Kincaid Vengeance

As we discovered in the previous post, “Dead Without a Word:  The Mysterious Assassination of John Kincaid,” John Kincaid II was a fierce advocate for the Confederacy during the Civil War. After his death, he was considered a martyr to some and a malefactor to others. His sons also fought for the Confederacy:  Benjamin , John III, Marcellus, Alvis, and William. One source claims he had six sons, but I only found five.

Our focus this time is on John Kincaid II’s namesake:  John “Little John” Kincaid III. His story also revolves around murder and intrigue, and unfolds through carefully researched published letters, genealogical sites, Find-A-Grave, and book excerpts. Unlike the cold case of John Kincaid II’s murder, however, the culprit(s) of such heinous deeds was known and charged in absentia. Like the cold case, the perpetrator never paid a price. And the whole ordeal caused two states to “duke it out” word-style in a legal rift.

John “Little John” Kincaid III was born on December 30, 1829 in Fincastle, Tennessee, in Campbell County, just a mile or two away from Claiborne County. As mentioned, he served1)Some of the Kincaid brothers are listed a little past half the page under the spelling, “Kincade” in the Confederacy as a Private in Co. D, 2nd Tennessee Cavalry under General Turner Ashby, and possibly made the rank of Captain. Like all Confederate fighters, Little John “came home from the War to find his whole world in ruins.” A feeling of intense dejection and loss likely consumed him. His father had been assassinated, the Confederates lost the war, and society all around him had changed. The antebellum home his father gifted him was ransacked and used by Union forces. The abode also purportedly served as a makeshift hospital for returning soldiers (most likely Union). To add insult to injury, Kincaid’s refusal “to take the oath of allegiance” meant his money and property were “confiscated and sold by the United States Government.”2)History of Vernon County, Missouri. St. Louis: Brown & Co., 1887 p. 555. Little John’s blood boiled and he “swore vengeance against all Union men in Powell’s Valley.”3)Rogers, Jno. P. (1882, Jan. 20) How the Governor of Missouri Protects a Murderer, The Daily Chronicle, Knoxville In March of 1865, Kincaid, along with counterpart Thomas W. Smith, “led marauding Confederates” intent on revenge. Rumors swirl to this day about the events that unfolded. What is certain is that on March 11, 1865, at least two men (and likely more) were killed:  John Emory Melvin VanBebber and David S. Cawood.

John VanBebber was, according to information on Ancestry’s fold3, a lawman. He actually married into the Kincaid family in April 1843 when he wed Little John’s cousin, Minerva Kincaid. She died in August, 1856. VanBebber hurriedly – and I do mean hurriedly – married Elizabeth Beeler, also in August 1856. She was a cousin of the poor aforementioned soul, David S. Cawood.

Cawood’s brother-in-law, John Rogers, wrote about the murders in a letter to The Daily Chronicle, Knoxville, dated January 20, 1882. The events on March 11 unfolded as follows: Little John Kincaid led “a band of guerrillas” into the valley, seized John VanBebber, and “took him some three miles with them, when John B. Kincaid, according to the sworn statement of some of his own men, made Vanbeber get off his horse, and get down on his knees.” Kincaid executed him right then and there. VanBebber was also carrying a big ol’ wad of cash, and some suspected he intended to buy Kincaid’s land. Rogers maintained, however, the only reason Kincaid murdered VanBebber was due to his Union sympathies.

After VanBebber’s murder, the vigilantes rode three miles “and found Cawood in the house, with his wife and four little children.” Rogers wrote that Cawood was “living on Kincaid’s father’s land,” and carried the lease on his person wherever he went, in case trouble over that fact arose. They pistol-whipped Cawood and the blows “broke his skull in two places.” They “then jerked him out of the house and shot him six times before he fell dead in the yard.” In his letter, the brother-in-law paints Cawood as a “peaceable, law-abiding, unoffending man,” and, again, says the only reason Kincaid killed him was because “he was a Union man.” Kincaid and his “guerillas” were determined to massacre the area’s Union men, “and would have killed them had [the men] not received news of his coming.” The Kincaid crew satiated their homicidal lust by robbing and devastating their vacated homes.

From With Lee in Virginia, A Story of the American Civil War (1890) by G. A. Henty – Library of Congress

After the killings, Kincaid fled with his wife, Margaret, to Vernon County, Missouri, and changed his name to John Huff. He owned a 677-acre farm, raised short-horned cattle,4)History of Vernon County, Missouri. St. Louis: Brown & Co., 1887 p. 555. and, essentially, lived a charmed life, until seventeen years later, when his disguise was uncovered in January, 1882.

