ASHE COUNTY-‘You can take the boy out of the mountains, but you can’t take the mountains out of the boy.’
The old adage about deep Appalachian roots and traditions ran true throughout every holler and hillside in Ashe County when the call to arms was issued during WWI.
According to Arthur Fletcher’s, “Ashe County: A History,” patriotic fervor and militarism did little to drum up support for the war locally. Countless locals simply didn’t see the value of fighting and dying for a foreign cause thousands of miles away.
“It started early when draft records failed to flow in from Ashe,” Fletcher wrote. “Gov. Thomas W. Bickett, who had appointed a native of Ashe as “Federal Agent in Charge of the Draft,” sent him to Jefferson to assist the local board. He found the local board eager to do the job properly but like many individuals and organizations, before and since, bewildered by government “paper work.” In less than a day, the machinery was running.”
On June 24, 1918, Gov. Bickett received a telegram from W.E. McNeill, Chairman of the Ashe County Draft Board, stating that there were 40 deserters from the Army roaming around Ashe County and that one civilian had been killed trying to arrest a deserter, Fletcher wrote.
Federal troops were soon called upon to address the dissident voices.
Despite the state’s tough stance on the issue of draft dodging, the prevailing public opinion sided with the deserters. Even the sheriff of Ashe County appeared sympathetic to the soldiers in hiding, Fletcher wrote.
The situation grew so dire that the governor himself deemed it necessary to visit the Lost Province.
“When the governor arrived, he found one deserter waiting at the courthouse to surrender. He spoke to a crowd that packed the courthouse to the doors. Famous as an orator, Bickett exceeded all expectations on this occasion. He told his hearers that the source all the trouble was ignorance.
“These mountain boys,” said he, “are giving trouble because they have not been told the truth about this war, and they have been told a lot of lies about it. Ignorance and misinformation are at the bottom of all this trouble and all of this shame. It is my purpose to lay before you the everlasting truth about this war.”
Fletcher said the governor told the men of his own visits to the camps, where he ate with the men, slept on their cots and saw what was being done to protect their health and morals.
“The boys in camp are better fed, better clothed, and are leading more healthful and more decent lives than the men of the same age at home,” said the governor.
He praised the so-called “Selective Draft Act” as the essence of the democratic process and described the old volunteer system as unjust and unwise, “placing a tax on patriotism and a premium on cowardice.”
Bickett made it clear in closing that law was going to be strictly enforced and that every loafer and shirker, every evader and deserter was going to be rounded up and “given a fair chance to die for his country,” Fletcher wrote.
Bickett’s speech ended the trouble. The 30 to 40 deserters hit the trail back to camp where the military authorities for the most part, accepted Bickett’s explanation of Ashe County’s mass desertions, and punishments were light.
Reach Jesse Campbell at (336) 846-7164.