A Witcher Family Genealogy
In the Commonwealth of Virginia, during the late 1850s, a well-publicized, family feud exploded between the Witcher and Clement families. Two of those involved in that infamous event were Vincent Oliver Witcher and his grandson, Vincent Addison Witcher. This essay will document a few of the notorieties attributed to these two individuals as well as provide historical context for their actions.
Vincent Oliver Witcher is usually remembered as the main antagonist in the Clement/Witcher family feud, while his grandson, Vincent Addison Witcher, is often memorialized as a Confederate officer and then a Civil War guerilla fighter.
My interest in my Witcher family roots was developed by accident.
Several years ago, while traveling through central Virginia, I had an out-of-the-blue desire to locate and visit a D.A.R. monument marking the grave of my 5X, great-grandfather. He was a Patriot fighter named Major William Witcher, of Pittsylvania County, Virginia. I had previously read there was such a marker in the area. So using Google technology, our group quickly obtained the GPS coordinates for the old Witcher gravesite, and before long we were knocking on the door of the property owners, upon whose land the old Witcher cemetery is located. Click here for more information relating to Major William Witcher.
After our brief visit to the Witcher family cemetery, we were asked by our local guide if we had heard of the Clement/Witcher Feud? After sharing a few details about the incident, we were directed to the homestead of Dr. George Washington Clement. The old plantation was just down the road from where we were standing. Within a few minutes we arrived at the shell of the old antebellum mansion, where in the spring of 1858, James Clement brought home his newlywed bride, Victoria Smith. This young woman could not have known that within months her husband and two of her brother-in-laws would be killed by her close kin.
Victoria Smith was the grand-daughter of Vincent Oliver Witcher, a prominent statesman in the Pittsylvania County region of Virginia.
Vincent Oliver Witcher was the son of William Witcher, Jr., and a grandson of Major William Witcher.
This Vincent Witcher was sometimes referred to as “Captain” Vincent Witcher, reportedly because of his role in the War of 1812. After that war, Vincent served almost thirty years in the Virginia legislature, from 1823 through 1857, in the State’s senate and lower house. Vincent Oliver’s grandson (Vincent Addison Witcher) would write a letter dated “Sept. 7, 1906,” in which he stated his grandfather served, “for 29 years a Representative from this county.”
Vincent Oliver Witcher was the father of Mary Ann Witcher.
Mary Ann Witcher married Albert G. Smith, and from this union was born Victoria and two brothers named Vincent O. and John A. Smith. In 1860, Victoria’s two brothers would be charged with the murder of her husband and two of his brothers.
It is published that Victoria Smith (grand-daughter of Vincent O. Witcher) was a beautiful woman, charming in personality, well educated, aristocratic, and not shy about commingling with young men at local social events. Apparently, her outgoing personality perfected a jealous rage within her young husband, a man named James Clement, who was a son of Dr. George Washington Clement, Sr.
Around eighteen months after the marriage, the couple’s fighting had deteriorated their relationship to a point in which Victoria was forced to flee to a neighbor’s house on the evening of August 24, 1859. Local reports indicated her panic was so intense, in her haste, and fearing for her safety, Victoria left behind her six month old baby, Leila Maud, who was born on March 1 of that same year. From that night forward, everything changed for James Clement and his wife Victoria.
Within days, talk of divorce had morphed into legal action. Those proceedings were then sensationalized in the press, as both families were very high up the social caste. As depositions were being taken for the divorce suit, two separate shootings occurred, with the second incident resulting in the death of Victoria’s husband and his two brothers, James and William.
The first shooting.
An 1860 publication known as, “Vincent’s Semi-Annual, United States Register,” published by Francis Vincent, recorded in great detail the events of the divorce suit and the violence leading up to the death of the three Clement brothers.
Page 133 of this book recounts the first round of violence resulting from Victoria’s divorce suit. The Register states that, “The marriage between Mr. James Clement and Miss Victoria Smith was solemnized about two years ago last fall [on March 13, 1858]…. For several months the wedded pair lived together with naught but the most unalloyed happiness shining on the rosy pathway of their early matrimonial career. At length the ‘“green-eyed”’ monster, jealousy, reared his horrid front in the household of the happy couple, and ultimately placed such restrictions upon the young and confiding wife as to render her very existence a burden too intolerable to be borne.”
The 1860 publication then continues, “She [Victoria] finally resolved to leave the roof of her husband, and removed to the residence of her mother,… and, by the advice of her friends, during the fall of 1859, instituted suit against her husband for divorce. Soon after the institution of the suit, the parties met at Sandy Level, Pittsylvania county, for the purpose of taking depositions. Here a charge was made by the husband, Mr. James Clement, which involved alike the honor of his wife and that of Mr. William P. Gilbert, a young gentleman present, which was resented by Mr. Gilbert on the spot. Pistols were drawn, and nine shots exchanged, five of which took effect, injuring Mr. Gilbert and his brother, as well as two of the Messrs. Clement, but none of them seriously.”
Other publications of the day presented a very different version of that shooting, by indicating Mr. Gilbert “fired upon” James Clement, while he was sitting and, “quietly engaged in a conversation with a gentleman.” One modern publication provides the date of this gun-battle as, “Sept. 14, 1859, before 9 in the morning.” According to that report, Mr. Gilbert, James Clement, and his brother Johnston Clement were, “wounded in a pistol shoot-out before 9 a.m…. James and Johnston were bedridden for some time and Gilbert left town, forcing a delay in the depositions. This violent incident was a precursor of what was to come.”
The second shooting.
An article written by Ken Lauterstein, published in the Roanoak Times, dated, April 23, 2009, does a good job in consolidating the events which occurred once the taking of depositions resumed.
