Civil War Wedding Crashers

Southern Appalachia was not immune to the misfortunes of the Civil War. In fact, the region possessed many of the Confederacy’s necessary resources, such as wheat, salt, and lead. These sites became insatiable targets for the Union Army, which spent a great deal of time, money, and lives trying to claim the resources for the USA. But the fear of invasion never halted the continuance of life in Appalachia; babies were born, and taxes were paid, and couples were wed. Though one couple in Southwest Virginia felt the sting of war on their wedding day by an unruly gang of unwelcomed wedding crashers. So if you think 2017 has been bad, let’s go back to 1864.

The death knell rang for the Confederacy during the winter of 1864. That year witnessed Southern inflation rates rise to a staggering 700% and fall to nearly 50%[1], bartering for what little goods left became the norm, General Lee won his last clear victory at the Battle of Cold Harbor, the pincer attack of the Union army now under Lieutenant Major Ulysses S. Grant began to dismantle the core Confederate strongholds, Atlanta burned, Lincoln won a second term in office, and the great Mississippi River changed color from gray to blue. For those living below the Mason-Dixon Line, life became a living hell as the Union army sought to demoralize and punish the civilian population.

In the southern mountain regions of Virginia, Tennessee, and North Carolina, Major General George Stoneman commanded three cavalry raids between 1863-1865. During his second cavalry raid in December 1864, Stoneman marched his forces north through East Tennessee and Southwest Virginia along the famous Wilderness Trail. The primary goal of this mission was to destroy the Virginia & Tennessee Railroad and the vital saltworks in Saltville, Virginia. A cavalry brigade under Union General Stephen “Butcher” Burbridge led this march north.

On December 14, 1864, news reached the town of Abingdon, Virginia that nearby Bristol had fallen under a Union attack and that the Yankees were quickly approaching. In military raids such as this one, the invading force would normally consume or steal any remaining resources found along their way, leaving the local population destitute. In anticipation of the invasion, many of those living in and around Abingdon made frantic preparations to preserve what little of their valuables remained. The speed at which the Union forces fell upon the town surprised many and, despite the Southern economic hardship, Abingdon lore tell us that Stoneman’s Raid interrupted a wedding that was planned for the evening of December 14.

By the end of 1864, the prominent Fulkerson family of Abingdon experienced a series of tragedies during to the course of the war. Samuel Vance Fulkerson, Confederate Colonel and federal circuit court judge in Abingdon, died in 1862 from wounds he received during the Battle of Gaines Mill. Brother of Samuel and another lawyer and Confederate Colonel in Tennessee, Abram Fulkerson received three non-fatal gunshot wounds in 1864 and became a Union POW, unfortunately becoming part of the Immortal Six Hundred at Morris Island in Charleston, South Carolina. Margaret Laughlin Vance Fulkerson, mother to Samuel and Abram, also passed away in June of 1864.

Before the outbreak of war, Samuel Vance purchased a fine brick house known as Retirement on a tract of land in Abingdon along Wolf Creek. He duly expanded the house and added an office for himself. He was a judge now, after all, and he had the means to demonstrate his wealth and provide for his family. At the outbreak of war, his sister Catherine Elizabeth, known as Kate, moved into Retirement along with Abram’s wife, Selina Johnson Fulkerson. Samuel’s house slave, Aunt Lou, remained at Retirement to help the two women. Despite the family tragedies and the ever-present reality of war that consumed everyone, life for the Fulkersons continued. Kate was a teacher at Martha Washington College, and through her connections she met Floyd Breckenridge Hurt, a widower and local war bond salesman.[2] A marriage between Floyd and Kate was eventually settled upon for the evening of December 14, 1864.

In the days leading up to the wedding, the three women in the house busied themselves with preparations – Kate sewed her wedding clothes while Aunt Lou and Selina prepared food for the banquet. On the day of the wedding, Kate began getting ready as Aunt Lou and Selina began setting up for the guests. There is no doubt that everyone was cheerful and excited for the wedding, as joyous events were few and far between that year. When, without warning, Floyd Hurt appeared on horseback at Retirement in a frenzied form. He carried news that the Yankees were quickly approaching the town and that the wedding would not – could not – happen that night. Hurt escaped to the Knobs with his slave, White Chappell, and all the Confederate money that he held. Rumor has it that Kate and Aunt Lou immediately took the silver from the dinner table and buried it in the garden behind the house.

By 11pm on December 14, the Union cavalry under General Stephen Burbridge entered Abingdon and sought lodging for the night. The story follows that a Union soldier approached Retirement with word that General Burbridge would be spending the night in the house. The soldier then glimpsed the feast on display and immediately ran inside to grab what food he could carry and left. His Union comrades saw what foodstuffs he possessed and a slew of men burst through the door of Retirement to get their share of the food. It is reported that the Union soldiers were so unruly and disrespectful that Selina angrily shook the fireplace poker at them, only to be laughed at in return. About the same time, General Burbridge made his entrance and ordered his soldiers to leave the house. He apologized to the women and informed them that he would be staying in the house, eating what was left of the food.

On December 20, Burbridge and his unit departed from Abingdon and made their way to Saltville to destroy the saltworks.[3] In their short stay in town, the soldiers managed to pull up the railroad tracks and both the train depot and newspaper office were burned. Adding insult to injury, a Union soldier from Abingdon, Captain James Wyatt, stayed behind to burn the courthouse as revenge for some legal trouble he had when younger.[4] The town rebuilt the courthouse in 1868 and stands as the only courthouse constructed in Virginia during the Reconstruction Era.[5]

Floyd Hurt and Kate Fulkerson did eventually get married. Once the Union threat moved out of the area, Hurt came out from hiding. The two were married on Christmas Day, 1864 in a somber ceremony without the trappings previously prepared. The couple raised four children together in Retirement, yet the family silver has never been found.[6]


Oral history tells us that Aunt Lou, a house slave belonging to Col. Samuel Vance Fulkerson, was a pivotal member of this story and was the keeper of the tale. While no official documents survive that attest to Aunt Lou’s existence, the story itself reveals the nature of living under the threat of military invasion. The previous story ran in the Bristol Herald Courier in 1965 as “Unique Wedding Feast Took Place in Abingdon” written by Mary F. Landrum. In the Editor’s Note, it is explained that the story was retold by Aunt Lou and recorded by one of the members in the Hurt family. Catherine Wharton Gray of Sherman, Texas, granddaughter of Floyd and Kate Hurt, then conveyed the story to Mary F. Landrum.

Please visit the Abingdon Muster Grounds here for more information about Retirement and the Fulkerson family.

©K. Martin-Gross 2017

[1] InflationData. “Confederate Inflation Rates (1861-1865).” Inflation Data. (accessed December 17, 2017).

[2] Hurt managed to avoid the draft due to a hernia.

[3] This was Burbridge’s second attempt at destroying the saltworks. His first try occurred in October of that year, but he was unsuccessful. The Second Battle of Saltville, however, was a quick victory for the Union forces. Though complete destruction did not occur as the salt furnaces returned to partial operation in a matter of months.

[4] Wilson, Carolyn R. “History lesson coming on Civil War in Abingdon.” SWVAToday. (accessed December 19, 2017).

[5] Virginia Tech History Department. “Saltville.” Virginia Center for Civil War Studies. (accessed December 18, 2017).

[6] Mary F. Landrum, “Unique Wedding Feast Took Place in Abingdon,” Bristol Herald Courier, January 10, 1965.

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