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Confederate Dissension in the Unakas

by Sandra Ratledge

©1998--present year by Sandra N. Ratledge. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED. Any reproduction or inclusion of this website's contents in publication whether online or in print is prohibited. Do NOT copy photographs, articles, stories, anecdotes, documents, obituaries, letters, and other contents and upload on Find a Grave or any other internet websites, blogs, attach to family trees, or print in publications of any kind.



The war-torn Unaka Ridges during the Civil War generated a particularly fascinating story of Appalachian response to civil strife. Especially interesting were accounts from the cliffs, coves, and creek bottom lands of the bordering counties of Monroe and Polk in Tennessee and Cherokee in North Carolina. Even though North Carolinians, renown for loyalty to the homeland, comprised one-fifth of the entire Confederate Army or 125,000 men from an eligible military population of 115,365, 1 not all citizens of the state were loyal to this new coalition of Confederate States of America. In fact, the closer to the beloved Appalachian Mountains, the more numerous grew the dissidents.

Reasons were justifiable for this seemingly ironic phenomenon. Here in the Appalachians, descendants of some 1,200,000 Scotch-Irish immigrants dominated the population.2 Tucked in shadowy coves, nestled on knobs, and perched on mountain tops, these religious non-conformists had, through isolationism, established a stronghold, a bastion, for spiritual independence not afforded in the old country. "Between the ramparts of the mountains, these descendants of persecution dwelt in peace with one another."3 Why should they who had overcome untold obstacles now jeopardize religious sanction and harmony for some vague causes in a civil war?

Here along the ridges thrived the progeny of Revolutionary War soldiers, Over the Mountain Men, Tennessee sharp shooters, who defeated Major Patrick Ferguson at King's Mountain and so turned the tide of the great war for independence. In payment for services rendered during the revolution, vast areas of mountain land secured by the 1777 Treaty of Long Island had been parceled out as grants to soldiers. More often than not this land was handed down through the generations.

Safeguarding the newly won religious and civil liberties and protecting the land from encroachments became a formidable task. Once more young men were rallied to serve and sacrifice in the War of 1812 in order to retain this United States and all it stood for. Tennesseans volunteered in droves with an incomparable zeal, inundating mustering agents and far outnumering volunteers from any other state. Such a swarm of men, rough and ready to fight, won for Tennessee its historic nickname, "The Volunteer State." With Cherokees massacring the enemy Creeks, General Andrew Jackson managed to route the British at Horseshoe Bend, Alabama insuring the survival of this infant nation. These were the hearthside stories Appalachian Mountain people recounted. Babies were weaned on tales of fighting for this nation and these United States land grants. Is it any wonder then that patriotism and loyalty to the Union were imbued into the souls of these Scotch-Irish descendants?

Of course, mountain folks loved North Carolina and Tennessee, but they failed to understand this state's rights issue. Their isolationism over generations had reduced many families to illiteracy -- people who had generations ago been educated and knowledgeable. The inaccessible terrain made securing competent teachers most difficult. Even if an itinerant teacher were acquired, local farmers merely eeking out a living found supporting education virtually impossible. Thus limited by a dearth of information, the only rights deemed worthy of blood-letting were those their ancestors had previously secured through two great wars. Individual rights declared by the United States government were rights to uphold. Hill country citizens questioned fighting this politicians' war and starting a new country when they had been so proud of and content with the former one.

By 1863, when President Lincoln elevated the war to a "higher plain," that of abolitionism, the issue centered on maintaining slaves for rich land owners. Since slaves on mountain farms were about as common as snowfall in July, these poor pioneers, saturated in isolationism, felt no urge whatsoever to fight for that issue.

Many citizens of the Unakas would have preferred to stay out of this conflict entirely, to remain neutral. Poor folks just wanted the opportunity to exercise their civil liberties in peace. Free from harassment, they slaved to produce crops plentiful enough to feed their large families and profits enough to purchase necessities. With each harvest, they hoped and prayed to "get by" until the next planting. But war, once begun, permitted few, if any, choices. The War Between the States grew like a raging forest fire in an autumn drought consuming everything and everyone in its path. Fathers, brothers, sons, and grandsons were swallowed into the conflict.

