The Ashe County Case
by Lonnie Jones
In 1918, a very unusual event took place in Ashe County, one which drew state and national attention to our mountains. As is often true even today, national events seem distant from Ashe County; but in 1918, what was happening in Europe must have felt even further removed from our mostly isolated high country. Though events similar to the story that follows happened in several other North Carolina counties, Ashe County brutally came face to face with realities of a World War when the events related here brought history home to the mountains.
World War I affected Ashe County as it did most of the other rural areas of America. Many young men had to go to fight in Europe. This was not a totally unfamiliar occurrence; we had sent troops to Cuba and to the Philippine Islands at the end of the 19th century. Somehow this war was different, people did not have a clear understanding of why we were there. There had been a long standing promise from Woodrow Wilson that we would not be involved, and then suddenly, we were shipping our Army boys overseas.
For the first time, millions of soldiers were needed and more than a volunteer force could muster. President Wilson called for a draft and Congress passed it into law, using a civilian registration and number lottery system. Almost 98% of the eligible men in the country registered. The system called for three lotteries. The first lottery was held on June 5, 1917, for men born between 1886 and 1896, from ten million eligible registrants. The second lottery was held on June 5, 1918, for men born between 1896 and 1897, from one million eligible registrants. The third lottery was held on September 12 1918, for men born between 1873 and 1886 and 1897 and 1900, from fourteen million eligible registrants. Ashe County had 461 drafted for the war, but 536 men served, the difference being volunteers and those already in the military before the draft started. Of the 461 draftees, forty nine were wounded, fifteen died on active duty, three were listed as deserters, and five were dishonorably discharged. Draft evasion was a problem in this war but the percentage of draft evaders in Ashe was only .75% compared to a state rate of 2.65%.
Despite these numbers and the record made by the men who served, Ashe County and our North Carolina Mountains exited the war with a black eye that few today remember. At first the Local Draft Board had trouble with the new draft system and the paperwork logjam it represented. Reports and paperwork on registrants from Ashe were slow reaching Raleigh, and help from Raleigh was required to get the system moving. Soon after the first month’s troubles, the local board was working smoothly and Ashe records were available to allow the draft to affect local men.
The second part of that “black eye” came when several men from Ashe who were in the service, mostly at Fort Jackson, South Carolina, simply left, deserting, and returning to Ashe County. Reports show that perhaps as many as forty men were here in the county in various communities, absent without leave (AWOL) from their military unit. Reading through the reports from those days and articles about desertion in those days, it appears that several things contributed to this. Many people did not fully understand the reason we were part of the World War I effort. Being away from home and the rigor of Army life was difficult for many of these men, and their families back home were also in difficult straits without their sons’ help in the family business or on the family farm. Many of these young men were also away from home for the first time ever. Desertion was justified in the minds of family for these reasons and many local people supported their neighbor’s son and his decision to leave the military.
In June of 1918, Ashe County law officers found these deserters living in their home communities, and efforts to arrest and send them back met resistance. In Horse Creek and in Fleetwood efforts by Sheriff R.G. Latham were rebuffed and he came to the conclusion that force would be required to put the AWOL soldiers back in uniform. The task seemed too difficult for the local police only, especially after June 24th, 1918 when a group of local men intent on bringing this situation to an end, found themselves in a shooting with the deserters. One deserter and one of those with the posse were shot and killed.
Local Draft Board Chairman W.E. McNeill sent a telegram to Governor Thomas Bickett asking for help with this situation. That telegram and the Governor’s response can be found in Governor Bickett’s papers. The first thing Bickett did was to send his Adjutant General Lawrence Young to investigate the situation. His report back to Raleigh recommended that an outside armed force be sent to handle the situation, that indeed the situation was desperate, with local families and deserters threatening to shoot those who came to their homes.
Governor Bickett seems to have been a very wise and good-hearted man. He sent word back to Young to meet him the following Saturday (in July) at North Wilkesboro with a car to bring him to Ashe County. He then instructed both the Adjutant General and the Local Draft Board to contact all the deserters and their families and other interested citizens of the area to meet with him alone in the courtroom of the Jefferson Courthouse at 3:00 pm on that Saturday. He also made plans to travel into various communities to talk with Ashe County families.
On Saturday, when he arrived he was immediately greeted by one of the deserters who wanted to give up and was very concerned about his status with the military. Inside the courtroom, this Governor, famous for his oratory, spoke for close to an hour to those present. The entire speech is available, but in part he said” I came to you today to save and not to destroy. I came to save the fair name of a county in which the whole state takes particular pride. I come to save you-your birthright of honor and chivalry; I come to save backward and willful boys from the sad and certain consequences of ignorance and sin”. He further stated” I know you are not cowards but somehow ignorant of the war and the details of the draft law”. Further, he explained those things in his speech to the boys and their families. He also said the draft was going to be fairly administered, reaching both the “pool-room aristocracy and the coca-cola gentry.” The speech emphasized the need for the United States to fight the “Hun.” He also pledged to write the military on behalf of the Ashe County deserters, especially to write the camp commander at Fort Jackson. He actually did this and it appears that all those who went back were accepted back without much problem.
The following week after Governor Bickett’s visit, sixteen young men reported and asked to be sent back to their Army camp. Four more promised to come in by Saturday the same week and several promised to write to friends who had, in fear, gone to other states to escape. It appears in the next few weeks most of the deserters went back and served honorably.
This incident gained the county notoriety in many state newspapers. Deserters and draft evaders were referred to derisively as “shirkers” and much was written about this and other similar events. The Robesonian, a newspaper down east in Robeson County, reported this incident on July 1st, 1918, reporting the Governors actions and saying” the one deserter who met the Governor outside the courthouse to surrender was allowed to go back into the mountains to encourage others to surrender and that Bickett hoped this would lead to a peaceful settlement of the situation”.
The reporting of this and other incidents in the North Carolina Mountains reached far and wide. In a New York newspaper, The Syracuse Herald, the headlines read “Tarheel Mountains Again Part of the U.S.; Deserters Give Up”. This story refers to Mitchell County where in Bakersville, North Carolina the Governor did almost the same thing after a shooting incident with nine deserters. This ended with those men going back and serving their country.
Research can provide names of many of these young men and of those two men who were killed in the incident in the Horse Creek area of the County. It appears little legal action took place as a result of the shootings, and names may better be left unremembered.
The Ashe County Case shows the independent spirit of the mountaineer and of his unwillingness simply to do what everyone else was doing without good reason being apparent. It also points to the importance of family to the citizens of that era, where at the risk of punishment these young men were determined to make sure the folks back home were safe without their help. Local officials showed allegiance to these young men, unwilling to further take an armed force to field, avoiding bloodshed of neighbor and friend. It also shows the good sense of a Raleigh politician who knew the hearts of good people could be stirred with truth, reason and compassion.Sources: Ashe County-A History-Fletcher; Letters and Papers of Thomas Bickett, Governor; North Carolina’s Role in the First World War-Sarah Lemmon; The Robesonian; The Syracuse Herald, University of North Carolina-Papers of Thomas Bickett. Image Credits: “Thomas Walter Bickett.” Photograph no. 53.15.1572. From the Audio Visual and Iconographics Collection, Division of Archives and History Photograph Collection, State Archives of North Carolina, Raleigh, NC, USA.
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