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Civil War in the Mountain South

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Civil War in the Mountain South


Wilma A. Dunaway

This is a copyrighted document from the electronic archive for Wilma A. Dunaway,  Slavery and Emancipation in the Mountain South: Evidence, Sources, and Methods, Virginia Tech Library.  How to Cite   Contact the Author

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Impacts of the War on Small Mountain Plantations

Southern Appalachia may have been harder hit by the Civil War than any other section of the country. On the one hand, Southern Mountain counties were deeply split politically over secession, and local populations divided their loyalties between the Union and the Confederacy. On the other hand, this region lay geographically at the heart of the Civil War. Both armies moved repeatedly up and down the valleys of Virginia and Tennessee. In addition, both armies targeted numerous sites within the region as strategic occupancy points because they were located on major rivers, were railroad junctures, or were the sites of important resources such as the national rifle works, saltworks, mineral springs, or mines. By the end of the War, eighty Appalachian counties had been devastated by major battles or campaigns or had been overwhelmed by the establishment of military facilities (see Map 6.1). For example, one Warm Springs, Virginia ex-slave recalled that, "Morgan and he men make de Springs headquarters most de war, till de Yankees come marchin' through toward de last part." Because both sides struggled to control the rifle works and arsenal, Harper's Ferry was little more than a ghost town by the end of 1861, its businesses, buildings, homes, and bridges in a shambles. Every major Appalachian town (especially Knoxville, Chattanooga, Staunton, Winchester, and Rome) was caught in the grips of continuing warfare; and the disruption of trade connections caused shortages and prevented the export of regional commodities to the coast.

The "official" battles between the two armies probably brought less devastation and destruction to most mountain counties than did the frequent and continuing raids and assaults by guerillas, partisans and robber bands. As the map shows, a majority of Appalachian counties experienced ongoing guerilla activity. Gordon McKinney best describes the local partisan conflict that emerged in Appalachian counties of Tennessee, West Virginia, and Kentucky.

As if the Tennessee mountaineers did not suffer enough from the presence of regular armies, that region was also a center for guerilla operations. Before the arrival of Burnside's army in 1863 it was the Unionists who had operated in clandestine bands and plundered Confederate sympathizers. By the summer of 1864, however, the situation was reversed, and the pro-Union majority was under attack. . . . Another development that meant hardship for mountaineers on both sides was the appearance of independent or robber bands that preyed on Unionists and Confederates alike. . . . As in eastern Tennessee, the mountain population of eastern Kentucky and the Union counties of northwestern West Virginia was plagued by a large number of Confederate guerilla groups. Because both areas were under Union control from the beginning of the war, the loyal population had to endure such attacks for nearly four years. . . . Much the same pattern was found in West Virginia. . . . The most effective means of control were occasional expeditions by regular federal forces, which often captured or dispersed the most troublesome guerilla groups. . . . Even more difficult were the raids of organized bands of Confederate troops. . . . As a result, West Virginia mountain Unionists were destitute and living in constant fear.

Partisan fighting engulfed every part of east Tennessee and most of east Kentucky. In 1861, an east Kentucky Unionist requested the aid of federal troops because more than a thousand Confederate partisans were plaguing a three-county area. Unless the Yankees "order[ed] a force of mounted men. . . to clear out the region," he feared that most of east Kentucky would "be infested and plundered all fall and winter." Subsequently, several local Unionists were murdered and public buildings burned. Indeed, there were repeated raids on the farms and homes of federal supporters throughout the war, and Unionists frequently retaliated by destroying the lives and property of Rebel sympathizers. Though tucked in the rugged terrain of the Great Smoky Mountains, the Unionist Cades Cove community was repeatedly raided by marauding bands of Rebel western North Carolina guerillas. Confederate conscriptors estimated that more than 8,000 deserters, draft dodgers, and Union sympathizers were hiding in the mountains of Jackson County, Alabama and southeastern Tennessee. By early 1863, the mix of Confederate deserters, Unionist guerillas, outlaws, and home guards proved incendiary in northern Georgia. According to Sarris, "These deserters form[ed] armed bands for self-protection, subsist[ed] on the countryside, and def[ied] the efforts of state militias and regular troops to compel their return." Because it was the location of a U.S. Mint office, Lumpkin County was "particularly hard hit, torn by bloody internal struggle as draft dodgers, deserters, and Unionists waged a running battle with Confederate troops, local militia, and secessionist civilians."

