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  • Writer's pictureGordon Thorsby

The Real Tom Dooley, Private Thomas C. Dula, 42nd North Carolina Infantry

Updated: Mar 5, 2023

"Hang down your head Tom Dooley because tomorrow you're gonna die."

by Gordon Thorsby

(claimed photo of Dula)

Thomas C. Dula, enlisted in Company K of the 42nd North Carolina enlisted on March 15,1862 at the age of 17. Some Company K recruits enlisted and others who were conscripted by Confederate States of America law. Dula may have been one of those conscripted. The regiment was officially formed at Salisbury on April 22,1862 and they were Gibb’s Prison Guards at a nearby Camp for Union POW's.

Dula's story begins when he was born to a poor family sometime in 1844 (or 6/24/45) in Elkville, North Carolina northeast of Asheville in beautiful country along the now Blueridge Parkway. At a young age (some say 14-15) he began an affair with his cousin, Ann Foster who was married to an older man, James Melton, a farmer and neighbor of Tom and Ann in 1859. Dula was the youngest of four siblings, his sister Eliza was the youngest. Brother Linsey Dula, a farmer at 21 enlisted on November 20,1861 in the 37th North Carolina. Linsey was captured at Hanover Court House on May 27,1862. He was transferred to Ft. Columbus NY and paroled there until his exchange at Aikens Landing on 8/5/62, quite ill and wounded. He died three days later on 8/8/62 in Richmond. His brother, John R, Dula, was conscripted on 9/8/62, one month after his brother’s death into the 18th North Carolina. John succumbed to pneumonia five months later on 1/26/63 west of Richmond.

Dula's regiment performed guard duty until it was transferred and spent all of 62-63 in the Richmond-Petersburg area. Again, they were given prison guard duty, and counter-guerilla operations. Its first action was at New Bern and in fighting at Cold Harbor where the regiment's first large numbers of casualties were suffered. Dula was promoted to musician in 1864 and supposedly he could he was quite good on the fiddle. It was on March 10,1865 in an assault in North Carolina that 117 men of the 42nd were taken prisoner by a flank counterattack. Tom Dula was one of those taken prisoner. When the 42nd arrived at Bentonville a few days later minus Tom, the unit totaled four officers, one sergeant and 24 privates. Tom was sent to Camp Lookout, MD until the war’s end and taking his oath of allegiance on June 11, went home by whatever method of travel he could go. Incidentally, Ann’s husband James Melton according to military records, was 23, and a private in the 26th NC Infantry. He was wounded in the arm and leg on July 1 at Gettysburg, and later at Hatcher’s Run on 3/30/65 in the collapse around Petersburg and taken prisoner.

Tom returned home, resumed life and apparently resumed the affair with Ann (Foster) now Melton. By 1866, Tom wasn’t messing around with just Ann. He was also messing around with her cousin Pauline Foster and another cousin, Laura Foster. It was in May that cousin Laura disappeared, and it was cousin Pauline that led searchers to the body. Laura Foster's decomposed body was found with her legs drawn up to fit into the shallow grave and stabbed to death above her heart. Pauline fingered Tom, a posse was sent out and they brought Tom back for trial. He denied his guilt but admitted he should be hung. He was convicted but the verdict was successfully appealed. On the second go-around, his trial moved to Statesville NC, and once again he was found guilty in January,1868.

Tom was transported to a quickly constructed simple gallows south of Statesville, a place nicknamed "the circus lot." If a rail traveler pulled into the train depot on May1,1868 they would have seen Tom Dula, only 23, dangling nearby. His body was eventually taken back home where a headstone today marks his burial a short distance from where he was born.

Tom Dula, properly pronounced doo-lay by the people of northwest North Carolina became famous in the song and legend as Tom Dooley. The ballad is known by most new guitar students today for its ease to master. The young Civil War musician became part of legend, not for bravery in fighting but for what happened less than one year after the war was over. He made grievous errors in judgment, and he cost lives of people he loved including his own.

Take down my old violin,

And play it all you please.

At this time tomorrow,

It’ll be no use to me.


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