According to an article in The Butler Weekly Times, four men walked into Walker Township in Vernon County, Missouri, with “a requisition from the Governor of Tennessee and the Governor of [Missouri]” to arrest “a desperate character only equalled by Jesse James himself.” The Deputy Sheriff of Claiborne County produced an order for John Kincaid’s (aka John Huff’s) arrest. The town became absolute chaos. In thirty minutes, they formed an armed mob and vowed to protect Huff. They believed these men intended to take Kincaid off somewhere and perform a little vigilante justice. The scene was so dire that “law and order trembled in the balance.” The Tennessee men were detained and absolutely terrified. The crowd condemned their actions and accused them of being the very persons who hired “two ruffians to murder Huff’s father,” all to gain the Kincaid property, on which, the crowd espoused, the men “are to-day living on the farm that rightly belongs to . . . Huff.”

So, how was Little John’s identity discovered? Surprisingly, according to an individual in the crowd, it came from Kincaid himself. The person said Little John sent a letter to these men (or managers of the Tennessee property) three weeks prior, that gave “notice to prepare to pay for that farm.” The community refused to relinquish Kincaid, saying, “You can’t have John Huff!” Tensions died down and the men were allowed to leave.5)Criterian, Nevada. “Walker’s Sensation: Diabolical Scheme to Murder an Old and Highly Respected Citizen of Walker Township.” The Butler Weekly Times 25 Jan 1882.

Missouri Governor Crittenden ordered that Huff be “brought to Nevada” for a hearing. Huff “was discharged on the grounds that there was a constitutional provision prohibiting arrest for offenses committed during the war.” Several big-wigs met with the governor to have Huff’s arrest revoked. The pressure worked because Crittenden refused to extradite Kincaid/Huff to Tennessee, saying: “For reasons which appear sufficient I have to-day directed a revocation of our warrant . . . I know that your excellency will fully appreciate my feelings in this matter, and will grant me such assistance as you can in determining the animus of the prosecution. To this end I have to request your excellency to make such special enquiry into the particulars of the killing . . .”6)Unknown. “The Kincaid Case: Correspondence Between the Governors of Tennessee and Missouri.” The Daily Chronicle Knoxville 29 Jan 1882.

The non-action sparked a public back and forth, filled with fluffy rhetoric and high-horse sermons between the Tennessee and Missouri governors. Tennessee’s Governor Hawkins responded by quoting U.S. Constitution sections and articles concerning extradition and jurisdiction. He further argued a 1793 act of Congress regarding fugitives, particularly those who committed “treason, felony, or other crime,” gave sufficient reason for Kincaid’s return. Hawkins ends by saying, “I must confess . . . I am unable to appreciate the reasons assigned by you for your action in directing a revocation of your warrant and its return without execution. I know nothing of ‘the particulars of the killing’ or of the animus of the prosecutions, and must most respectfully decline to enter upon the unauthorized investigation . . .”7)Unknown. “The Kincaid Case: Correspondence Between the Governors of Tennessee and Missouri.” The Daily Chronicle Knoxville 29 Jan 1882. Crittenden responded by lengthy letter8)Crittenden, Gov. “Polite but Pointed: The Governor of Missouri to the Governor of Tennessee, The Former Respectfully Declines to Accede to the Demand of the Latter.” The Daily American, Nashville 15 Feb 1882. and Hawkins replied likewise.9)Hawkins, Alvin. “Tennessee and Missouri: Response of Gov. Hawkins to the Letter of Gov. Crittenden. The Reasons Given Why Two Fugitives from Justice Should be Turned Over to Our State Authorities.” The Daily American, Nashville 7 Mar 1882. In a nutshell, Hawkins argued that his authority to arrest Kincaid was constitutional and “that the Governor of Missouri has usurped authority” and “violated a plain provision of the Constitution of the United States.” Crittenden espoused Missouri’s state Constitution and a provision therein that protects persons in the Civil War (years 1861-1866) from prosecution; and, he further stated, he was uncertain about the incidents altogether.

Though passions were heated and the law was tested, nothing ever came of it. Missourians provided Little John Kincaid refuge so he stayed in Missouri until he reached the end of his days on December 4, 1899. Some sources say he and his family died of cholera.10)United States Department of the Interior – National Park Service. “Kincaid-Ausmus House.” National Register of Historical Places Inventory — Nomination Form. Speedwell, June 1975.11)bgill. “Stories About the Murder of John VanBebber.” 1 May 2007. fold3 by Ancestry. I’m not entirely sure about that. A cholera pandemic occurred during the 19th century and made its way to America in the 1830s.12)Dobson, Mary. Disease: The Extraordinary Stories Behind History’s Deadliest Killers. New York: Metro Books, 2013. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), if left untreated, “death can occur within hours.” Kincaid himself may have contracted the disease, but some family members’ dates of death suggest not everyone was infected. His wife, for example, died in 1903. 13)Admittedly, she still could’ve died of cholera They had several children but I found information for only one son who died at age 70 in 1939. The “John Kincaid” excerpt from the book, History of Vernon County, Missouri (1887) mentions five children born with three surviving. So, it’s quite possible some of the “Huff” children died of cholera. The information is somewhat sparse, given Kincaid’s alias. Plus, at that time, records weren’t kept as meticulously and their importance varied from state to state.