Mr. Lauterstein wrote, “The trial reopened in February 1860 at Washington Dickinson's Store near the current intersection of Chestnut Mountain Road and Truevine Road. Presiding at the table was Magistrate Robert C. Mitchell. Ralph Clements (brother of James) was an attorney and was examining the witness.
The depositions of S.Y. Shelton, Charles Powell, Willis Woody, G.T. Berger, W.P. Gilbert, George Samson and Edney Shelton had been taken. Elizabeth W. Bennett had been called to make her statement. Captain Vincent Witcher objected to having her qualify and make part of her statement on Saturday ‘"and then being left in the hands of the opposite party to be picked until Monday morning."’ Captain Witcher made the statement that Miss Bennett had been brought into the case by the Clements and was said to be under their control. Ralph Clement at this point said that ‘"Whoever said that told a damned lie."’ Whereupon Captain Witcher replied ‘"You had better make your remarks more direct,"’ rose from his chair, put his hand in his bosom, drew [from] there from a ‘"five shooter,"’ [and] stepped toward Ralph Clement. Understanding the meaning of the remarks, the crowd started for the doors and the shooting began. Addison Witcher, Vincent's [grand]son, grabbed Ralph Clement and screamed, ‘"Don't shoot me, shoot the damned rascal."’
The Roanoak Times article continues by rehearsing the oft repeated narrative of that event, “The bodies of the three brothers not only were riddled with bullets, but were horribly gashed with knives. William Clement was disemboweled. James Clement [Victoria’s husband] had his throat slit from ear to ear. Ralph Clement lived nearly three hours despite his wounds, and made a dying declaration.
It reads: ‘"I never attempted to draw an arm. Addison Witcher [grandson of Captain Vincent Witcher] caught me and held me around the waist and arms and told them to come and shoot me -- a damned rascal. I was shot several times while in that fix and he held me until I fell. Numbers of pistols were fired at me then."’
The paper continues, “To this dying declaration, Mitchell [Clement] added these words: ‘"Ralph A. Clement requested me to tell his father that he wanted him to make the deed to his wife and child according to his will."’ Robert N. Powell stated in his deposition that Addison Witcher held Ralph Clement while Vincent Oliver Smith shot him. George Finney stated in his deposition that John Anthony Smith shot and stabbed James Clement.”
Finally, the Roanoak Times article points out that, “It was stated by several deponents that both James and William Clement were reclining on a bed in the counting room when the firing began. It was thought by a few that some of the early firing came from the bed. The pistols of both James and William Clement had been fired until empty, but Ralph Clement had not drawn gun or dirk [dagger]. Vincent's grandsons and son-in-law were wounded in the gun battle but survived.”
Captain Vincent Oliver Witcher and his four grandsons, Vincent Addison Witcher, Samuel Swanson, John A Smith and Vincent Oliver Smith (the last two men were Victoria’s brothers), were quickly charged with the murders of the three Clement men. In that famous trial, which began almost immediately after the killings, the defendants claimed self-defense as justification for their actions. After five justices heard the testimonies and reviewed the evidence, the charges against all five men were soon dismissed.
After the trial and acquittal of the five defendants, in June, 1860, the depositions which were being taken when the killings occurred were published in book form, by Dr. George Washington Clement, Sr., the father of the three slain Clement brothers. The grieving father wrote, "At a court continued and held for Franklin County at the Court House on the 23rd day of March 1860, for the examination of Vincent Witcher, John A. Smith, Vincent 0. Smith, Samuel Swanson and Addison Witcher charged with the felonies aforesaid by them committed in this, that they did on the 25th day of February 1860, in the Counting Room of Dickinson's Store in said county willfully, deliberately and with premeditation murder and kill Ralph A. Clement, James R. Clement and William C. Clement.”
It seems obvious Mr. George W. Clement felt the acquittal of the defendants was a gross miscarriage of justice. Yet these five men were released by a three to two majority vote of the justices who heard the facts of the case. It could be these Justices heard testimony not generally known to the public, such as the information published in 1860, in the, “Vincent’s Semi-Annual, United States Register.” That account of the killing of the Clement men differs significantly from other versions of the event published in those days.
Here is Vincent’s published account of the same shooting in Dickinson's Store, “Last Saturday, the 25th instant [February 25], as stated yesterday, the parties all met at a locality in Franklin county,… to take further depositions to be used in the suit now pending for divorce. A question propounded by Captain Witcher so exasperated Mr. James Clement, the defendant in the suit, that he resorted to the use of his pistol for an answer, but fired too quickly to make sure of his aim. Captain Witcher returned the fire, and killed [James Clement] the husband of his grand-daughter on the spot, the ball striking in the forehead.”
The 1860 publication continues, “Ralph Clement, rushing to his brother’s aid, shared the same fate, from the discharge of a pistol in the same hands which had sped the messenger of death with such unerring certainty to the brain of his brother James. Johnson Clement, another brother, fired at Mr. John Archer Smith, a grandson of Mr. Witcher, who was present, and brother of Mrs. Victoria Clement, severely wounding him in the shoulder. The wounded man then rushed upon Johnson Clement with a bowie-knife, and made a fatal thrust into his bowels, the unfortunate victim falling dead upon the spot. The other party to the affray, engaged on the Witcher side, was a Mr. Samuel Swanson, Jr., also a devoted grandson of Mr. Witcher. Mr. Swanson was wounded, but will recover. Mr Smith, the brother of Mrs. Clement, it is thought, will die of the severe wound received in the shoulder.”
