Opinion: Carolina Beat

Linda and Keith Blalock: A Strange Love Story of the Civil War

Recently, I visited Bentonville Battlefield. On farms and woods on sandy, flat land in Johnston and Wayne counties, approximately 60,000 Billy Yanks clashed with roughly 21,000 Johnny Rebs from March 19-21, 1865.

While visiting the battlefield, I was reminded that much has been written about the War Between the States. Even so, a lot remains to be learned.

Sarah Malinda “Linda” Pritchard Blalock, for example, provides a fascinating yet little-heard Civil War story. In that bloody conflict, she fought for the Confederacy disguised as a man. She later fought for the Union as a guerrilla.

An Alexander County native, Linda Pritchard was born March 10, 1839, and reared in Watauga County. There, she attended a one-room schoolhouse and initially met William “Keith” Blalock.

Despite a 150-year feud between the Blalocks and the Pritchards, a 17-year-old Linda Pritchard married a 27-year-old Keith Blalock in 1856. The couple resided on Grandfather Mountain, where mountaineers were divided regarding secession and impending war. As calls for war became louder and conflict seemed imminent and inevitable, the North Carolina mountain region grew increasingly divided.

The Blalocks were Union sympathizers and feared that the Confederate Army might conscript Keith. So he conceived a plan: Enlist with the Confederate Army, join a unit being sent to Virginia, and when in the Old Dominion, defect to the Union Army. On March 20, 1862, Keith joined Company F of the 26th North Carolina Regiment.

Unbeknown to Keith, Linda devised plans to join him. She cut her hair, dressed in her husband’s clothes, and enlisted in Lenoir as 20-year-old “Sam” Blalock, a brother of volunteer Keith. This act made Linda Blalock one of only two women known (to date) to have served in any North Carolina Confederate regiment.

After the 26th North Carolina began marching, the Blalock couple found each other — rather, Linda located her husband. The 26th marched not to Virginia, but to Kinston. The initial plan for desertion to Union lines had been foiled. Even so, Linda remained in disguise, and lived and trained among the Confederates. If anyone suspected her of being a woman, nothing was reported.

In April 1862, the 26th regiment was engaged in a nighttime firefight. Most escaped unharmed, including Keith. Linda was not as fortunate — a Union bullet lodged in her shoulder. “Sam” was treated at the camp hospital. When prepping for the removal of the bullet, the surgeon discovered “Sam’s” true identity. When Linda recovered from the surgery, she was discharged.

Never wanting to be in the Confederate Army and now desperate to be reunited with his wife, Keith soon devised another plan. He walked into the forest, stripped off his clothes, and rolled around in poison ivy. The next morning, his skin was inflamed and covered with blisters, and he suffered a persistent fever. Keith tricked doctors into believing that a highly contagious disease plagued him. Fearing an outbreak, doctors discharged the mountaineer.

Eventually, the couple reunited. Confederate agents in Watauga County learned that Keith was healthy and ordered him to re-enlist. The couple fled and started hiding out with other draft dodgers. In a few months the couple joined Union Col. George W. Kirk, a former Confederate deserter, and became Union raiders in the Appalachian Mountains. While fighting for the Union, Keith lost an eye. After the war, the bold young couple moved back to Watauga County cabin to resume their lives. They had five children.

On March 9, 1903, at age 64, Linda Blalock died in her sleep of natural causes and was buried in the nearby Montezuma Cemetery in Avery County. A heartbroken Keith Blalock subsequently moved in with his son in Hickory. Ten years older than his wife, Keith lived another 10 years. He died in 1913 in a railroad accident and was buried beside his wife.

Dr. Troy Kickler is director of the North Carolina History Project (northcarolinahistory.org).