Reconstruction Politics in Grayson County: Changes in the Local Political Structure
This article was written to be part of a book by Jeff Weaver on the Civil War in Grayson County.
The Upper New River Valley did not suffer the ravages of military occupation as did many regions of the postwar Confederacy. The closest Federal military garrison to the Upper New River Valley was at Marion, Virginia, and it was discontinued by 1868. Members of this garrison seldom rode across the Iron Mountain into Grayson County for forage. In this period, however, the Federal troops paid for what they requisitioned.
Virginia and North Carolina, as all Southern States except Tennessee, were under military occupation and rule until 1870. During this period General George Stoneman, Federal military governor of Virginia, appointed most local officials from the ranks of the local Republican or Radical party. Former Confederate soldiers and officials were disenfranchised when the elections were held for the 1867-8 Constitutional Convention in Virginia. Of 105 delegates, only 40 represented the old order, the remainder were carpetbaggers or scalawags or those converted to the radical party. Grayson County was represented by members of the radical faction. Constitutional clauses were enacted with required a “test oath” of loyalty to the United States, and other requirements that limited the influence of former Confederates. Conservatives convened a convention in Richmond on December 31, 1868 to chart a course of action. While it took some time to implement the restoration of the old order, it was accomplished before reconstruction ended in 1877.
Grayson County remained under the watchful eye of the Federal military garrison at Marion in adjacent Smyth County. The Smyth County garrison made occasional foraging journey’s across the Iron Mountain, but their affect on the farmers was beneficial, they now paid for what they took, and the garrison was small enough that there was not an oppressive burden on any one family or community. The income they provided was also a rare source of hard currency in the devastated county. The Federal garrisons also served a more immediate need, to suppress the bushwhackers. Although the violence seems to have abated in the region with the cessation of hostilities, some communities were a tinderbox, and the hated Yankees served as a stabilizing influence.
As has been observed, Grayson County was predominantly Democratic in politics before the war, however, this changed after the war. Many of the Confederate military leaders in the county were among the leaders of the “Union” party that was established in Grayson County. Grayson County, A History In Words and Pictures, contains the following account of their principals and an invitation to a meeting:
Elk Creek January the 16th 1867
Messrs. Capt. S. B. Cornett, William Jefferson Comer and Eldridge Hall
You are requested to attend a meeting of the Union men that is to be at Summerfield on the 4th Saturday at 11 o’clock and also to notify all the Union men in your community to be present too. We desire a full attendance of that class of men as a more perfect union is desired. Messrs. Abraham Elliott, Lieut. L. H. Bryant, Capt. [Brutus Fleming] Cooper and others are to be there for the instruction of the party. …We intend to have about 3 gallons of good whiskey for the benefit of those who enjoy such. They had a big meeting at Independence on last Saturday. Near 200 persons present. Please tell every Union man to come without fail and no mistake. The meeting will be on the 26th of the month, Saturday. Gentlemen, I am respectfully Union. S. M. Fulton.
GENERAL RESOLUTIONS ADOPTED BY THE
UNION PARTY OF GRAYSON COUNTY
AT A PUBLIC MEETING HELD AT INDEPENDENCE, VA
ON THE 9TH DAY OF FEBRUARY 1867
We, the undersigned having been appointed a general committee to adopt resolutions for the further conduct of the Heroes of America toward each other as individuals and a political party. Therefore be it resolved: Article 1st. That it shall be the duty of the general Superintendent of the county to issue to the district Superintendents to call their several changes together for the consideration of any business Submitted to them for action whether it be of a political or social nature. Article 2nd. Resolved that we respect no law, religion, or sect that would abridge the freedom of speech or the right of the people peaceably to assemble and to petition the government for a redress of grievances. Article 3rd. Resolved that in all questions affecting the interest of this life preserving and property protecting association as in all well regulated Societies a majority shall rule. Article 4th. That all matters of difficulty between Brothers shall be adjusted by the committee consisting of three disinterested brothers appointed by the district Superintendent or some of said superintendents assistants whose duty it shall be to investigate the matter upon its merits and decide impartially and if said parties or either one of them shall be dissatisfied they or either of them can appeal to the general superintendent for another committee whose decision in all cases shall be final. Article 5th. That we will not vote for anyone to fill any office within the gift of the people is not a member of this order and the regular nominee of the party and all nominations must be made by a general convention called by the general superintendent on giving timely notice to the district superintendent whose duty to call a district convention and appoint two delegates for every hundred voters or fractional part thereof belonging to this order in said district. Article 6th. That we will not support anyone in any way maliciously and wantonly abuse our order or any member thereof for the exercise of any constitutional right. Article 7th. That our great aim shall be to protect and defend the Constitution of the United States and thereby render reason and traitors odious. Article 8th. That we desire a speedy reconstruction of the States of our once happy country and that we will use all safe and honorable means to advance and hasten that end. Article 9th. That we will protect each other as far as lieth in our power from danger and loss both in public and private life whenever an opportunity shall offer itself and that we will always stand with and by all true brothers in all difficulties even to the end of our lives their course being just. Article 10th. That we will well respect all calls made to us by the general Superintendent or abide the acts of those who do as though they were our own. Article 11th. That persons belonging to this order shall enroll themselves or authorize the same to be done by the district Superintendent or some one of his assistants who duty it shall be to keep a roll of members and also furnish a list to the general Superintendent. Article 12th. There shall be one general Superintendent for the county and one district Superintendent in each neighborhood whose duty it shall be to execute all orders of the general Superintendent. Article 13th. It shall be the duty of each and every member of this order to give due notice to the district Superintendent of any and all things pertaining in any way to the interest of this order and said district Superintendent shall communicate the same to the general Superintendent. Article 14th. It shall be the duty of the district superintendents to keep sacredly these resolutions and expound the same to members of this order on all convenient occasions. A. B. Elliott Dave Parsons S. M. Fulton Dr. Wm. O. Reid Jones Kirk Dr. G. W. May Clem Defrece
Read and offered by S. M. Fulton chairman of said committee at Independence on Saturday the 9th day of February and were unanimously adopted by all the members of this order present at the general meeting. Four hundred members present. S. M. Dickey, President E. L. Dickey, Secretary.