Apparently, the evidence of that day’s maelstrom did justify an acquittal by the court, and it would therefore seem publications such as, “Vincent’s Semi-Annual, United States Register,” and, “Harper’s Weekly journal,” more accurately portrayed the facts of what happened that day in Franklin County, they being less sensational in their journalism. However, one cannot but wonder, “were the killings of the Clement men as ruthless as reported by some?” If so, is it possible Captain Vincent Oliver Witcher’s political and social connections were leveraged in obtaining the “not guilty” verdict from the court?
As for Victoria (Smith) Clement, the death of her husband ended the suit for divorce. By 1870, Victoria had remarried. An 1870, federal census record indicates she was then listed as “Victoria C. Berger,” who was living in the household of Samuel S. Berger. The daughter of James and Victoria Clement was also enumerated in the Berger household. Her name was listed as “Leila M Clement.”
Click here to see an image of a young Victoria Smith.
At the bottom of this essay, I have transcribed the complete record of the 1860, publication of the Clement/Witcher feud as published in the, “Vincent’s Semi-Annual, United States Register.” Here are links which provide other important viewpoints of the depositions, the shootings, and the subsequent trial of the five defendants.
Vincent Addison Witcher (the grandson of Captain Vincent O. Witcher) was about twenty-three years of age when he was indicted for the murder of the Clement brothers. That 1860, courtroom event was only the beginning of his long and controversial public life.
Vincent Addison’s father was Nathaniel Newbill Witcher. It seems Nathaniel Newbill Witcher was named after his mother, Nancy Newbill.
The date of Captain Vincent Oliver Witcher and Nancy Newbill’s marriage was March 5, 1810, according to a FamilySearch.org database named, “Virginia Marriages, 1785-1940.” Their son, Nathaniel Newbill Witcher, was born five years after the marriage.
Vincent Addison Witcher was born in 1837, when his father, Nathaniel Newbill Witcher was twenty-two years old.
Just a bit over a year after the Franklin County shooting, chatter of the Clement/Witcher feud faded as the first shots of the Civil War were fired. The Confederate States Army had attacked Fort Sumter, on April 12, 1861, thus beginning that dreadful conflict. From nearly the beginning of that war, Vincent Addison Witcher would serve the Confederate cause as an army officer.
Records indicate Vincent Addison Witcher enlisted into the Confederate Army in December of 1861. He served in the Virginia 34th, Cavalry Battalion. Apparently his leadership qualities were quickly noticed, as he was soon elected to serve as Major, in June of 1862, then as Lieutenant-Colonel, in December of that same year.
Vincent Addison Witcher’s service in the Confederate Army was both meritorious and very controversial. For his actions, the plentiful records about this man indicate Vincent was promoted, commended, promoted again, arrested, demoted, restored, arrested, charged with murder, acquitted of those charges and released. His command was then restored after he was commended. He was a man admired and reviled by many. Vincent’s nickname was, “Clawhammer,” and it was said by some that he was a psychopathic killer, a man, “who rode a black horse that could scale steep mountains like a goat.” After the Confederate States surrendered, Vincent Addison “Clawhammer” Witcher was paroled at Greensboro, NC, on 5/1/1865 with the Army of Tennessee.
In a Civil War pension record, dated June 21, 1926, Bettie M. Witcher (Vincent’s widow) wrote that Vincent was, “mentioned in memoirs [of the] war between the states for bravery by General Lee on several instances, also [J.E.B.] Stuart.”
In fact, “Lieutenant-Colonel Witcher” was mentioned by name in a report written by General Stuart, who remarked on Witcher’s contributions during the battle of Gettysburg. The General wrote, “Jenkins’ brigade was ordered to dismount and deploy over the difficult ground. This was done with marked effect and boldness, Lieutenant-Colonel Witcher, as usual, distinguishing himself by his courage and conduct.”
Various other records of Vincent’s participation in the Gettysburg battle indicate his battalion fought on the farm of John and Sarah Rummel. That property is about four miles east of Gettysburg.
In a publication titled, “A Short History of Jenkins’ Brigade during the Gettysburg Campaign,” author John A. Miller mentions the contributions made by Vincent Witcher during the Gettysburg battle. “General Jenkins’ men started up the Shenandoah Valley…. the 34th Virginia Battalion under the command of Lieutenant Colonel Vincent Witcher met up with Generals Jenkins’ and Richard Ewell….
On July 4th, at 4 o'clock in the morning Jenkins' Brigade mounted their horses and advanced to the extreme left of their lines. This flanking movement was to cut off any Federal retreat and to attack the Federal rear. General Jeb Stuart and Colonel Witcher rode ahead of the column and observed the area. Cress Ridge was completely wide open. Stuart's Cavalry passed Stallsmith's farm where the two officers [Stewart and Witcher] talked about plans of attack.
Shortly after arriving, General Stuart ordered one of Griffin's guns to fire in each direction. This may have been done to draw out the Federal Cavalry that might be in the area or to signal to General Lee that Stuart was ready to make an attack. Lt. Colonel Witcher was then ordered by Stuart to take his battalion forward toward the left of Rummel’s Barn and dismount at 8 o’clock and then again at 10 o’clock in that morning….
During the battle many men of Jenkins’ Brigade were armed with Enfield rifles and were used as sharpshooters due to only being issued 10 rounds of ammunition. The exception was the 34th Virginia who stood up to General Gregg’s Division during the battle. Another test of courage came when the 5th Michigan charged upon the men of the 34th and Lt. Colonel Witcher noted that their Major Ferry and their colors were lost in the fight. Soon the 34th was reinforced by Colonel Chambliss.
After the thick of the fight had died down, the Federal Artillery still fired upon Stuart’s Horse Batteries. Lt. Colonel Witcher requested General Stuart to allow his cavalry to take the Federal guns, but Stuart declined. During the night General Stuart withdrew the main body to the ridges west of Gettysburg. The Confederate Army had lost the battle of Gettysburg after Longstreet’s assault had failed.”
