Sunday, March 22, 2015

The Buck Island Massacre -- A Roden Family History & Tragedy

 The Buck Island Massacre 
A Roden Family History & Tragedy

By: C.W. Roden

The following tragic story is a true account of the slaughter of members of the Roden family - some of my own ancestors - during the latter half of War Between the States (American Civil War). 

Buck Island is located on the Tennessee River between the towns of Guntersville and Claysville, in Marshall County, Alabama

On December 26, 1863, a band of Southern Unionists led by notorious Tennessee Valley outlaw and Union scout named "Captain" Benjamin R. Harris, captured four members of the Roden family - two civilians and two Confederate soldiers on holiday leave recovering from wounds - were captured there along with two other men. These men were led to the river and then summarily executed. 

Harris was born in Alabama in 1823 and moved from place to place with his family from southeastern Madison County to Arkansas and then to Louisiana. 

When the War Between the States broke out in 1861, Harris hired himself out as a scout for the Union Army, giving himself the unofficial rank of captain. He led a band of 30 or so men who later became notorious foragers/pillagers in Northern Alabama in the fall of 1863 till his death. 

The following is an account taken from the autobiography of Dr. John A. Wyeth titled: With Sabre and Scalpel (New York: Harper & Bros., 1914), pg. 314-15. The story was also written in the Confederate Veteran magazine, Vol. VI, page 523 and reads as follows: 

Northern Alabama had paid dearly for the devotion of her people to the cause of the South. Nowhere in the Confederacy had such ruin been wrought, save in the path of desolation along which the march to the sea was made, or perhaps in the valley of Virginia, in obedience to the order to leave it so desolate that "a crow flying over would have to carry its rations." Our county of Marshall had suffered in a double sense, being overrun for the last year and a half of the war by bands of marauders who robbed the defenseless people of the little the two armies had left. The story of their forays would make a bloody record. The narration of one tragedy which was enacted on a small island in the Tennessee River may give an idea of the awful conditions which prevailed. Buck Island was then almost wholly covered with dense cane. Hither five men, non-combatants, had fled for a hiding-place, and had taken with them the few cattle which had escaped impressment. In the depths of the cane-brake they had constructed a pole cabin for shelter. A Confederate soldier named C. L. Hardcastle, wounded and on furlough, a relation or friend and neighbor, slipping in to visit his family, came to stay all night with the refugees. Toward morning they were aroused from sleep to find their cabin surrounded and themselves in the hands of the notorious Ben Harris and his band, who had learned of their retreat and had come for their cattle. Being a far-sighted man and well known to the Rodens and their guest, Harris gave them five minutes for prayer, after which he made them stand in a row along the riverbank, and, to make sure of a clean job, with his six-shooter he put a bullet through the hearts of five of the six and thought he had done the same with the sixth man. This man was Hardcastle, who told me that as Harris came down the line, placing the muzzle close to the left side of the chest of each victim as he fired, he made up his mind to drop quickly a little before he was shot, which he did, and the ball missed a vital spot. Feigning death, he was dragged with the other five bodies and thrown into the river, the current of which washed them down-stream as they were sinking. Holding his breath, he floated under some driftwood lodged against a fallen tree and concealed himself behind a log. The bullet had struck a rib and taken a superficial course. When the murderers walked off to round up the cattle he crawled out and into the cane, and in this way made this marvelous escape from death. I knew the men who were killed.

During all of 1864 and the spring of 1865 Marshall County was the scene of active hostilities, not only between scouting parties of regular soldiers of the Union and Confederate armies, but between bands of Tory marauders, who paraded in Federal uniforms, and small squads of Confederate Home Guards under partisan leaders. Some few of the Tories had been Union men all along, but were wise enough to keep discreetly quiet until the Federals occupied the country. Most of them were poor whites who had dodged conscription by hiding out in the mountains near their cabins when the Confederates were in control, and came into view as soon as the Federals appeared. Some few were deserters from our army, but all were united now in their love of country by the cohesive strength of a desire to plunder the helpless. As these men of the two sides had known one another before the war, it may be imagined that what is described as "feeling" ran about as "high" between them as it could run. Toward the last it was considered a waste of time to surrender, even if cornered without hope of escape. The recognized practice was to sell out as dearly as possible and keep shooting as long as a trigger could be pulled. 

Ben Harris had led off in a practice of extermination which put Cromwell to the blush. The conqueror of Ireland knocked only every tenth prisoner on the head, but Captain Ben overlooked none, and just to be sure that no detail was omitted he was his own executioner.

Roden family patriarch Mr. Benjamin Roden; his son, Mr. Portland Roden;
both victims of the Buck Island Massacre.
Also included here are Benjamin Roden's nephew, Confederate Sgt. James Roden,
Co. G, 48th Alabama Infantry; and James' son, Pvt. Felix Roden,
Co. G, 4th Alabama Cavalry. 
The graves are located at Roden Cemetery,
Marshall County, Alabama, USA. RIP

Several members of the Roden family murdered in cold blood by Harris were recovered from the river and lain to rest with other family members -- including this blogger's paternal great-great-grandfather and Confederate ancestor Sgt. Jackson S. Roden 48th Alabama Infantry Regiment -- at Roden Cemetery in Marshall County. Their friend and Confederate soldier, Charles Hardcastle, would survive his wound and live well after the War ended.  

