The stormy tide of war was rolling nearer and nearer. Colonel Palmer had taken command of a regiment in the Confederate army, and was about to leave home. The ladies of his family were living at their solitary country house on the Linnville River. Unwilling to leave them entirely unprotected, he urged Mr. Skiles to remove to his house for the present, that his wife and nieces might have a respectable man to look to in case of danger from any roving band of bushwhackers that infested the country. Mr. Skiles rather shrunk at first from the responsibility, in his feeble condition of health, but eventually decided to go to Linnville. He left Watauga with Bishop Atkinson, and accompanied him to Colonel Palmer's house. The service of manly kindness he then assumed, became the last act of a faithful Christian life. He was not called upon to repel violence in any way; possibly the mere [133/134] knowledge that the Missionary was in the house may have prevented the approach of any unprincipled rovers. But he was at his post--and he died there.
His health became rapidly worse; he was soon too ill to hold service, or visit, and pray with the people, as usual. In the course of a short time he was entirely confined to his room. And his sufferings were severe. He knew the nature of his disease, an internal cancerous affection, brought on, it was said, by hardship, and exposure. The nearest physician lived at Morganton, thirty miles distant. Twice he was sent for, and came up into the mountains to prescribe for the sick man; but medicine could give little relief. Not a man or woman capable of nursing him could then be found in that region, which was very desolate, and dreary. But he, who had so long nursed the poor, in their log cabins, was not left uncared for. Mrs. Palmer devoted herself to the sad charge, remaining in his room much of the time, and doing all in her power to relieve his sufferings, which he bore with the most beautiful Christian patience and [134/135] fortitude. He never complained, or murmured, and when the lady expressed her surprise at his remarkable patience, he replied he was only sorry for the trouble he gave her. It was a trial to Mrs. Palmer to feel that, in spite of all her efforts, she could not make him so comfortable as a stronger nurse might have done. But this feeling he never seemed to share; he was simply grateful for the kind care he received, grieved for the trouble he gave, and not for his own sufferings. "How can you be so patient, Mr. Skiles?"the lady said to him in constant surprise at his gentle endurance. "I am only sorry for the trouble I give you," was always his reply.
The months of October, and November, passed away. He grew more feeble, and helpless--at times too feeble to speak to his kind nurse. At length early in December he was peacefully released; passing away, as Mrs. Palmer said, "in such perfect submission, and such infant-like gentleness, as none could have conceived, who had not been present."
It was December 8th, 1862, that he died. His remains were decently laid out by one of the [135/136] nearest neighbours. Messengers, and letters were sent to the Bishop, and to the Rev. Mr. Wetmore, his warm personal friend. It was impossible to send to Morganton for a coffin. A rough box of boards was made on the spot by a neighbour. Mrs. Palmer herself put on his surplice, unwilling that a hireling should perform that service for him. His grave was dug in the garden, near the house, and here he was buried. But this was not to be his last resting-place.
Mr. Wetmore had been with him in September, and promised to visit him again. Early in December he left home to fulfil this promise, but on reaching the Watauga he learned that his friend was no longer living. He then turned up the stream, intending to cross the mountains to Colonel Palmer's. After riding only two miles he found the road almost impassable, from the height of the waters, and the ice on all the smaller streams. There were eighteen or twenty crossing-places, on the Linnville alone, and these were all frozen, and unsafe. Such was the rude track over which the faithful Missionary had so often passed to [136/137] keep his appointments. But "Henry" was sure-footed. Mr. Wetmore's horse came from the low country, and was not properly shod for crossing the ice. Mr. Wetmore returned down the stream to Mr. Henry Taylor's, on the Watauga, and the next day passed on to the house of Mr. Evans. On Sunday he held service at St. John the Baptist. Mr. Hardin was there from Cranberry Forge and he proposed that arrangements should be immediately made for removing the remains of their faithful Pastor, and bringing his body over to be interred in the Church-yard of St. John the Baptist. This pious duty was at once fulfilled. The ice having melted Mr. Wetmore went over the Mountains on Monday to Colonel Palmer's house. The following day, December 16th, the remains were taken from the garden grave, placed in a waggon, and carried reverently to Mr. Hardin's house, where the faithful departed had so often held services. There they rested that night. The next day they were taken down to Watauga, to the house of Mr. Evans. There was a severe snow-storm in the mountains at the time. On Thursday, [137/138] the 18th, the little Church was opened for the regular funeral service. There was a small congregation, about forty, at that inclement season, but the hearts of all present were touched with a feeling of reverent, sincere, sorrow. Mr. Wetmore preached the funeral sermon.
