When the 51st Regiment North Carolina Troops organized on April 30, 1862, John L. Cantwell was elected as commander of the regiment. Along with Colonel Cantwell, the company officers elected William Allen as Lieutenant Colonel and Hector McKethan as Major. Colonel Cantwell only commanded the regiment a few months. On October 10, 1862, while the regiment was camped in the Kinston area, Cantwell resigned for “circumstances of an imperative personal nature.” Cantwell’s departure left Lieutenant Colonel Allen in charge of the regiment. Major McKethan became second-in-command. Neither man was promoted while the regiment was in the field.
William Allen was a prominent attorney who practiced law in Kenansville. Before the war, he had served a term in the state legislature. When war broke out, he joined the Duplin Rifles (Company C, 2nd North Carolina Volunteers) and served with that company until it disbanded in September 1861. In early 1862, Allen raised an infantry company which was assigned to the 51st North Carolina as Company C.
Hector McKethan was the son of a wealthy carriage manufacturer. When war broke out, McKethan was working as a clerk at the family’s factory in Fayetteville. In April 1861, he joined Company H of the 1st North Carolina Volunteers and served as Third Lieutenant of the company until it disbanded in September of the same year. In March 1862, McKethan raised an infantry company in Fayetteville which was assigned to the 51st North Carolina as Company I.
In late November, the 51st North Carolina was assigned to a new brigade commanded by General Thomas Clingman. The regiment started the process of promoting its regimental officers. General Clingman convened a board on December 13 that examined Lieutenant Colonel Allen. Allen penned a friendly note to Major McKethan that evening. “I am perhaps no competent judge of how I stood. I suppose about mediocre,” wrote Allen.
The next day, the regiment’s officers sent two petitions to General Clingman. The first petition, signed by all 34 company officers, endorsed Major McKethan for Colonel. The second petition, signed by 27 of the officers, requested that Clingman promote Captain George Sloan (Company I) to Lieutenant Colonel and Captain William Norment (Company F) to Major.
The six officers of Companies A and B did not sign the second petition. Company A was commanded by Captain George Walker. Captain Caleb Hobson led Company B. The seventh officer who refused to sign was Captain James McDonald, commanding D Company. The three dissenting captains, Walker, Hobson and McDonald, all had seniority over Captains Sloan and Norment. Captain McDonald, “badly hurt because he did not get a single vote,” tendered his resignation.
The petition the company officers sent to General Clingman is a curious thing. At the time, State regulations required the promotion of Allen to Colonel, McKethan to Lieutenant Colonel, and the most senior Captain (Walker of Company A) to Major. It appears the company officers held an election for regimental leadership, maybe because that’s how they chose the first group of field officers when the regiment organized. Or perhaps they didn’t like Lieutenant Colonel Allen.
The matter of promotions got pushed to the side on December 16 when the 51st North Carolina boarded a train and rushed to Goldsboro to intercept a Yankee force approaching that strategic railroad junction. Ten days after fighting in a brisk engagement at Goldsboro, the 51st Regiment headed back home, marching to Wilmington along the Wilmington and Weldon Railroad.
On the third day of the march, the regiment camped at Rockfish Church. Lieutenant Colonel Allen began drinking and became quite intoxicated. In his inebriated state, he decided to have it out with Major McKethan. Allen used “the most abusive and insulting language” as he harangued the young major. He ended his tirade by challenging McKethan to a duel.
No records exist that explain the reason for Allen’s outburst. Maybe he was just a mean drunk. Maybe he and McKethan had butted heads during the fight at Goldsboro. Maybe Allen found out about the petition to make McKethan the regiment’s commander. No matter the reason, Allen had sealed his fate. After the regiment reached Wilmington, charges were preferred against Allen for his conduct at Rockfish. Awaiting court martial, the Lieutenant Colonel offered his resignation. He left service on January 19, 1863.
In accordance with military regulations, Major McKethan, as the ranking officer in the regiment, was promoted to fill the vacant colonelcy. Captain Walker of Company A, the next ranking officer, was passed over because he had been court martialed the previous year. Walker resigned four months later. Caleb Hobson was promoted to lieutenant colonel, and Captain McDonald, whose resignation had been refused, was promoted to major.
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