Francis Marion Wilcox Journal
Directly after working this long dry month, the Confederacy began to feel Father Abraham was coming and that more men were needed. The first enrollment of conscripts, men from 18 to 35 years, were summoned to assemble at their representative county seats and enroll themselves in the regular order, so as to be ready for the calls as circumstances demanded. The militia all obeyed that summons, went and enrolled in order to avoid separation and soon got orders to raise regiments of eleven that they might go in together as volunteers. Rather than be counted conscripts, although this was truly the great driving motive that sent a large number classed as volunteers, they rushed into the Rebel army to battle against the flag.
The 58th North Carolina Regiment known as Col. Palmers Partisan Rangers were made up of these class of men, enrolled conscripts. Col. J.B. Palmer got permission to raise this regiment with a promise they range through East Tennessee, Western North Carolina and Virginia affording protection to Rebel homes. This Regiment was raised during the summer of 1862 and was at once ordered to Old Cumberland Gap where it aided in doing raiding and scouting duty for some time. Afterwards it was moved some 45 miles west to Big?? Creek, Tennessee. Here they did duty during the late fall months of 1862 and from this point the Union men who had enlisted to save themselves from conscription, deserted; some to return home, while others crossed the Cumberland Mountains and made their way into Kentucky and into the Union Army.
The writer came with 1st Lt. Thomas Ray of the 58th and others recruited by him from North Carolina as a soldiers. Leaving North Carolina on the 6th day of November 1862 and arriving at Big Circle Gap on or about the 11 or 12th of November 1862 where he remained until December 19th 1862. While here at the Gap, he played Rebel soldier as demanded, yet never drew any gun, stood in the line of battle one night with a borrowed musket, but no Yankees came and we shed no blood. The fright was caused by an old powder house taking fire, blowing up and making a sound as through it was heavy artillery fired at long range. We lost no men, but quite a lot of men lost their avoirdupois through fright. The line of battle remained in position all night long. Not a gun was fired yet several flashes minus reports occurred and at sunrise next morning when ordered to break ranks and march to quarters I never saw such brave good humored boys.
This was my first battle in Dixie's behalf. I was getting homesick to see Kentucky and I told some of Company M I was going home soon. They asked if I would like company they would go with me. I told them yes, I'd be pleased to have them. Soon arrangements were made and off we went.
The night we started was cool and chilly, the 19th of December 1862. Yet by hard walking we kept warm. We left the camp about 9 p.m. surrounded and passed all of the guards and outside pickets. We crossed the Cumberland mountains when no roads existed on the east side of Big Circle Gap. After a while going down the north side, we would swing over and off cliffs and ledges of rocks high as two story houses and truly not know where our bodies would light.
The men were all determined and brave. Yes, deserting an army that they never at heart belonged to, having to fight against their country's flag, the stars and stripes, gave them courage. The names of those men accompanying me were as follows: Daniel Grayham, Jefferson Greer and Thomas Greer, two brothers; and Isaiah Greer, a cousin. Also Phillip Greer, a nephew of Isaiah; George W. Lourance, a brother-in-law to Isaiah Greer; Robert Jones and F.M. Wilcox. The writer of this sketch was then going on eighteen years of age. We succeeded in crossing the Cumberland mountains by daybreak next morning and crossed the state road running parallel with the mountain on the north side by sunrise and must have walked 18 to 20 miles surrounding pickets thru crossing this precipitous portion of southern mountains. Yet, as we ascended the hill on the north of the road, imagine our chagrin to hear the old bass drum beating roll call at the gap not over four miles off. The point was gained, the road crossed and the woods were ours. Kentucky was yet sixteen miles away and we dare not travel any roads.
We ascended the northern hill as the old bass drum pounded our "Little Sallie Gooden" keeping step to its music until it ceased. Well knowing that Co. M. would be short men not present and accounted for, yet fully assured that Old Bill Smith would be sent out to hunt us up in less than an hour, we knew that it was his business to hunt us and our business was to not be found and get inside the Union lines as early as possible. We soon found a loyal Union Tennessean and agreed to give him $16.00 to pilot us through the woods. He at once started us over rugged hills and through the woods traveling us as fast as pedestrian speed would allow until night came on. We stopped for the night at a little shanty wherein dwelt a loyal Tennessean with three miles of home. We had traveled about 28 miles to reach this place, less than 18 miles in a straight line.
