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.