Malinda Blalock

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Sarah Malinda Pritchard Blalock. She's holding the picture of her husband Keith.

Sarah Malinda Pritchard Blalock (March 10, 1839 or 1842, Avery County, North Carolina – March 9, 1901 or 1903, Watauga County, North Carolina) was a female soldier during the American Civil War. Despite originally being a sympathizer for the right of secession, she fought bravely on both sides. She followed her husband by joining the CSA's 26th North Carolina Regiment, disguising herself as a young male soldier named Samuel Blalock The couple eventually escaped by crossing Confederate lines and joining the Union partisans in the mountains of western North Carolina. During the last years of the war, she was a pitiless pro-Union marauder, tormenting the Appalachia region. Today she's one of the most remembered female combatants of the Civil War.

Early life[edit]

Sarah Malinda Pritchard was born March 10, 1839, in Caldwell County, North Carolina[1]—now part of Avery County—which is located in the steep region of Grandfather Mountain and died March 9, 1903.[2]

Points of interest from Malinda's life in North Carolina.

When she was a child, Malinda Pritchard resided in Watauga County—also now Avery County—which was her main residence until her death. There, she attended a single-room schoolhouse.

Marriage to Keith Blalock[edit]

In those years, she became a close friend of William McKesson Blalock, whose family had been rivals with her family for over 100 years. Ten years Malinda’s senior, Blalock was nicknamed "Keith" after a great contemporary boxer, due to his skill at boxing. At age 19, she married William in the politically turbulent 1861, causing a big stir around the families then.[3]

Civil War[edit]

After the Civil War had begun, the inhabitants of the western North Carolina communities—in the Appalachian Mountains—were restlessly confronted over their eventual political adherences. Daily, the neighbors argued aggressively with each other, even against their folk people. For example, originally, Malinda expressed her sympathy for the right of secession. On the opposite political side, Keith and his stepfather Austin Coffey were radical unionists—even though Keith was opposed to President Lincoln—and they had planned to desert toward the Union someday. The Blalocks’ opposing views did not affect their marriage, however.

On time, the Confederate 26th North Carolina Infantry, commanded by Colonel Zebulon Vance, showed up in the region, to recruit the strongest men in those communities.[4] Keith began to plan an escape across the frontier from his southern political enemies. He was hesitant, though, about whether he would flee directly toward Kentucky or enroll temporarily with the Confederate Army to desert across the enemy lines later.

Keith also considered the consequences of an untimely escape on his beloved Malinda. While spurred by the good pay in serving the "Greys", Keith trusted that he would receive a light military commission eventually—to northern Virginia for example—from where it would be easy to desert to the first "Yankee" regiment around. Therefore, with feignedly gaudy attitude, he accompanied many of his neighbors to the recruitment office, signing up with the Confederate infantry.

Samuel Blalock[edit]

Instead of separating from her beloved Keith, Malinda decided to escape with him by enrolling in the 26th infantry too. She secretly dressed as a young man, cutting her hair and wearing male clothing.

Fearing for Malinda, Keith had made sure that all local secessionists could see him while leaving his hometown with the Confederates. However, when arriving at the enlistment gathering at the town's railroad depot, someone began to walk by his side, a mysterious recruit who was wearing a forage cap and had a particularly little physique and delicate features. Surprisingly, "He" turned out to be Malinda, his own wife.

Malinda was officially registered on March 20 of 1862 at Lenoir, North Carolina, as a certain "Samuel 'Sammy' Blalock" who supposedly was Keith's 20 year old brother. This document and her discharge papers survive as one of the few existing records of a female soldier from North Carolina, from the many ones who may have actually served.

Confederate military life[edit]

An early bitter fact for Malinda and Keith was that their plan to defect was unworkable because, already before their arrival, the 26th had fought its biggest battle, which was the loss to the Union of the town of New Bern in eastern North Carolina. Therefore, instead of moving to Virginia's battlefront, they remained stationed—far from the northern frontier—at Kinston, North Carolina, on the Neuse River.

While maintaining her hidden identity, Malinda was a good soldier. One of their assistant surgeons, named Underwood, pointed out that "her disguise was never penetrated. She drilled and did the duties of a soldier as any other member of the Company, and was very adept at learning the manual and drill."

Keith kept the secret through the months that they shared the daily rudeness of the military life, such as like living in a tent. Later, he became a respected brevet sergeant, ordering Malinda then to "stay close to him". They fought in three battles together, but "Samuel"'s true identity remained still unknown.

The desertion[edit]

In April 1862, Keith's squad received the order to range the Neuse River's region by fording it during the night, to detect any enemy guarding-posts. Their ultimate objective was to track down the location of a particular Union regiment commanded by US General Ambrose Burnside.

At one point of the mission, a hard skirmish began. Most of Keith's squad retreated to safety, crossing back over the Neuse River. However, after regrouping, it was found that "Samuel" was missing. Keith promptly returned to the battlefield. He found Malinda clinging to a pine and bleeding profusely, with a bullet lodged in her left shoulder.

As quickly as he could, Keith carried Malinda back to the 26th in his arms. He brought her to the infirmary tent where she was attended by its surgeon, Dr. Thomas J. Boykin. The bullet was successfully removed, but the truth about "Samuel" was also discovered at Boykin's examination.

