Dead Without a Word: The Mysterious Assassination of John Kincaid

Trigger Warning:  Elements of this article include discussions of violence and slavery.

Have you ever heard a story about an ancestor who did something so bad it became local legend? Or where half of a community considered that ancestor a hero and the other half believed that person was a miscreant? Join me on an investigation into some tumultuous history that occurred during and Post-Civil War in the region where I was born – Campbell County, Tennessee. And I’ll intertwine a story about my own ancestor’s involvement. I have done much research – with documents, newspaper accounts (though one is admittedly biased) letters, genealogy sites, books, the National Register of Historic Places, and state records – and I have endeavored to be as unbiased as possible, dancing a delicate word waltz around the times back then, yet presenting facts in a somewhat readable and hopefully entertaining way. I did find that the stories and information reach well beyond John Kincaid II’s generation, so this writing is the first of a two-part series. Whether the portion about my ancestor is true or not is debatable. But the story is oh-so-juicy. Indulge me for a little while as I share some of these findings.

Campbell County is located about 40 miles north of Knoxville not far from where Kentucky and Virginia meet at a perfect “v”. When I was younger, my family sometimes shopped in Middlesboro, Kentucky. The drive began on 25W through Fincastle and “up the valley” (as we still call it there) onto HWY 63 toward Speedwell in Claiborne County, Tennessee. The scenery mesmerized me because the road led through one of the most beautiful, pastoral scenes I, personally, have ever encountered in Tennessee. The mountains on the drive slowly move in the background, much like observing the world through a backwards telescope. Lush, green hills and dales drift across wide-open lands like calm waves on water. Dairy farms and the like are scattered here and there upon the ease of flatlands. The picturesque view seems oddly placed in the middle of mountain land.

Speedwell in Claiborne County, Tennessee/ Image from Horse Properties – horseproperties.net

My father avoided the highway and took “the old road” most of the way. Along this road, several large plantation homes were (and still are) situated within view from the roadway, as a constant reminder of a philosophical dichotomy that seems to linger there. All that plush, agrarian beauty is juxtaposed beside sordid, bloody sins. On one of those drives, my mom pointed to a large and ostentatious brick plantation house. She shook her head and divulged a piece of information that haunted me for life. She often told this story to me using mostly the same words. The following is how I remember them:

“That’s the Kincaid house. People always say John Kincaid built it, but he didn’t. It was his slaves. And you cain’t even get a hair between them bricks, they’re so tight. That Kincaid man treated them slaves awful. I heard they lived in the basement and was barely fed, and whenever he needed ‘em, he’d just open a door on the floor and jerk ‘em up. But he met his. He tried to evict some people and somebody’d had enough of it. They walked up to him and shot him dead.”

The Civil War’s horror didn’t stop after Lee’s surrender, particularly in southern pro-Union areas. Mountain people are often identified with southerners as supporting the Confederates. Not true – especially for folks in Appalachia. Campbell County, for example, had “little sentiment . . . for the Confederate cause,”[1] except for a small number of slaveowners. As a matter of fact, in a vote on secession, Campbell County voted 1059 for the Union and “only 59 favored secession.”[2] For that matter, East Tennessee itself cast a vote on June 8, 1861 opposing secession “by a vote of 104,913 to 47,238.”[3] Nevertheless, East Tennessee was outnumbered by the middle and western parts of the state and became the last state to officially secede. After the war, the mistrust between Union supporters and Confederate sympathizers caused a deluge of heinous actions from marauding to mayhem to murder. Many of our Appalachian feuds were born from the deep-seated enmity caused by the war and bitter philosophical differences. Some years ago, my mom was sifting through genealogical research and found an ancestor in her lineage, one Andrew Jackson Bratcher, who was rumored to be one of the men involved in John Kincaid’s “assassination”. Later, I did a little research of my own and found out more remarkable details about the bad blood and the sins of that era. I’ll begin, however, with the first John Kincaid.

The Kincaid clan is originally from Scotland. John Kincaid, Sr. moved with his wife Nancy from Virginia to Fincastle in Campbell County, Tennessee circa 1800.[4] Kincaid had three daughters – Jane, Anne, and Sarah – and six sons – William, John II, James, Alvis, Alfred, and Richard (aka Ritchey). My focus is on the man of whom my mother spoke:  John Kincaid II.

