THE CIVIL WAR IN ASHE COUNTY
Politics takes a 142-year-old right turn here, but the newest issue of the Appalachian Journal is too interesting to pass up (published quarterly by the Center for Appalachian Studies at Appalachian State University). This new issue contains a fascinating trove of materials delving deeply into the guerrilla warfare that marked the Civil War in the mountain south, most particularly in the North Fork neighborhood of Ashe County (just over Pottertown Gap from Meat Camp in Watauga County).
The Appalachian Journal is not available on-line, but you can go here for information on how to order this particular issue (Vol. 34:1, Fall 2006). Cost, $10, cheap! (Disclaimer: I was for 28 years the editor of the Appalachian Journal and still do some freelance editing and consulting for it, but I had no hand whatsoever in the materials I'm discussing here.)
Here's what got me so engaged:
1. In this issue -- the publication of a family history (an excerpt at least) by William Albert Wilson, whose father, a Confederate lieutenant home on leave, was bushwhacked by Union sympathizers in 1864 while plowing his Ashe County cornfield. Shot in the back, according to family lore (and what innocent man was ever shot in the chest?).
The victim, Isaac Wilson, was a prominent citizen soldier who had joined up with the Confederate States of America at the Boone muster field early in the war. It was June 17th, 1864, and Isaac was home on leave. He needed to cultivate his corn patch.
Supposedly, Wilson was the victim of mistaken identity, but nobody really believes that. Wilson had a cousin also named Isaac Wilson, also a committed Confederate, who had, as a matter of fact, riled up Union sympathizers by enforcing the "conscript" law (the draft) on a mountain boy, Jack Potter, who did not care for it. "Enforcing the conscript" does not quite do justice to what the other Isaac Wilson did: he shot Jack Potter dead for refusing to join up with "The Lost Cause."
So it was mainly Potters -- Jack Potter's father and his two brothers -- who shot William Albert Wilson's father in the back. Except there were two non-Potters involved, and thereby hangs much of the drama in this tale. One of them was Tom Stout, who was Isaac Wilson's closest neighbor. He had Potter connections through his wife Liz. The other, Silvers Arnold, was a furrin troublemaker from adjacent Johnson County, Tenn., where Unionists were thick as grasshoppers.
The murder of the plowing Confederate soldier unleashed a vortex -- reprisals, extra-legal executions, eventually six dead men and as many widows. (Beyond these killings, Wilson records 19 total killings in the North Fork community "war.")
The deceased Isaac Wilson and his wife Caroline Greer were partisan Confederates and better off than most of their neighbors, who were mainly Abraham Lincoln men. The Wilsons were among the first families of their section, and they claimed kinship to Sarah Boone, the sister of ole Dan'l. They were also "Democrats," by the lights of those days. They owned hundreds of acres in a county where the majority was landless. They had fine household furnishings, some of which Caroline felt obliged to bury a little while later.
The Republicans all around them were mainly former Whigs, but mountain Whigs, not rich. Some of them may have worked for the Wilsons. (Wilson writes, "It was hoped some of the neighbor women would join in ... and that most of the field would be cultivated by the time my father had to leave.") None of them owned slaves, not even the Wilsons, though there was one slave, "Letty," resident on the Wilson farm when Isaac was shot. According to Wilson's account, Letty was supposedly taken in by the Wilsons to "shelter her" because her legal owners had fled from the area.
Point is, the mere presence of the slave Letty on the Wilson farm visibly allied them to the Southern planter class. In this part of Ashe County, the Civil War was considered a rich man's war. The presence of Letty further isolated the Wilsons in the neighborhood. Isaac Wilson evidently considered many of his neighbors "slackers," and Isaac's wife Caroline Greer Wilson "never forgave anyone who turned his back on the Confederacy. She regarded them as plain traitors." In other words, the vibe was very bad in the North Fork community.
Immediately following the murder in the cornfield, the author's Aunt Polly got on the plow-horse to ride for help, but the only safe haven was two miles away, at Mr. Alfred Sutherland's, "the nearest place she could be sure of assistance," a very revealing phrase about the tensions in that neighborhood.
