When researching family history I dutifully record the facts, using documents such as vital records, census records and old wills. I can see how many generations lived in one place or trace how many places one generation lived.
Being an imaginative person, I can see wisps of stories that linger on the facts like attic dust. Gaps and connections intrigue me most. Therefore, family research evolves into potential stories of fiction for me. Among my ancestors, I have mountain clans from North Carolina who fought in the Civil War–the Greens, McCandlesses, Hatleys, Alexanders and Greens.
You might wonder why I include the Greens twice. Well, the McCandlesses and Hatleys married Greens twice as much as any other family. I’m related to the Greens through multiple branches which is not uncommon for remote areas or the times. It gets challenging to keep straight the Aunt Marys, though–there’s Aunt Mary McCandless Green and Aunt Mary Green McCandless.
Today is Memorial Day. According to the U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs, the last Monday in May commemorates the men and women who died in military service. It began as a springtime tribute to those who died in the Civil War (1861-1865), or the War of Northern Aggression as it was known in North Carolina (and other Confederate states).
If you read much on the Civil War, especially histories and accounts written directly after 1865, you’ll understand that people then were as opinionated and controversial as people can be now. If Americans feel that politics are divisive today, try facing down the muzzle of your cousin and having to answer to both Aunt Marys as to why you shot him. Because you were wearing Blue and he was wearing Gray.
My ancestors left Scotland and Ireland in the mid-1700s. They followed the faint footsteps of Daniel Boone down the valley along the Smokey Mountains into a place they called Watauga. They leased land from the Cherokee tribes living in the area and they lived outside of the known and governed colonies. Eventually statehood caught up with them and they became a part of North Carolina. To most they were known as the mountain people.
When the Civil War broke out (and broke apart the United States), not all the families agreed which side to take. In fact, many didn’t want to take a side. According to historians, 1,000 men from Watauga County, NC joined the Confederacy and 100 joined the Union.
“Joined” is a curious word in regards to the Confederate forces. Conscription–a type of draft–often joined men against their will. However, to join the Union, one had to trek over the mountains into Tennessee and risk life (and family) to deliberately sign up for Union forces in a Confederate state.
My third great-grandfather, Riley B. Hatley, writes in his pension account how he had to scoot across the mountains to avoid conscription. His two brothers followed him and all three fought for the Blue although all three of their names are listed on the roster for the Gray.
Their cousin, Lafayette Hatley (my first cousin 5x removed), also shows up on the roster for Company D, North Carolina 58th Infantry Regiment. But he didn’t scoot. He stayed. To give you an idea of how bad the war was in the mountain region of North Carolina, families took up arms against families–and these were not soldiers. The soldiers of both uniforms often delivered retribution more than carrying out battle formations. What an awful time.
One historian wrote the cries of the Wataugans as, “Peace, Peace, When There Was No Peace.” As a fiction writer, how can I ignore these unwritten stories? They speak as much about us today as they did back then.
The same historian claims that after the war most men and women took heart and hope, beginning all over again. Yet others, like my kin, were completely discouraged. My family (four generations) left for Tennessee and founded new communities in Colorado, Washington and Idaho. Some only moved as far away as Tennessee.
As for the cousin on the opposite side of Papa Riley, he was the only son of Riley’s father’s only brother. Pvt. Lafayette Hatley never survived the war. He died in Dalton, GA from congestion of the brain on March 23, 1864.
No matter the side, no matter the reason, I seek to honor my Civil War ancestors in fiction, trying to understand their motives, their fears, their hopes, their disappointments. After all, they are stories I carry in my own blood.