John Kincaid II was born on May 28, 1802 and was murdered on January 28, 1865. He was described to be “a bitter, thorough and unrelenting rebel”[5] who was one of the “most bitter persecutors during the war.” He was “just as friendly as could be” to a person’s face but schemed behind his or her back.[6] In contrast, he is also described as “a most successful farmer and trader and of considerable wealth.” He was upheld as being “among the many who laid down their lives on the altar of their convictions.”[7] The “wealth” he achieved, however, was on the backs of the slaves he owned. In the 1860 census, John Kincaid is listed among Campbell County’s slaveowners as “owning the most, 54.”[8] Another theory about his wealth has circulated for years. He allegedly “minted his own money which contained more silver per ounce than the official U.S. currency.”[9] Rumors spread that he had a “secret silver mine in Union County,” Tennessee. Indeed, lead mines exist in Union County and “lead is often associated with veins of silver so there may be merit to the story.”[10] His affluence was well-known in the county and he further cemented the Kincaid legacy when he “commissioned all the existing antebellum brick homes in the Valley,”[11] mostly for his family. But that construction did not mean he was necessarily a benevolent soul.

 

He was masterful at attaining real estate and properties by execution sales (where a sheriff brings a court order to seize what you own if you have no money to pay a debt) and/or through conveyance. The list of properties and transactions is staggering. Exploring the copious legal battles of the time joggled my brain. Judges were certainly busy. I don’t know what was commonplace in the halls of justice at the time, but the Kincaids sued and countersued and appropriated and backbit and took persons (especially each other) to court so much, I was almost embarrassed. It made me wonder if all rich people do is sleep, eat, and crap law suits. John Kincaid II was profusely productive in lawsuits. And even the suits brought against him seemed as easy to win as nonchalantly swatting a gnat in the air. I have to admit I found it difficult to choose from the pages and pages of lawsuits, but here are some of the more interesting Tennessee Supreme Court cases:

      • 1845 – James Smith v. John Kincaid, et al. To pay a debt, James Smith gave a man “mortgage on negro girl, Emily, 9-10 yrs old, ‘born in his house’ & with ‘whom he was unwilling to part with on scarcely any terms.’” Before Smith could settle the debt, the man, had already “assigned mortgage to Kincaid,” Smith’s “violent personal enemy.” Smith couldn’t resolve the matter because Kincaid “refused to take pymt other than in silver & gold” and, therefore, “assigned the mortgage” to another man. “Suit to enjoin public sale of girl.”
      • 1847 – Kincaid sued Isaac Vanbebber “for trespass . . . claiming $5,000 in damages.” Kincaid claimed “Vanbebber falsely & maliciously caused Kincaid to be indicted & tried for putting out Vanbebber’s left eye,” of which Kincaid was acquitted.
      • 1850 – Eli Spaulding sued John Kincaid, claiming Kincaid “owed him $400 for labor.” Spaulding “supplied the stone foundation and lintels for the defendants brick house completed 1844.”
      • 1868 – George McFarlan sued John Kincaid’s estate, claiming “Kincaid, before his death, contributed to the unlawfully removal of his property,” including goods. McFarlan was in Kentucky at the time “and was thought to be a union loyalist by Kincaid.”
      • 1869 – John Nash sued John Kincaid’s estate accusing him “of being a member of a group of Confederate soldiers who stole corn from the plaintiff and destroyed his distillery.”

Needless to say, John Kincaid II was popular among Confederates and downright hated among Unionists. If a body noted Campbell County’s aforementioned voting statistics, that person would see that John Kincaid II, his affiliations, and his ideology were in the minority. He and other Confederates were, in effect, encircled by a mountainous region that embodied a wall of Union support. The surprising thing is John Kincaid II’s sense of entitlement and pomposity knew no bounds. To be sure, he had all kinds of money, and he certainly knew how to obtain more. But he seemed to relish peoples’ hatred of him. And he used that animus against them to lord over and control or ruin lives. He especially enjoyed tormenting Union veterans and their families, “suing them for old debts,”[12]and reveling in their forced destitution.

