384 pp. , 61/8 x 91/4, 17 illus., 4 maps, notes, bibl., index

$39.95 cloth
ISBN 0-8078-2544-1

Published: Fall 1999

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The Heart of Confederate Appalachia
Western North Carolina in the Civil War

by John C. Inscoe and Gordon B. McKinney

Copyright (c) 1999 by the University of North Carolina Press. All rights reserved.


On a number of occasions throughout the Civil War, both residents of and visitors to western North Carolina commented on the seeming calm that prevailed in the midst of the storm that raged elsewhere in the South. In July 1862 Sarah Lenoir in Morganton informed her cousin in nearby Caldwell County that "Morganton must be the safest place in the whole Confederacy . . . but then again, you're even more remote than we are."[1] Nearly a year later, another young woman, Katherine Polk, sought refuge with her family in a rented house in Asheville, which her father, Leonidas Polk, "considered a safe, retired place" after Union troops plundered their Mississippi plantation. In moving up the French Broad River to their new highland quarters in the spring of 1863, she noted that "peace & plenty ruled everywhere; the country was so shut in from the world, it seemed almost impossible for the desolations of war to reach the happy homes along the route."[2]

Even more prominent Confederate figures saw the Carolina mountains as an eagerly sought refuge far from the turmoil of the war elsewhere. Just after the conflict began, Mary Chesnut mused that the destinations of fashionable southern travelers, "hitherto . . . Newport, Saratoga, Europe--& must now be Flat Rock, Buncombe, White Sulphur, &c, &c.," all highland retreats in North Carolina. On several occasions thereafter, the South Carolina diarist yearned for the tranquility offered by her family's summer resort home at Flat Rock. Yet another South Carolinian who had long summered at the home he maintained at that same resort was Christopher Memminger, the Confederacy's secretary of the treasury. Shortly after resigning from that position, he urged Jefferson Davis to move his government to Henderson County, insisting that its remoteness made it far more defensible against Union assault than Richmond.[3]

These responses to the war were not necessarily typical of Carolina highlanders, but they serve as reminders that mountain residents, like Southerners elsewhere, experienced the war at different times and in different ways. What makes this commentary particularly striking, however, is that it reflects a situation far different from that anticipated for western North Carolina on the eve of war in early 1861. A number of residents and outside observers, North and South, had predicted a much more central role for the southern highlands in the new Confederacy. A Henderson County visitor reported that residents of that "mountain kingdom" anticipated that the "capital city of the Southern Confederacy" might be placed in their midst, where it would "have its seat of government within 100 miles of the capitals of six other states."[4]

William Holland Thomas, the most prominent businessman and political leader in the state's southwestern corner, had an even grander vision of the impact of secession on his region. "The mountains of Western North Carolina would be the centre of the Confederacy," he stated, and "we shall then have one of the most prosperous countries in the world . . . the centre of manufacturing for the Southern market, the place where Southern people will spend their money, educate their children and very probably make laws for the nation."[5] A Minnesota journalist, on the other hand, speculated that Southern Appalachia, including the North Carolina mountains, would provide a military key to defeating the Confederacy; he reasoned that the absence of slavery and lack of sympathy for it among highlanders could, with proper encouragement and aid, lead them to instigate a counterrevolution against their fellow Southerners. Even President Lincoln saw the region as vital to putting down the Southern insurrection, and he offered assurances "that a military highway will be opened between the loyal regions of East Tennessee and Western North Carolina, and other faithful parts of the Union."[6]

But neither scenario--Confederate capital nor bastion of loyalist resistance--ever materialized in the Carolina mountains as the war and its seats of power moved off in directions far from that corner of Appalachia. Thus, in some obvious respects and compared to other parts of the South, the mountain region of North Carolina was indeed relatively untouched by the war until its closing days. Certainly it never witnessed the full-scale military conflict that tore apart other parts of Southern Appalachia, such as the campaigns through Virginia's Shenandoah Valley and northwest Georgia, the guerrilla warfare that plagued eastern Kentucky, and the combination of both that made battlegrounds of Chattanooga, Knoxville, and other parts of East Tennessee.

