I live in the Appalachian Mountains among people who are easily stereotyped – the movie, Deliverance, comes to mind. My experience of these folk, however, flies in the face of such prejudice. Time and time again, I find my neighbors to be thoughtful and insightful. At a time in our country’s history that is bitterly divided along ideological lines, many in Appalachian culture cultivate nuanced views of social and political issues. I find it refreshing that it’s hard to classify them as conservative or liberal. Sharyn McCrumb is teaching me that they come by this trait honestly.
McCrumb writes historical fiction, especially focusing on the Civil War period. Now, I had thought that people in Virginia would have been ardent supporters of the Confederacy. But history clearly shows that, while there are Confederate flags flying today in some neighborhoods today, many people in the mountains were in favor of the Union throughout the war. McCrumb’s Ghost Riders documents the conflicted and even tortured lives of Appalachian families whose loyalties were divided.
How could citizens in Southern states support the Union? The short answer is that class boundaries are not as strictly defined as state lines. Most of the Appalachian farmers were too poor to own slaves. They eked out a living on the first frontier ofAmerica before settlers moved west. According to McCrumb, such people mainly wanted to be left alone; yet for all their talk of states’ rights, the Confederate nation quickly began imposing even more regulations than the United States government. Notably, the Conscription Act required all male citizens to serve in the Confederate army. (That is, males who did not have the money to buy their independence!) As the war dragged on, even young boys and older men were forced to fight, forcibly taken from their farms. If they resisted, women and children often suffered, even to the point of execution.
Given no other alternative, many Appalachian farmers turned to the Union army and waged guerrilla warfare against their secessionist states. As a result, neighbor was pitted against neighbor, family against family. McCrumb convincingly demonstrates that in such complexity we are all complicit – there is more than enough blame to go around on each side.
With graphic prose, Ghost Riders lays waste to our stereotypes about Confederate soldiers, but ultimately, its most profound lesson may well be that war is true hell. Reading about such carnage and cruelty renders all the supposedly righteous reason for fighting utterly hollow. I wonder if more people knew this back story of divided loyalties and tragedy during the Civil War, if they would still want to “reenact” these atrocious battles.
Perhaps Augustine said it best long ago: if we must fight, then we enter every war with tears in our eyes.