One account of Kincaid’s cruelty comes from a “private letter” written by a neighbor and published in “The Case of John Kincaid” from Brownlow’s Knoxville Whig, and Rebel Ventilator (February 22, 1865). During the war, the letter writer says, Kincaid “had [his] father taken prisoner to Fincastle, where for the fourth or fifth time, he was compelled to take a long, nauseous oath of three foolscap pages, to gratify” Kincaid and the men around him. A few years later, as the letter writer’s father lay dying, Kincaid sent armed forces to his house “to press our cattle and horses; and when father was within a few days of death, he sent for him (Mr. K) repeatedly to come on some business . . . and he refused to come.” Three days after his father’s death, however, Kincaid came to the deceased’s home with another man “to spend the day, and came in, oh, so cordial.” The son was so disgusted, he walked out. 

The letter writer further indicates that Kincaid was shamelessly duplicitous after the war. When questioned by the federal government as to why he gave aid and comfort to the Confederates, Kincaid sent a written oath that explained he feared for his life and safety and had to support the Confederates since the area was controlled by them. Kincaid ended his oath by saying he “is and always has been a Union man . . .” But John Kincaid’s forked tongue and countless acts of cruelty led to a reckoning on a cold January day in 1865.

Before going further, I should divulge that accounts of the incident differ somewhat and I will do my best to present these differences. I found no hardcore facts about Andrew Jackson Bratcher’s involvement, or extent thereof, but bits of genealogical and circumstantial evidence lean that way. Notably, the perpetrators were never caught. This case has been cold for over 150 years. So, for all you sleuths out there . . .

Kincaid’s neighbor from the aforementioned article is “well versed in the facts” and tells the most detailed version of the event. His account indicates that Kincaid obtained an execution sale “against some poor fellows over on the river who had been in the service and lost all they had by the rebels.” When the sheriff arrived to serve the papers, the Union men threatened to shoot him. They further told the lawman “that Kincaid would be killed before twenty-four hours.” Sure enough, the following day, two “discharged soldiers of the First East Tennessee . . . went over, called [Kincaid] out, and shot him twice, one ball passing right through the heart. He fell dead without a word . . .”

Another account comes from David Cliborne’s added excerpt on the website Find-A-Grave. The excerpt states that Kincaid “was assassinated by two of his own foremen who were paid by Union officers the sum of $3,000.” Yet another narrative from a Missouri newspaper, The Butler Weekly Times, says “two ruffians” were hired to murder Kincaid because they wanted his property. In order to further understand why people were so adamant that “thugs” and “ruffians” were involved, we should take a look at who Confederates at the time called “Brownlow’s Militia”.

 

Before William G. “Parson” Brownlow became governor of Tennessee (1865-1869), and U.S. Senator (1869-1875), he was a charismatic preacher who owned a newspaper – the aforementioned Brownlow’s Whig and Rebel Ventilator. As Tennessee came closer to secession, “he became a fanatical Unionist leader.”[14] He “fomented violence toward all Confederate sympathizers and returning Confederate soldiers,” saying the war should be “ ‘pursued with a vim and a vengeance until the rebellion is put down, if it exterminates from God’s green earth every man, woman, and child south of Mason and Dixon’s line.’ ”[15] A diary excerpt from 1864 reads:

“He encourages the people to kill their rebel neighbors wherever they find them, to do it without noise, secretly, but do it, and bury them in the woods like brutes.”[16]

Such incitement, mixed with the kind of apathy and brutality similar to Kincaid’s (and worse), created a perfect, vengeful “eye for an eye.”

Now that we’ve explored some of John Kincaid II’s life, the question becomes:  Who is Andrew Bratcher and how exactly does he fit into this scenario? First and foremost, the Bratcher clan (or at least the Bratchers in my lineage) hails from the Bradshaws in England. Andrew Jackson Bratcher was born in November, 1840, likely in Campbell County, Tennessee. His father, Robinson Bratcher, is the brother of my 4th great grandmother, Susannah Sookie Bratcher. Andrew was a tall and muscular man. According to the 1860 U.S. Census, he was a farm laborer before the war. Once the war began, he fought for the Union, serving in Company C. 1st Tennessee Infantry Regiment (October 17, 1861 – November 5, 1864),[17] and spent time as a prisoner of war in Richmond, Virginia.[18] According to a post on Genealogy.com, Bratcher was “first drafted into the Confederate Army but quickly turned and ‘enlisted in the Union Army.’” After the war, he was hired “to clear the riff-raff out of the hills of Tennessee for the government.” He was known to carry “two pistols (one you could see and one you couldn’t).” He married Martha Jane Housley in November of 1865. An article on the History of Campbell County Tennessee website presents a noteworthy bit of information about Bratcher from the Housely family’s lineage. In Martha’s section, a sentence about Bratcher reads: 

Some sources relate that after the war, Andrew Bratcher was involved in the murder of John Kincaid, a confederate sympathizer in Campbell County, Tennessee. Bratcher was never charged with the murder.

