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The South Since the War – Chapter XIII – Affairs in Western North Carolina

Written by Sidney Andrews in 1866

[The South Since the War presents a very biased view of the South after the war. While probably not entirely representative of Northern views, his opinions, inflamed by the recent war, were still, no doubt, widely shared.]

Greensboro, September 30, 1865.

There were three of us in the stage from Columbia to Winnsboro on the evening of the 25th,–a North Carolina planter, and an ex-Rebel colonel, besides myself. The planter was a coarse, vulgar fellow, whose whole thought seemed to be given to an effort to outwit the officers of the Freedmen’s Bureau, and “git shet” of some sixty negroes on his tobacco plantation. The colonel was a man of much travel, liberal culture and good heart–glad the war is over, anxious to hereafter live in peace with everybody, and fearful that the negroes of the State will see very sore times before Spring. We made the thirty two miles in eight hours, at an expense of nine dollars apiece.

The trip hither from Winnsboro is made by railway, one hundred and sixty-four miles, in sixteen hours, at a cost of twelve dollars, exclusive of meals.

On that section of the road from Winnsboro to the Catawba River the rolling stock is passably good, and our train consisted of a baggage car, a negro car, a passenger car, and two freight cars. Our passengers were about a dozen negroes, twenty soldiers, three ladies, and ten citizens. Stoneman burned the long bridge over the Catawba, and it is not likely to be rebuilt before next summer.

Half a mile below the river we left our train, and were brought to this bank in a comfortable covered wagon, crossing the wide stream on an insecurely fastended pontoon bridge. It so happened that when the railroad bridge was destroyed most of the cars were below the river; and our new train consisted of an old freight car, into which negroes and baggage loaded, and a miserable second-class passenger car, with a plain wood bench on each side in place of the ordinary seats. There were neither curtains nor blinds for the windows, and the mercury stood at about ninety.

On the section of railway from Charlotte to Greensboro the rolling stock is comparatively good, many of the cars just having been thoroughly repaired and repainted. The road bed is also in much better condition than that of any South Carolina road, though the iron is badly worn, and must soon be in great part replaced. The line runs two passenger trains per day each way, with an express freight car attached to the morning train.

Sleeping cars are apparently an unknown thing on Southern railways, and bid fair to be so for some time to come. One can’t help wondering frequently how it is possible for any one to be so stupidly opposed to comfort as are large numbers of Southern persons.

If sun and compass were both at fault, general observation would give ample assurance that I had moved northward. Much of the country through which one travels in Western North Carolina is suggestive of Pennsylvania, though occasionally there are oak openings like those of Minnesota and high plains like those of Iowa. Moreover, it abounds in small farms, rather than in large plantations; and corn, not cotton, is the principal product. There are apple orchards and many peach-trees, some fences, and occasionally a comfortable and plesantly situated farm-house. The ability of cooks for ruining eatables whilst preparing them for the table is also something less up here than in the low country, though they apparently labor to their utmost even in this State. Salvation for any one from the North lies in the fact that the average white of North Carolina is less intelligent than the average white of the other State, and therefore the effort to ruin the negro cook has not been as successful here as there.

Winnsboro and Chester in South Carolina, and Charlotte and Salisbury and Greensboro in North Carolina, are five towns after one pattern. Each is a country town of three or four thousand inhabitants, and each has two hotels of such character that the chance traveller stopping at either wishes he had gone to the other. Each town is noticable for extreme length, and an extreme absence of width. There is a main street, broad and dirty, about a miles in length, with a deep well and great pump in the middle of the carriage way toward each end, and another about half- way between; one narrow and dirty street on each side the broad avenue; about a dozen, narrow and dirty cross-streets. In each town the business is mainly done on the principal street, and in each town the best private residences are at either end of this principal street.

Inquiry and observation have satisfied me that the ten hotels in these five towns are not unlike one another in many features. Give whatever directions you may in the evening, you are sure to be roused up half an hour after daylight. The servant wants your boots; leave your boots outside on retiring, and he wants to bring in fresh water; leave your boots and pitcher outside, and he wants to come in to brush your clothes; leave your boots and pitcher and clothes outside, and he insists on waking you to see if you don’t want something; call him to your room five minutes before retiring, assure him that you wear cloth shoes, don’t use water, can shake our your own coat, and will not want anything in the morning but sleep, and just as surely as next morning comes, so will that negro boy, who straigtway pounds at your door till you are wide awake, and then asks if you are going in the early train! At each of the hotels where I stopped there was plenty of coffee at supper, but neither request nor direction of mine could bring tea; while at one place a boarder told me he had made diligent effort daily for a week to get it, and then had given up in despair.