As for the Southern Union Loyalist and infamous Tennessee Valley outlaw Ben Harris, he died on March 5, 1865 from natural causes after a couple of years of terrorizing Southern civilians, burning homes and crops -- sometimes also including those with Union loyalties according to some accounts. 

In reward for his questionable service, Harris is buried in Chattanooga National Cemetery under his presumed rank of "captain" despite lack of formal commission by Union authorities. He lies buried there among Union dead killed in battle like proper soldiers facing their enemy like men. His grave is decorated with a U.S. Flag every U.S. Memorial Day and U.S. Veterans Day placed there by the National Parks Service. 

The Buck Island Massacre is mentioned prominently on the granite Confederate Monument in front of the Marshall County Courthouse in Guntersville, Alabama, along with other war related events and skirmishes that took place in the area.

Confederate Monument at the Marshall County Courthouse grounds, Guntersville, Alabama.

(Yet another account of the Buck Island massacre can be found in The Sword of "Bushwhacker" Johnston, Charles S. Rice, ed., which details a first-hand account of events in Jackson, Marshall, DeKalb and Madison Counties by Rev. Milus E. Johnston. The book was published in Huntsville, Ala., by Flint River Press in 1992. Johnston's story and Rice's notes appear in chapter 6, "Acts of the Invaders", pp. 26-31.)


  1. Thank you so much for sharing this info! I just made the connection to my Roden ancestors, and was interested to read about the story of my third great-grandfather, James Roden. Is the island itself available for family to visit? I'd like to teach my kids about Civil War history in a personal way.

    1. Thank you for your post ma'am.
      In truth, I have never actually been to the site, or to the State of Alabama for that matter. I plan to visit someday and find the grave. Other family members have gone there too.
      I am not certain if the island itself is open to visitors, but it is something to look into. I too would like to find it, and maybe the spot where the massacre took place.

    2. Unfortunately, I just discovered today that Capt. Ben Harris was my 5th GGF. As an advanced genealogist, I could not understand why my Harris family tree was so lost to history [or so I though]. My GGGF was said to never talk about his past and was a strong anti-slavery abolisionist. I could never get past that generation. Well today I followed a different way into my family and I discovered why my family was so aloof. My GGGF left AL and moved to Texas to get away from his fathers reputation and his mothers murder or suicide. I want to express my sincere apologies to those hurt by my ancestors evil ways.

    3. Sir or Ma'am, you have nothing to apologize to me for.
      I don't believe in the concept of generational or racial "guilt" and I do not believe that someone living today is responsible for anything their ancestor did.
      I find the murder/suicide thing tragic though, as I was unaware that Ben Harris has a wife. Tragic that she should have been blamed or felt guilt for the crimes committed by her husband. I wonder what kinds of divisions and feuds were started, or continued, by the actions of partisans like Harris, or men on either side like him.
      Once again though I want you to know you have nothing to be ashamed of. You are not your ancestor and neither am I. That was their war, not ours.

    4. Benjamin Harris' wife was Caroline A.E. Vann. Look at; The death of Caroline A.E. Vann Harris as described in the Huntsville Independent newspapers originally published in Huntsville Independent, 13 Jan 1876, page 3. Was in murder or suicide? Either way it was quite tragic!

    5. The graves of the victims are at Roden Cemetery and is still in the family. My great-uncle Jay Cryar bought it from his parents. His mother was a Roden
      and my great-grandmother. To my knowledge the massacre spot is unmarked. The Rodens settled that part of Alabama and our family cemetery is on the National Historic Register. We are descended from the noble family, the Wroughtons, and have been in North America since the early 1600s.

  2. Don't know exactly where the massacre took place, but Buck Island is part of Madison County Park No 1 (, and it also offers a TVA hiking trail ( Y'all come!

  3. Sorry, but this site has been underwater since 1939. That's when TVA completed the Guntersville Dam and flooded many places to create the Guntersville Reservoir (aka Lake Guntersville).

    1. Its okay, appreciate you taking the time to look into it and letting us know.

  4. I researched the coordinates of Buck Island a few years ago. Although it is underwater as was already mentioned, I was at least able to visit the site of the island. James M. Roden, killed at Buck Island, was my great great grandfather. The Roden Cemetery is nearby, as is the home place where the Rodens settled. The house is just before the turn in to the cemetery on the opposite side of the road. I had the opportunity to visit with the family who had recently bought the property and was told it was their intention to "clean up" the house, which had become very run down over the years. My great aunt had refurbished the house but that was decades ago and it had again gone down since there was no one caring for the property.

    1. Well, whoever you talked to is crazy. That land has always been in the possession of family and remains that way. My great-grandmother was a Roden. Her daughter, my grandmother, was born in that house. My great-aunt lives there now and owns the cemetery. She will leave it to her children. The house is up the road from the cemetery. I can't figure out who in the world you talked to.

  5. My husband Jesse Bohanon live here not a few minutes down the road and we've visited this grave yard several times the the owner of this property is the son of Jay Cryer Sr, Jay Cryer Jr, anybody and everybody who lives in this area knows about the history and how it happened, and I'll tell you this grave yard and the area surrounding it included where we reside is heavily haunted ny lost spirits

  6. I have come back around to learning about my Roden ancestors. I would like to use DNA to confirm my relationship to Benjamin Roden through his son, James. If you have done a DNA test, would you be up for comparing notes? I referenced your site in my blog entry this week. Thank you for sharing!


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