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Deserter Country: Civil War Opposition in the Pennsylvania Appalachians

by Robert M. Sandow, Fordham University Press

Eighty years ago, in her ground-breaking study of desertion during the Civil War, Ella Lonn asserted that the Appalachian Highlands of western Pennsylvania was the North’s only true “deserter country.” Re – examining Lonn’s conclusions, Robert M. Sandow persuasively argues that “while Pennsylvanians contributed enormously to the Union war effort, they were also among the most violent opponents of the war. Of all the areas of opposition within the state, many contemporaries regarded the vast mountainous northwestern lumber region as the worst.”

Deserter Country: Civil War Opposition in the Pennsylvania Appalachians succeeds where so many other published dissertations fail because it is fascinating reading. Sandow deftly references a limited historical record, augmenting often-suspect personal letters and diaries with newspapers, official census and court records, as well as a variety of other state and local government documents, to present a balanced, compelling interpretation of why the geographic, economic, social and political conditions that predominated in Pennsylvania’s Appalachian region provided “fertile ground for Civil War opposition.”

Pennsylvania was the Union’s second most populous state, but its remote western counties apparently had far more in common with the contested borderlands of the Southern Appalachian Plateau. According to Sandow: “The sparseness of settlement contributed to the region becoming a ‘deserter country’ during the Civil War.” He also underscores that “The burden of war strained the economy of mountain communities creating the economic tensions that contributed to antigovernment protest.”

Sandow moves easily between his roles as historian, political scientist and social science researcher, distilling a comprehensive view of this area. “Violent opposition occurred most among the region’s small farmers in the poorest of rural Democratic districts,” he says. “In tune with wageworking immigrants, rural Demo crats denounced Republican war measures, including emancipation and the draft, as violations of liberty and republican government.” Opposition took many forms, he points out; “citizens resisted the draft through a combination of flight, deceit, intimidation, threats, arson, and murder.”

The government’s response, mainly through the Provost Marshall Service, was ineffectual because of insufficient manpower, the organized opposition of large groups of local citizens, and the region’s notoriously rugged landscape, which made counting the drafteligible population difficult and also gave evaders plenty of places to hide almost indefinitely. Based on reports from government officials in the region to their superiors in Washington, Sandow extrapolates, “Of the 660 men drafted from Clearfield [County] in October 1864, 400 refused to report for examination.”

“Even in contemporary times,” Sandow concludes, “the people of Pennsylvania’s mountain communities remember the divisiveness of the Civil War years. Loyalty to the nation is a complex and contended notion with multiple perspectives.” Clearly, lessons drawn from the Civil War have meaning for contemporary society. Thanks to perceptive historians like Robert Sandow, we can continue to learn and grow from them in the 21st century.


Originally published in the February 2010 issue of Civil War Times. To subscribe, click here