. Fed up with open rebellion against the Confederacy, local authorities pleaded with the governor to send additional troops to search the mountains and valleys for “marauding Tories and deserters.”
From early March to early April, Clayton Fain recruited “four or five companies” (roughly 200 to 300 men) for his Unionist regiment. By necessity, his recruits lived off the land until they were able to reach Union lines and obtain rations. During this time, Fain probably learned from bitter experience the same lesson learned by his grandfather, Ebenezer Fain, while fighting Indians during the Revolutionary War: it is never easy to control men when they have the opportunity to exact revenge on those who have wronged them or their families.
During the evening of April 5, 1864, Clayton Fain and his family retired for the night at the house of Alexander Officer in Ducktown, Tennessee. The next morning, the unmistakable sound of a large troop of approaching horsemen broke the quiet. With this little warning, a cavalry force of about 60 men, later learned to have been led by a Captain Rogers, arrived at Officer’s house and took Fain and at least one of his recruits into custody.
Guerrilla cavalry companies often shot their prisoners, but after three years of bitter partisan conflict in the mountains it was not uncommon for even regular military units to do the same. They could always claim the prisoner was shot while attempting to escape. Since Fain’s recruiting activities were well known to both outlaw guerrilla leaders and authorized militia and home guard units, he was in a dire predicament indeed.
After their capture at Ducktown, Fain and Robinson were placed on horseback with their hands bound. The cavalry company then escorted the prisoners south, towards the Georgia line.
That morning, William Postell, a corporal in the 10th Tennessee Cavalry (USA) who had been assisting Fain with recruiting, was at his house about two miles south of Ducktown when he “saw a Confederate detachment of about 60 men pass within 100 yards with Colonel Fain in their possession.” Fifteen minutes later Postell heard the report of guns. He later found Fain lying dead in the road.
William H. Weaver, a scout with the 14th Illinois Cavalry, also heard the shots and saw Fain’s body on the road.
The accounts of Postell and Weaver are found in the post-war pension application file of Fain’s widow, Margaret. While their eyewitness recitations of the events that day are consistent, other accounts by persons with second- or third–hand information alleged that Fain and his recruits were on their way from Georgia to Tennessee when John Gatewood’s pro-southern guerrilla band captured them at Edwards Ferry, a ToccoaRiver crossing.
Most accounts of Fain’s death suggest that he was shot while trying to escape. One version has him making it 300 yards in a wild ride for safety through a fusillade of rifle and pistol shots before being brought down by a single bullet to the back of the head. But all these accounts are no better than second hand.
The only eyewitness account of the shooting is that of Fain’s widow. In conjunction with her application for a pension, she testified that she had followed behind when her husband was abducted in Ducktown, and arrived in time to see him shot from his horse. She made no mention of an escape attempt, but did say his authorization papers were taken from him and destroyed.
No Better than Murder
We may never know whether Clayton Fain was shot while attempting to escape or whether he was summarily executed with a pistol or rifle ball to the back of his head. While the “escape” story is more glamorous, the placement of the bullet, which entered at the junction of his neck and head and exited above his mouth, seems to indicate an execution-style killing at close range. After all, a single shot in that location by mounted horsemen at a full gallop seems highly improbable.
After killing Fain, Captain Rogers and his cavalry detachment crossed the Toccoa River at Edwards Ferry and proceeded southwest on the Ellijay Road with the other prisoner, Henry Robinson. Robinson was later found “tied to a tree and shot 15 or 20 times” according to those who found his body.
On April 26, Fain’s cousin, Ebenezer Fain, again wrote to his son-in-law in Virginia, telling of Captain Roger’s efforts to round up deserters and of “Clate’s” death. He mentioned that the cavalry had also killed a FanninCounty man named Kirby and his two sons.
During the same spree, Rogers’ men killed a Rebel deserter, Albert Ward, and robbed him of $3,000 to $4,000. As Ebenezer Fain described it, one of the soldiers shook hands with Ward and then jerked him out of his doorway and shot him. Ward’s wife got her thumb shot off in the fracas as the troops fired indiscriminately at her husband. Ebenezer Fain also reported that Rogers’ band impressed quite a few horses on this expedition.
Records show that William J. Rogers was the captain of Company B, 4th Georgia Cavalry, and that this company (made up of Tennessee men) was on legitimate impressment duty in North Georgia when these incidents took place. Although murdering prisoners was blatantly illegal, it was not unusual in the latter years of the war as passions and violence escalated. Still, these actions were no better than those of the bushwhackers and other irregulars who stole, robbed and murdered at will.
A Widow’s Pension
Beginning in 1866, Margaret Fain tried unsuccessfully for many years to obtain a pension as the widow of a Union solider killed in the line of duty. Her initial application indicated that her husband was the colonel commanding the 5th Tennessee Mounted Infantry Regiment (USA).
Unfortunately for Margaret Fain, the United States Army had no record of her husband in the 5th Tennessee or any other regiment. Moreover, she couldn’t produce any of his authorization papers since those given to him by General Stanley had been destroyed at the time of her husband’s death.
