At the state archives I found the testimony of a wife about the killing of her [Unionist] husband. He was shot while plowing . . . . A man walked up, squatted down took aim, and BANG!, shot him. While dying, he told his young daughter, who was right there by his side all the time, that he loved her and wanted her to take good care of the dresses that he recently bought her. Made tears come–this is why I love history. Fiction is boring in comparison.
William T. Auman to Victoria Bynum, January 19, 1987
I recently learned that my favorite historian of North Carolina Civil War Unionists, William T. “Bill” Auman, had revised and published his important 1988 dissertation detailing North Carolina’s inner civil war. I no sooner learned this exciting news when I discovered that Bill passed away in April, 2013, shortly before his manuscript went to press. Saddened by the news, and disappointed that I can never congratulate Bill on his accomplishment, I want, nevertheless, to pay tribute to his work. Certainly, historians and others interested in Civil War dissenters and guerrillas will want to read Bill Auman’s Civil War in the North Carolina Quaker Belt.
My friendship and scholarly relationship with Bill goes back to our years as history doctoral students–he, at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, me at the University of California, San Diego. I first learned of his research shortly after returning to California from North Carolina after completing a year of research (1982-83) on the dissertation that eventually became my first book, Unruly Women (1992). While still in North Carolina, I’d become excited by what I found in the Civil War court records of Montgomery County, as well as the Governors’ Papers, of the North Carolina State Archives. So, what began as a study of women during the antebellum years of Granville, Orange, and Montgomery Counties, North Carolina, was now expanded to the war years in order to include women from pro-Union families who tangled with the Confederacy over the status and whereabouts of their outlier/deserter husbands and sons. With that decision, my research began to dovetail with Bill Auman’s.
Very soon, I discovered Bill’s work on Southern Unionists of the Randolph County area (a region that included Montgomery County). After completing his M.A. thesis on the topic in 1978, Bill had published three articles between 1981 and 1984 on the region’s Wesleyan Methodist Unionists, on the underground Unionist organization known as the Heroes of American, and on Unionist leader Bryan Tyson of Moore County. Carefully researched and meticulously argued, those articles put me on the fast track to understanding the political context in which Montgomery County women (such as Martha Sheets, Caroline Hulin, and Phoebe Crook) confronted local pro-Confederate citizens for their abuse of local families who opposed secession and refused to support the Confederacy.
On a return trip to North Carolina in 1984, I attempted to locate Bill at the university, but learned that he had returned home for the summer. Instead, we spoke by telephone, and were both excited to share our mutual interest in Quaker Belt Unionists. At that point, we began writing one another (too early for email!), and sharing our ideas. Bill was the expert on the Quaker Belt’s inner civil war; I was the newcomer, and, besides, only a slice of my dissertation concerned the Wesleyan Methodist Unionists of Montgomery County. But it was more than that. Bill’s expertise emanated not only from superb training, but also from his personal background. A native of Randolph County, he was descended from several of the Unionist families of which he wrote, and thoroughly immersed in the geography, culture, and kinship of the region.
After corresponding for two years, during which time Bill read and critiqued several of Unruly Women’s chapters-in-progress, we met for the first time in Chicago, at the December 1986 convention of the American Historical Association (AHA). We spent a lively afternoon discussing not only our research, but the history profession in general. As anyone who knew Bill Auman can tell you, he was irreverent in his judgments of academia, and preferred to remain outside its hallowed halls as much as possible. He was delighted to learn that I enjoyed country and bluegrass music, and wrote to me about his love of the Sandy Creek Boys, the Bass Mountain Boys, and Raymond Fairchild, who he described as a “genuine North Carolina Cherokee raised on the Reservation.” Bill himself had learned to play a five-string guitar from the “good ole boys” he’d met at fiddler’s conventions.
By then, I was teaching at Southwest Texas University in San Marcos, TX (later renamed Texas State University). Bill did not yet have a teaching position, but in 1988, simultaneously with finishing his dissertation, he accepted a position at Georgia Southern University. By 1990, he’d moved on to the University of the Ozarks.
In 1991, Bill and I served together on a panel of the Organization of American Historians (OAH) in St. Louis. He presented a paper on “The Origins of Dissent in Confederate North Carolina”; I served as a commentor. And that, I’m sorry to say, was our last contact, either in person or by letter.
I can’t say why we lost touch, but I can guess. We were both terribly busy by 1991, working full-time with heavy teaching loads and dissertations waiting to be turned into books. In one of his final letters to me, Bill declared that “the pace is unbelievable. Too much for an old man. Jeepers.” In another, he commented that three of the four courses he was teaching were totally new preparations. And, of course, there were always conference papers and book reviews waiting to be written. Such is the life of the newly-minted PhD–that is, if you’re lucky enough to have a job in your profession.
I think around this time Bill abandoned his teaching position in the Ozarks and headed back home. It was always the scholarship, after all, that he loved. His research was inseparable from his love of North Carolina, and when he did return to teaching it would be there, in his home state.
As the preeminent historian of Civil War dissenters in central North Carolina, Bill has long been, and remains, the authority on that region’s most notorious Civil War guerrilla, Bill Owens. No one, I believe, knows more about Owens’ anti-Confederate activities and his violent death in 1865 at the hands of a lynch mob than Bill Auman. In fact, the guerrilla Bill lived at the apex of Randolph, Montgomery, and Moore Counties, very close to the ancestors of the historian Bill.
At a certain point, Bill Auman told me long ago, an old-timer of the neighborhood had taken him to the original home of Bill Owens. And so, much of what I wrote about Bill Owens and his wife–who was famously abused by local Confederate officials–in Unruly Women, and later in Long Shadow of the Civil War (2010), was enhanced by Auman’s insights into an otherwise elusive couple.
A problem emerged for me, however, as I wrote about Bill Owens and his wife for my latest book, Long Shadow of the Civil War. Based on Auman’s own research, Bill Owens was lynched in 1865. And yet, Auman identified William Bailey Owens and his wife, Mary, of Moore County as the guerrilla couple, although that Bill Owens was still alive in 1880 according to federal manuscript population censuses. Furthermore, the same censuses revealed another William Owens living just a few miles away, over the county line in Montgomery, who, appropriate to having been lynched, disappears from the census after 1870. This William Owens had a wife named Adeline, and this Bill Owens, I suspected, was the guerrilla Bill Owens.
Frankly, I wasn’t certain that I was correct. Bill Auman, after all, was thoroughly familiar with the people and neighborhoods of the Randolph County area. And what about the old timer who had taken him to visit Bill Owens’s original homestead? Still, I kept coming back to the fact that a man lynched in 1865 could not be alive in 1880, and so I respectfully presented my theory that Bill and Adeline Owens of Montgomery County were the “real” Owenses in my 2010 book, Long Shadow of the Civil War.
Turns out I was in for a third surprise when I received my Kindle edition of Civil War in the North Carolina Quaker Belt. I was shocked and delighted to discover that Bill had read Long Shadow of the Civil War, seen the footnote in which I reported my belief that he had incorrectly identified Bill Owens, reconsidered the evidence, and now agreed with me.
I guess that makes it official: William Owens and his wife, Adeline, of Montgomery County, NC, and not William Bailey Owens and his wife Mary, of Moore County, is our guerrilla couple. Thank you, Bill, for this final posthumous judgment. Oh, how I wish I’d written directly to you about my concerns so we could have reached that conclusion together while you were still alive.
R.I.P. Bill Auman.
William T. Auman’s Civil War in the North Carolina Quaker Belt is available via Amazon.