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Confederates stalking Confederates

by | Aug 9, 2015 | News

A good shake of the family tree often brings down a hail of Civil War soldiers, each good for at least one war story pieced together from unit records or one personal anecdote preserved in a letter or diary entry. But what did it mean to belong, as did several of my forebears, to the Home Guard? Where are the accounts of their service, their exploits? For the most part, those stories have eluded me. Blame my late start peering into this musty cranny of war-era history. But there’s more to the explanation. Comprehensive Home Guard narratives are relatively scarce because some of that history went by another name: evidence. Many Confederate Home Guard units disbanded before the war’s end, thinking it safer to melt into the civilian populace, or enlist and then surrender with Confederate regulars, than to risk judgment by Yankee authorities or vengeful neighbors. (Neither South nor Home Guard owned a patent on that logic. Pro-Confederacy irregulars who had waged an insurgency in nominally Unionist Missouri, including those later dubbed “Quantrill’s Raiders,” took the same course.) Some who weren’t ready to accept defeat found it an easy shift from Home Guard duty to participation in postwar movements that operated outside the law to keep political and economic power in white hands. One of my great-great-grandfathers and his father-in-law, rooted “down the country” in Wayne and Lenoir counties, clearly understood that their Home Guard activities had made them liabilities to their kin as the Union tightened its chokehold on the Carolina coast. A great-great-uncle who had served, early in the war, with a Cumberland County volunteer unit was in the Home Guard until just before Sherman delivered the war to his doorstep in March of 1865. Coincidentally, perhaps, he began a removal to California just ahead of a crackdown on the Ku Klux Klan in 1869 and 1870. What, though, did Home Guards actually do? Without a rich trove of Home Guard lore, there’s a temptation to seek truth in fiction. Charles Frazier, author of Cold Mountain, accommodates with the memorably menacing Teague, captain of a Home Guard company in the mountains of North Carolina. Teague’s statutory duties included catching Confederate deserters and draft-dodgers. His preferred method of detention was summary execution. Not all Home Guard units were as trigger-happy as Teague’s, but that tale at least captures part of the Home Guard experience. And it makes the useful point that the Home Guard, though not noted for good behavior or discipline, was a legal entity. The Home Guards were not the militia. They lacked both the training and the equipment of the citizen-soldier forces that traced their authority to the 1790s. But they were what was available with the militias absorbed into regular army units, and they were expected to fight if an enemy neared hearth and home. In the meantime, the Home Guard didn’t twiddle its thumbs. Desertion became widespread as the war ground on, and conscription was no more popular than before. Some of that unpopularity adhered to the Home Guard as it pursued fugitive Confederates in their home counties. Other duties, assigned or self-assigned, included keeping an eye out for Union troop movements and harassing suspected Unionists. And, like every upstanding Confederate citizen, a member was expected to detain anyone suspected of being an abolitionist, an agitator or a runaway slave. Thus the Home Guard filled, however imperfectly, a gap between a deployed militia and the slave patrols. The patrols, also a creature of law, regularly invaded the quarters of slaves in their districts, searching for weapons and other contraband (receiving, in payment, a share of the proceeds at sale) and meting out punishment. That institutional teamwork served not only to protect the property of planters, but also to ease the anxiety of a white populace reared on stories of grisly slave revolts. If records were plentiful, they would tell us nothing about Home Guards turning the tide of battle at Manassas or Gettysburg. Stories of exceptional courage under fire would be relatively rare. But the Confederate Home Guard was part of the woof and warp of civil and military authority in the slave South, and that part of our history should not be lost to view.

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