Author’s Note: For the purpose of this essay, I use the word soldier to mean any man or woman who served in any of America’s armed forces. An edited version of this article first appeared in the November 2020 issue of Kentucky Monthly.
EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the first part of a two-part column penned by Dr. James Gifford.
Historically, the people of Appalachia have played a major role in fighting for and defending America’s freedoms. From colonial times to our current war against terrorism, Appalachian men and women have been at the forefront of battle.
Soldiering was easy for Appalachian people because their life experiences often provided the skills necessary for survival and success. They came from a rugged, agrarian background that prepared them for the hardships of military life. Most were able marksmen. They could outmarch and outride their urban counterparts. They were comfortable out of doors and accustomed to living off the land. In many respects, soldiering was easier than the life of grinding work and economic privation that many of them returned to at the end of every war.
In the Revolutionary War, “the over the mountain men” from the Watauga settlement in what is now east Tennessee helped to defeat the British at Kings Mountain in western South Carolina in 1780. The colonists won their independence on fields of battle, and Appalachian marksmen contributed to every American victory. Four decades later, America fought another war for independence. Although history books often present the War of 1812 as the military version of a comic opera, the fact remains: we were fighting the British again, and, if they had won, we would have lost our hard-earned freedoms and probably returned to colonial status. Andrew Jackson, the hero of the War of 1812, was a prototypical backwoodsman who symbolized a new age in American history and rode the wave of his popularity as the hero of the battle of New Orleans to the White House in 1828.
As the antebellum period continued, men from Appalachia continued to play a major role in our military efforts. In 1836, the heroes of the Texas War for Independence were men like Jim Bowie and Davy Crockett. Ten years later, Uncle Sam beat the drums of war again, and a new generation of mountaineers marched forth to help us win the Mexican War. Tennessee is called the Volunteer State because of the high incidence of volunteerism that began with the Mexican War and continued into the 20th century. Throughout Appalachia, many mountain counties met their draft quotas in World War I and World War II entirely through volunteers.
The colonial wars, the American War for Independence, and the continuing conflicts of the antebellum period paled to insignificance compared to the Civil War, which was often fought in the heart of Appalachia. Appalachians served with bravery and distinction on both sides. When the war ended, no section of America had suffered more than Appalachia.
Before the Civil War, the people of Appalachia had been prosperous, independent, prideful and literate. Following the Civil War and Reconstruction, those same individuals — primarily Republicans who had supported the North — suffered political and economic discriminations when the Democratic party regained control of the governments of southern states. Southern Appalachia became the poor back yard of southern states: eastern Kentucky, for example, or northeast Georgia. By the beginning of the 20th century, Appalachia was an island of poverty in a national sea of plenty.
Historical circumstances worked against our region in the 19th century, but historical events of the 20th century would help Appalachia rebuild its quality of life. For example, World War I provided gainful employment for tens of thousands. As was often the case, an Appalachian soldier became the hero who captured the popular imagination.
Alvin York, a mountain boy from Tennessee’s Cumberland plateau, went out on patrol in 1918 and singlehandedly killed 25 Germans with 25 shots and returned with 132 German soldier captives. The men who surrendered to York had 25 machine guns among them. When York marched his captives to division headquarters, his commander remarked, “Well, York, I hear you have captured the whole damn German army.” York saluted and modestly asserted, “No sir, I just got 132 of them.”
DR. JAMES GIFFORD, Ph.D., is the CEO and Senior Editor at the Jesse Stuart Foundation.