Friday, November 12, 2010

Thoughts on western North Carolina and the War

Over the past few days, I’ve had a couple of encounters that have forced me to really think hard about the war in western North Carolina. The first is an article that I am working on for Tar Heel Junior Historian, an article about the war in western NC. The other encounter stems from a question from the Roanoke Civil War Round Table this past Tuesday evening. The question asker thought that western Virginia (aka West Virginia) and western North Carolina were very similar, or of like-mind during the war.

Having reflected upon this, I think I might have hit upon something, maybe new, maybe not, but something I plan to work on in the future. So often when people talk about western North Carolina and war, everyone thinks that our portion of the state was stanchly Unionist in its feelings. I don’t think that’s really true, and I believe research that is being done will (or already has) totally disproved that. I think the story of Unionism in western North Carolina must take a distant third place to story of Confederate support, followed by the story of dissidents. I’m going to define dissidents like so: those who cared neither for the Confederate government nor the Federal government.

If western North Carolina was so pro-Union, why didn’t more men join the Union army? Let’s look at the 58th North Carolina as a test case. There were 707 confirmed deserters, out 2,032 men. To be honest, there were probably 1,000 deserters from the regiment, but the records are pretty bad. Out of the 707 confirmed deserters, only 177 joined the Union army, and several of those I could build a compelling case as to why they were impressed or enlisted unwillingly. But, given the confirmed numbers, that's only 25%.

I’ll give you another set of numbers. Of the 987 men (and one woman) who enlisted from Watauga County, only 104 served in the Union army. That’s only ten percent. How about another set: Terrell Garren, in his book Mountain Myth: Unionism in Western North Carolina, states that there were 27,282 men from western North Carolina that served in the Confederate army, while only 1,836 served in the Federal army. That is only 7% region-wide.

Going back to the 58th North Carolina Troops, why did only 177 of the 707 confirmed deserters join the Federal army? If they were so Unionist in their beliefs, why did not 300 or 400 or 500 join? I think the real story is that they cared for neither government. They truly wished to be left alone.

Thoughts?

4 comments:

Jay Sprout said...

Did Empsey Gragg join the federal/union army? I read he "swore an oath of allegiance" but can't find any more specific information.

Anonymous said...

More on false Unionism: Big questions loom: If they went to the Union, when did they do it? How long did they stay? Why did they do it? Were they in the Confederate Army first?

Almost no one from WNC went to the Union Army during the first year of the war, while at the same time thousands went to the Conf. Army. Most went over very late and 90% of them were Conf. deserters. Of those who went over early many deserted the Union rather quickly. The late ones didn't have time to desert.

The most revealing thing: Two regiments of conscripts were captured in mass at Cumberland Gap in Sept. 1863. These men of the 62nd NC and the 64th NC were given many chances to join the Union Army. Only a handful did so, the rest chose to stay in prison at Camp Douglas. More than a quarter of them died in prison rather than join the Union.
Thanks for all you do.

Anonymous said...

There was a big difference between western Virginia and western NC. The pro-Unionist cause in western Virginia was based in Wheeling and the northwestern reaches of the then full Virginia state - areas with more cultural and economic (and German immigrant)ties with Pennsylvania and Ohio. That tip of western Va wa largely settled by cultural "northerners". Furthermore, the distance between the far west of Va and coastal Va was much further and more laborious to cover than that of NC, and bred and antagonistic regional cultures, eg the "Cohees" vs. the "Tuckahoes", a mountain vs. coastal/piedmont/political elite economic and politcal divide that was highly prominent before the war and was a defining characteristic of the then rather sizable state of Virginia. Those fault lines were already there. All this said, it is important to note that only a handful of counties in the far northwestern reaches of Virginia led the West Virginia secession movement (away from Virginia) and that a larger number of Confederate-sympathizing counties to the south and east were brought along for the ride, in what could be characterized as a fixed election - many of the voting age males were enlisted in the Confederate army. I'd estimate that only 25% of the state of WVa actually wanted to secede from Virginia, just that WVa secession leaders were in an area early under Union control and culturally part of the north, and thus had the ability (and timing, since the US govt wanted to break Virginia, the leading state in the south)) to secure support from the US government to crack the dominance of the piedmont/coastal Virginians and break away. None of this dynamic was present, to my understanding in western North Carolina, even less so than in, say, eastern Tennessee. Western NC was culturally and economically tied to the eastern part, settled by folks from the eastern part. In the end there was some resistance to eastern interests, or more appropriately ambivalence as you say, but there wasn't the profound differences evident in places like Wheeling, West Virginia.

Anonymous said...

There was a big difference between western Virginia and western NC. The pro-Unionist cause in western Virginia was based in Wheeling and the northwestern reaches of the then full Virginia state - areas with more cultural and economic (and German immigrant)ties with Pennsylvania and Ohio. That tip of western Va wa largely settled by cultural "northerners". Furthermore, the distance between the far west of Va and coastal Va was much further and more laborious to cover than that of NC, and bred and antagonistic regional cultures, eg the "Cohees" vs. the "Tuckahoes", a mountain vs. coastal/piedmont/political elite economic and politcal divide that was highly prominent before the war and was a defining characteristic of the then rather sizable state of Virginia. Those fault lines were already there. All this said, it is important to note that only a handful of counties in the far northwestern reaches of Virginia led the West Virginia secession movement (away from Virginia) and that a larger number of Confederate-sympathizing counties to the south and east were brought along for the ride, in what could be characterized as a fixed election - many of the voting age males were enlisted in the Confederate army. I'd estimate that only 25% of the state of WVa actually wanted to secede from Virginia, just that WVa secession leaders were in an area early under Union control and culturally part of the north, and thus had the ability (and timing, since the US govt wanted to break Virginia, the leading state in the south)) to secure support from the US government to crack the dominance of the piedmont/coastal Virginians and break away. None of this dynamic was present, to my understanding in western North Carolina, even less so than in, say, eastern Tennessee. Western NC was culturally and economically tied to the eastern part, settled by folks from the eastern part. In the end there was some resistance to eastern interests, or more appropriately ambivalence as you say, but there wasn't the profound differences evident in places like Wheeling, West Virginia.