So, we’re left with the intriguing lives of these individuals. The Kincaid side vehemently advocated for the Confederacy and resorted to brutality and homicide in order to inflict as much damage as possible, as a sort of knife to the gut, so to speak. Bratcher and his suspected involvement in the killing of John Kincaid II revealed that a man took only so much oppression before he “handled” the situation. For me, I’ll speak as though I’m in the shoes of the regular Jane at the time. I think of all the terror inflicted on a community – the “never knowing” of it all. Never knowing who to trust; never knowing if I’d live through it; never knowing if my family was safe; never knowing if happiness could cut through the fog of war. And I believe in large pockets of this region, that 1860s fog still hovers and lingers across the mountains.

 

**Featured Image by Sammy Williams on Pixabay

References

1 Some of the Kincaid brothers are listed a little past half the page under the spelling, “Kincade”
2, 4 History of Vernon County, Missouri. St. Louis: Brown & Co., 1887 p. 555.
3 Rogers, Jno. P. (1882, Jan. 20) How the Governor of Missouri Protects a Murderer, The Daily Chronicle, Knoxville
5 Criterian, Nevada. “Walker’s Sensation: Diabolical Scheme to Murder an Old and Highly Respected Citizen of Walker Township.” The Butler Weekly Times 25 Jan 1882.
6, 7 Unknown. “The Kincaid Case: Correspondence Between the Governors of Tennessee and Missouri.” The Daily Chronicle Knoxville 29 Jan 1882.
8 Crittenden, Gov. “Polite but Pointed: The Governor of Missouri to the Governor of Tennessee, The Former Respectfully Declines to Accede to the Demand of the Latter.” The Daily American, Nashville 15 Feb 1882.
9 Hawkins, Alvin. “Tennessee and Missouri: Response of Gov. Hawkins to the Letter of Gov. Crittenden. The Reasons Given Why Two Fugitives from Justice Should be Turned Over to Our State Authorities.” The Daily American, Nashville 7 Mar 1882.
10 United States Department of the Interior – National Park Service. “Kincaid-Ausmus House.” National Register of Historical Places Inventory — Nomination Form. Speedwell, June 1975.
11 bgill. “Stories About the Murder of John VanBebber.” 1 May 2007. fold3 by Ancestry.
12 Dobson, Mary. Disease: The Extraordinary Stories Behind History’s Deadliest Killers. New York: Metro Books, 2013.
13 Admittedly, she still could’ve died of cholera

6 Comments

  1. This is very interesting as I live in Campbell County Tennessee and I know some of John Kincaid’s ancestors.

    1. Author

      I’m glad you found it interesting, Phillip. I was born and raised in Campbell County (Demory) and heard this story (and others like it) all my life, really. It certainly reveals much about the time and a history from which we can all learn. As I mentioned in Part I, my own ancestor was involved in these particular transgressions as well.

  2. Thank you for the information. I just found out John Kincaid II is my direct ancestor. Something to be proud of, um no. It is interesting though. You have two sides of a story and then you have the truth. Obviously, John Kincaid wasn’t a good man, but what exactly was the motive behind his murder? Perhaps it was greed on both sides. Oh the skeletons found in family history, wouldn’t you agree?

    1. Author

      Hello, Elljay. I’m glad you found the information useful. Appalachia Bare’s goal is to “lay everything bare,” to reveal the beautiful and the ugly. Yet, beauty resides even in ugliness. You’re right – skeletons abound in family history. I have so many in my own closet, I find it hard to shut the door! To answer your question (or try to), I think the motive for John Kincaid II’s murder involved three parts. (1) Kincaid II owned a large swath of land and had what he considered undesirable (Union) tenants. These tenants found him to be a highly aggressive and difficult landlord. Some (like Bratcher) were harassed to the breaking point. (2) The county at the time was predominantly pro-Union and believed Confederate sympathizers were dangerous. On the other hand, Confederates were hemmed in by Unionists and must’ve felt just as fearful. (3) Governor Brownlow initiated a “voluntary” milita (likely paid) to quell any further confederate uprisings after the war. “Little John” Kincaid was understandably filled with rage after the horrendous war and such overwhelming loss, so, he formed his own “mini-militia” to make the winning side pay – unfortunately with lives. As you said, it does, in the end, boil down to money and greed. But, I do believe our ancestors make us who we are today. I have several whose histories make me squirm, but I try to see the goodness in them and, in turn, see that goodness within myself. Heck, I’ve even owned some of the bad parts! I found John Kincaid II, for example, to be a genius businessman and a man who believed wholeheartedly in his ideals.

      1. I am the 2nd great granddaughter of John M. Vanbebber. My grandmother would tell me and all her children and grandchildren the story of how her grandfather was killed by John kincaid. Some minor details differ but I have heard this story all my life.

  3. John M Vanbebber and Nancy Elizabeth Beeler were my great great Grandparents.

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