William McKesson (Keith) Blalock and Malinda Pritchard met as children in a one room school house in Watauga County, N.C. under the shadow of Grandfather Mountain. In April 1861, the couple were married. The marriage was a surprise to the whole county as the two families had been feuding over one thing or the other for over one hundred and fifty years but theirs was a true love match.
The entire state of North Carolina was severely divided over the question of the legality of secession but never more so than in the small mountain community the Blalocks called home. When a Confederate recruiting officer passed through that area, Keith, opposed to Lincoln but an ardent Unionist, felt compelled to follow some of his fellow townsmen in signing up with the 26th N.C. Infantry commanded by future governor Col. Zebulon Vance. All along it had been his intention to join a unit he figured would soon be sent north to Virginia to fight the Yankees. Once there he planned to slip through the lines and join up with the first Federal unit he came in contact with. Fearing for the safety of his young wife at the hands of the secessionists should his plan become known, he made sure the town’s secessionists saw him march away with the 26th.
Malinda had plans of her own. Barely had Keith began his march to the depot that would carry him to the war when he noticed a light young man marching beside him. It did not take him long to notice the new recruit with short hair covered by a forage cap was none other than his wife, Malinda. At the enlistment station in Lenoir, N.C. she signed her enlistment papers as twenty year old S.M. (Sammy) Blalock, brother to William McKesson Blalock.
The one thing the Blalocks hadn’t counted on was where their new outfit was bound. Instead of being sent to Virginia, the 26th was assigned to Kinston, N.C. in the eastern part of the state, an area with very little enemy activity at that time which put a serious kink in Keith’s plan.
Keith turned out to be a better soldier than expected being appointed a brevet sergeant almost immediately. His men were fond of him and quick to obey his orders. His standing order to “Sammy” was “he” was to stay as close to him as possible.
In January of 1862, the 26th was transferred to Camp Carolina in New Bern, N.C., near the Neuse River. In a night operation Keith’s company received orders to scout for enemy pickets they hope would lead them to the location of General Ambrose Burnside’s regiments located further up the coast.
A firefight soon broke out. Keith and most of his men managed to make their way to the safety of their side of the Neuse. However, much to his dismay, upon reaching the shore, he found a wounded Malinda propped up against a pine tree, a bullet embedded in her left shoulder.
Carrying her in his arms back to camp he turned her over to the surgeon, Thomas J. Boykin. Realizing their “secret” would soon become public knowledge, Keith began devising a plan that would secure his release from Confederate service. In the dead of night he slipped past his own pickets looking for a bed of poison oak, prevalent in that area. Stripping himself bare he rolled around in the toxic substance for nearly thirty minutes. The next morning he appeared for sick call with a high fever and a terrifying rash. The surgeons, fearing an outbreak of small pox, authorized his immediate medical discharge. This suited Keith’s purposes perfectly but left Sammy/Malinda in a bind. Her wound was not serious enough to garner her a discharge so she decided to personally plead her case to Col. Vance, saying she wished to accompany her brother home in order to care for him. Vance’s first response was an adamant “no” but he did offer to make Pvt. Blalock his orderly. Malinda knew the only thing left to do was to reveal her gender to her commanding officer.
Vance had no recourse but to send her home but not before demanding she return the $50.00 bounty she had received when she enlisted. There is a bit of irony here. Malinda’s unit had received a unit citation issued a year later for their bravery during the firefight in which she was wounded. Her name is listed as “Mrs. L.M. Blaylock [sic] 1863-64…a record that still stands.
However the Blalock story does not end here. Upon returning to Grandfather Mountain Keith offered his services to the Union army becoming a recruiting officer for the 10th Michigan Regiment. Essentially the Blalocks became the “Bonnie and Clyde” of the western North Carolina mountains, feared by secessionist and pro-Union alike. Bushwhacking, thieving, and murder became their hallmark. Although Malinda had no official standing in the Union army she was always by her husband’s side as they made foray after foray into the countryside terrorizing the locals as well as their Yankee compatriots when the need arose.
In essence one could say Malinda Pritchard Blalock served in both armies. When the war was finally over the brazen young couple moved back to the cabin in Watauga County to resume their lives as farmers. On March 19, 1903, Malinda died in her sleep of natural causes and was buried in nearby Montezuma Cemetery. A heartbroken Keith moved in with his son, Columbus, in nearby Hickory, N.C.
On April 11, 1913, Keith Blalock was killed in a freak accident while pumping a hand car along a local railroad. Rumors circulated that it was no accident but a final payback for all the grief he and Malinda had brought to Watauga County during the war. However nothing ever came of the rumors.
On April 14, 1913, William McKesson (Keith) Blalock was laid to rest beside his beloved Malinda. His headstone reads simply “Keith Blalock,
26th N.C Inf., CSA”
Submitted by Tonia J. Smith