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Southwestern Virginia

Originally aired October 28, 1994 - 

In part 09 of our Civil War series, Virginia Tech history professor James Robertson discusses the contributions of southwestern Virginia to the Southern cause.

#9 – Southwestern Virginia

East of the Blue Ridge Mountains, too many citizens think of southwestern Virginians as orphans of the Old Dominion. That is an unfair analysis, of course. Southwestern Virginia is not some kind of isolated peninsula, forgotten by time and progress. It is a vibrant land whose people have understandable pride in themselves. During the Civil War, this mountainous region was one of the most important territories in the Southern Confederacy.

More than 100,000 people then lived in the counties southwest of modern-day Roanoke. They farmed, they mined, they worked on the railroad, and they tended to their own business – all of which are assets in any society. As civil war appeared on the horizon in 1860, secessionists and unionists fought for supremacy in every locale in southwestern Virginia. The result were sometimes bloody, sometimes funny.

When a Marion native publicly stated his allegiance to the Union and President Lincoln, an angry mob quickly surrounded the man. The Marion newspaper reported that townspeople rode the unionist to jail on “one of those things what old Abe split”. Patriotic citizens in Wytheville demolished a new house of ill-fame, not because of its business but because it called itself “Fort Sumter”.

Things also became heated in a Carroll County public debate. The secessionist and the unionist both lost their composure and got into a fistfight on the stage. Later the unionist, face bloodied and swollen, went before a grand jury to press charges. The jury refused to hand down an indictment – on the grounds that the man got exactly what he deserved.

Confederate sentiment came to prevail throughout the southwestern quadrant. Every community mobilized for war and sent recruits into the armies. Those enlistees came in all ages and sizes. In Captain Robert Grant’s company from Washington County was Private Elisha Franklin. He was 72 years old. When the troop train inadvertently left Franklin behind, he allegedly double-timed 10 mines to the next station to catch up with his unit.

Eight officers from the Southwest became Southern generals. A dozen regimental colonels gained prominence. That list included the celebrated “Gray Ghost of the Confederacy”, John S. Mosby, who was practicing law in Abingdon when the war began.

Southwestern Virginia contributed much more than just manpower to the Southern cause. Its natural resources became basic ingredients for sustaining the Confederacy. Rich veins of coal from Montgomery and Pulaski counties fired the boilers of such vessels as the CSS Virginia. The lead deposits of Wythe County furnished the ore from which came bullets, artillery shells, and other munitions of war.

The southwester peninsula was the Confederacy’s primary source for salt. The importance of that mineral in the Civil War can hardly be exaggerated. Salt was a necessary nutrient for beef cattle and horses. It was also the only compound that preserved meat for long periods of time. In other words, salt was the difference between nourishment and starvation for both the Southern people and the Confederate armies.

In addition to the natural resources of the area, the man-made Virginia and Tennessee Railroad by the midway point of the war was the Confederacy’s umbilical cord. It was the only rail line connecting the Southern capital at Richmond with the western theatre beyond the mountains. Military campaigns in the southwest never reached the level of major battles in the central and eastern parts of Virginia. Still, the presence of the railroad, coal mines, lead deposits, and salt ponds caused the southwest to feel the heavy hand of war off and on throughout the four-year struggle.

The largest battle in the history of southwestern Virginia occurred May 9, 1864, at Cloyd’s Mountain in northern Pulaski County. A Federal army snaked through the Allegheny Mountains and struck for Dublin to smash the railroad from there northward to the “Long Bridge” over the New River. Makeshift Confederate forces moved quickly to meet the threat. About 5 miles north of Dublin, some 9,000 soldiers collided in vicious combat that lasted little more than an hour. The fighting produced over 1,200 casualties; the hero of that engagement – Colonel Rutherford B. Hayes of the 23rd Ohio – gained a national reputation that would ultimately catapult him into the White House.

An estimated 17,000 men from southwestern Virginia served in the Confederate armies. Conservatively speaking, a fourth of them perished from battle wounds and disease. Twice as many Pulaski County men died in the Civil War than fell in World War II (when the county’s population had more than quadrupled).

Southwestern citizens have not forgotten this legacy. Other Virginians need as well to keep that contribution in mind.

Dr. James I. "Bud" Robertson, Jr., is a noted scholar on the American Civil War and Alumni Distinguished Professor Emeritus at Virginia Tech.