By Brendan Wolfe
One hundred and fifty years ago something strange happened in Floyd County. Not that you’ll see much sign of it there in the mountains. The county’s three historical highway markers are silent on the subject, and a statue of a Confederate soldier stands proudly in front of the court house. And yet in November of 1864 a regiment of Virginia reserves, commanded by the imposingly tall General John Echols, marched into Floyd with instructions to put down an uprising of deserters and Unionists.
Affairs in Floyd had been going bad for awhile. At the start of the war, the county was dominated by what historians now call “conditional Unionists”—they were all for the Union on the condition that nobody messed with slavery. Slave owners were a tiny minority in Floyd (116 out of a white population of 7,745) but they held an outsized share of the economic and political power. And when Virginia seceded, Floyd went with her. But loyalties, even to the new Confederacy, are bound to fray under the strain of war. A people whom Jefferson Davis had declared to be “united in heart” in 1861 were hungry by 1862, or at least they were in Floyd County.
Speculation in moonshine gobbled up the county’s wheat crops. Combined with other wartime shortages, this caused a real crisis. In 1862 a local magistrate complained to the governor of citizens being short of food and forced to go barefoot. He further warned that if their families weren’t properly cared for, then the soldiers out in the field “will desert their posts.” By 1864, a slow trickle of deserters had become a flood.
They abandoned their posts not because they feared battle, although who could have blamed them? That summer saw real slaughter at the Wilderness, Spotsylvania Court House, Cold Harbor, and in the trenches surrounding Petersburg and Atlanta. No, instead, they worried about their families.
According to the historian Rand Dotson, the typical Floyd County deserter was twenty-six years old and married, and was as likely to have children as not. What happened on the home front was of keen interest to soldiers. In 1864, they began to hear stories of family members who were still hungry and, therefore, fed up with the Confederate government. Without their patriotic encouragement, it was hard to face the cannon.
So they came home, hiding out in the hills and avoiding the state and federal governments’ best efforts to capture them. Using tunnels to move between hideouts and the farms of supporters, they began to lash out at the authorities. Some deserters even joined a Unionist group originally formed in North Carolina—the Heroes of America, also known as the Red Strings (after their means of identifying themselves).
General Echols and his Virginia Reserves found it impossible to completely stamp out this activity when they entered the county in 1864. And when Jefferson Davis asked the Confederate Congress to suspend the writ of habeas corpus in Floyd, the Congress refused.
Historians disagree on how much of an outlier Floyd County was, but as we celebrate the Sesquicentennial, it’s worth remembering that Virginia—like the rest of the country—suffered its share of divisions. Its white and black populations were at odds, of course; it had two competing state governments; and in the last year of the war Unionists had the run of Floyd County.
Maybe there should be two statues in front of the courthouse.