But the calm that by comparison seemed to characterize North Carolina's mountains is deceptive and belies the extent to which western North Carolina experienced the traumas and hardships of war--in fact, as fully as any other part of the Confederate home front. This book is an attempt to come to terms with the variety of means at a variety of levels in which the Civil War impinged upon this particular segment of Appalachian society and the extent to which that society responded to such impingements.

This study is in a sense a merger of two historiographic trends currently in full swing. One is a new appreciation of community studies as a means of understanding the dynamics of the Civil War's course and on its long- and short-term impact on civilians, North and South. The second is a new and more sophisticated examination of preindustrial Appalachia and the recognition that it embraced a far wider and more complex range of experiences and degrees of development than were ever recognized or accounted for in the long-standing stereotypes of the mountain South.

In 1989, Maris Vinovskis asked in the Journal of American History: "Have social historians lost the Civil War?" He bemoaned the fact that despite the vast outpouring of scholarship on the war, we know very little about its effects on everyday life in the United States. "Very little has been published on civilian life in the North or the South during the war years," he stated, and accused social historians of the nineteenth century of having "ignored the Civil War altogether."[7] While perhaps this is an overstatement, other scholars have also acknowledged such a void. Daniel Sutherland, in a 1990 essay titled "Getting the 'Real War' into the Books," echoed the need for coming to grips with the home front. "No war," he wrote, "and particularly no civil war, can be understood without considering the civilian population." He suggested that the most promising means of doing so is through local history, "a reconstruction of the stories of individual communities and their inhabitants[.] . . . [T]o understand the real war, one must stay put. One must watch, weigh, measure, evaluate the consequences of war as they affected a single concentrated area and the people, soldiers and civilians, who occupied it."[8]

There have been significant studies of Southern communities during the war, but until very recently, most have focused on locales, particularly cities, in which the military struggle was center stage.[9] By contrast, what are now beginning to emerge are studies of communities that were not so crucial or strategically central as battlegrounds but were, rather, truly home fronts in the sense that they experienced the war far removed from any front lines. In examining these more typical Confederate locales and their residents, historians are reaching new conclusions regarding not only the war's impact on civilian life but also how civilian life and morale shaped the course of Confederate efforts in waging the war.[10]

If any common thread runs through this profusion of new work on the Civil War, it is the realization of how differently Americans experienced it. Women experienced it differently from men; Southerners differently from Northerners, generals from privates, Union troops from Confederate troops. On the Confederate home front alone, we are more aware than ever of the extent to which planters often endured the war very differently from yeomen; urban residents from rural; slaves from free blacks; Georgians from Alabamians or Texans; and, of course, highlanders from lowlanders. Yet, as the recent explosion of scholarship on the Civil War in Appalachia is demonstrating, even within the southern highlands, the war played out in very different ways for western North Carolinians than it did for East Tennesseans or north Georgians or western Virginians or eastern Kentuckians.

As part of the mountain region of a single state, western North Carolinians shared much in common with one another. But they were also part of a network of communities, which in themselves exhibited significant variations in geographical situation, socio-economic makeup, political sentiments, and citizenry, individually and collectively. The region's county seats alone reflect the wide discrepancies in rates of development, degrees of isolation, and character of residents. As the vibrant hub of the region's economic activity, Asheville was very different from the remote, semisecluded Shelton Laurel, in an adjacent county. Morganton, Lenoir, and Wilkesboro shared a past and a planter base that was foreign to the much more recently settled frontier communities of Marshall, Franklin, or Burnsville. Hendersonville, Flat Rock, and Waynesville hosted summer lowland elites and their slaves who rarely frequented more secluded outposts such as Boone, Jefferson, or Sylva. The vast majority of Carolina highlanders did not live in or even near these towns, villages, or crossroads, yet they, too, found themselves in greatly varied situations--from the broad river valleys of the French Broad or Catawba to remote, nearly inaccessible hollows high in the Blue Ridge or Great Smokies. The way in which western North Carolinians experienced the Civil War had as much to do with the communities of which they were a part, and the variables that rendered those communities such different entities, as did more obvious factors such as gender, race, or class identities.