Almost four months after the Battle of Gettysburg, General J.E.B. Stuart wrote a letter of commendation for Lieutenant-Colonel Vincent Addison Witcher.
Head Quarters Cavalry Corps,
Army of Northern Virginia
November 26th, 1863
Lt. Col. V. A. Witcher 34th Batl. Va Cavalry having served under my command during the campaign in Pennsylvania. I beg leave to state that he attracted my attention by his personal gallantry and the good fighting qualities of his command. These were particularly exemplified at Gettysburg, at Hagerstown, Funkstown, and subsequently at Fleetwood in Culpeper.
He posseses in a remarkable degree the quality of personal bravery united to the power of inspiring in his command the same indomitable spirit and confidence.
Such qualities should be carefully patronized by the War Dept, and I commend him as worthy of promotion.
J. E. B. Stuart
Major Gen’l Comdg.
Many years later, Vincent would write a letter of response to a “T.A. Witcher,” whom I am convinced was Taliaferro Asbury Witcher, a son W. J. Witcher. Click here to read an essay pertaining to this T. A. Witcher. Even though this letter (and another one written in 1956, by T. A.’s son) is very commonly found on the internet, I have chosen to reprint it because of its relevance to this essay. However, I must caution that in his letter, Mr. Vincent A. Witcher was wrong in his facts about his great-great uncle, Ephraim Witcher, Jr., the son of Major William Witcher.
Vincent stated in the 1906 letter that Major William Witcher’s son, Ephraim, moved to “Surrey” County, North Carolina. This line within that letter has created untold confusion among family researchers. The Ephraim Witcher who settled in Surry County was absolutely not the “Ephraim Witcher, jr” mentioned in Major William Witcher’s will. Click here to read through research about Ephraim Witcher, of Surry County, NC.
Now to the letter written in 1906, by Vincent Addison Witcher (a son of Vincent Oliver Witcher).
Riceville, Sept. 7, 1906
Mr. T. A. Witcher,
In reply to your favor of recent date, and in answer to your enquiries:
At the creation of this County in 1767, one Wm. Witcher qualified as a vestryman for the Parish of Cambden. He was afterwards Capt., Justice of the Peace, and Maj. in the Continental Army. His will is dated in 1808.
His sons were Caleb, Ephraim, John, Daniel, and William, His daughters-Ann, who married a Razor and other daughter married Morrison. I know nothing of them and descendants. William and John died in this County. Ephraim and Caleb move to Surrey and Nash Counties, N.C. Daniel moved to Kanawha County, West Va., on Witcher Creek. He was the Ancestor of Gen. J.L. Witcher of Salt Lake City, who was in the Yankee Army. I am a grandson of Vincent Witcher who was a son of Wm. I did meet Toliver Witcher [a son of Ephraim Witcher] when a boy, at the Columbia Hotel in Richmond. He was then Georgian. Seemed to be reticent, and as I was a mere boy I talked and saw but little of him. There is a family of Witchers in Clark and Oglethorpe Georgia and I learn there is another family near Marietta. Vincent Witcher was for 29 years a Representative from this County. Also President of Richmond and Danville R.R. Came in one vote of being elected Governor and 3 votes of U.S. Senate. Had 3 sons N.M. (Nathaniel Newbill Witcher) Capt. V.O. and Col. W.A. Witcher of 21st Va. Regiment. V.O. died in 1869. Belonged to 57th If. I am a son of N.M. [Nathaniel Newbill] and commanded the 34th Va. Cav. I was at the battle of Gettysburg, and out of 432 men, lost all but 96. Was sent to East Tenn, and participated in all campaigns there. ________ and after Lee I surrendered. Was introduced to President Davis by Gen'l Jno C. Breckenridge, as the bravest of the brave, the truest of the true.
I am a farmer. Own a good farm, and am 69 years old. Never held a Civil office, and told the President two years ago, wanted Elective or appointed: and have been for many years dissatisfied with both the centralizing tendencies of the Republicans, and the demagogary and insincerity of the Democrats, who seem to have no great underlying principles. Hence I am allied with the Populist and am a member of both the National and State Committees. Feel little interest any way.
Your mother was educated at a grand, noble Institution. My first wife was also educated at Salem. My present wife has a niece in your City who was formerly a Mrs. Rucker. I think she married a McCormick. I would be pleased to write to you any time, and give you all the information I can. There are James Witcher at Bells that Sen. Bailey has told me of. Mrs. Nancy Langhorne Astor, her grandmother was a Witcher. During the War I met Mrs. Dr. Ewing ______Cumberland Gap, and she said Wm. L. ______ and Ben Hill were Cousins of ours. The Daltons-- she was daughter of James Witcher.
Very truly and respectfully,
We can conclude from the above document that Vincent lost over seventy-five percent of his men in the battle at Gettysburg. Out of 432 men, only 96 survived.
Others who have written about Vincent Addison Witcher have shared unfavorable views of the man. Some authors have gone so far as to state that Vincent was an “unstable” sociopath, and called the men under him, “Vincent Witcher’s confederate raiders.”
One critic named Lawrence J. Fleenor, Jr., in her scathing publication, titled, “Witcher’s Boys in Lee County During the Civil War,” wrote, “Soon after secession unofficial bands of armed men began to patrol their neighborhoods, and to murder, burn, and pillage their neighbors of opposite political persuasion. In this boiling cauldron unstable men of sociopathic tendencies often rose to positions of leadership. Such a man was Vincent A. Witcher.”