I begin to meet avowed Rebels. It is a mistake to suppose that this class of creatures is confined to South Carolina, even a mistake to suppose that it resides in that State in any considerable numbers. There are half a dozen here to one down there. Sherman visited that State; his army swept through it like a demon of devastation and destruction. No pen could tell how the price and beauty thereof are laid in ruins. Yet that treatment was what the haughty little State needed. Let no man ever extenuate or apologize for his course. Less fire would have spared more property, but also more rebellion. More fire would have made more healthy spirit in this State. The people in the western part scarely know, so far as their material interests are concerned, that there has been a war.

In South Carolina every man was ready to take the oath; he made no professions of Unionism, but he owned that he had been fairly beaten, wanted peace and privilege of trade, and would sincerely obey the goverment hereafter. Here there is a great deal of talk about “our rights,” a great deal of complaint at the action of the government, and a great deal of that spirit which still refuses either to acquieses or to be comforted. The manner of speech there in regard to the “Yankees”–meaning thereby all the people of the North–was respectfully appreciative even when indicative of bitter personal hatred. With the Rebel population of this section a “Yank” is spoken of in terms not only of dislike, but of contempt.

I was somewhat curious to see the Unionism of Western North Carolina of which we heard so much during the war. Considerable of it, I am convinced, was less a love for the Union than a personal hatred of those who went into the Rebellion. It was not so much an uprising for the government as against a certain ruling class. This is, of course, a general remark; for I find many intelligent men, whose Unionism is of the judgment and affection and whose speach on almost every phase of the question at issue would do no discredit even to the radicalism of Massachusetts. Yet a rebellion against the little tyranny of local politicians was unquestionably at the foundation of much of the opposition to the Davis government.

For a man who wholly and parrionately hates a Rebel–hates him without the least allowance for an extenuating circumstance,–give me, however, one of these North Carolina Unionists.

At Charlotte I found one of them. He was something like sixty years of age, but seemed vigorous as most men at forty. “There’s six or seven creature up in my destrict as can’t live there a gret while, now I tell ye,” said he to me when I asked him how the Union men and the late Rebels got along together; “our destric’ll git shet of ’em putty soon. Ef they’s fellers as can’t take a wink, we’ll jest have ter giv’ ’em a cod.” And he brought his arms and head into position for sighting a gun.

“You don’t mean that there’ll be any shooting done,” said I.

“Don’t I, though?” he answered.

“But the military will look after such things, and the county militia will very soon arrest any man who is lawless.”

Jes’so; but thar’s just six G-d d–n infernal sneakin’ Rebels up in my destric’ as can’t no how at all live thar six weeks longer. The thing’s settled, Mister, and thar ain’t no use talkin’!”

“But is there such feeling against the Confederate soldiers all through your county? Can’t you let bygones be bygones, and all live in peace, and all turn in to improve the country and work on the farms?”

“It’s just here, Mister, I don’t speak fur nothin’ but my destric’ an’ what I tell ye is what me an’ my neighbors’ll stand to.”

State the question to him as I would, he had only the one answer. He had nothing to say for any other part of the county. The word “district” is unusual hereabouts, and I could get from him no definite idea of the extent of territory it included, though he said there was a matter of five hundred people lived there.

The old man was singular only in his expression of the idea that there can be no fellowship with the ex-Rebel soldiers. In other forms I have heard it from at least a score of men since coming into the State. The feeling of hostility doesn’t seem so much founded in cool judgment as in passionate instinct. I know words are very cheap; but so many men from such different section of the western half of the State could not speak to the same effect unless there were a general public feeling to that effect.