Numerous mountaineers, loyal to the Union, were conscripted forcefully, if not violently, into Confederate service, in spite of adamant Southern denial of active conscription. The Official Conscript Act was passed April 16, 1862, at Richmond, Virginia, and most states began to implement the law at once. Evidence of this practice in North Carolina can be found in a letter written by the Brigadier General of the Guards for Home Defense John W. McElroy as follows:

Swarms of men liable to conscription are gone to the tories or to the Yankees.  Conscription is now going on and a very tyrannical course pursued by the officers charged with the business, and men [are] conscripted and cleaned out as [if] raked with a fine-toothed comb;4

Pension files reveal that some soldiers mustered into Colonel William C. Walker's 29th NC Battalion were recorded on rolls as volunteers but were actually conscripted. Written documentation of their official conscription had been conveniently neglected.

Confederate morale had been exuberant at the outset with President Jefferson Davis swamped by more volunteers than the South could arm. But morale by mid 1863 was sinking fast. As Confederates lost more battles and stronghlds in 1864, soldiers became battle-fatigued, increasingly discouraged, and disheartened. Thus, conscription was necessary to maintain an army. When medicine and supplies were cut off by Union embargoes near the end, Rebels were stranded not only with dwindling ammunition but suffering from malnutrition, disease, and exposure. Some infantrymen marched barefoot.

Vacillations among the rank and file had multiplied as war dragged on; men were torn by conflicting loyalties to brothers and relatives fighting in opposing companies. Men swayed for sundry reasons like trees leaning this way and that, twisting in a mad, fierce wind. Not one escaped the ordeal, and all who survived bore their scars, visible or not.

Is it any wonder that many local dissidents as well as conscripted soldiers escaped and resorted to "hiding-out," sequestering themselves in the vast secluded Unaka forests, foraging for food, and living like squirrels? After all, these were capable backwoodsmen, who with a knife, some rope, and a small stash of necessities, could fend for themselves. Like David with a slingshot, they could fell rabbits, opossums, and ground hogs; frogs and mud turtles were abundant along the creeks; nuts were nearly always at hand. From ancestors, they had learned the edible roots, berries, and wild greens. Such a life would be far better than starving in a prison camp and fighting inmates for gophers one might eat.5 As long as weekly newspapers went to press, lists of such deserters grew longer and the Confederate bounty listed for information leading to their capture also increased.

Few of the numerous Confederate and Union deserters in hide-outs actually became notorious and dreaded bushwhackers. This name, according to The American Heritage Dictionary, was applied to a backwoodsman, especially a Confederate guerilla during the Civil War. Paul J. Long's research revealed that

it was a Southern sympathizer (who had a famous East Tennessee name) who started and helped create the Bushwhacking monster. This Southern sympathizer reportedly organized a band of outlaws to keep the Union forces out of the territory. His reason was to protect his interest in a huge plantation on the Little Tennessee River. He owned a number of slaves and saw the war as a threat. . . .6

However, Mr. Long further noted that the scheme backfired on its designer for the Union Army soon learned of it. He described this as follows:

In the closing days of the war "Bushwhacking" became one of the only tactics left for the Confederates in the hills. The Union forces also became adept at this kind of fighting and most of the skirmishes in the hill country were either hit-and-run or lying-in-wait and bushwhacking the enemy forces.7

Differentiation should be made between bushwhacking in military warfare as opposed to crimes committed against unarmed citizens by hoodlums for evil and selfish gain. So besides the bushwhacking tactics employed by both armies, other renegades and outlaws sometimes formed their own bushwhacking gangs. Well-known rivals among such banditti were the Kirklands, Elliotts, and Laneys. Positive identification of any one bushwhacker guilty of a specified crime was most difficult, if not impossible, during the war not only because of stealth practiced but also because bushwhacking was so profuse. Then, too, victims seldom lived long enough to describe assailants. Bushwhacking by hardened criminals continued in spite of the cessation of war.