Mrs. Fleenor continued by writing, “Born February 16, 1837 in Pittsylvania County in Southside Virginia, he [Vincent] studied law a while, and in the Spring of 1860 moved to Wayne County, Virginia in what is now West Virginia. He was known throughout his adult life as "Clawhammer" because of the style of scissors tail dress coat he always wore. It was to prove to be an appropriate nickname, because he left wreckage in his wake where ever he went. Clawhammer gathered a small number of pro Confederate men about himself, and began to engage in the free for all on the Kentucky border….”
She continued, “Initially labeled as ‘"Independent Scouts",’ the unit became known as "Witcher's Boys." It was their duty to serve as a counter insurgency force against the local Union units operating in West Virginia, East Kentucky, Southwest Virginia, and Northeast Tennessee. They soon began to distinguish themselves for their barbarity, their specialty being a variation of lynching done with a bent pole that jerked its victim into eternity.”
I have read other reports which indicate the Witcher Boys did execute some of their prisoners by bending young saplings over, then attaching a noose around the neck of the condemned prisoner. The sudden snap of the released tree was so violent that at times, rather than being hanged, the victim’s head would be jerked off their shoulder.
In any conflict, guerrilla bands will be viewed as partisan fighters or sadistic marauders. It all depends on who is oppressing whom.
In some cases, border communities (or territory conquered by “the enemy”) are bitterly divided in their sympathies. At times civilians will engage in acts of sabotage or assassination against an occupying force and then melt back into their communities. In the American Civil War, these insurgencies were often dealt with by “Independent Scouts” on both sides of the War. It appears Vincent and his “boys” were (as Independent Scouts) very effective in their mission to squelch civilian and Federal border skirmishes in the areas under their control. There are a variety of surviving reports which voice the great fear (and loathing) the North had for the infamous Vincent “Clawhammer” Witcher and the men under his control. However, one must consider that palpable fear to be a “mission accomplished” for the struggling Confederate cause; a small consolation after such major losses in places like Gettysburg, Pennsylvania.
To my point, I will provide a sample newspaper article which was republished in Knoxville by order of Vincent Witcher. It was issued on November 23, 1863. It stated the following, "Headquarters 34th VA Bat. Cavalry... To all whom it may concern: ‘"Notice is hereby given to the people of Carter and Johnson counties that the Union men will be held responsible, in person and property, for all plundering and bushwhacking of Southern soldiers and citizens. Whenever deserters, bushwhackers, and marauders, are known to assemble or whenever they may steal or plunder, the house and barns of Union men shall be burned to the ground. Citizens may appeal to, to organize and destroy the gangs of scoundrels who are infesting the country. The above order will be executed to the very letter. By order of Lt. Col. Witcher."’
I offer the above published letter as a possible explanation for “Clawhammer” Witcher’s ruthless actions in the Limestone Cove Massacre, as it has famously come to be known. This website provides some detail about the event. It states, “A historical marker in Unicoi County marks the site of a bloody incident that speaks volumes about the impact of the Civil War on upper east Tennessee. It's easy to assume that since Tennessee was among the eleven Confederate States that all residents of Tennessee at that time supported secession and the Confederate cause. But the history of this region is much more complicated that simply drawing a line north and south…."
The website continues, "One hundred and forty five years ago, the Limestone Cove Massacre occurred in what is now Unicoi County (it was created from parts of Washington and Carter Counties in 1875). The site of the massacre was the Bell house, which originally stood across the road from the Bell Cemetery. A 1903 book entitled History of the Thirteenth Regiment, Tennessee Volunteer Cavalry describes the incident in all its gory detail. The Bell family is said to have been well known and respected in Carter County. Yet neighbors led the Confederate troops to this home of Union sympathizers -- and upon finding a house full of men enroute to join the ranks of the Union army, the Confederate troops killed the men and burned down the house. The roadside historical marker at Bell Cemetery gives a brief account... Limestone Cove Tragedy
Here are buried the eight civilians killed at the home of Dr. David Bell in Nov 1863. Enroute to Kentucky to join Federal Forces, they were found by a detachment of Col. W. A. Witcher’s Confederate Cavalry, while waiting for breakfast. They were: B. Blackburn, Calvin Cantrel, Elijah Gentry, Jacob Lyons, Wiley Royal, John Sparks and two unknown. Buried nearby is Dr. Bell's brother, James killed at the same time.”
Note that the website’s informational bullet about the event points out the action taken at Dr. Bells house was in “Carter County.”
In the 1863, Knoxville article I just presented, recall that Lieutenant-Colonel Vincent Witcher had warned “the people of Carter and Johnson counties” that, “Whenever deserters, bushwhackers, and marauders, are known to assemble… the house and barns of Union men shall be burned to the ground.” It does appear Clawhammer did “to the letter” exactly what he promised to do when his forces attacked Dr. Bell’s, Carter County residence.
I assume this next article is lifted from a book titled, “History of the Lost State of Franklin,” by Samuel Cole Williams. The article provided an editorial of the Limestone Cove event from a Pro-Union perspective. It states, “One Col. Witcher, of Virginia, had just arrived in Carter county to try his hand in subduing the "Lincolnites" and "Thugs," …In the case of Witcher it would appear that behind him must have been an unseen Beelzebub in spirit form directing and aiding him in his atrocious work…. While in the army the murders and house burnings perpetrated by this man reached our ears and filled our men with unspeakable rage. In a charge near Mount Airy, Va., some rebel prisoners were captured, and being asked to what command they belonged they said they were Col. Witcher's men. A half dozen men grasped their carbines to shoot them, but officers interfered. We are informed that there were two Confederate officers named Witcher who held the rank of Colonel in the C. S. A. [Confederate States Army], one, Vincent A. Witcher, Sr., of Pittsyvania county, Va., the other one's name was also V. A. Witcher, Jr., a nephew [a grandson] of the former. It is said to have been the latter who operated in these counties.” [Yes, the article referred to the two men who are the subjects of this essay, Vincent Oliver Witcher, and his grandson, Vincent Addison “Clawhammer” Witcher]
The article continues, “James and David Bell were well-to-do and well known citizens of Carter county. The latter was a reputable physician, and was a man of family, and his brother James was a bachelor past the conscript age. Their home, like that of every loyal man in Carter county, was a place of refuge for Union people and they fed and cared for them with unstinted hands.