I made many inquiries, having in view the purpose of learning if the return of Rebel soldiers has been prevented by force or threats, or if there have been any outrages upon their persons or property. I found all men disinclined to converse upon the subject. A countryman from near Morgantown said a Rebel lieutenant was found dead near his house one morning three weeks ago, shot from behind through the head. An intelligent negro man from the section thiry miles back of Salisbury told one of the merchants of that town, in my hearing, that a certain Mr. Benson, formerly of that county, who had been in the Rebel army, was about two weeks ago to- day by some person unknown. Men of character in Salisbury and Charlotte, as well as in this town tell me that they have no doubt the ex-Rebels soldiers, those who were in any sense leaders, will fare hard at the hands of the mountain Unionists.

On the other hand, an out-and-out unconquered Rebel who introduced himself to me at Salisbury, by asking, “Which way did you come from, stranger?” to which question I simply answered, “From below,” and who therefore seemed to conclu8de that I must be a Rebel also–this man said to me substantially that the Union men of the western portion of the State, whom he invariably called, “nigger Yankees,” are the “meanest set of men the sun ever saw;” didn’t go into the army because the “are cowards and d–n fools,” and “will have to lower their tail-feathers a good deal or get into trouble.” So, too, an ex-Rebel captain, on the cars between the Catawba River and Charlotte said to a gentleman sitting next to me on the bench, that he didn’t propose to allow any “stay-at-home cuss” to lord it over him when he got there. One of these officers on duty at district headquarters at Salisbury told me that some of the returning Rebel soldiers were disposed to make trouble with the men who didn’t go into the war, and particularly with the few who had been in our service.

The temper of a large number of men in this end of the State appears to be indicated by the remarks of a man opposite whom I sat at dinner one day in Salisbury. His neighbor asked him for whom he would vote in the coming Congressional election.

“I sha’n’t vote at all.”

“O yes, vote for somebody,–vote for me if you can’t vote for any one else.”

“No; I won’t vote. I don’t know as I’ll ever vote again.”

“Why, man, how you talk! What do you mean? Not vote when so much depends upon who is sent to Congress this winter? Not vote?”

“No, I’ll be d–d if I do; and I’ll not vote again till I can do so without asking any d–d Yankee who I may vote for!”

Gentlemen who appear to be careful calculators assure me that in this section–say the central part of the western half the State,–not more than one half, and some even say one third, of the legal votes appeared at the polls to vote for Convention delegates last week, for the reason that they knew that they could not vote for whom they pleased. In South Carolina, as I have previously said, there was nowhere, so far as I could learn, any pretense of military interference with the election; and the composition of the Convention of that State was such, that I presume every man freely voted for his first choice. Here, however, while there is no complaint of direct interference by the military, it is charged that certain men are not elected because it was understood that the commanding officer of the district or sub-district would now allow any Rebel to serve.

In the South Carolina Convention there were a score of men who record for Unionism was as bad, and for Rebellion as good, as that of any man in this State; and if their election could be permitted there, it would seem there could be no good reason for disallowing the election of such men here. Yet I see that even the Raliegh papers assert that not more than half the vote of the States was cast, and that many counties send so-called Union delegates, which, under a free election, would have sent men of an entirely different stamp. It would appear, therefore, from all I hear up this way, that while the South Carolina Convention represented the actual sentiments of the people of that State, the North Carolina Convention will represent the sentiments of only one class of people, and that the class which calls itself the Union element.

In just what the military control or interference consisted it is impossible to learn. Two weeks before the election the department commander, General Ruger, issued orders to the effect that on election day officers and soldiers would not only be kept away from the polls, but within their respective camps, and that any person guilty of attempting to interfere with the election would be promptly and severely punished. So far as I can hear, there was neither violation of the letter nor the spirit of this order.

The complaint goes behind the order, and alleges from hundreds of mouths that certain men in every county whom the people desired to elect were compelled to refuse the use of their names. Did General Ruger, of the department, or General Heath, of the district, or Governor Holden, ever issue an order, or ever say directly or indirectly, or authorize anyone else to say, that certain men must not be elected or would not be allowed to serve in the Convention? Is a question I have, in one form or another, asked of fifty or sixty different men. I can get no tangible evidence of interference or dictation, though it is asserted and reasserted that there was an “understanding” that some men would, and others would not, be allowed to serve as delegates.