The next morning we arose with the sun and by 8 a.m. was on the summit of Pine mountain. The line into Kentucky had been crossed. Here we felt like a sinner that has gained Heaven. A loyal family resided on the top of this mountain on the Kentucky side. We got breakfast, bid our guide farewell and came down on through Whitley County, Kentucky. At the home above mentioned I saw my first blue uniform I had ever seen being worn by a loyal man, a Kentucky man. The sight of the blue uniform inspired us all with new hope. Although in a country infested by Rebels almost daily, we felt that we were not so far away that the influence and inspiration afforded by the old flag. No, the residents of the house first across the line were loyal. They spoke of the glorious Union, called the southern soldiers by their true names-Rebels-while the name Yankees, as the Rebels called the Federal soldiers, became Union soldier. How different, yet how glad we were to hear such loyal sentiment. It said to us in reality the Union does exist and the day will come that those arrayed in opposition to the Old Flag must ground their arms and return to the allegiance in the old Union as it was. And so they did.
We left this house after breakfast and traveled north all day long, crossed many high hills and mountains and late in the evening found ourselves close to the county line of Laurel County, Kentucky, in the neighborhood of Joe Fields said to be infested with highway robbers and thieves. Many persons advised us that we turn aside and not pass through this infamous Joe Fields territory or we would be robbed and perhaps killed. We counted the cost and found that our money, which was Confederate, was less than $20.00. Nor worth a whole dollar in gold. This would not enrich the robbers or greatly damage us if taken. Hence we agreed to go forward directly through Joe Field's territory. This place consisted of a lonely woods on each side of the state road extending some five miles without the sight of a house. It was called "Joe Fields", yet we never saw a field.
About half way through this place in the shady woods, we heard a yell and whoop in the forest that sounded as though Old Nick had been turned loose. Some of our crowd wanted to run, but Jeff Greer and myself said, "no!" We took the lead and saw eight men armed with guns and pistols on horses from across the road acting as though they would be ready to take us in. They remained in position until we had walked up within five paces of them. Their Captain called out, "Right and left wheel!" At this command they obey and left the road open fanning out to four on each side. "We are glad to see you are getting through. You will soon be on the Union lines. The soldiers are now at London, the county seat of Laurel County, Kentucky where you can enlist.
We expressed our desire to soon get there, told our story as to how we had made our thither and they bid us God speed and directed us on our way. These men had mixed suits, come citizen, some Union blue and some Rebel grey and no doubt these comprised the robbers of Home Guard of the Joe Fields. Though they asked us for neither clothes nor money, they would not have found either, for the day before upon a high mountain in Whitley County, Kentucky we had placed our entire clothes under large stones knowing that these clothes might cause our arrest or cause us to be shot at from the brush.
I shall never forget how Isaiah Greer's tears shed over what was then his last letter from home from his wife and three little ones, which he had received at Big Creek Gap, Tennessee. He read it over and over, the tears gushing down his cheeks after which he raised a large flat stone and placed that the other letters upon the ground as though burying his dearest friend. After the letters were laid down, the writer placed some neckties and a letter or two with them. The stone was replaced to cover up his dear wife's last message to one leaving home and his native state to seek protection under the Old Flag, while at the same time it covered up messages from a devoted and loyal friend to a boy whose determinations were to risk his life to get back to Kentuck where he could give expression to his Union sentiments that had become full grown and had been for a long time. Our other clothes were placed under larger stones and if not disturbed moldered into dust upon the top of the rocky range. Let us hope that their genes, if any, produced Union sentiment rather than Rebel grey backs. After leaving Joe Fields we traveled on in a northern direction for some time, coming to within eight miles of London in Laurel County, Kentucky. There we turned our course and traveled east in the direction of the Kentucky River and after traveling several miles, we stopped for the night at a house on a stream west of the Kentucky River. Here we slept the night and felt pretty safe for the first time since leaving the Gap or Rebel camps.