One of our primary goals in this study is to explore these issues among the multiple communities that made up western North Carolina. Despite the perceptions of Sarah Lenoir and Katherine Polk as to their insulation from the war (and both would endure personal experiences that would change their minds soon after recording those impressions), the war imposed tremendous upheaval on residents of their communities in Burke and Buncombe Counties, as well as the other fifteen counties on which this study focuses. (Those seventeen counties in 1860 had become twenty counties with the establishment of three new mountain counties in 1861.) Although relatively minor militarily, incursions by both Union and Confederate troops, particularly from East Tennessee, where their presence was of much more vital military significance, disrupted life and threatened the social stability of several of those counties at different times and in different ways. Even more disruptive were the internal divisions among western Carolinians themselves that emerged as early as the secession crisis and intensified as the war progressed. Differing ideologies turned into opposing loyalties, and those divisions eventually proved as disruptive as anything imposed by outside armies in certain areas. As the mountains came to serve as refuges and hiding places for deserters, draft dodgers, escaped slaves, and escaped prisoners of war, the conflict became even more localized and internalized, and at the same time became far messier, less rational, and more mean-spirited, vindictive, and personal. How and why the war came to evolve in those terms tells us much about the social, economic, and political complexities of mid-nineteenth-century Appalachian society.

Another goal of this study is to set western North Carolina's war experience within the context of the current debate among Appalachian scholars as to when, how, and to what extent the region was transformed from a preindustrial to an industrial society. Although there remains substantial disagreement over whether Southern Appalachia ever underwent so definitive a transformation, and if so, whether it was a long-term evolution rooted in the antebellum period or a more sudden postbellum shift, a vital, and rather obvious question is what role, if any, the Civil War played in that process. A number of recent studies have viewed the conflict as a crucial factor in altering the course of local or regional development, though there seems to be little consensus as to how and why it wrought the changes it did, or even whether such impact was positive or negative in its effects.[11]

In her study of the impact of the Revolutionary War on Charles County, Maryland, Jean Lee observed: "Wars are flash points that provide unusual access to past communities. They throw into graphic relief the contours of the societies involved: their resilience and fragility, their capacity both to endure and to change."[12] The Civil War has long served as such a flash point, particularly for historians of the South. This examination of western North Carolina's home front addresses the capacity of its society both to endure and to change; it demonstrates the extent to which the dynamics of the war reflected mountain society's sources of resilience and its sources of fragility.

Finally, it is important to remember a basic fact of Appalachian geography. As John C. Campbell once noted, the southern highlands make up "the backyard of several southern states."[13] Rather than treat Appalachia as a single region, it is crucial--particularly in explaining why highlanders experienced the sectional crisis and the war itself in such different ways--to think of it as several substate sections that were inextricably bound (if to varying degrees) to the allegiances and identities of different states, which in all but one instance, were more nonmountainous than mountainous in character. Western North Carolina happened to be part of the Confederate state in which dissent during the war proved most intense, or, as one historian recently put it, Tar Heels were "perhaps the most ornery population of any Confederate state." And although scholarly scrutiny of that dissent has been and continues to be abundant, only in very recent years has such scrutiny come to be applied to the mountain South.[14] Yet there is considerable evidence that the war was in many respects experienced with more intensity in the mountains than elsewhere in the state.

This book, then, is an attempt to examine the variety of ways in which a very particular populace, and the several communities among which it was distributed, confronted the Civil War in economic, social, and political terms. Did it represent a step forward, if even temporarily, in highlanders' integration into the rest of Southern society, or was it a step backward? In what ways was the balance of social and political power in mountain society upset by the conflict? Did the new political issues raised by the war and by the new nation loosen or tighten the reins of local and regional authority in the region? Did economic hardship and deprivation imposed by the war fan the flames of internal class tensions or intrastate sectional rivalries, and what form did such dissension take? What role did slavery and its demise play in reshaping the power structure within and beyond the region? There are no easy answers to any of these questions, but as Southerners, as Confederate citizens, as North Carolinians, and as mountaineers, highlanders faced them all at some point during the four years over which the military struggle was played out largely elsewhere. Like all Southerners, their lives and their situations were different in 1865 from what they had been in 1860, whether at a personal, a community, or a regional level. Our aim is to determine the extent of those differences and the extent to which their mountain environment shaped the particular direction and degree of the change they experienced.

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