After forced conscriptions became more frequent in 1863, full-scale partisan conflict developed in southwestern Virginia and western North Carolina. To try to entice volunteers, local authorities doubled the Confederate bounty of fifty dollars. When such strategies failed, militia officers filled their quotas by using compulsory drafts. In February, 1862, a Confederate general notified the company commander in Lenoir, North Carolina, that his county would be used to set the example for the entire region. "The law requires that each County of the State shall contribute its proportion of men for the war," he warned, "and those counties deficient will be drafted until its quota has been made up. The draft will be made in Caldwell Co. at an early date." The journal of one western Carolinian demonstrates the growing resentment. After the conscription of ten men in March 1862, the Unionist minister lamented: "There are but few men in this country that ever witnessed a draft before, as this is the first since the War of 1812, and there were but few drafted then." The minister's view is supported by the diary of one of Wilkes County's small planters. "Hard country ours," the Confederate sympathizer wrote in May 1861, "only 96 Volunteers & not much hope for more. hope a draft will come and make them go." In August 1862, he added that "Conscripts of Wilkes refuse to go & talk of resistance; they will get themselves into a bad box." Shortly after this entry, the Confederacy exempted from military service those slaveholders who held more than twenty slaves. Three years into the war, farms and communities in the area had endured intense partisan conflicts and repeated retaliatory assaults. To try to "keep down raids" on the town by Unionist guerillas, "about 600 at Wilkesboro Composed of the home guards from the adjoining Counties" organized "to catch [Confederate] deserters." The small planter "fear[ed] they w[ould] do but little good & may make matters worse." According to Gordon McKinney:

Dissatisfaction with the war began as early as 1862 in the mountains of western North Carolina. . . . The major source of dissatisfaction was the Confederate government's successive conscription acts that blatantly discriminated against the poor and nonslaveowning farmers. . . . The course of events in southwestern Virginia was somewhat the same as that in North Carolina, but never developed as completely. By July 1862 there was widespread opposition to the Confederate draft in the southwestern counties, and heavy-handed enforcement by military authorities greatly upset the local population. . . . Guerilla bands roamed unmolested and the civilian population there, as elsewhere in the mountains of the Upper South, suffered as food became scarce.

The WPA narratives of Appalachian ex-slaves are vivid with details about the war years. In 1861, almost one-third of these black Appalachians were sixteen or older, and two-fifths of them ranged in age from nine to fifteen. Mountain slaves described the strategies used by their owners to try to prevent plundering of their small plantations. Jim Threat's master tried to be neutral by claiming to the Unionist guerillas that he was "a Know-Nothing." Because he had two sons in the Confederate army, however, they plundered the house and barn. Ben Brown's mistress tried a different tactic. "When dere wuz talk of Yankies cumin'," she showed Ben "a big white card with writin' on it and said it say 'This is a Union Plantation." She had him "put it on a tree," in the hope that the soldiers or guerillas would not plunder the farm. Rachel Cruze's east Tennessee master devised a ploy worthy of a movie script. Located near the Holston river, this Strawberry Plains farm lay in the middle of an area that was continually disrupted by soldiers and guerillas of both sides. According to Rachel, her master "had both a rebel and a Union suit, and he wore whichever seemed to be most fitting at the time. Sometimes a spy would come along in advance. . . and I'd call to ole Major who was sitting on the porch. . . . And ole Major he'd start up from his chair and bawl, "What?" If I said, "It's a Johnny," and he was in a Rebel suit, he'd throw out his chest and prepare to greet them; but if I said, "Union," he'd sneak to his room, change into the blue uniform with its red lined cape, and come back out on the porch." At John Day's southeast Tennessee plantation, "de master fixed a place up in de ceilin' of de house to store de stuff, and fix a trap door so dat when it wuz closed you couldn't tell it wuz dere." When guerillas were expected in John Van Hook's western Carolina community, owners "put their [slaves] on all their good mules and horses, and loaded them down with food and valuables, then sent them to the nearby mountains and caves to hide until the soldiers were gone."

Appalachian ex-slaves witnessed major military campaigns in the region. When Stoneman's Cavalry invaded Wilkes County, North Carolina, Union soldiers stopped at Betty Cofer's plantation.

