Scott King-Owen "Conditional Confederates: Absenteeism Among Western North Carolina Soldiers 1861-1865" (2011)
Several scholars have determined that western North Carolina men, like Sergeant Wyatt, deserted in larger numbers than their compatriots across the state did. Richard Reid’s 1981 study found a desertion rate of 16 percent for western North Carolina, compared to 12 percent for the state as a whole. Peter Bearman’s 1991 investigation of a random sample of soldiers concluded that desertion in the mountains reached as high as 24 percent. Katherine Guiffre concluded, like Bearman, that western North Carolina soldiers deserted at much higher rates. Only Guiffre has offered a compelling reason for why mountaineers left the army in droves, implying that mountaineers’ preference for the Union might have something to do with their desertion rates. Connections among Unionism, disloyalty, and desertion emerged as explanations of mountaineer behavior during the war and grew more persistent thereafter in the works of the “Unionist Appalachia” writers of thelate-nineteenth century. Today, a compelling body of recent scholarship has largely dismantled the notion of western North Carolina’s isolation from the South but it has not explained mountain desertions.
New calculations of desertion by county show variation from 4.5 to 22 percent, explainable by circumstances of kinship, geography, and local politics rather than regional identity, slaveholding, or national politics. Moreover, statistical investigation of four companies from Buncombe County demonstrates a pattern of absenteeism that reinforces Sgt. Andrew Wyatt’s reason for desertion: men left their posts for short visits to their families but returned to duty. Though some mountain men joined bushwhacker and tory
bands, most absentee soldiers seemed to have considered loyalty to family paramount to their conditional loyalty to the Confederacy. No good could come of a war for southern independence if a man’s family perished from hunger or bushwhacker attacks while he was away defending them from
race-war–inciting Yankees. There could be no benefit to his family if, on the other hand, he remained away so long that his absence caused a southern defeat or shamed his familial and personal honor. The conditional loyalty of a mountain soldier rested upon the reciprocal pledge of support between the state and the soldier: the state protected him and his family in return for his defense of the state. The devastating effects of war in the mountains of western North Carolina, however, frequently called on the soldier to reconsider his conditional pledge of loyalty.
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