At the outbreak of the war, W.H. Younce is just 18 years old. He reports that among his neighbors in northeastern Ashe County, he has been “marked and spotted as a Lincolnite.” So he keeps his head down, suppressing his honest views on slavery and the war. By October 1862, the county militia — made up of men older than 35 — encamps a mile from the Younce home to enforce the new Conscription Act.
Younce, his older brother, and two companions ride stealthily across the Tennessee border, just six miles away, bound for Union territory in Kentucky.
Their route takes them past the home of Edith, a young woman whom Younce has been courting. Against the advice of his brother, he stops there for the night while the others lie low in the countryside. Edith guesses that Younce is fleeing the draft. “You can not only be turning your back upon your own country in the darkest hour of its peril, but by this act blasting every hope for an honorable and useful life in the future . . .”
He declares his loyalty in no uncertain terms: “Miss Edith, you talk very prettily and grow quite eloquent but you represent a wicked and unjust cause. . . I owe my allegiance to that country only that is represented by that beautiful emblem of the free, the Stars and Stripes. It is true this is my native land, and I love its mountains, but I cannot and will not fight for a government that seeks to enslave me, and whose cornerstone is slavery.”
But late that night, he is surprised by a band of eight Ashe County Home Guards led by Maj. George Washington Long. Younce is arrested and taken back home under close guard. There he is persuaded to enlist in Company L of the 58th North Carolina, commanded by Capt. William L. Gentry, a family friend, in order to avoid a worse fate. He leads 50 new recruits on a 40-mile march to the train that will take them to the regimental camp at Tazewell, Tennessee.
Within two weeks of arriving there, he attempts to desert, but a family that has offered Younce and the recruits a meal and a bed betrays the group. Younce is convinced that the Confederate Army cannot shoot or hang all its deserters without becoming decimated, and he convinces the authorities that he and his cohort were only attempting to visit family for a few days, intending to rejoin the regiment.
In fact Younce has taken a private, sacred oath that he will not raise arms against his country, the United States of America. But keeping it will not be easy.
Desertion plagues the Confederate Army, and North Carolina regiments have become infamous for the number of their soldiers who desert. In some regiments, guards armed with pistols are delegated to watch over their fellows.
As early as March 1862, a company of soldiers is dispatched to Chatham County to round up the numerous deserters. But there is no state law against desertion, so not much can be done with the men once they are in custody except try to repatriate them to their units.
Gov. Zebulon Vance consistently invokes writs of habeus corpus to secure the release of North Carolinians arrested by Confederate authorities for disloyalty, including many imprisoned at Salisbury.
In April 1863, Gen. Robert E. Lee complains to Secretary of War James Seddon of “frequent desertions from the North Carolina regiments.”
In truth, this reputation seems an unfair slur. Tar Heels are generally stationed far from home, and many take unauthorized leave to visit their families, help with crops, or attend to sick relatives before returning to duty. And desertion is a rapidly growing problem in virtually all Confederate regiments.
But on the eve of a new offensive to invade the North, the numbers alarm Lee’s generals. Gen. William Dorsey Pender reports that during the previous month alone, at least 200 soldiers from the 24th North Carolina have deserted. He partly blames the constant stream of letters from home exhorting the men to abandon the army and return to protect their own loved ones from the outliers, bushwhackers, and Home Guards roaming in a lawless country.
Lee writes to Seddon the following month that 32 Ashe County men of Co. A, 37th North Carolina Volunteers, have deserted, taking with them their arms and ammunition.
By fall 1863, after the great slaughter of Gettysburg, western North Carolina becomes a safe haven for hordes of deserters from all states. They congregate in bands of 30, 50, 100, armed and defiant. In Randolph County, 300 to 400 deserters dare the conscript patrols to molest them. Five hundred of them gather in a makeshift regiment that takes control of Wilkes County, conducting disciplined drills.
Even the men who remain in the ranks are not necessarily loyal. Gen. Simon Bolivar Buckner reports that “fully half of the East Tennessee and North Carolina troops from the mountain districts are not to be relied upon.” It is those mountain districts, mostly devoid of plantations and slaveholders, that most bitterly opposed secession.
By May 1863, the problem has become so acute that Governor Vance issues an impassioned proclamation. He declares, “Certainly no crime could be greater, no cowardice more abject, no treason more base, than for a citizen of the State . . . to desert the colors which they have sworn to uphold.”
So he openly enlists the active help of all loyal citizens of the Old North State: “Unless the good and patriotic all over the land arise as one man to arrest this dangerous evil, it may grow until our army is well nigh ruined.”
Vance must walk a fine line between threat and persuasion, or else his state’s regiments might never recover the strength of numbers they need. So he includes an inducement: A man would not be shot if he returns to duty voluntarily.
In the mountainous west, deserters are often welcomed back into the ranks with little fanfare. There simply aren’t enough able-bodied men to allow for the luxury of execution. In other commands, justice is arbitrary and often capricious.
John Redman, a young farmer from the Coastal Plain, writes to his wife from military prison in Kinston, where he has been condemned to be shot for desertion. His crime was slipping back to his farm for a few weeks to help his starving wife harvest their crops. Then he rejoined his unit out of duty and a sense of manly pride. But he is to be made an example of.
He writes, “My dier wife, if I see you no more on erth donte grieve for mee nether lamente nor morne. I hope I shall with my jesus bee while you are left alone.”
This time, Younce has no intention of going back and risking military justice.
