Finding His Way Home: A Soldier’s Move from Virginia to North Carolina
Originally from Black Lick, Wythe County, Virginia, William Everett Miller found himself displaced and relocated to a new home in western North Carolina after the Civil War ended. His father—Jacob Miller—mother, and siblings had moved to Cashiers Valley, North Carolina while William, an eighteen-year-old soldier, was fighting for the Confederacy in Virginia. According to Miller, his early childhood was idyllic: “I lived on a farm [for] twelve or fourteen years. We had plenty of this world’s goods—horses, cattle, sheep, hogs, geese, guineas, chickens, turkeys, pigeons. I had a horse to ride at my will. … [I] hunted, made maple sugar and maple syrup, and what more could a youngster want?” However, as can be expected, war changed everything: Miller wrote:
“At the outbreak of the Civil War, my [parents] lived in Wytheville, Virginia… [My father had] opened a saddle, harness, and shoe factory [and] employed about ten or twelve men. Everything in a business way was moving satisfactorily up to and a short time after Virginia seceded. Then almost all business was at a standstill. … [People] look[ed] about for a safe place to reside and a place where a livelihood could be obtained for their families. They moved from towns and off public highways. My father… [decided to] take the advice of Rev. William Hicks and make a trip [by horseback] to Western North Carolina.”
Once there, Jacob Miller “bought a small place in Cashiers Valley,” returned to Virginia, and moved his family by railroad until the tracks ended in Walhalla, South Carolina, then traveled the last thirty miles to their new home by wagons. The family, minus William Everett, was settled in North Carolina in December, 1863. On January 10, 1864, Jacob Miller was “stricken with pneumonia and died, leaving [William’s] mother and seven children.”
Although William Everett Miller did know his family had moved, he did not know his father had died until after he had made the journey to western North Carolina himself while on furlough in June, 1864; Miller had been injured, receiving a flesh wound in his right leg at Newmarket, Virginia, a month earlier. Like his family, he traveled by railroad until the line ended, but he had to walk the remaining thirty miles to Cashiers. It took him two days. He spent the night in the home of strangers by the name of McCoy who fed him well; Miller stated that Mrs. McCoy’s “Irish potatoes with salt, milk, and butter” was a “sumptuous repast for a weary wounded soldier.” When he was a couple of miles from his family’s home, he asked a local man for directions to “the home of Jacob Miller.” In response, the native North Carolinian said, “I know where his widow lives, about two miles from here. [Jacob Miller] has been dead since last January.” Distraught, Miller hurried to his mother’s home where he helped support and encourage her, and his siblings, until his sixty-day furlough came to an end. Miller wrote, “It was hard for me to leave my mother and hard for her to give me up. But duty called me to the front. If I had remained at home longer than the time assigned me, I would have been arrested and taken back.” The young soldier left home with his “clothes spotlessly clean and [his] haversack filled with good things to eat.” Since details concerning food and cleanliness were important enough for the eighteen-year-old to mention, one can assume that they were important to and appreciated by the young soldier during such difficult times.
On September 19, 1864, William Everett Miller returned to his regiment in Winchester, Virginia, and “took part in one of the hardest fought battles in which [he] was ever engaged.” According to Miller, he was “at Waynesboro, near Staunton [Virginia] in the winter of 1864, [and] in the early spring of 1865.” By the first of April, Miller was headed toward Appomattox, Virginia. Miller wrote:
“We had not quite reached Appomattox. We were…informed of the fact that [General Robert E.] Lee had surrendered. There we halted. … The next morning we were ordered to form a solid square. In the center General Eckles…delivered the farewell address, which I shall never forget. With hat off he made his bow and with tears streaming down his cheeks he stood speechless fully five minutes. Looking at our chief and commander, we all shed tears. ‘Fellow soldiers,’ said he, ‘the time has come when you can be of no more use to the Southern Confederacy. … Boys, when you return you will not find [your homes] as you left them. Instead of finding your home, you will find only a chimney. Where your barn and outhouses stood you will find only ashes. Possibly some of your families have gone to foreign lands. In some cases your fathers have died and left your mothers…in a helpless condition. Possibly some of your…relatives have been killed and now fill soldiers’ graves.’ He then admonished us to return to our homes, to go to work, to be law-abiding citizens and submit to the powers that be, to help the grand old Southland to come onto her own, and do her part to make the United States the greatest country in the world.”
Like thousands of other men on that April day in 1865, Miller started the long walk home. He stated that his mother was about six hundred miles away and there were many times on his journey that he had wished that he had “joined the cavalry [so] that [he] might have a horse.” It took the young soldier over a month to reach Cashiers. Miller wrote, “When I reached there I found my mother in destitute circumstances. The whole country was suffering. I was overjoyed to get home.”