Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Bushwhackers: The Civil War in North Carolina: The Mountains

I just finished reading this book by William Trotter, and it was just full of details and things I'd never hear of before - the biggest one being a little place in Madison County, high in the mountains close to Tennessee, called Shelton Laurel.  More on that in a sec.

I don't like book reviews.  I don't really care to read them and I especially don't like writing them. I think that's because in my mind I can never get it quite right.  I never express myself to my satisfaction.  And the reason for that is not because I'm not capable, but because it takes a lot of effort and work, and I just don't want to do it.  It's not easy to express thoughts clearly.  I want to read the book and enjoy it, sometimes learn something, and that's about it.  But I do feel the urge to put down some thoughts about what I read sometimes, and it's one of the reasons I have this little blog.  But it won't be good enough.  

Anyway, I already knew some of the history.  I knew, for example, that the central and southern Appalachian Mountain folk did not develop what is thought of as a "Southern Culture".  I already knew that many people in the southern Mountains, especially the poorer ones, were as likely to support the Union as they were the Confederacy.  I knew that a person living in the mountains of North Carolina probably had more in common with a person living in the Mountains of Virginia, Kentucky, Tennessee & Pennsylvania etc, than he would have with a person living in the North Carolina piedmont, and the coastal area would have been a different universe.   The mountains are divided between several states, but it is a culturally similar region, and culturally quite different from the rest of the state they were a part of.   This is stuff I already knew.

However, the book brought home the anarchy and cruelty of the war in the mountains - where the war was mainly a guerilla affair, where it was very personal, and the person you killed, or whose barn you burned, or the person who stole your horses, who raped your daughter or wife, was probably a person you had known all your life.  A person who's children you played with when you were a child.  It was very dangerous to pick a side, and equally dangerous, virtually impossible, to be neutral.

There is one incident described which seems very modern, but which has probably happened in every war ever fought.  I can't remember the year, but it was winter time, and the people of Shelton Laurel (who were predominately Unionists) were starving.   A group of them raided a location in the town of Marshall, which I believe is the County Seat of Madison County, and stole salt and other supplies.  Salt was absolutely vital to preserving meat, and it was basically all going to the war effort.   In addition to stealing salt, they raided the house of the Colonel of the 64th North Carolina, a regular Confederate Army unit stationed in Tennessee (just across the border).   This put in action a series of events which lead to the 64th marching from Tennessee across the mountains (and believe me, it is very rugged now, imagine what it was like in the 1860s), to Shelton Laurel on a punitive raid.   It was a very hard march, in brutal winter time conditions, and as the 64th North Carolina got deeper and deeper into the mountains, they found the people becoming more and more hostile.  They took sniper fire from people they could not see, had no idea where they were.   A couple people were killed, several wounded.   They suffered frostbite.   Trotter wrote that there was just enough physical exhaustion mixed with moments of mortal terror to keep the marchers from ever relaxing.  

Shelton Laurel was not an easy place to get to, but they got there, and of course, by the time they got there, they were exhausted and very angry.  The people who had committed the deed that sent them there in the first place were long gone, deep in the mountains somewhere & never found.   Members of the unit basically tortured the women who were left (and probably raped a few, though no one wrote about that) to get them to tell where the raiders had gone.   They rounded up all the men & boys they could find, about a dozen or so who for the most part were too old, too sick or too young to be fighters, lead them a couple of miles out of the village and killed them.   They tried to bury them, but the ground was frozen so hard they could only dig the shallowest of graves, and all the bodies were found the next day.

As I was reading this I remember thinking: Vietnam.   It sounded very familiar to things that sometimes happened there.  But why pick just Vietnam?  It certainly happened in Europe during the World Wars - WWII has hundreds of documented instances where things like that happened. It probably happened in Napoleon's time.  It certainly happened in the religious wars of the 17th century.  It happened during the Crusades.   It happened on the British Isles, in all those wars between England and Scotland.  It happened during the Arab invasions of Europe in the 8th century.  This certainly happened when the Visigoth's (or Vandals or whoever they were) sacked Rome, and when Rome conquered Gaul.  It happened in the mountains of North Carolina in the 19th century - hundreds of times. It has always happened, and will continue to happen whenever wars are fought.  

So.  I find that interesting. 


linlah said...

I didn't know any of that about the Civil War, very interesting, thanks for sharing.

A Valdese Blogger said...

linlah: thank you, you're welcome.

Patti Anne said...

I grew up in the South, but never knew this part of the country was as much Union as Southern. For good reason! The South did not protect its citizenry during this war; it preyed on it. This was a shameful time that pointed out why North Carolina was a swing state. Maybe we swung the wrong way in retrospect. Maybe this awful war would have been over soon if North Carolina had been union.

A Valdese Blogger said...

Patti Anne: History is never as black & white as it is taught in school or portrayed in textbooks. It is all very complicated.