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Wednesday, 08 February 2006 00:00

Civil War in the Smokies

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The war in the Smokies proved to be an intensely personal conflict. A curious conjunction of terrain, history, politics and culture bred in the Smokies ... a tragic division of loyalties and a brutal partisan conflict between supporters of secession and adherents of the Union. This was a war where men rode to the house of a neighbor they had known for many years, called him to his door, and shot him dead; where other men left homes and wives and children and trekked north in cold and rain to serve the army and the cause of their choice; and where still others served in poorly supplied, poorly equipped, nearly forgotten units to protect border and home. This was also a war in which families wanted nothing to do with either side and did everything they could to avoid involvement.

— Noel C. Fisher

A new book that will be of certain interest to many readers in this area has just been published. It’s The Civil War in the Smokies (Gatlinburg, Tenn.: Great Smoky Mountains Association; softcover; 190 pp.; $12.95) by Noel C. Fisher.

Fisher is also the author of War at Every Door: Partisan Politics and Guerilla Violence in East Tennessee, 1860-1869 (UNC Press), which won the 1997 Peter Seaborg award for Civil War non-fiction, and Definitions of Victory: East Tennessee Unionists in the Civil War and Reconstruction (University of Arkansas Press). He presently resides in Charlotte.

As with all GSMA publications, the volume is handsomely designed and laid out. In addition to extensive documentation for each of the seven chapters, a thorough bibliography, and index, it features a glossary, three maps, illustrations reproduced from period publications, and perhaps as many as 50 excellent photographs of key figures.

Although The Civil War in the Smokies focuses on the mountainous region incorporated in 1934 into the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, the book necessarily concerns itself with related events that transpired in adjacent Western North Carolina and East Tennessee.

The layout of the book’s table of contents provides a fair notion of Fisher’s necessarily chronological approach: (1) “The Antebellum Smokies”; (2) “Secession”; (3) “Early War: Innocence”; (4) “Innocence Ends: The Chaos of War”; (5) “The Price of War”; (6) “The Late War: Confederate Desperation”; and (7) “After the End.”

If the book has a central figure, it would be Col. William Holland Thomas, who makes his initial appearance early on in the first chapter and his final appearance on the next-to-last page of the text. Thomas was, of course, one of the most influential figures in the entire history of WNC. Adopted by the Cherokees as a young person, he became their leader and financial advisor for decades during the 19th century. With the advent of the Civil War, he assembled what Fisher labels as “one of the war’s most distinctive units, a collection of combined white and Cherokee companies that would become known as ‘Thomas’s Legion.’” As Fisher correctly asserts, “The Legion ... and its difficult history mirrors the experience of the Smokies during the war.”

Fisher is an excellent writer. His prose is crisp. And he has an uncommon ability for assimilating diverse events and themes into a coherent whole.

Here are Fisher’s closing words. It is a summation with which all of this region’s Civil War buffs may not fully agree: “The Civil War threw Smokies residents into a situation for which they were wholly unprepared. This region was composed mostly of small farms, worked largely by family members and designed to meet the family’s needs ... The region simply could not escape the cruelty of the war, and large-scale suffering was inevitable. The Smokies were unfitted for the war in other ways. To meet the Federal threat the Confederate mobilization had to be highly centralized and ruthless, and the Confederate government quickly resorted to conscription, long terms of military service, impressments, and the deployment of regiments wherever they were needed most. Politically and philosophically, however, Smokies residents were entirely unprepared for such onerous, impersonal, bureaucratic policies .... The majority of residents in the North Carolina Smokies may have preferred to live in the Confederacy, everything else being even, but most were not willing to sacrifice all for that cause. Soldiers made this clear by deserting, and citizens by employing every means possible to keep men and goods out of the hands of the government. Indeed, it might be said that by 1863 these residents, while pro-Southern and pro-slavery, were no longer pro-Confederate.”

The Civil War in the Smokies is available at local bookstores and Great Smoky Mountains National Park visitor centers, or by contacting 1.888.898.9102, ext. 26, or www.SmokiesStore.org.

George Ellison wrote the biographical introductions for the reissues of two Appalachian classics: Horace Kephart’s Our Southern Highlanders and James Mooney’s History, Myths, and Sacred Formulas of the Cherokees. In June 2005, a selection of his Back Then columns was published by The History Press in Charleston as Mountain Passages: Natural and Cultural History of Western North Carolina and the Great Smoky Mountains. Readers can contact him at P.O. Box 1262, Bryson City, N.C., 28713, or at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. .

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