William Anderson “Devil Anse” Hatfield is best known for being the patriarch of the family involved in the famous Hatfield and McCoy Feud. Nearly twenty years prior to the start of hostilities with the McCoy family, however, Hatfield served in various units associated with the Confederate army.
At the start of the Civil War in 1861, Hatfield was a 21-year-old farmer from Logan County, Virginia (now West Virginia). Although he undoubtedly enlisted in a Confederate unit in the first year of the war, his service record during the time is ambiguous. No documentation exists connecting Hatfield to a particular unit in 1861; in fact, anecdotal evidence and family tradition link him to three different regiments during the first year of the war.
Hatfield’s documented Confederate service begins in 1862 when he was commissioned a First Lieutenant of Cavalry in the Virginia State Line. This regional unit was formed in May 1862 in order to protect the territory along the Kentucky-Virginia border where resident loyalties to the North and South were mixed. Those who agreed to enlist in the unit were promised they would serve their time in the rural regions near their home.
The Virginia State Line eventually disbanded in 1863 and Hatfield enlisted as a private in the newly formed 45th Battalion, Virginia Infantry. He was quickly appointed to the position of first lieutenant of Company B, and it appears that he was later made captain. The unit spent most of its time patrolling the border area against bushwhackers sympathetic to the Union; and with guerrilla warfare being so prevalent in the area, it is not surprising the Hatfield family found themselves the target of a raid. In an article about Devil Anse published in the October 1900 issue of Confederate Veteran magazine, the story is told of an attack on the Hatfield home:
The first who fell before his unerring rifle, except in war, was in the sixties. Living in the border land where sentiment was divided, he espoused the cause of the South, made up a company, was elected its captain, and marched forth to honorable warfare, leaving a wife and family at home. Some time, I think about 1863, a party of men such as always infest border territory went to his house and in a most brutal manner turned his family out. Nor was this near all the indignities to which they were subjected. On hearing of it, Capt. Hatfield secured leave of absence from the army, and promptly settled with the villains.
Early in 1864, dozens of soldiers, including Hatfield, deserted the Confederate unit for unknown reasons. Some sources maintain the desertions occurred because the 45th Battalion had been ordered to move out of the area and the men were not willing to leave their homes unprotected from bushwhackers. Hatfield family tradition, however, holds that Devil Anse left after refusing an order to execute one of his uncles for being absent without leave.
Although he left the regular Confederate army, Hatfield did not stop fighting for the South. He and several members of his former unit joined a partisan unit that continued to operate in the Tug River Valley region of the West Virginia-Kentucky border. Oral tradition holds that Hatfield fought alongside “Rebel” Bill Smith, the leader of a guerrilla band in the Logan County area of West Virginia. Many historians consider an incident that occurred during these partisan days as a seminal event for the future Hatfield-McCoy Feud.
Asa Harmon McCoy was a member of a Federal infantry unit in neighboring Kentucky. He also happened to be the younger brother of Randall McCoy – family patriarch in the later feud. In the latter months of 1864, Harmon McCoy was a participant in a border raid on the home of Mose Christian, a close friend of Devil Anse Hatfield. Although it is not clear who pulled the trigger, Christian was shot and killed during the incident. Hatfield vowed revenge on those responsible, and in January 1865, Harmon McCoy was found murdered. Not surprisingly, Devil Anse was the prime suspect, but he produced an alibi sufficient to avoid arrest. Many believe the perpetrator was actually Jim Vance, Hatfield’s uncle. While the murder would appear to be a likely source of tension between the two families, the McCoy’s did nothing to avenge the death at the time. In fact, the Hatfield-McCoy Feud would not start for another 13 years.
As the Civil War ended, so too did the border tensions in the region; and Devil Anse, along with other former Confederates, took his Amnesty Oath on May 4, 1865. His remaining years, however, would be forever haunted by the events of the subsequent Hatfield-McCoy Feud, as best described in Confederate Veteran:
Devil Anse goes always with a Winchester, a sack around his neck full of cartridges, a pair of good Smith and Wessons, and, I am told, that a pair of good Damascus blades luxuriate constantly from his boot legs.…He virtually sleeps with one eye open, or, as someone said, “sleeps on one side at a time.” He has been hounded by officers and enemies so long that he is ever alert and watchful, so much so that, in addition to the five senses being all perfect, the boys say that he has also an eye in the back of his head…. He was a good Confederate soldier, and is far more to be pitied now in his near three score and ten than condemned.
His enemies never did catch up to him, and William Anderson Hatfield died of natural causes at the age of 81 on January 6, 1921.