The morning of the tragedy a company of refugees, about 50 in number, making their way from North Carolina to the Federal army had arrived at the Bell home and expected to secure the services of Dan. Ellis to pilot them through the lines. They had traveled all night and stopped in the yard waiting to get something to eat which the family was preparing for them, and to take a rest before proceeding on their journey. It was probably not known there that Witcher, with his regiment, had come into Carter county, and they did not expect to fall in with a large force of rebels. Witcher, piloted by rebel citizens, came on to them unexpectedly…. Eight or ten men were killed, and one or two wounded….”
The article continues, “They shot and killed James Bell, and it is said that after wounding him his head was laid on a stone and his brains beaten out until they bespattered the ground all about his body….
The story of the inhumanity and cruelty practiced upon this family and these men should bring a blush of shame to a Comanche Indian if one-half is true that has been told.
It is said he [Witcher] boasted that in the brief space of twenty-four hours he had rid the world of twenty-one Lincolnites. He was soon called to other fields of usefulness and it was perhaps well for him for Dan. Ellis and his lieutenants had his case under consideration, and had he remained it would have been a wonder if he had escaped the fate of Young and Parker.”
The Brownlow's Knoxville Whig, in April 16, 1864, published its account of the incident by saying that, "Witcher's company of cavalry…. took James Bell, the brother of Dr. Bell, of Greene county, forced him to lay his head on a chunk in the road and with stones and clubs they beat his brains out. They took some of the blood and brains and rubbed them under his wife's nose, cursing her, and telling her to smell them! They then burned the house down, and its contents with it, allowing her and her children to look on at the flames."
We will never know if the action taken by “Witcher’s company of cavalry” at the Bell household was accurately portrayed in the Pro-Union publications or if they were sensationalized versions meant to arouse wartime passion against the Confederate cause. However, I believe it fair to state that whether the stories were embellished or truthfully told, the result of Vincent’s actions produced great fear and caution against further local insurgencies against the South.
The “Witcher boys” had apparently terrorized other areas of the militarized border. For example, Wayne County, (West) Virginia. An interesting side-note is that certain descendants of Daniel Witcher (a son of Major William Witcher) lived in this area of Virginia. One of those descendants was John Seashoal Witcher, a decorated General in the Union Army. Click here to read about these close cousins of Vincent Witcher.
I have inserted an internet blog-post from a forum called “Civil War Talk,” in which a certain Brett Maynard rehearses his Wayne County, VA, ancestor’s encounter with the command of Vincent Witcher. Mr. Maynard wrote that his, “3rd great grandfather (James Maynard)…. was murdered by [Vincent] Witcher after a skirmish on August 9, 1862. It is said that Witcher stood trial for this and was found not guilty. When WV seceded from VA however, the courthouse was burned down and the records destroyed.”
Mr. Maynard later wrote, “Here is the rest of the story I promised earlier today…. The family lived near twelve pole in Wayne county, VA.
Popaw Jim was a scout for the Union army. He and some 8 or 9 other men were out in the hills and came upon a band of marauders loyal to the confederacy.
The scouts were spotted and the marauders lit out after them. Popaw Jim split off and run to the house. He told his wife (Elizabeth "Betty" Damron Maynard) I gotta go, they're coming after me. And he took off to the woods and crawled up inside a hollow tree. When the marauders got to the house, Momaw Betty said he ain't here, he's gone off.
They had a little dog in the house and the dog run off and the marauders followed it and it ran out among the woods straight to the hollow tree where Popaw was hiding. Well the marauders drug him out of the tree and literally beat his brains out.
They left him there on that piece of land which belonged to John Jones. Momaw found his body, picked up the pieces and placed them in her apron to take home. The family got permission to bury the rest of his body where he laid.”
Mr. Maynard continues by writing, “The account goes that this band of confederate marauders was led by Vincent Witcher and he was brought to the Wayne county courthouse to stand trial for war crimes.
Momaw took the pieces of Popaws brain and put them in a pitcher of water and brought it to the courthouse.
Each time Vincent answered a question, Momaw held out that pitcher and asked ‘"would you like a cool drink to swallow down with that lie?"’ Well, he was found not guilty by the jury and the trial was held in a confederate state mind you.
The family then after the trial convened out on the courthouse lawn and took an oath that they would never again vote a Democrat ticket. And that is the story as told from his son on down to their sons for four generations. My own personal note here, Popaw did what he thought best at the time. Rebs were raiding houses and he was protecting his own. I honor him for standing up for what he believed in and because of this I do not find it offensive to display my southern cross. I have always loved it and supported states rights, small government, less government intrusion and tyranny. Deo Vindice and God bless America! -Brett Maynard”
It appears Vincent Witcher and his Virginia 34th, Cavalry Battalion did honorably engage the “enemy” in battles such as Gettysburg. That fight took place in early July of 1863, and the forces of General Lee (and Vincent Witcher) suffered major losses. Perhaps Lt. Col. Vincent Addison Witcher did not take such losses well. I have been told the sight of dismembered bodies, the smell of blood and guts rotting under a hot sun, and the thunder, shouts, and anguished screams of the battlefield can deaden even the hardiest soul. Maybe what Vincent experienced in his several years of fighting did put him a bit over the edge. Perhaps his “marauders” did cross the line when they exacted furious revenge upon those they viewed as responsible for the death of their countrymen on the killing fields of the Civil War.