By February he is on the run again, playing hide and seek with rebel cavalry, at last making his way to Doe Mountain, where he spends a miserable rainy night in the open, and then proceeds to Mountain City, Tennessee, just across the border from home.
He recalls, “My vocabulary is too limited to attempt a portrayal of the horrors and the sufferings of those poor Union people. Conscripts were hunted like wild animals, and often shot and murdered. Their homes were often destroyed by the torch, and if spared were robbed of everything they had, and their families left without a crust of bread.”
The local Home Guards know him, and continually search the Younce homestead looking for him. Younce hides out in the woods, making furtive visits to the house for food.
Two weeks after his arrival home, on March 23, 1863, Younce learns firsthand of an atrocity that inspires in him both outrage and fear.
A 55-year-old man named Jesse Price is harboring his sons Hiram and Moses — deserters — in the woods near his gristmill. The Home Guards stake out the place and capture all three, along with Price’s nephew Solomon, then jail them in the Jefferson courthouse.
Younce describes the scene the next morning as a mob, led by a Major Long, that takes the men forcibly from jail to a locust tree on the snowy courthouse lawn. One by one, the guards hang the boys.
The old man is the last to be hanged.
“In the crowd that went out to witness the hanging was Dr. James Wagg, a prominent physician, and also a Methodist preacher, a man well and favorably known throughout all the country, and be it to his credit, was trying to quell the mob and save the lives of these men,” Younce recalls. “After the three young men had been hanged, Dr. Wagg approached the old man, whom he had known for many years, and told him he could do nothing for him: that he had no influence with these men, and they were going to hang him. ‘And now,’ he said ‘you are unprepared, and in a few minutes more your soul will be ushered into eternity. I am here to try to do you good. Shall I not stay the hand of death, while I pray with you?’
“The old man replied: ‘Doctor, I have done nothing to be hung for. I am old — not even subject to military duty. I have committed no crime. I have only been loyal to my country, and if it is for this you intend to murder me, I will go into eternity as I am. I want no rebel, such as you are, to pray for me.’
“In a moment his hands were pinioned, and he was swinging beside the three boys.”
Incredibly, Younce reports, one of the sons — 20-year-old Moses — survives his hanging. Dr. Wagg rubs snow on his face to revive him. Moses recovers and is eventually sent back to the front. But he deserts again, this time enlisting in the U.S. Army, and for the rest of the war fights against the Confederacy that killed his father and brother, carrying the nickname “Scape Gallows” Price.
One of Jesse’s nephews, Thomas, embarks on an odyssey of vengeance, tracking down and killing five of the men who hanged his uncle.
Free, and alone
With the Home Guards tracking him, Younce decides he must leave North Carolina for good. Once again he crosses into Tennessee, but there again feels trapped by the constant cavalry patrols. He makes a deal with a young artillery captain named Oliver to enlist with his company, if Oliver will guarantee his safety from the authorities who want to hang him.
In due course Captain Oliver is appointed provost marshal, and by April, Younce is posted to Dublin, assigned as an armed escort aboard passenger coaches on the Norfolk and Western Railroad. His duty is to examine the papers of all travelers and arrest any suspected deserters. Younce proudly reports, “During all the time I did duty on that road, I never made a single arrest.”
In fact, he openly aids at least one deserter in escaping capture.
But he winds up in the thick of the fighting at the rail junction of Wytheville, Virginia, where the Confederates are routed. Captain Oliver is shot and killed. Younce and many of his fellows scatter into the countryside, hole up in bands, determined not to rejoin the fighting. But surviving that way is hard, and by August he finds his way back to his company, which is now posted just 40 miles from his home. He still intends to desert, but opportunity has not favored him. More deserters rejoin as the company rests in camp through the waning weeks of summer.
With the company still under strength, Younce convinces his commander that, if only he were granted a short leave of absence, he could recruit more men from the conscripted deserters among whom he was hiding out. Once again his glib tongue wins over his superiors, and off he goes alone, hunting up new recruits. And before long, he does indeed persuade 25 men to join him — to fight for the Union.
The men make their headquarters in the Unionist stronghold of Johnson County, Tennessee. Many of the men want to take revenge on the Home Guards and other Confederate sympathizers who have ransacked and burned Unionist farmsteads and done violence to their families, but Younce argues strongly against retaliation. He fears that will only incite further depredations against the families they leave behind.
Younce enjoys one last furtive nocturnal visit to his family — and another clandestine midnight rendezvous with Edith, who warns him that Major Long has determined to kill him outright.
Now the need to escape is urgent. He leads his men on an arduous journey through the mountains to the Union lines at Jonesboro, Tennessee. They collapse, exhausted, in a barn on the outskirts of town. At daybreak, they rouse themselves. “We started up town altogether,” he remembers, “and the first thing that attracted our attention was the flag — the Old Stars and Stripes, floating over the courthouse.”
Until this moment, his patriotism has been an abstraction, an ideal. Now it surges through him as a wave of heartfelt emotion. “The boys began to cheer. We formed them in line double file, and marched around the courthouse square, cheering and hallooing like wild men.”
Men toss their hats into the air and cheer until they are hoarse. Others weep openly.
Younce writes, “This was Monday morning the 30th of September, and it marks an epoch in the history of my life.”
Younce never sees his sweetheart Edith again — and she marries another. Long after the war, he visits the scene of so much bloodshed and strife. “But few of the friends of my youth are there,” he says, “and only the hands of strangers greet me in my native land.”