Keith obtained the promise from Boykin that he would spare them some time before reporting this. Desperately, Keith rushed to the forest on that night, to a nearby field of poison ivy. He stripped his clothes and flailed through the underbrush, for about half an hour.

The next morning, he suffered a persistent fever while his affected skin was inflamed and covered by blisters. Keith told the doctors that he had a serious recurrent illness which was highly contagious, adding the ailment of a hernia also. Fearing an outbreak of smallpox, the doctors discharged Keith expeditiously from the regiment and confined him to his tent.

However, Malinda would remain stranded in the camp because her recent wound didn't yet merit a discharge. She decided to confront Colonel Vance once and for all. She offered herself as a volunteer to aid the sick Sergeant Keith on his return to Watauga. Vance's response was a clear "no", communicating to "Samuel" that instead "he" would be his new personal orderly.

At that point Malinda decided to tell Vance the truth about her gender. Vance's first reaction was of disbelief while calling the surgeon and commenting to him: "Oh Surgeon, have I a case for you!" However, the physician corroborated the seriousness of Malinda's statement. Immediately, Vance discharged "Samuel" and demanded the restitution of "his" original enlisting reward of 50 dollars.

Marauders[edit]

Malinda and her husband could return to Watauga then. Once there, though, Keith was soon required by the local Confederate forces, which demanded that he enlist again—after noting his healthy status—and return to the front. Otherwise, he would be judged by the new Confederate laws of military draft.

Therefore, Malinda and Keith fled again, toward Grandfather Mountain. There, they found more local deserters in the same condition. They stayed with them until the Confederate Army intercepted the group, injuring Keith in his arm.

Malinda and Keith moved then to Tennessee, where they joined the US-10th Michigan Cavalry of Colonel George Washington Kirk, who was later succeeded by General George Stoneman. For some time, Keith accomplished some administrative chores as a recruitment agent.

However, the couple decided to enter in action again, this time for the Union, by joining Colonel Kirk's voluntary guerrilla squadrons which were accomplishing some scouting and raiding missions throughout the Appalchia region of North Carolina.

Always with Malinda next to him, Keith began in Blowing Rock, North Carolina, as one of the leaders of the guides for the Watauga Underground Railroad. This was a way of escape from the Confederate jail at Salisbury, North Carolina, which was the largest facility of the state. Keith had to guide the escaped Union soldiers to safety in Tennessee. However, from 1863 on, the skirmishes against the patrolling enemy forces in the region were increasingly tougher.

Keith's pro-union guerrilla forces began then to torment Watauga County with no mercy. Because once they had been harshly humbled by the southern loyalists, the outlaws pitilessly raided their farms, stole and killed. Marauding throughout North Carolina's Appalachia region, they were soon feared by the entire state.

Confederate vigilantes then murdered Keith's stepfather, Austin Coffey, and one of Austin's four brothers (William), while the other two survived the attack. The Coffeys had been betrayed by some local folks who were found and killed by Keith after the war.[5]

During the war, some of the most ill-fated actions of Malinda and Keith were their two pillaging incursions to the Moore family's farm in Caldwell County, late in 1863. One of Moore's sons, James Daniel, was the 26th's officer who recruited them originally. In the first incursion, Malinda was injured in her shoulder. During the second one, Moore's son was at home, recovering after the Battle of Gettysburg, while Keith got a shot in his eye and lost it.

During the war, Keith lost the use of a hand. He also murdered one of his uncles who had turned to the Confederacy.

Later life[edit]

After the war, Malinda and Keith returned to Watauga, to live the rest of their lives as farmers, with their four children. For some time, they had troubles getting Keith's government pension.[6] Afterward, they joined the Republican Party where, in 1870, Keith ran unsuccessfully for a place in the Congress of the United States.

Malinda Malinda Pritchard Blalock died in 1901, at age 59, due to natural causes while she was sleeping. She was buried in the Montezuma Cemetery of Avery County. Very affected, Keith moved to Hickory, North Carolina, taking his son Columbus with him.

In 1913, Keith died in an automobile accident. Some versions attribute his death to a local payback for his past years with Malinda. He was buried beside her at Montezuma Cemetery. His stone badge reads: “Keith Blalock, Soldier, 26th N.C Inf., CSA.”

See also[edit]

References[edit]

Main sources[edit]

Notes[edit]

  1. ^ Eggleston, Larry G. (2003). Women in the Civil War: Extraordinary Stories of Soldiers, Spies, Nurses, Doctors, Crusaders, and Others. Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland & Company, Inc. ISBN 0786414936, page 50.
  2. ^ Evidence her gravestone in North Carolina listing both dates
  3. ^ Eggleston, Larry G. (2003). Women in the Civil War: Extraordinary Stories of Soldiers, Spies, Nurses, Doctors, Crusaders, and Others. Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland & Company, Inc. ISBN 0786414936, page 50.
  4. ^ Creative Loafing Charlotte | Arts | Spirited Tale
  5. ^ Malinda at the Wayback Machine (archived October 27, 2009)
  6. ^ CWN Book Reviews

Bibliography[edit]

External links[edit]