And yet, it hasn’t escaped me, the similarities between the way the Clement brothers were killed and the killings of those viewed as enemy combatants in the Civil War. Perhaps it is true that, “the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree!” I’m just thankful to have missed both ordeals, and to not have been the subject of either Vincent Oliver or Vincent Addison Witcher’s focused wrath.
Vincent Oliver Witcher died in Pittsylvania County, Virginia, in October of 1877.
His grandson, Vincent Addison Witcher, died in Pittsylvania County, Virginia, December 11, 1912. He is buried near Riceville, Virginia.
After the Civil War, Vincent Addison Witcher entered politics as a campaigner. He was a member of the Populist Party, a party which in some ways embraced the doctrines of the Democrat Party of 2017. One researcher wrote, “Vincent crisscrossed the county setting up meetings called “speakings” where fiery Populist nominees (with a measure of oratorical skills) could “rev up” the hotheads at places such as Callands, Whitmell, Chatham, Brights, Pullens, Malmaison, Peytonsburg, Elba, etc. Witcher probably poured much of his considerable wealth into the fray. He printed up handbills showing the locations and dates of “speakings.” One circular is extant and a copy of it appears adjacent to this article in the Packet.” Quoted from, “Then and Now: Pittsylvania's Turn of the Century Presidential Elections,” by Herman Melton. Click here to see a copy of one of these political handbills.
At some point after 1865, Vincent A. moved for a brief time to Utah. It is reported by some that Vincent moved to Utah to, “get away from those damn Yankees". However I wonder if he was involved in the Mormon Church. Strangely, his close relative, John Seashoal Witcher, formerly a decorated “Yankee” Union General, had also moved to Utah, reportedly to be involved in the Mormon Church. Click here to read interesting connections between the Witchers and the early Mormon Church, and click here to read about “Yankee” John Seashoal Witcher and his family.
I have provided images of the people and places mentioned in this article. They can be accessed by clicking here.
Wayne Witcher, 5X great-grandson of William Witcher
“Vincent’s Semi-Annual, United States Register,” published by Francis Vincent in 1860.
A triple Tragedy in Henry County, Virginia.—Three Brothers Killed.
The subjoined account of one of the most desperate affrays that ever occurred (which took place this day) appears in the “Petersburg (Va) Express.” It says:--
It appears that some years since, a grand-daughter of the venerable and talented Vincent Witcher, esq., of Pittsylvania county, married a gentleman from the adjoining county of Henry, whose name was Clemmens [Clement].
His Christian name we have been unable to ascertain. The maiden name of Mr. Witcher’s grand-daughter was Smith. The parties lived happily together until about eighteen months since [the fall of 1858], when, upon the most unfounded suspicions, as we have been informed, Mr. Clemmens desired a separation from his wife, and immediately instituted proceedings for a divorce, at the same time impeaching her honor as the grounds for his course.
Last Saturday was set apart for the taking of depositions, and the parties met at a magisterial precinct in Henry county. Mr. Witcher appeared to defend the suit and protect the honor of his grand-daughter. The taking of the depositions progressed, and, after the plaintiff had finished with a witness, Mr. Witcher asked a question, which greatly exasperated the husband, Mr. Clemmens. He immediately arose, drawing a pistol at the same time, and fired at Mr. Witcher. Mr. Witcher, it seems also quickly rose, and drew a pistol from his pocket, and the ball of the antagonist grazed around the abdomen, he fired, striking Clemmens in the forehead and killing him instantly.
A nephew of Mr. Witcher, and a Mr. Smith, brother of Mrs. Clemmens, hearing the firing, rushed into the room. A brother of Mr. Clemmens, who had also been attracted by the pistol-reports, fired at a nephew of Mr. Witcher, the ball taking effect, and producing, it is feared, a fatal wound. Upon seeing his nephew shot, Mr. Vincent Witcher again fired, striking Clemmens No. 2, and killing him instantly.
At this stage of the sanguinary affair, Mr. Smith, a brother of Mrs. Clemmens, drew a bowie-knife, but had scarcely unsheathed the blade when he was fired upon by a second brother of Clemmens, the ball taking effect in the shoulder, and producing a painful wound. Infuriated by his wound, Mr. Smith rushed upon his antagonist and with one powerful thrust of the knife completely disemboweled Clemmens No. 3, the unfortunate man falling dead on the spot.
Three of the parties dead, and the other three all wounded, the horrible tragedy here ended.
Vincent Witcher, Esq., the chief actor in this truly terrible affair, is widely known throughout Virginia. He served for many years in the lower House of Legislature, and subsequently represented his district in the State Senate with signal ability. He is a prominent member of the Whig Party, and his name has been repeatedly mentioned in connection with the office of Governor of the Commonwealth. He succeeded Whitmell P. Tunstall, upon the death of that gentleman, as President of the Richmond & Danville Railroad. After two years’ service, he resigned the presidency of the road, and has since been engaged in the practice of his profession, --that of a lawyer.
Our informant states that throughout this painful suit, which Mr. Witcher believes to have been instituted against an innocent grand-daughter, he has acted with great forbearance, and the part he has been compelled finally to act will be with none a source of deeper regret than himself.
