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Chapter Three
Blood and Legends
The democrat party was represented by Stephen Douglas and John Breckenridge
in the 1860 election and divided into a northern and southern split. Only a few
Virginians heard of the Republican nominee, Abraham Lincoln and John Bell was the
favorite conservative Whig party candidate. The six months following Lincoln’s election
became known as the era of the “secession crisis.” The Upper South became more and
more polarized after seven Deep South states succeeded from the Union and formed the
Confederate States of America. Busy on farms or tending small shops, the population
did not take part in the debates of the time. However, most felt slavery was an issue that
would eventually lead to war. As the crisis mounted, hard choices forced the
Appalachian residents to decide where their loyalty rested.
South Carolina enacted an ordinance of secession and then Alabama and Georgia
did the same in January. Representatives met in the Alabama capital to frame the new
confederation, causing Virginia to hold a special convention in Richmond, since the
elected unionist majority required a majority vote approval. North Carolina’s elected
Unionist majority wanted to hold such a convention as well, while East Tennessee’s
majority overwhelmingly voted not to hold one. Confederate forces attacked Fort Sumter
enticing President Lincoln to call for volunteers to suppress the rebellion on that very
same day. Governors of the upper south states rejected the Virginia Convention’s vote
that was in favor of succession. Tennessee called a special session, while North Carolina
repealed its ordinance to join the union, and Kentucky adopted a policy of armed
neutrality to only use force to preserve peace within its border. Union leaders in
northwest Virginia and East Tennessee met to oppose the secession, and propose steps
toward dividing up if a majority of voters approved. State authorities rejected any
peaceful divisions on grounds that conventions were unrepresentative and against the will
of the people.
Fighting began at this time in Appalachia, where it provided critical resources as
well as manpower to the war effort. Saltville Virginia supplied the federal troops with
salt, once they put the coastal regions out of reach. Lead mines and ironworks in
Southwest Virginia and the Great Valley were crucial for war materials. The Valleys of
Virginia and in East Tennessee were the most productive farmlands to sustain a food
supply for the troops. Tennessee had a larger white population than most Confederate
states and had a large reservoir of fighting men. The more populous Virginia had smaller
slave populations and fewer worries when they marched off their plantation leaving the
majority black slave population behind.
The eastern Blue Ridge and western Cumberland Mountains separated plantation
districts in Appalachia that were strategic geographic locations during the war. The Great
Valley provided the vital link between the southeast and its threatened northeast.
Railroads running through the corridor from Chattanooga to Lynchburg were especially
important. A continual stream of soldiers poured along the railroad that little evidence of
Unionism existed as the rival flags displayed often led to bloodshed. Unionism in
northwest Virginia and East Tennessee created the impression among the newly installed
Republican Party that many ordinary residents remained loyal to the union. Propaganda
promoted the Confederacy as a creation of the minority and a “slave conspiracy.”
Lincoln, who favored this view, was pleased when West Virginia became a state. An
irregular type of warfare broke out as postwar propaganda that supported mountaineer
claims, and Appalachian Unionism was less unified than it initially seemed by rejecting
their succession. This of coarse, this was before shots were fired on Fort Sumter. Many
southern Appalachians accepted their ultimate logic and deliberations between the
“conditional Unionist” opposed secession, and any use of force as well. Then President
Lincoln called for troops. Their unionism vanished as they rushed to defend the
Confederacy, but many remained sympathetic to the union cause.
Zebulon Vance was known for anti-secession speeches before learning of
Lincoln’s proclamation, when he called upon volunteers to fight for South Carolina. He
marched out of Asheville with a volunteer company to formally succeed from the Union.
He was elected governor of North Carolina in August 1962 and told Jefferson Davis “the
original advocates of secession no longer hold the ear of our people.” The mountain
region had plenty of secessionists like Thomas Clingman and William Wrightsville
Avery who were “fire eaters” and rivals of Vance in North Carolina. Representatives of
Virginia voted heavily in favor of secession as the northwest voted against it. Delegates
staged a rally two weeks later calling for federal loyalist. Prominent office holders
accepted this logic and either followed Virginia into the Confederacy, or remained home
in neutrality while their sons and younger brothers marched off to fight for the South.
A generational divide between older men were either for the Union, or kept silent
while watching federal troops march over their invaded land; and a younger generation
who supported secession. Established political leaders in East Tennessee remained with
the Union, although younger town dwellers were likely for succession. According to
Senator Andrew Johnson, “southwest Virginia, western Carolina, north Georgia, and East
Tennessee all produced a society on the rise led by men on the make.” The prospect of
southern economic independence held by these younger men in courthouse and railroad
towns identified their future with the prospective advantage of revolt. Decisions faced
young men to decide which side to fight on after John Brown’s raid produced a surge of
volunteer militias that would organize by state. Volunteer Units under the Virginia
Governor John Letcher seized federal arsenals at Harpers Ferry and Norfolk Navel Yard.
Militia units in the Pan Handle district refused to fight but turned up in camps to work on
their military skills.
Numerous records of mountain men fought on both sides of the war. Henry
Mugger defended a rail junction in his hometown of Grafton, West Virginia. Two years
later, he returned as a captured, then paroled confederate prisoner. He then got drafted
into the Union Army and served until the end of the war. Many East Tennessee and
Southwest Virginia men returned home as Confederate deserters or as veterans with
expired enlistments. Differences in timing was a large factor creating the opinions
explaining the epic conflict known as the “brother’s war.” Older brothers marched off as
local militia, while younger ones faced very different circumstances as well as options
when they came of age to fight. Their innocent logic led to decisions that decades of
bitterness within and between families followed well after it the war ended.