The grave was dug in the snow, on the south side of the Church, beneath a white pine, a laurel, and an oak.
There, beneath the shadow of the little white church, the pure waters of the Watauga singing a perpetual requiem, repose the remains of [138/139] the faithful servant of God. Loved by little children, the "Nestor" of his younger brethren of the Divinity School at Valle Crucis, revered by his scattered flock, sincerely respected by the older, and most influential Clergy of the Diocese, and honoured by his Bishop, the life of that humble man becomes a striking example of love to God, and love to his fellow-man.
[In the year 1882, the Church of St. John Baptist was removed in sections, to a spot higher up on the Watauga, and put together again, under the superintendence of Rev. Geo. Bell. This was done for the convenience of the Church neighbourhood. During the present year, 1889, the Remains of Rev. Mr. Skiles, were removed, under Mr. Bell's charge, to the new site of St. John Baptist, and decently and reverently committed to their final resting-place, in a grave dug by the side of the Church he loved so well, amid a large assembly of people who had come together to do their old minister honour. The tombstone of marble (which went from Asheville) bears the inscription:
William W. Skiles,
Died Dec. 8 1862--in peace.
"Blessed are the Dead who die in the Lord."--Rev.]
Faithful, with a rare fidelity, over a few things, we know that his reward must be great in the joy of his Lord.
Extract from the address of Bishop Atkinson, to the Convention of North Carolina, delivered in St. John's Church, Fayetteville, May 15th, 1863:
"On the 22nd of August I consecrated the Church of St. John the Baptist in Watauga County, the Rev. Mr. Skiles reading prayers, and the sentence of Consecration, and I preaching the sermon. The Church, Gothic, and with windows of stained glass, would anywhere be a pleasing object, but in that sequestered, and picturesque spot, with the bright waters of the Watauga washing the foot of the hill on which it is built, and the high mountains standing as a guard around it, it is a touching, and appropriate memorial of that man of God, the Rev. Mr. Skiles, to whom its erection was so long [139/140] a darling object, and by whose unrelaxing efforts, this was at length accomplished. He was one whom all loved and honoured for his humility, his self-denial, his diligence, his affectionate temper towards his fellow-men, his unwearied zeal in the service of his Master. He was permitted to live until he saw the Church consecrated, and some of the living fruits of his self-denying labours gathered in. From that day he never saw it again. * * * He was a true Missionary, humble, patient, laborious, and affectionate, not despising the day of small things, and still less despising any human soul, however rude, sin-stained, and ignorant that soul might be. Long will the dwellers in the valleys and forests of that wild mountain region miss their faithful Pastor, who was at the same time their Physician, their counseller, and their familiar friend. It is a consolation to know that his last days were cheered by the respect, and affection, and Christian sympathy of the family of Colonel Palmer, whose house was a second home to him, his established residence being with his tried friend Mr. George N. Evans, of Watauga."
Resolutions at the same Convention offered by the Rev. Henry H. Prout:
"Among those whom the Church in North Carolina mourns, the Council desires to keep in remembrance the name, and character, of the Rev. W. W. Skiles. His residence in the Western part of the Diocese for nearly eighteen years, and faithful Missionary labours there, the Church refers to with peculiar satisfaction. He has been an illustration of the quiet, [140/141] discreet, persevering zeal which is most earnestly to be encouraged in her Ministers, and lay members. Therefore the Council Resolves,
"First; That the calling from us, by death, of the Rev. W. W. Skiles leaves to us the cheering memory of a very beautiful, genial, guileless character.
"Secondly: The Council remembers with thankfulness to the Giver of every good and perfect gift, his blameless zeal, his discreet earnestness, and his patient devotion to the work of Diocesan Missions in the mountains of the State.
"Thirdly; We gather from this and like instances of losses of Brethren by death, that our treasures are taken from us and placed on high, that there our hearts may be also.
"Fourthly: As a Council we implore the Lord of the Church to raise up faithful Missionaries to fill the now needy stations left vacant by the removal of those we love. "Adopted, unanimously, May 16th, 1863."
Some thirteen years later, in May, 1876, Bishop Lyman, in his address to the Diocesan Convention, speaking of the Watauga country, remarked:
"I was touched by the affectionate mention made by so many in that region of the faithful labours of the Rev. W. W. Skiles, whose death some years since, has deprived the simple-hearted people of a Shepherd whom they deeply loved, and honoured."