The same paper, of a later date, contains some further particulars in relation to this dreadful tragedy. It says:--
As we anticipated, the hurried account we gave yesterday of the killing of the three brothers Clement—and not Clemmens, as stated by us—contained a few errors, regarding the locality and names, which we hasten to correct. This we are enabled to do through the kindness of a gentleman now residing in our midst, who once lived in the section of country where the horrible tragedy was enacted, and is intimately acquainted with all the parties who participated in this most deplorable and truly bloody affair.
The feud existing between the Witcher and the Clement families is of long duration,--some twelve months or more,--and grew out of the marriage of Mr. James Clement, who is the youngest of five brothers, with Miss Victoria Smith, a grand-daughter of Vincent Witcher, Esq. The parties are all wealthy, and occupy a high social position in the respective counties which they represent, the Clements belonging to Franklin and the Witchers to Pittsylvania county.
The marriage between Mr. James Clement and Miss Victoria Smith was solemnized about two years ago last fall, and the nuptials were celebrated with great eelat, a brilliant party being given in honor of the event, which was attended by the elite of the two counties, who flocked in large numbers, by invitation, from all parts of that section, to do honor to the joyous occasion. For several months the wedded pair lived together with naught but the most unalloyed happiness shining on the rosy pathway of their early matrimonial career. At length the “green-eyed” monster, jealousy, reared his horrid front in the household of the happy couple, and ultimately placed such restrictions upon the young and confiding wife as to render her very existence a burden too intolerable to be borne.
She finally resolved to leave the roof of her husband, and removed to the residence of her mother, Mrs. Dr. Albert Smith, in the county of Pittsylvania, where she now resides, and, by the advice of her friends, during the fall of 1859, instituted suit against her husband for divorce. Soon after the institution of the suit, the parties met at Sandy Level, Pittsylvania county, for the purpose of taking depositions. Here a charge was made by the husband, Mr. James Clement, which involved alike the honor of his wife and that of Mr. William P. Gilbert, a young gentleman present, which was resented by Mr. Gilbert on the spot. Pistols were drawn, and nine shots exchanged, five of which took effect, injuring Mr. Gilbert and his brother, as well as two of the Messrs. Clement, but none of them seriously.
This serious affray, of course, greatly increased the ill feeling which had been engendered between the parties; and the matter finally became so much talked of that most of the citizens of the two counties were involved in the difficulty, each party having its warm and zealous adherents.
Added to other causes which had so estranged the two families, some time since Mr. James Clement, the husband, by some means obtained possession of a sprightly child, the only issue of the marriage, and placed it with his own relatives. The grand-father, Captain Witcher, and a large party of friends, deeming this act an outrage, and believing that the mother was the proper custodian of the offspring, by due process of law recovered the infant and restored it to its maternal parent.
Last Saturday, the 25th instant, as stated yesterday, the parties all met at a locality in Franklin county, (some say Brooks’s and other Dickinson’s store,) to take further depositions to be used in the suit now pending for divorce. A question propounded by Captain Witcher so exasperated Mr. James Clement, the defendant in the suit, that he resorted to the use of his pistol for an answer, but fired too quickly to make sure of his aim. Captain Witcher returned the fire, and killed the husband of his grand-daughter on the spot, the ball striking in the forehead. Ralph Clement, rushing to his brother’s aid, shared the same fate, from the discharge of a pistol in the same hands which had sped the messenger of death with such unerring certainty to the brain of his brother James. Johnson Clement, another brother, fired at Mr. John Archer Smith, a grandson of Mr. Witcher, who was present, and brother of Mrs. Victoria Clement, severely wounding him in the shoulder. The wounded man then rushed upon Johnson Clement with a bowie-knife, and made a fatal thrust into his bowels, the unfortunate victim falling dead upon the spot. The other party to the affray, engaged on the Witcher side, was a Mr. Samuel Swanson, Jr., also a devoted grandson of Mr. Witcher. Mr. Swanson was wounded, but will recover. Mr Smith, the brother of Mrs. Clement, it is thought, will die of the severe wound received in the shoulder.
Mr. James Clement was about twenty-eight years of ages, and the youngest of five brothers. He was a farmer by occupation. His brother Ralph was a lawyer, and Johnson, the other brother killed, was, like James, a farmer. Two other brothers emigrated West several years ago. The father of the unfortunate young men who have thus met such violent deaths is Dr. George Clement, a very wealthy and prosperous farmer. He formerly resided in Franklin county, but has recently removed to Pittsylvania.
Mrs. Victoria Clement (formerly Miss Victoria Smith) is said to be a lady of about twenty-one years of age, possesses extra-ordinary personal beauty, and is highly accomplished. She is a daughter of the late Dr. Albert Smith, who died leaving a large estate and five children, two sons and three daughters. His widow still survives, with whom Mrs. Victoria Clement has resided since she left the home of her husband.
Captain Vincent Witcher is, perhaps, as widely known in Virginia as any man within the Commonwealth. For twenty-one consecutive years, in the popular branch as well as in the Senate of our State Legislature he has played no unimportant part. His speeches in the Legislature always commanded the undivided attention of that body, and were characterized by a force of logic and power of reasoning that rendered them wellnigh irresistible.
We understand that up to the time of the difficulties growing out of the unfortunate marriage between the two families, Dr. Clement and Vincent Witcher, Esp., were what may be termed bosom-friends. They frequently visited one another, counseled together, and interchanged opinions concerning all the ordinary transactions of life.
Vincent’s Semi-Annual, United States Register, a work in which, The Principle events of every half-year occurring in the United States, are recorded, each arranged under the day of its date. This volume contains the Events Transpiring between the 1st of January and 1st of July, 1860. Edited and published by Francis Vincent.
You may email me at wwawitcher @ windstream. net
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Vincent Oliver Witcher
and his grandson
Vincent Addison Witcher