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Viewpoint: A nation divided, a region divided further

NE Georgia’s allegiances remained split during Civil War

POSTED: April 17, 2011 1:47 a.m.

Anniversaries are important to us: They enable and encourage us to preserve in memory the things we consider important from our past.

Most such personal events, such as birthdays and wedding anniversaries, are ways to celebrate happy occasions.

Holidays, from Easter to President's Day, help us celebrate events that are important to our community.

Remembering the days when important things happened helps us organize our lives and how we view the world.

It should be no surprise, therefore, that the sesquicentennial of the American Civil War is being marked as a major event in its own right since the bloodiest, most traumatic, and most formative event in our history began 150 years ago last week. Over the next four years, we will see a variety of ceremonies, commemorations, re-enactments and speeches to mark these events.

From 1961-65, the centennial reflected on the Civil War in a similar way; however, a lot has changed since then and, as a result, we're going to see an anniversary that allows the nation to reflect in a very different way than it did 50 years ago.

Perhaps the most consequential difference is that the Civil Rights movement bisects the centennial and the sesquicentennial.

Without question that movement was, and continues to be, a direct result of the outcome of the Civil War and its aftermath. It has changed the way we collectively view our past and brought the questions of race and slavery to the center of most discussions about the Civil War.

As controversial as it is, this is the real question that we face over the next four years: How central was the issue of slavery to the outbreak of the war? I can assure you, there are no easy or simple answers.

Fifty years ago, the focus of the war's centennial was on the big battles, major players and national events.

While those will still be important this time around, a greater focus on the local level reflects a growing interest by people as to what role the war played in their own backyards and in their own family history.

As more people begin to explore the war in more detail, they want to know how it affected their ancestors and where they live. The sesquicentennial is going to show us that, to paraphrase Tip O'Neill, "all history is local."

Indeed, among professional scholars and historians one of the leading areas of research for the Civil War is how and why it unfolded the way it did right here in Appalachia, and a fascinating story it's turning out to be.

With the 1860 election of Abraham Lincoln, who was not even on the ballot in Georgia, matters came to a head and cries for secession swept the South. Though having significant concerns over the ramifications of the election, most of the people in this region, mountainous and isolated as it was, did not share the strong secessionist leanings held by many other Georgians.

At the state convention, the region voted almost as a block against leaving the Union, including "no" votes from all three of Hall County's representatives. The ordinance passed, however, on Jan. 19, 1861, making Georgia the fifth state to secede.

As with most wars, once the fighting began the idealism faded into the background for the individual soldier and the family he left at home; their thoughts quickly turned to survival, whether on the battlefield or on the farm, and Northeast Georgia was not immune.

What happened here is not only a remarkable story but one that very few today know or appreciate.

Northeast Georgia was so divided along political, racial and religious lines that a civil war within a civil war developed and lasted for the duration.

To be sure, there were those who felt a strong loyalty to the state and the Confederacy, and this area provided thousands of soldiers for the Southern armies.

There were just as many, though, who refused to fight in a war they did not believe in and either attempted to avoid the draft or, in extreme cases, made their way to "enemy" lines and joined the Union army.

Foraging parties, moving through the area to gather supplies for the Confederacy, threatened both pro-Confederate and pro-Union farmers to the point that they would sometimes band together and take up arms to oppose the "unlawful" seizure of the food they needed for their families and their communities.

Records made during and shortly after the war show that much of this area was laid waste, even though no major battles ever took place in Northeast Georgia and no large armies ever marched through.

This can be attributed to the violence and partisanship that characterized the Appalachian region where a fierce sense of independence and the rejection of outside interference played a far larger role than any sense of loyalty to a centralized government or political ideology.

For those so inclined to read more about this subject, I strongly recommend "A Separate Civil War: Communities in Conflict in the Mountain South" by Jonathan Dean Sarris.
Make no mistake: Though the battlefields we've all heard of might be far away, the Civil War happened here.

Men left their homes and loved ones behind to fight in those battles, and many never returned.

Those on the home front were wracked with loss, fear, and uncertainty, confronted not only with fathers, brothers and sons far away in battle but with the more immediate concerns of health, income, and basic sustenance.

The defeat of the Confederacy meant that the war was over, but the hardship and memory of wartime wrongdoings endured.

For the local communities to have any chance of healing and closure, the same spirit of national reconciliation was adopted at the local level.

That sense of reconciliation, though, was achieved at the price of ignoring not just the terrors of the conflict but the issues that had led to conflict in the first place.

My hope is that by 2015, we will have reached a New Reconciliation in which everyone has not only their own voice but a respect for the voices of others.

As we experience the sesquicentennial, I encourage each and every one of us to ask the hard questions, and try to answer them together; instead of passing judgment on the past I believe we will all be much better served if we strive for understanding.



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