Many residents who could afford to do so simply abandoned their homes in the Unakas, boarded trains in Cleveland, Tennessee, and moved to the North. R. E. Barclay described this emigration as follows:

Safety from these outlaws lay only in flight. Thus it was that the late summer of 1863 witnessed the general exodus of Ducktown citizens seeking shelter within Union lines. Wagons rumbled down the old copper road, loaded not with wage-paying copper but with disconsolate families and their bed clothes and cooking utensils. Furniture, live stock, and other cumbersome possessions were left behind.8

Some war-scarred ex-soldiers had indeed created infamous outlaw bands and made crime a permanent way of life. R. Frank McKinney relates a vivid account of them as follows:

No farm in Monroe, McMinn, Blount Counties in Tennessee or farms in Cherokee County North Carolina were safe from the marauding, killing, raping gang of outlaws known as guerilla or bushwhackers. They were believed to be the original Confederate soldiers who had deserted and who had teamed up with a similar band of Union soldiers who were tired of fighting for their country and decided to fight for themselves.

Then it was said that the male population of whole families who had gone off to war and had now returned to their farm homes in the mountains of Monroe and McMinn Counties had organized themselves into some of these bushwhacking groups. These groups were known as the Kirkland, Laney, and Elliott gangs, . . . [spreading] fear and terror over a wide area from Greenback in Loudon County to Murphy in North Carolina, throughout McMinn, Polk and Blount Counties. . . . the mountain passes across the Smoky Mountains into North Carolina were common bushwhacking points since most travelers and soldiers, unless they were very familiar with the forests had to use these routes. The passes in which the Monroe County bushwhackers waylaid their victims were Slick Rock Gap, Big Fat Gap, Stratton Meadows, Coker Creek Gap, Sandy Springs and Cove Springs Gap. Several bodies were found along the roads in Monroe county and were buried on the site by neighbor farmers. These bodies were said to be the victims of bushwhackers. 9

Bushwhacking was by no means confined to the Unaka or Unicoi and Smoky Mountains but was common in the Cumberland Mountains of Tennessee and parts of Eastern Kentucky. Particulary plagued was a tiny, new county called Alleghany in North Carolina established in 1859 from Ashe County.10

By 1864, Confederates had determined to purge the Unakas of "turncoats" by any expedient means -- bushwhacking or hanging. Central to an understanding of the guerilla war as waged in the Unaka Mountains is that the

. . . population was almost evenly divided upon the great questions involved. It is probable more troops were furnished to the Federal Army than to the Confederate from this section. The result was that a most bitter internectine conflict was waged between these people for four years with many of the usual incidents of such unhappy conditions. Bushwhacking and all kinds of warfare, civil and uncivil, cruel and unrelenting, were prevalent and a campaign in that country was accompanied by constant and sanguinary personal encounters and feuds.11

Not merely a brothers' war, nor war waged between father and son, this was a conflict of man against himself. Whole families were consumed; survivors drifted within the empty, smoldering ruins. To such survivors of this devastation, losses would never be replaced; emptiness, never filled; and heartbreak, never mended. So grievous were the losses, so intense the fear, so pervasive and deplorable the ruin that some descendants could recount pangs of this war even one hundred and twenty-six years later.

©1998--present year by Sandra N. Ratledge. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED. Any reproduction or inclusion of this website's contents in publication whether online or in print is prohibited. Do NOT copy photographs, articles, stories, anecdotes, documents, obituaries, letters, and other contents herein and upload on Find a Grave or any other internet websites, blogs, attach to family trees, or print in publications of any kind.


1. John Preston Arthur, Western N. C. - A History 1730-1913, (Spartanburg, S. C., 1973-4), p. 600.
2. Cratis Williams, "Who Are the Mountaineers?" in Voices from the Hills, (New York, 1975), pp. 499-501.
3. Ibid., p. 499.
4. Arthur, pp. 603-604.
5. Louise McNeill, "Jeemes MacElmain," in Voices from the Hills, (New York, 1975), p. 322.
6. Paul J. Long, "Bushwhacking Is a Part of Our History," Monroe County Democrat, November 12, 1969.
7. Ibid.
8. R. E. Barclay, Ducktown Back in Raht's Time, (Cleveland, Tennessee, 1974), p. 98.
9. R. Frank McKinney, Torment in the Knobs, (Athens, Tennessee, 1976), pp. 127-128.
10. Arthur, p. 615.
11. Walter Clark, ed., North Carolina Regiments 1861-1865, (Goldsboro, North Carolina), p. 708.