For the past three or four years, when I open the floor at one of my talks for questions, frequently I get the question, "Was the home guard really that bad?" This happened just this past Saturday night at an interpretive program I was doing for the National Park Service. Many people have read or seen Charles Frazier's Cold Mountain. Frazier portrays the Home Guard in a not-so-favorable light. Is his portrayal accurate?
The Home Guard was created in July 1863 by the General Assembly and signed into law by Governor Vance. Section 2 of the Act states that: "the Governor shall have the power to use the Guards for Home Defence for the purpose of arresting conscripts and deserters." Section 1 states that the home guard can be "called into actual service to repel invasion, or suppress insurrection, or to execute laws of the state." So, there are the purposes of the home guard: to repel invasion, to suppress insurrection, to carry out the law, and to arrest conscripts and deserters.
While there are some instances of the Home Guard working to repel invasion, such as the battle of Asheville, or opposing Stoneman's Raiders, most of their activities focused on the other part of their mandate. For the next few minutes, let's focus on that Section 2: arresting conscripts and deserters.
What is a conscript? In April 1862, the Confederate government passed a Conscription Act requiring all white males, unless exempt, to enlist in the army. Eventually, the age range was modified to 17 and 50, with the 17 year olds serving in the junior reserves and the 45 to 50 year olds serving in the senior reserves. When the law was originally passed, military aged men were given a grace period in which to volunteer. If they did not volunteer within that time, they were forced into the army. Part one of the job of the Home Guard was to make sure those men were enlisting in the army.
Just who made up the Home Guard? Often, the Home Guard was made up of former Confederate soldiers who had been discharged (often for being wounded) and, of the officer corps of the militia. Every county had at least one pre-war militia regiment. Each county was divided up into districts (the precursor of townships). Each of these districts had on average three company grade officers. Often times, these men served as justices of the peace and/or magistrates. These two groups formed the core of a home guard company.
Given the nature of rural areas, most of the men in these Home Guard companies were at minimum familiar with each other, and in many cases, were related, if not by blood, then by marriage. Likewise, the conscript dodgers that the Home Guard were chasing fall into that same line. Those trying to evade service were at least familiar with, if not related to, those who were attempting to enforce the law. You may also say the same thing about deserters. Men who were AWOL (absent without leave) or declared deserters, were soldiers who had come home without leave. Some were simply trying to take care of their families. Others might have been suffering from PTSD, while others had just had enough of the army, or, in a few cases, truly had Unionist beliefs.
So, to get back to the Cold Mountain reference. If you were a loyal Confederate, whose husband/sons or brothers were off fighting for the Confederate cause, you probably did not have any problems with the Home Guard. In fact, the Home Guard was probably your friend, out trying to round up those who kept stealing your livestock or raiding your smokehouse and/or corncrib, and the Guard might even possibly prevent an attack upon your person. Yet if your loved one was attempting to evade military service, there were difficulties coming your way.
Through my research into Watauga County, whose Home Guard commander Maj. Harvey Bingham was awarded a letter of thanks by the North Carolina General Assembly, I was able to document (to some degree) the activities of the 11th battalion, North Carolina Home Guard. It appears that Home Guard commanders routinely received lists of deserters from the army. At the same time, they undoubtedly kept lists of those trying to evade military service.
If you were trying to evade service, your house could be searched. George W. Eggers took to "scouting," trying to avoid the recruiters from both armies. Once, while he was hiding upstairs in his home, his wife Lucinda "took a piece of burning chestnut bark from the fireplace and gave one soldier a whack with it as he was climbing the ladder...." On another occasion, Eggers was concealed beneath the floor at a neighbor's house. He had a bad cough, and he "said it liked to killed him trying to hold back his cough...."
At other times, the Home Guard was waiting for you. For months, they had been trying to capture Leander Pyatt. According to the family story, Pyatt was hiding in the woods near his Mitchell (now Avery) County home. He sneaked in one night to fix the shoes of his children and was captured. The Home Guard was waiting for him. He died a few weeks later in Atlanta.
According to an old typescript manuscript about the Civil War in Watauga County, there was a cemetery in the Deep Gap area that bore a tombstone for a man named "Black" who was killed by the Home Guard. In the Aho community, a man named Hines was shot by the Home Guard as he begged for money. Supposedly, Bettie and Lucy Story saw that the man got a decent burial. And in the Dutch Creek community, a man by the name of Shoemaker was killed by the Home Guard and buried in Valle Crucis. Dugger records that Shoemaker's father came and removed the remains to Alexander County. Yet a different source tells that Nathan Harrison left to join the Union army, and the Home Guard went to Richlands in Caldwell County and “shot a Nelson man but found out he was mistaken and had shot the wrong man.” Chances are we will never definitely know the validity of these stories.
Possibly the best known story in the state comes from the Randolph-Moore-Montgomery County area. A two-week campaign was led by Collet Leventhorpe against deserters/dissidents/conscript dodges in these areas. One member of the Home Guard wrote: "we marched 16 miels an back yesterday... the desrtrs shot in our men an kild one man an hit a nother one in the under gaw We ar taking the fathers of the Desertrs to the Camp an trete them as prisners untill that send for ther suns to relece them. we are taking property too... we bring wiming [women] to the camp that has husbins in the wodes tell thea send for them an bring them in that is the best way to Cetch them."
I want to reiterate that the deserters/dissidents were not lying peacefully at home, or out tending their fields. They actually formed bands of armed gangs that roamed the countryside, robbing, raping, and murdering. One band near Roan Mountain numbered 200 men. Another band in the Trap Hill section of Wilkes County numbered up to 1,500 men. The Confederate government actually sent front line infantry and cavalry regiments to deal with the latter.
This story could go on and on with little pieces of history I have found over the past. But to answer the question once again, were the Home Guard really that bad? If you were evading Confederate law, yes, it really could be that bad.