The poor whites could be relied upon during the war because their instincts led them in a path parallel to that taken by the government. Now, however, say many of our officers on duty in this section, they give us more trouble than the real Rebels,–those who voluntarily went into the Rebel army. They have very little judgment, and their instincts do not now lead them toward the ends the government is pursuing. Not a few of them claim that the farms of the leading Rebels should be apportioned out among those who fought the Rebels.

I have already spoken of the somewhat savage disregard of the lives of those who have been known Rebels. These is, further, an almost utter contempt of the property rights of Rebels in the country districts. It is a remark one often substantially hears, — “every d–n thing in South Carolina ought to be destroyed, and every d–n man driven out of the country, and every d–n woman hung.” Unquestionably these North Carolina Unionists have suffered much from Rebels before the war as well as during the war. I am not arguing a case against them, but only stating the facts. The root of the matter is, that they are making the readjustment just what they made the Rebellion, — a personal issue with another class of the people. However satisfactory this fact may be to any man or body of men in the North, it is one which gives trouble to our troops.

I did not anywhere in South Carolina, however, find Union men such as are to be seen even in Salisbury of bitter memory. The best Unionism of that State is more or less overgrown with the rank weed of States rights, but there are men here whose loyalty is as calen as that of Andrew Johnson. That they are numerous I cannot say–I have neither seen many nor heard of any; but that there are even a score whom any ordinary traveller can find, is a sign of the ties full of encouragement. One of the Convention delegates from Rowan County is a man whom the Rebels had in prison for his Unionism. “The government has been a great deal more lenient towards us than we should have been toward the North under similar circumstances,” said a Union man to me here this afternoon, thus repeating almost the very words of an ex-Rebel surgeon with whom I talked at Charlotte.

I saw today for the first time a man who would not take “greenbacks” in payment for property. He came in from the country with a load of wood, and actually hauled it out of town this evening because no one would pay him for it in gold. Much inquiry in South Carolina discovered only two or three localities in which there would be probably difficulty in travelling without gold; but one of our majors, whom duty has called trough over a dozen of these western counties within the last six weeks, tells me that the localities in which paper money would be taken are the exception rather than the rule; and a surgeon of our army whose home is fify miles back of this place, and who has been up on two weeks’ leave, said to me this forenoon that he lost the opportunity to make several good trades while there, because he had only legal-tender money. The people say, he observes, that having lost so much by one sort of paper money, they don’t propose to take any of the other sort just at present.

The local police milita system is in full force through this section. “How does it work?” I asked of a smart lieutenant at Concord. “Hinders rather more than it helps,” said he. I asked the same question of a smart negro man from the country back of Lexington, and he replied, “‘Pears like it be ruther hard on de poor nigger.” Yet, on the whole, I am stratified that it has proved beneficial.

I saw one of the officers who organized the force in half a dozen counties. It is in companies of about seventy-five men, with officers approved or appointed by the district commander. Arms and ammunition are furnished by the government, the officers of the company being under bond for the proper use of the latter and the careful keeping and ultimate safe return of the former. The force is under control of the military, and receives its orders from the assistant provost-marshals. In organizing it, this captain said he endeavored to get the best men he could find–men of property and mature years, who’s interest it would be to preserve order and not oppress the negro.

Special cases there have been, I am sure, in which the negro was abused, even by members of this force. Thus in Concord, on the day of the election, a gang of rowdies from the country made a wholly unprovoked attack on the negroes with clubs and stones, and the militia was not only found worthless for the preservation of order, but some of its members actually joined in the brutal assault upon the blacks. Apple-jack and whiskey were at the bottom of the row, which resulted in the flight of the negroes, the serious but not dangerous injury of three or four of them, the calling out of a company of troops, the arrest of about forty whites, of whom about half were discharged, about a dozen released on bail, and six or seven are yet in confinement for a further hearing.

This case is, however, exceptional; and whilst the aggregate of reported cases in which individual negores have been maltreated by individual members of the militia is much larger than one would like to find it, there is no question but that the force has done very much to keep down the antagonism between the ex-Rebels and the non-Rebels which is so dangerous to the ultimate good of the negro. With proper military authorities hereabouts, and proper weeding out of the companies of militia from time to time, as the disposition of its members comes to light, I am satisfied that this local police force will become a strong influence on the right side, and be productive both of general good order and general protection to the negro.