Reflections on Cold Mountain… and a little more

Posted on March 5, 2008 by

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While the movie Cold Mountain has been out for sometime, I found a very interesting link to “Cold Mountain Diary.” Between this page and a few others, Charles Frazier (author of Cold Mountain) and others provide some great details about how the story came to be. Incidentally, I found this link through that syllabus that I mentioned yesterday within a post in the Digital History category.

I heard a good bit of criticism about the movie, but I actually enjoyed the way that it told a good story. I especially had an appreciation for the way that Confederate Home Guard was portrayed. Granted, not all Confederate home guard units acted the same way, but some, as portrayed in the movie, were quite brutal. I developed a particular fascination, while writing my thesis, with the way the conscript hunting details carried out their duties in the Shenandoah Valley. Not only that, but I found some great stories about the way that the civilians “fought back.” I say “fought back,” but I rarely found instances where there was an actual exchange of gunshots. It was more of a resistance movement. Families concealed other family members eligible for conscription in the Confederate army, and in some cases, concealed children of neighbors. Southern Claims Commissions applications were a treasure-trove of information related to this.

It was also, at about the same time, that I realized that Confederate military service records do not necessarily reveal the true nature of a person “joining” the Confederate army. In the case of 2nd Co. M, 62nd Virginia Mounted Infantry, for example, records showed that a large number of Confederates were “enlisted” (from March through May 1864) from Page County, Virginia. Curiously, their place of enlistment was not in the county, but listed a town (Upperville) in Fauquier County. At first, it seemed like this mass of men (actually more young boys and old men), may have made the trek from Page County to find a unit in which to enlist (although unlikely considering the erratic disposition of occupying forces in Fauquier at the time). However, information gleaned from the Official Records of the Rebellion indicate that, at the very time when so many men from Page were “enlisting,” there was a massing of conscripts in the county jail in Luray (there is also another good reference to an earlier massing of conscripts in Luray in December 1863 on page 290 of The Rebellion Record). On top of that, the more obvious fact that the Confederacy had not long before this time passed the third conscription act (making all men between the ages of 17-50 eligible for military service) seemed to tie-in well with the overall story that was unfolding before me. These men were “harvested” from the local population just in time to see action at the Battle of New Market and at Cold Harbor. Some may have even seen action while repulsing General David Hunter from Lynchburg. But, by the fall, a lot of these men had skipped out and returned home (on the rolls as being sick followed by no further record after November 1864).

Now this says nothing about the brutality of conscript hunters (I will have something about that at a later point), but it does have something to say about the illusion of “Confederate nationalism.” If there was such a feeling of nationalism, why was it necessary for the Confederacy to pass not one, but three conscription acts? I also need to interject here that, technically, the third conscription act was actually a “fourth act.” I say this because, in the course of writing my thesis, I found that many men who “enlisted” in the militia at the beginning of the war were not willing volunteers at all, but were called up by the state government as a preexisting organized body of men to fill the void until regular units could be raised and take to the field. Many scrambled for opportunities to be exempted from service.

In short, for those who look at Confederate service records (in pursuit of an ancestor’s record of “glorious service” in the Confederate army) and say, “Wow, I have a Confederate ancestor who volunteered for service in the militia” or “neat, I have an ancestor who volunteered in order to repulse the invading ‘Yankee hordes’ as they invaded the Shenandoah in the spring of 1864,” I say, take a more careful look at both the circumstances and other factors that may lay under the surface. Not everything is as it appears on paper. With the information that I found, I was able to realize that four out of eight of my direct (lineal) ancestors who served in the Confederate army – Privates Absalom Nauman and Siram W. Offenbacker, who served in the above-mentioned 2nd Co. M, 62nd Virginia Mounted Infantry near the end of the war and Privates Thomas Eaton of Co. A, 58th Virginia Militia/Rockingham County and Garnett Nicholson of Co. A, 82nd Virginia Militia/Madison County who served in the militia at the beginning – may not have been all too interested in Confederate nationalism… all makings for a more enlightened understanding of the complexities of the Civil War.

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