The Civil War in Appalachia

To many of my age, particularly those of us who moved across the Mason-Dixon line, living in both the American north and south during the 1950s and 1960s, the Civil War was a living issue–and not only because of the centennial. For me, not only had one of my great-grandfathers (on my father’s side) fought for the Union, but three of my great-great-grandfathers (on my mother’s side) fought for the Confederacy. Having been born in North Carolina, I didn’t have much choice in which side I would be on in boyhood games. Somehow, I doubt my ancestors had much more in their devastating situations.

This morning, in continuation of his presentation of yesterday, Gordon McKinney talked specifically about the area of western North Carolina that two of those great-great grandfathers were from. He explained that loyalties in the region were complex, and that many, for a variety of reasons, were not confirmed supporters of the Confederacy. I had known this, but not quite how complicated the situation actually was, or how conflicted many people were.

Joel Dimmet, whose release papers from Point Lookout prisoner of war camp in Maryland my uncle still has, does not seemed to have entered the Confederate army until November 8, 1864 when he joined a company of the 52nd North Carolina Infantry that had been raised in his home (Wilkes) county—but he joined at Petersburg, VA where the 9-month siege was already going on (he was captured during the Union breakout on April 2, 1865). Why hadn’t he joined earlier? And why come in on the end of what was clearly a losing cause?

Born in 1826, he was certainly of an age to serve. Had he been one of those reluctant to support the Confederacy? That doesn’t seem likely for, when he served as postmaster after the war (and had lengthened his name), the sign over his door used a presentation of “US” that, I’ve been told, indicated the town had been heavily Confederate (many other in Wilkes County certainly had not been). Why, then, hadn’t he served earlier? I suppose I will never know, but I will not stop asking. (Thanks to Theresa Dimmett for the photo and the information about the “US.”)

McKinney’s book (written with John Inscoe), The Heart of Confederate Appalachia: Western North Carolina in the Civil War, contains a portion of a letter from North Carolina Governor Zebulon Vance to former Governor David Swain:

I have never before been so gloomy about the condition of affairs. Early’s defeat in the Valley I regard as the Turning point of the campaign & confidentially, I fear seals the fate of Richmond though not immediately.

That was written in late September of 1864, just as Dimmet was getting ready to join in with what even he, way up in the hills, must have known was a lost cause.

The situation of my great-grandfather Marion Barlow is a lot clearer, though his experience in the war wasn’t nicer—not to any extent. He served in the 91st Ohio Valley Infantry for three years, mostly in the Kanawha Valley of West Virginia (not too far from his home on the Ohio River and where he had a number of cousins), but also in the Shenandoah Valley Vance referred to, where he was part of Phil Sheridan’s army (the one defeating Jubal Early) at Opequan, where “the 91st lost heavily, having charged the Rebels, posted behind a stone wall, but lifted them out of their position with the bayonet.” The army laid waste to the land, to the extent that there wasn’t anything left even for the soldiers. Barlow and his fellows went hungry for three days at one point, relieved finally by a wagon of salt pork and crabapples they had stumbled upon. Together, these ruined his stomach.

Or his intestines. Towards the end of the century (and when indoor plumbing had come in and when he looked as he does in the picture), Barlow built a house, one that I visited in the 1970s. I explained to the owners that the reason every room led into a bathroom was that, quite simply, Marion Barlow did not have much warning when the need to go came upon him.

It’s no wonder he looks so haunted in the photo!

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