After he married Martha, they left Tennessee for Casey County, Kentucky. Andrew Jackson Bratcher died from tuberculosis on July 19, 1919 in Middleburg, Kentucky.

 

So, you might be wondering if he was embroiled in all this; and, if so, what were his reasons? I can’t prove anything for certain. I could find no concrete evidence, but, no one was charged or arrested and no one came forward as a witness, so where could one find that evidence? And the fact that no one was charged or arrested implies little or no investigation, which says to me the community didn’t want these men to be punished. In my opinion, he was involved. I think everything culminated into “the last straw,” from a majority of Union sentiment in the county to Kincaid’s relentless attacks against Union veterans and their families. My mother’s statement all those years ago that Kincaid wanted to “evict some people” and the neighbor’s statement that Kincaid obtained an execution sale “against some poor fellows over on the river who had been in the service and lost all they had by the rebels” seems to be plausible information. The neighbor further said the two men were “discharged soldiers of the First East Tennessee.” Bratcher was in the First Tennessee Infantry Regiment. Further, the statement from the genealogy post that Bratcher was hired “to clear the riff-raff out of the hills” kind of sounds like Brownlow’s Milita or some equivalent. Was he paid $3000 for the deed, as the Missouri newspaper claimed? That is an astronomical amount of money for that time ($47,924.17 in today’s money). I highly doubt this amount, especially because the country – divided as it was – likely couldn’t afford it due to financial losses from the war. Whatever my thoughts or opinions are, I remember another thing my mother said about the Civil War:

“It don’t matter what side they were on, Union or Rebels. So many of our people died.”

 

Join me for part two of the saga in January where we’ll discover the aftermath for the Kincaid family.

**Featured Image: “Civil War, 1861-1865” from pickpik

 

[1] Bogan, D. (unknown). The Civil War in and Around Campbell County, Tennessee. Retrieved from tngenweb: https://www.tngenweb.org/campbell/hist-bogan/civilwar.html

[2] Ibid

[3] Bogan, D. (unknown). The Civil War in and Around Campbell County, Tennessee. Retrieved from tngenweb: https://www.tngenweb.org/campbell/hist-bogan/civilwar.html

[4] Coddington, J. (1974, June 21). Research Assistant. National Register of Historic Places, East Tennessee Development District. Knoxville, Tennessee.

[5] The Case of John Kincaid. (1865, Feb 22). Brownlow’s Knoxville Whig, and Rebel Ventilator.

[6] Ibid.

[7] (1887). History of Vernon County, Missouri. St. Louis:  Brown & Co.

[8]Bogan, D. (unknown). The Civil War in and Around Campbell County, Tennessee. Retrieved from tngenweb: https://www.tngenweb.org/campbell/hist-bogan/civilwar.html

[9] For an in depth look at U.S. Coins, visit the United States Mint site

[10] Coddington, J. (1974, June 21). Research Assistant. National Register of Historic Places, East Tennessee Development District. Knoxville, Tennessee.

[11] Ibid

[12] The Case of John Kincaid. (1865, Feb 22). Brownlow’s Knoxville Whig, and Rebel Ventilator.

[13] Walker’s Sensation: Diabolical Scheme to Murder an Old and Highly Respected Citizen of Walker Township. (1882, Jan 25). The Butler Weekly Times.

[14] Davidson, D. (1992). The Tennessee (Vol. Two). Nashville, TN: J.S. Sanders & Company.

[15] ibid

[16] Davidson, D. (1992). The Tennessee (Vol. Two). Nashville, TN: J.S. Sanders & Company.

[17] Surviving Soldiers, Sailors, and Marines, and Widows, etc. (1890). Retrieved from Family Search.

[18] Bogan. (2004, Oct 9). Family of Robert Housely and Sarah Cooper: Addition to Robert Housely Family. Retrieved from History of Campbell County, Tennessee: https://www.tngenweb.org/campbell/hist-bogan/Housely.html

 

 

 

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