They dumped the wet clothes out of the big wash-pot in the yard and filled it with water. Then they broke in the smokehouse and got a lot of hams and biled 'em in the pot and ate 'em right there in the yard. The [slave] women cooked up a lot of corn pone for 'em and coffee, too. Marster had a barrel of likker put by an' the Yankees knocked the head in an' filled their canteens. . . . When we heard the soldiers comin' our boys turned the horses loose in the woods. The Yankees said they had to have 'em an' would burn the house down if we didn't get 'em. So our boys whistled up the horses an' the soldiers carried 'em all off. . . . Some of the colored folks followed the Yankees away.

From her plantation west of Chattanooga, teenager Sallah White "cud hear de roar of de cannons" during the battle at Lookout Mountain. In northern Georgia, another slave could remember "how de camp fires shone on de mountain befo' de battle." From their distant farm, they could see "de fires that light de distant hilltops as dey brightened up de whole country." After the Yankees took Lookout Mountain, "de people in de valleys thought hit wuz time to git out de way." As they saw the Confederates retreating through their area, William Irving's master was "skeered de Yankees w[ould] cum after de retreatin' rebels, and he ha[d them] hitch up de teams to de old wagons, an' pile everything in dem, an' he refugeed to Greensboro." Right before the battle at Chickamauga, one teenage slave shoemaker was sent to deliver boots to the Confederate forces. Miles from their destination, "for three days, [they] could hear de poppin' of de guns, an' de sound of de cannon. . . . Dey sounded like de tollin' of de bells." Appalachian ex-slaves also described skirmishes that were less significant, but just as bloody and dangerous. After a Loudon, Tennessee skirmish, one middle Tennessee escaped slave saw "men laying out on the battlefield like corn stalks. . . . [He] could hear men all over the battlefield crying. . . . The ambulance would come and get them and try to do something for them, but they couldn't get them fast enough."

Some small plantations lay right in the middle of military and guerilla activity. One middle Tennessee woman recalled that their farm was "right between the two armies" during Hood's march to Nashville. Preston Tate "and the other children at play" in Jefferson County, Tennessee, "were surrounded by the [battling] soldiers, with shot and shells flying thick and fast." George Jackson was a seventeen-year-old slave on a Loudoun County plantation that was situated in the midst of the first battle of Bull Run at Manassas Junction. "De smoke from de shootin' was just like a fog. [He] saw horses and men runnin' to de fight and men shot off de horses. [He] heard de cannon roar and saw de locust tree cut off in de yard. Some of de bullets smashed de house. De apple tree where [his] massa was shot from was in the orchard not far from the house. De Union soldiers won de battle and dey camped right by de house. Dey helped demselves to chickens and cut their heads off wid their swords. Dey broke into de cellar and took wine and preserves." In Jefferson County, Tennessee, Mary Tate's family lived on a small plantation that was "along the line of march" during a battle at Mossy Creek. John Day's plantation lay in the line of conflict when Confederate forces attempted to drive Union occupancy forces out of Sequatchie County.

We heard de guns in de battle of Lookout Mountain. Dey sounded like thunder rumblin' low. One day de Federals took Dayton, and de Confederate soldiers went by our place goin' to Dayton to drive the Yankees out. . . . There wuz a valley 'bout two miles wide between our place and Dayton, and we could see the Confederate soldiers till dey went up de hill on de other side. Den before long we heard 'em fightin'. We heard de guns. Den long in de evenin' we saw de Confederates comin' back over dat and through de valley, and they wuz travelin' with the Yankees right after 'em. . . . De Yankee soldiers got to our place, and dey began to ransack it. . . . De Yankees took all de horses, cattle, and hogs on de place, and all the flour, meal, wheat, corn, and smoked meat.

Margaret Lavine described a similar foraging raid in the aftermath of the battle at Lookout Mountain. When the Rebels scattered after their defeat, the Yankees pursued them into adjacent counties, pillaging farms along their path. In Bradley County, Lavine's owner had already endured repeated foraging raids by the Confederates camped at Ringold, Georgia. After Lookout Mountain, Yankee soldiers "took the horses, cows and everything they could, trying to starve [them] out." Maggie Pinkard's plantation in Coffee County was spared foraging parties until Hood's assault on Nashville. Subsequently, Union soldiers spilled into adjacent Appalachian counties. At Maggie's farm, "they went through the house and tore up the feather beds. . . . they burn the master's barn and killed his cows and take off with his horses."