Several individuals with detailed knowledge of Fain’s activities on behalf of the Union provided affidavits in support of Margaret Fain’s pension application. William Lillard stated in his affidavit that he actually “saw the final approved commission when it arrived at headquarters in Cleveland the day Fain was killed, or shortly after.”
Even General Stanley, a Congressional Medal of Honor recipient, swore that General George H. Thomas had confirmed his initial authorization, and further, that had Clayton Fain lived he would have had the rank of colonel.
Even with such key evidence the U.S. Army remained unwavering. Since the Commissioner of Pensions had no record of a William Clayton Fain, he dismissed the affidavits and rejected Mrs. Fain’s claim.
There was nothing else that Margaret Fain could do but bide her time. She never gave up and those who supported her rightful quest apparently never forgot her. Two decades passed before she and her loyal supporters bypassed the army and pension board and successfully sought a political solution.
In 1885, U.S. House of Representatives member Allen Daniel Candler (a former Confederate colonel and future Governor of Georgia) sponsored H.R 260, a bill authorizing a pension for Margaret Fain. The Committee on Pensions added an amendment to “pay her the pension allowed the widow of a Captain,” thus depriving her of the larger stipend allowed the widow of a colonel. The bill passed the House and Senate and was signed by President Grover Cleveland on August 3, 1886, twenty-two years after Clayton Fain died in the line of duty.
Margaret Fain received her monthly $20 pension payments until her death in 1899.
William Clayton Fain was buried at the HiwasseeCemetery, a small plot on the property of the Hiwassee Mines Company in Ducktown. The Masonic Lodge of Murphy, North Carolina, along with lodges from Tennessee and Georgia, conducted the hastily arranged Masonic funeral service for their fallen lodge brother.
In August 1974 a great niece of Clayton Fain, Mrs. Mary Porter Fain Owen, was successful in obtaining an official military headstone for Clayton Fain’s grave. Bob Barker, a retired lawyer and avid student of the Civil War, assisted in this endeavor and in having the stone engraved and erected. He also wrote newspaper articles about the Clayton Fain killing. Regrettably, he drew from accounts that incorrectly associated the notorious John Gatewood and his guerrilla band with Fain’s killing, probably because Gatewood’s band engaged in a killing spring on the Copper Road just a few weeks after Fain’s death.
There are four items of incorrect information inscribed on Fain’s gravestone: (1) Family records indicate his birth date as December 7, 1824 rather than May 10, 1825; (2) Captain William J. Rogers’ Company B, 4th Georgia Cavalry Regiment, was the culprit, not Gatewood’s Guerrillas; (3) Fain’s rank should be listed as colonel; and (4) he was recruiting men from Tennessee and North Carolina in addition to Georgia.
With so many of Fain’s family and relations supporting the Confederacy, it is hard to imagine how cordial relations were maintained. He had four brothers in the Confederate Army – two of whom were killed before the war’s end; a first cousin was the colonel commanding the 65th Georgia Infantry Regiment; and two other first cousins served in the Georgia militia. Nevertheless, family tradition is very specific about the amiable relationship Clayton Fain had with his parents and siblings. One of his brothers, Alfred Newton, demonstrated this affection some years after his brother’s death by giving one of his sons the middle name Clayton.
True to the description given by those that knew him in the Georgia Legislature, William Clayton Fain proved to be a man of unyielding principle. No doubt flawed, as all men are, he was nevertheless a charismatic figure that used his determination, tenacity and leadership skills to accomplish the goals he set for himself.
My interest in Clayton Fain ignited years ago when I first read an excerpt about this relative of mine who was “killed by bushwhackers near Copperhill, Tennessee, while raising a Union regiment.” After nearly a decade of research and writing, my self-appointed undertaking as his biographer is complete. I have made the connection I desired to this distinguished man, and in doing so learned a great deal about the fascinating record of North Georgia’s Unionist movement.
Pension File, Margaret S. Fain, National Archives, Box 35277, Cert. 225514.
Huldah Fain Collection, Duke University Manuscript Collection.
Bragg, William Harris, “Joe Brown’s Army,” Mercer Press, Macon, Ga., 1987.
Barker, Bob, “Citizens Advance Newspaper,” August 29, 1974.
Davis, Robert Scott, Jr., “Prologue – Quarterly of the Nat’l Archives,” Spring 1994.
Sarris, Jonathan D., “Hellish Deeds in a Christian Land: Southern Mountain Communities at War, 1861-1865.” Doctor of Philosophy Dissertation, Athens, Georgia 1998.
(First published in Georgia Backroads Magazine, Summer 2011)
Travis H. McDaniel, a fifth generation Georgian, is a freelance writer who lives in Big Canoe, Georgia. He recently completed a limited distribution book containing the service records of 426 of his blood relations who fought in the Civil War. William Clayton Fain, his first cousin four times removed, was one of 30 that fought for the Union.