On the way to Sutherland's for help, Aunt Polly, trying to manage the balky plow-horse, encountered two women with their heads together, talking. One was Peggy Potter, an "outspoken Confederate" and a close family friend, though she was kin to the other side; and Liz Stout, Peggy Potter's sister-in-law and the wife of conspirator Tom Stout, the Wilson's nearest neighbor. Family lore says that Liz Stout, when she heard that Isaac Wilson had been shot, said "thank goodness" under her breath, not out loud but audibly, so's Peggy Potter could repeat it soon afterward in the Wilson house. So much for the supposed mistaken identity.
Peggy Potter hurried to the Wilson home to render aid and comfort, but Liz Stout said she'd better git on home, 'cause her man "had come in drunk," an obvious fiction ginned up earlier to cover Tom Stout's hand in the murder. Later, when Stout was taken, he was indeed in bed, "pretending to be drunk," but he was marched out and eventually given a sober lynching by the Home Guard.
The triggermen, who got away into Tennessee, were Andy Potter Sr., Andy Potter Jr., and Andy Junior's brother Rube. Apparently, the earlier killing of their brother Jack Potter by the Confederate conscripter also named Isaac Wilson had driven them a little nuts. When they shot Isaac in the cornpatch, they had already been on a murder spree and were known locally as robbers. They went straight from the Isaac Wilson bushwhacking to the attempted murder of the other Isaac Wilson. They left the second Isaac Wilson for dead in his burning house, and promoted the story that they had mistaken one Isaac for the other. But Andy Potter Jr. had married Isaac's own first cousin, so they must have known each other.
The capture of the last conspirator, Silvers Arnold, who mainly acted as look-out, involved Liz Stout again. Liz's husband Tom was by now captured but not yet lynched. Liz was first cousin of chief conspirator Andy Potter Sr., and she was evidently holding secret congress with Silvers Arnold in the woods near home in the days following the murder. A posse of three followed her path, came on Silvers suddenly, who nevertheless offered no resistance. That same day they marched Silvers to within sight of the cornfield where Isaac Wilson fell, and there one of the posse shot Silvers dead. Said, "Let him lie there and rot." Which is exactly what he did. When his family finally came looking for him, it was a Stout youngin who pointed him out: "There he lies, all swole up and black as the devil." Wilson writes, "I think best not to tell who fired the fatal shot. I would say, however, he wore the uniform of a Confederate soldier." In other words, the death of Silvers Arnold offered political, if not poetic, justice.
The captured Tom Stout was actually forced to attend the funeral of Isaac Wilson (and almost immediately afterward he was lynched in custody, supposedly on his way to being turned over to Confederate Home Guard authorities in Watauga County).
The funeral of Isaac Wilson was bizarre for other reasons. The wife of Alfred Sutherland, the man Aunt Polly rode to for help, started shouting with religious fervor during the funeral sermon, and Turk, the Wilson family dog, became excited and "literally tore [Mrs. Sutherland's] clothes away." Mrs. Sutherland was rescued by Letty the slave and led into the house. You could spend all day unpacking the ironies in that scene.
Something was clearly up in this neighborhood beyond a mere Civil War. The tensions between families and between neighbors were certainly exacerbated by the national conflict, but longstanding animosities based on kin and class seem equally potent. Because openness and forthrightness are essential for trust, neighbors with veiled motives were especially disdained, as witnessed in Wilson's definition of "bushwhacker," which opens his narrative: "...men who profess to be neutral and refuse to join either side, openly, but as individuals, or in small bands, using ambush tactics, attack, kill or plunder the homes of those unable to defend themselves."
The hatred between Wilsons and Potters had escalated over the marriage of Isaac Wilson's niece to the same Andy Potter Jr. who helped kill Isaac. The niece was at least implicated in trying to lure Isaac Wilson into east Tennessee ("she wanted to see him once more before his departure") where he presumably could more easily be killed. When Isaac declined to cross the state line to see his niece, the Potters came into Ashe and dispatched him.
Like most "chronicle" histories, where names and deeds are recounted in the prose equivalent of a droning monotone, Wilson's family history is not easy to read and digest. He calls the names of almost 300 distinct individuals (and if I've gotten relationships 100% correct here, it'll be a small miracle). Connections are rarely made. Context is sketchy at best. His history takes careful reading and re-reading to piece the story together. Maddeningly, Wilson never does say what happened to the Potters who got away into Tennessee.