Rachel Cruze remembered that "there always seemed to be soldiers around" when she was a young girl on an east Tennessee plantation that was located in an area of strategic importance to both sides. At different times during the war, "both the Union boys and the Johnnies camped and trained new recruits." Thus, her master "gave freely to both sides. Time and again they gave a cornfield to the army what happened to be in the neighborhood." Her mistress "even took care of the soldiers when they got sick." Conflicts between Confederate guerillas and Union soldiers repeatedly endangered the farm. "The Union men were at Fort Macabee, right across the [Holston] river. . . and they could look right into [Rachel's] farm with their powerful glasses." When the Yankees were pursuing guerillas, cannon balls and bullets "went flying," and guerilla snipers frequently shot at the Union encampment from nearby trees. Tensions were intensified because the owner's teenage son eluded Confederate conscriptors by hiding in nearby caves. When Confederate partisans attempted to take hilltop Fort Macabee from the "10th Michigan men," the Union soldiers "waited until the enemy down below was in the water and then they let them have the full effect [of their cannon]. The river turned red with the slaughter." Four northern Georgia ex-slaves recalled the impacts of Sherman's march to Atlanta. At William Irving's plantation, "dey burned all de barns, an' took all de corn dey could carry and didn't leave de people anything." Part of Sherman's force camped near Lindsey Moore's plantation and "took command of the spring." When they departed, "all but five of [her master's] slaves went joyously trooping behind them. Before leaving, however, they tore up the railroad and its station, burning the ties and heating the rails until red, then twisting them around tree trunks. Wheat fields were tramped by horses, and devastation left on all sides." Fifteen-year-old Mollie Tillman also saw Sherman's army. "Dey wuz jes' ruineration to de plantation," and they "tuck all de mules an' cows." Throughout the vicinity of Wylie Nealy's plantation, Sherman's soldiers "swept out everything. There wasn't a chicken or hog nowhere to be had, took the stock and cattle and all the provisions."

With their husbands and sons away serving one side or the other, mountain women faced threats of physical assaults, home burnings, food shortages, and health crises. To elude Confederate guerillas, one western Carolina woman braved the rugged Transylvania County terrain with her mother, two sisters, and eight children. "I would get out of heart sometimes," she wrote, "and almost wish I had not started." She persisted, "being in dread of [her] life, they knowing that [her] husband was with the Yankees." A northern Georgia woman met a different fate. Arrested by Union soldiers for "harboring Rebels," the McConnell women were removed from their small Chattooga County plantation to spend ten months in the federal military prison at Nashville. The mistress of a small plantation at Black Walnut, Virginia, was pregnant, left only with the aid of a slave midwife and her young daughter. In the midst of a raid, "a doctor in the Yankee lines" delivered her baby. Not all women waited helplessly. One group of western Carolina females raided Confederate farms. A Haywood County woman led a Rebel detachment into a Yankee ambush. Fifty Yancey County women looted a government warehouse and stole sixty barrels of grain.

Major battles and campaigns, the presence of military forces who foraged the countryside for provisions, and repeated guerilla raids meant treacherous daily living conditions for the region's civilian households. In a four-county area around Chattanooga, Confederate General Longstreet reported "farms destroyed and foraged and subsistence consumed" to the point that the survival of the citizenry was in doubt. Similarly, a Union officer reported that many of the people of that area were "absolutely starving." One loyal east Tennessee slaveholder complained that "the Union Army is more destructive to Union men than the rebel army ever was. Our fences are burned, our horses taken, our people are stripped in many instances of the very vestiges of subsistence, our means to make a crop next year are being rapidly destroyed." A family letter from a small plantation in northern Georgia poignantly depicts the living conditions faced by these households that lay in the path of continuing partisan conflict. After their few slaves were conscripted, the husband plowed while a teenage son and two daughters hoed. His wife and younger daughters now "tend[ed] the house, chickens and garden affairs." His wife and her girls had "not had time to make cloth" because they were "working out" to replace the brother who was "gone to the war." Clearly their lifestyle had changed dramatically, for he added that "we have pretty much lost sight of indoor affairs in our efforts to keep from starving." Poor nonslaveholding whites fared no better. In the Shenandoah Valley, Union soldiers pillaged the property of white tenants and croppers whose shacks were sprinkled in between the small plantations. In one instance, the raiders "cut up the furniture, tore every stitch of clothing. . .destroyed all his garden, leaving him nothing but the roof and the walls."