Most young men chose to join during the first month of wartime rather than
submit to lengthened enlistments. Confederate enrollment was roughly four to one when
union numbers amounted to over 27,400 men. Only Polk County supplied company
sized units during the volunteer period before the draft was introduced in 1862. How
soldiers made their decision is much easier to determine than why they did.
Union Colonel Rutherford B Hayes analyzed the social origins of the conflict.
“Secessionists are the wealthy and educated; or they are the vagabonds, criminals, and
ignorant people of the region. Union men are the middle class who believe in law and
order.” The rich and poor were generally more for succession while the middle class
were often more for the union. Middle class town dwellers were just as likely to be good
confederate citizens behind rebel lines as they were good Union citizens on the federal
side. Mountaineer loyalty became more Union as the war progressed, as Hayes pressed
southward from Ohio through Allegheny in Virginia.
They found farms in secluded nooks on the Flat Top Mountain region that were
majority pro union. These unionists worked their farms but had rifles hung upon the
chimney ready to shoulder and head down the local forest path to bring news of any
secret plots among the secessionists. Union sentiment in North Carolina was centered in
the more poor remote districts along the Tennessee border. One factor that determined
which side they were loyal to was if they owned slaves or not. East Tennessee union
soldiers were only eleven percent slave owners, none of them owning more than fifteen.
Their rebel counterparts were more than one third slave owners with twenty or more
Loyalty for most Appalachians depended greatly on the stakes they had at risk in
the existing order of things. If they had a comfortable place in society, they were more
likely to go with the union. Individual exceptions accommodated many ambitious urban
secessionist and cautious older Unionists as well. The fire eating sons of poor mountain
farmers turned away from the path local politicians were leading them.
The strength of Appalachian Unionism was shown with the creation of West
Virginia. A boundary change resulting from the Civil War created a new state.
Following procedures accepted by Lincoln’s administration as well as Congress, no
appearance of direct secession from Virginia was acceptable. A labyrinth of political
and constitutional processes dragged on for years before the new state took its place as
part of the Union. Mountain Unionism was in part an alliance of the alienated who held
grudges over the banking and railroad policies. The policies were blamed for the
widening gap between them and their upriver commercial rival of Pittsburg. The B & O
Railroad was an instrument of Baltimore’s imperialism. They blamed Virginia for the
long delay in pushing tracks across the Alleghenies to the Ohio River. Leaders made a
potent combination that designed the boundaries of the new state with the removal of
tracks from the Old Dominion.
Whig politicians found no home in the shifting realignments of Virginia politics
during the 1850’s and constituted another alienated group. George Summers was the
most influential statesman of the day and retired from public life after his efforts to
engineer a sectional compromise failed. He neither opposed nor was for the state.
Francis Pierpont restored the sanctions required by the U.S. Constitution for the creation
of a new state from the Virginia territory after he was elected governor. Rulings by
congress and the U.S. Supreme Court ensured its permanence. Comparing West Virginia
and Tennessee, Unionists were just as militant in East Tennessee than in Northwest
Virginia. A campaign against succession failed before organized conventions that
petitioned Tennessee legislature for a peaceful division. The key difference between the
two states was a geographic one, which had a profound military implication. Lincoln
believed mountain Unionist were all the same, but West Virginians were much more
comfortably situated. Shots exchanged at a railroad near Grafton, made the first official
Union casualty of the war.
Robert E. Lee, commander of Virginia’s forces, stressed the importance of the rail
junction there. The two armies fought the first land battle of the war with federal troops
being the victor. Federal forces under General George McClellan defeated Confederates
in the Battle of Rich Mountain in the Allegheny’s. A second invasion of West Virginia
in the same day happened at Point Pleasant where General Lee attempted to reclaim the
state of West Virginia, but was unsuccessful. Federal outposts thrown up after the
conquests in middle Tennessee had union rulers take control within a year. Lincoln
appointed Senator Andrew Johnson as military governor of Tennessee causing their rebel
counterparts to run, hide, or keep silent. East Tennessee remained a geographical
expression while West Virginia became a state.
The Civil War in the years after the Union conquest of northwestern Virginia was
set as battles in large parks. William T. Sherman moved against the railroad junction at
Chattanooga, in a series of bloody engagements fought on the most scenic battlefields of
the war to drive the confederate defenders down into Georgia so Lincoln could use it as a
supply dump for Sherman’s march to the sea. Andrew Johnson was selected as the vice
president when Lincoln got reelected in 1864 and William Brownlow, a newspaper
editor, succeeded him as the military governor of Tennessee. Designed to prevent
Confederates to participate in the election, the new pro-union state governments enacted
stringent penalties that reduced voter turnout. Congress threw out Tennessee’s electoral
vote in the election and took West Virginias as a state.
Traditional accounts of the Civil War in Appalachia focus on West Virginia and
East Tennessee, thanks in part to the contributions of Stonewall Jackson, Andrew
Johnson, and Zebulon Vance. The scene on the other side of this “dual war” was
highlighted in Gettysburg, Chancellorsville, and Shiloh. Irregular warfare produced more
than a just a genuine civil split between Appalachian families and neighborhoods.
Fragmented record of raids, counter raids, ambushes, murder, robbery and rape became
rooted in the class structure of divided loyalties, and neither army could penetrate it
enough to control it. Theaters of potential conflict remained along the natural mountain
barriers on the Tennessee, North Carolina, and Kentucky borders. Fear added tensions to
rumors of invasion from the other, and that each side harbored dissenters or refugees.
Confederates became afraid of the others’ disloyalty among their mountain homes that
lined both sides of the Great Valley, and the roads paralleling the New River Gorge on
through Cumberland Gap between Kentucky and Tennessee’s border.
Two overriding objectives prevailed; to provide relief to the oppressed Unionist in
upper East Tennessee, and to slash the jugular vein feeding the Rebellion via the Virginia
and Tennessee Railroad.