“Yankee-leanin’ Hollywood propaganda”… errr, maybe not…

Posted on October 8, 2011 by


There’s a scene that has lingered in my mind for a number of years… since first seeing the movie Cold Mountain.

It’s where the mother of two deserters, in western North Carolina, has a noose about her neck, with her hands placed between the lower rails of a worm fence. Meanwhile, a Confederate sergeant, “dancin'” on the rails above, has the opportunity to inflict great pain on the woman by jumping, occasionally, thereby crushing the mother’s hands between the lowers rails. I wondered, when I first saw this, where… if anywhere… the persons making the scene came up with such an idea. As I had not read the book, perhaps such a form of torture was mentioned therein. If so, had the author learned of such a method… or specific incident… in any investigations into the history of western North Carolina… or elsewhere in the South?

I wonder also if there are some out there who may have cringed when they thought of how this may have so unfairly portrayed Confederate soldiers… even home guard.

Was this yet another example of “Yankee-leanin’ Hollywood propaganda”?

Just last weekend, friend Barton Myers, Assistant Professor of History at Texas Tech (and, I dare say… someone who might even best me in  an interest of Southern Unionists 🙂 ) sent me a message, asking if I’d be interested in reading his essay about the torture of a Southern woman… and, no, not at the hands of Union soldiers… which appeared as one of the essays in Weirding the War: Stories from the Civil War’s Ragged Edges (Uncivil Wars). Of course, without batting an eye, I was quick to respond… and soon had the essay in hand.

Barton focuses on an incident in which a woman (Mary Owens) in Moore County, North Carolina became a person of interest to Confederates, because of her being the wife of someone (William B. Owens) they sought. In the interest of gaining needed information about William, these Confederates soon became frustrated in their failed efforts to get information out of her. Following a sharp exchange of words, she was taken and suspended by a rope thrown over the limb of a tree, with her toes barely touched the ground, and her thumbs tied behind her back. The Confederates got the information they sought… or at least it seemed so. After a few more minutes of discussion, the person in charge of the detail began to doubt Mary. He and another soldier jerked her down by her hair, dragged her fifty yards to a nearby fence, where they… well, now this sounds somewhat similar to the scene in Cold Mountain…  proceeded to place her thumbs underneath the rails, which were remembered by the Confederate officer in charge as “flat and not sharp.” At this time, it was remembered, that the woman became “quiet and very respectful.”

Barton goes on, explaining more about torture, and how race and slavery had nothing to do with it. Rather, as in the case of Mary Owens, torture was not only “a means of extracting information”, but was also intended as a “form of political punishment”, essentially, for the (and these are my terms) “crimes of her husband”.

So, what had her husband done, exactly? At first, William was among those who were mustered into the service of the 52nd North Carolina Infantry, in April 1862… a volunteer… but, within two months, this fellow found an opportunity to desert. But, that’s not really what pushed those Confederates mentioned above, to engage in the torture of a woman. Rather, it has something to do with what her husband became involved in after deserting… life as a guerrilla, against Confederate forces.

I’d love to give you more details, but, think it best to encourage you to seek out the essay (and the rest of the works in the volume), personally. Barton’s essay is a fine piece… not only for the example of how torture was used by Southerners against a Southern woman (which can come as a shock to some who have immersed themselves in a much more “gentlemanly story” of Southerners in that war), but also for the look at Owens’ possible reasons for desertion, and subsequent motivations for guerrilla operations against Confederates.

Certainly, while there’s talk among some within the South, of ancestral intolerance of the “tyranny of Lincoln” and Lincoln’s Federal troops sent into the South, there needs to be equal consideration for the intolerance of other Southerners, from that same time, who suffered under the oppression of the Confederate government. Often, we can see that the Confederate government, in reality, offered less in the way of personal rights and freedoms of Southerners, and was more geared in favor of the interests of those who ran that government. The story of William B. Owens, and his wife, Mary, offer such an example, and can be quite the eye-opening read.

Update: Thanks to Vikki Bynum for this note revealing that, yes, the scene from Cold Mountain was inspired by real events…

William Auman discussed the Owens torture in his dissertation and in an article of the NCHR. I also documented it in my 1992 book, Unruly Women, and was later told that Cold Mountain was indeed based on that region’s experiences. Montgomery, Randolph and Moore counties were hotbeds of southern Unionism.