The town of Winchester changed hands several times during the war. After the Confederates reoccupied the town in 1862, Cornelia McDonald described how the presence of the Rebel troops brought hardship to civilians. "A regiment of infantry and one of artillery is here," she wrote. "Every day there are more depredations, and less left us to furnish food. Besides that the injuries done to the property are great and will take thousands of dollars to repair." Food shortages were not, however, the greatest calamity that accompanied the presence of great numbers of soldiers. After the death of her infant and the illness of her other children, Cornelia worried because "the place ha[d] been made so unhealthy by the nearness of the camps." It was "a weary, weary life" for this wife of a small planter who, for the first time in her life, faced "anxiety about food for the morrow." On one occasion the desperate woman assaulted a hungry soldier. "A man had opened the stove and taken out the pan of nice light brown rusks, and was running out with them. A fit of heroism seized me and I darted after him, and just as he reached the porch steps, I caught him by the collar of his great coat, and held him tight till the hot pan burnt his hands and he was forced to drop it." Things got only worse after the Union army reoccupied the area and confiscated much of her house for a field hospital. "The reins are being tightened over us every day, " she commented. "We can buy only the barest necessaries of life. . . . I sit every day and see this lovely place converted into a wagon yard. . . . Soldiers stalk in and out of the house, at their pleasure." Cornelia did finally implement a food trading arrangement. At night a Yankee soldier would arrive at a side door, bearing a "kettle and bundle." After removing the coffee, sugar, and bacon, she filled his pot with flour. "It [wa]s the only chance to get anything to eat." Ironically this woman who owned slaves and who routinely expressed her resentment at doing "unusual household tasks" that she had once shifted to black women, prayed that God would relieve them of the current Union officers and bring them instead "virtuous rulers, those that oppress not the helpless."


1. The opening quote is from Fisk, p. 144. McKinney, Southern Mountain Republicans, pp. 22-26. While the map shows a few counties in east Kentucky and West Virginia free of warfare and guerilla activity, it is likely that every county of the Southern Appalachians (with the exception perhaps of western Maryland) was disrupted by sporadic foraging raids and retaliatory conflicts between Unionists and Confederates. Slave, 4 (a): 291-2. Hearn, Six Years of Hell, pp. 78-90. O'Brien, Mountain Partisans, pp. 114-15.

2. McKinney, Southern Mountain Republicans, pp. 23-24.

3. Fisher, "Victory," pp. 89-112. Cooling, "People's War," pp. 113-32. War of the Rebellion, vol. 16, pt. 1, pp. 1146, 115, 127-28. Stokely and Johnson, Encyclopedia of East Tennessee, p. 76. Sarris, "Shot," p. 35.

4. Inscoe, Mountain Masters, pp. 211-57. Escott, North Carolina Yeoman, pp. 322n2-323. James Gwyn Diary, 14 May 1861, 26 Aug. 1862, 5 Sept. 1864, Gwyn Papers. McKinney, Southern Mountain Republicans, pp. 23-26.

5. In contrast to the entire WPA collection, a majority of the Appalachian narratives were collected from individuals who were older than ten in 1861. Slave I, 12: 336-37; 5 (b): 309. Slave, 16: 12-13; 13: 90. Slave II, 4: 1166.

6. Slave I, 11: 20; 5: 462. Fisk, pp. 143, 108-109. Slave II, 5: 1869-71.

7. Fisk, pp. 3, 198-99. Slave I, 5 (a): 220, 212-13; 12: 258. Slave, 16: 47. Slave II, 4: 1165-66.

8. Slave I, 5 (b): 309-13. Slave II, 5: 1871. Slave, 17: 231-32; 6 (a): 381; 10 (a): 188.

9. McKinney, "Women's Role," pp. 43-49. Baker, Chattooga County, pp. 368-70. Hall, "McConnell Family," p. 14. Slave I, 11: 47.

10. War of the Rebellion, vol. 31, pt. 3, pp. 871, 446, 508. Kimzey, Early Records, p. 516. Buck, Sad Earth, pp. 221-22.

11. McDonald, A Woman's Civil War, pp. 68, 73, 97, 103, 119-24.