2. Also published in this issue ... an insightful and essential critical unpacking of Wilson's family story by University of Georgia historian John C. Inscoe, who explains how the brutal internecine Civil War blood-letting between loyal Confederates and disgruntled Unionists throughout the Mountain South got gradually sanitized in the decades after the war into a "remembered" history that tended to forget the deep and lethal differences in neighborhoods and even in families. That's some of why Wilson's account is so valuable: it opens the door on something deeply closeted in mountain history. Most "official" local histories written in the decades following the Civil War did not mention guerilla warfare. Since those histories were usually commissioned and printed by county elites, who also happened to be usually the old Confederate families, the official accounts spoke of great unanimity in support of the Confederacy. "The solid South" became in fact a campaign slogan meant to build and maintain the hegemony of the Democrat Party.
Inscoe points out that Wilson's narrative is not an eye-witness account. The boy was less than three years old when his father was murdered in the cornfield. The family history, though, represents something just as valuable, a received family remembrance, and as such it speaks most loudly of the pain and sacrifice of ... women. It is Wilson's mother Caroline whose point of view is most reflected in the narrative. She was strong, brave, resourceful, intolerant, uncompromising, and, in her own eyes, morally and politically superior.
Women kept the history, stoked the memories of victimhood, and taught their children to hate. Inscoe recounts the words of a Federal soldier who came into contact with rebel women refugees from the mountains: "I heard them repeat over and over to their children the names of men which they were never to forget, and whom they were to kill when they had sufficient strength to hold a rifle."
Not that Wilson's family history is hateful. It's arduous, certainly. It's full of the pain of irretrievable loss. And he obviously took some understandable pleasure in the retribution visited on the fake "neutrals" who murdered his father. The point is that his account is unquestionably lopsided, representing not just the lore of Lost Cause posturing but the lore of outrageously wronged women. (There's so much more than the murder of Isaac Wilson in this history. You can see for yourself if you get this issue of Appalachian Journal. We are told that the full Wilson MS will be published by the Center for Appalachian Studies as a book, with historical commentary.)
One other thing: a British researcher, Martin Crawford, has published a book, "Ashe County's Civil War: Community and Society in the Appalachian South" (University of Virginia Press, 2001), which covered the Wilson-Potter feud, so this is not exactly new news. Inscoe on Crawford's work: "...no county in what was once the Confederate South has as sophisticated, as comprehensive, and as insightful a history of its Civil War era as does Ashe County." Clearly, I must get his book! (You can too, here.) Crawford evidently downplays class and family and emphasizes how the North Fork war reflected national politics.
3. I'm in the short rows now! (This started out to be a note of passing interest and has turned into magnum opus, which is Latin for "big fat pain in the butt.") Last item of great interest in this issue of the Appalachian Journal: Pat Beaver's meditation on North Fork "cultural politics," then and now, based partly on the coincidence that she lives (and has lived for 30 years now) in the very Ashe County community where Isaac Wilson died, in fact, in an 1890-era home lived in at one time by another son of Isaac and Caroline, "Bob" Wilson, a brother of the author of the family history, at the corner of Brushy Fork Rd. and Baldwin Gap Rd.
Beaver, too, emphasizes the relative wealth of the Wilsons in the North Fork community, and their Democratic attachment to the Confederate South. The Wilson family descendants are still prominent in the North Fork community. Some of them are now as strong for the Republicans as they had been once for the Democrats.
Beaver ends with an account of the radical transformation taking place in North Fork: gated communities, including one being marketed to lesbians. These vacation-home developments are being sold up north and elsewhere with "romantic and utopian rhetoric to draw prospective landowners to the North Fork," where they can live completely divorced from any family connection or knowledge of the dark history of this place.
4. My own footnote: historical memory demands that present-day Democrats understand the history of their own party. Unfortunately, the Democratic Party that came out of the Civil War was the party of landed elites who eventually carried out the racist policies of Jim Crow. Had I lived in 1864, there's no doubt in my mind that I would have been a Republican.
'Course, times HAVE changed.