Note, some prominent men involved in the Heroes of America in Grayson County were Confederate officers. This organization was a Union supporting group, which was formed in 1863. As the war effort deteriorated for the Confederacy its popularity grew especially in Appalachia. General John Echols, commander of the District of Southwest Virginia in October 1864 complained to the Confederate Secretary of War about the inhabitants of the region. He noted that there were many deserters in the mountains, especially in Floyd and Montgomery Counties and in the adjoining counties were “infested” with deserters and bushwhackers, protected by their families, hiding by day, working and moving by night. By October 1864 the group had grown so bold as to form their own government, and members of the organization had infiltrated the military units from Western Virginia as well as having some of their members elected to high civil offices, e.g., John Francis, member of the Heroes of America, was elected sheriff of Montgomery County in June 1864.
On November 8, 1864, James A. Seddon, Confederate Secretary of War, forwarded to President Davis a report by detectives operating in Southwest Virginia. These detectives had been investigating the activities and membership of the “Heroes of America.” The situation was represented as so bad “the writ of habeas corpus should be suspended” and the area governed under martial law. The counties of the worst infestation were Montgomery, Floyd and Giles and those counties adjacent to them.
Those under investigation, the Heroes of America, were reported to have infiltrated into the highest levels of Southwestern Virginia society and had infiltrated the Army. Nearly all of the 22nd Virginia Infantry, from the Kanawaha Valley and most of the 54th Virginia, from Montgomery, Floyd, Pulaski and Carroll Counties, were members of this secret society. Since the 54th was in the same brigade as the 63rd Virginia, which had troops from Grayson, Carroll, Montgomery, Wythe, Smyth and Washington Counties, it is safe to assume some members of the 63rd were members of the Heroes as well. It is probable that the Heroes gained a foothold in the regiment through returned deserters, who spread the philosophy in the ranks in Georgia and Tennessee. Many of the collected deserters in Southwest Virginia had been exposed to the group soon after returning home. The society’s aims were clear, aid and assist Federal officials and military in any way possible. This aid was usually in the form of intelligence and guidance. They also aided deserters in hiding or going through the lines. It was also learned that most Federal officials knew the signs and countersigns and were not likely to harm those they encountered who also used them.
The detectives uncovered that the “newly elected sheriff of Montgomery County” was a member of the society. The sheriff-elect was John Francis, former commander of Company D, 63rd Virginia Infantry. The Confederate Commissioner, Henry J. Leroy, reported that his men, John B. Williams and Thomas McGill, had arranged a meeting with Francis. Francis, however became suspicious and these men did not speak with him directly. Williams and McGill knew the code words, signs and countersigns of the society, and were accepted by most they encountered.
It was further reported that there were armed gangs, also known as bushwhackers, roaming the mountains from the Virginia units in the Army of Tennessee and in Jubal Early’s Valley Army. Reports indicate that this organization had also infiltrated Southern units in the Petersburg trenches, and that the problem was not limited to Virginia Units. It is unclear how widespread the Heroes of America infiltration of the 54th or 63rd Virginia was.
Brigadier General John Echols at Dublin, Virginia, in a letter to Major J. Stoddard Johnston, Assistant Adjutant General, dated October 24, 1864 complained of many deserters and disloyal people in Montgomery and Floyd Counties. Echols mentioned that many of them were from the 54th and 63rd Virginia Regiments. Echols implicitly accused Colonel Robert C. Trigg of complicity in the problem, in that he was in the area under the pre-text of rounding up deserters, few of which were returned to duty. Echols, however, acknowledge that deserters had filled the jails of Montgomery and Floyd Counties. Further, Echols noted these people had set up “a state government” and “had elected their own governor” and appointed their own military officers.
General Echols proposed rounding up disloyal families and sending them into the Kanawaha Valley, behind Federal lines, as a means to stop the problems that deserters and “bushwhackers” were causing in the area. He had just the men to do the job, the feared men known as William Thurmond’s Partisan Rangers. Thurmond’s Rangers, from Southern West Virginia, had established a brutal reputation. Echols, from Monroe County, as were many of Thurmonds’ men, knew the abilities of these “bushwhackers.” Many of these men had no qualms about shooting another human being in the back and sleeping soundly that night. Echols also expressed a sense of urgency to the request, that being it had to be done before winter set in, lest the Confederate Government be accused of excessive cruelty. Echols’ theory went that without families to give the deserters and bushwhackers succor, they to would be forced out of their inhospitable hill homes.
The Heroes of America was the formal name for the “red stringers” who formed, in the Baptist Church the Mountain Union Baptist Association in 1867, primarily in Ashe and Alleghany County, therefore, it is known that the group was well established on both sides of 36’30. It is obvious from the report of the numbers of members of the society in 1867, 400 or perhaps more, that the society held the political loyalties of about half of the electorate of Grayson County. The percentage in Ashe and Alleghany County was not as great, but they remained a political force.
The mouth-piece of the Radical party in the Southwestern part of Virginia was the Marion Recon. David Denton Hull of Marion, Captain in the 63rd Virginia Infantry, noted, “it should not be read by decent people…” The fate of the Recon is unknown, although it did not survive long. No doubt many of the Union Party men in Grayson County were subscribers to this publication, but just as likely no business men were apt to advertise in its covers.