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Continuing my focus on North Carolina Unionists, the following is an excerpt from the essay “Guerrilla Wars,” chapter one of The Long Shadow of the Civil War. The ruthlessness of the Bill Owens band reminds us that many Unionists and deserters of the Confederate Army were armed, organized, and ready to do battle in their own communities.

Early in 1863, in Civil War North Carolina, a band of guerrillas led by Bill Owens took over the workshop of Pleasant Simmons, a Montgomery County slaveholder and silversmith. The band of Confederate Army deserters proceeded to use Simmons’s shop to repair guns they had obtained by theft and trade.

The intrusion of Bill Owens and his men turned Simmons’s world upside down. Where he had once employed the labor of men such as Riley Cagle, a member of the Owens band, the same men now assumed control over his property. It was enough to make a man fear for his life, and, just two months after the men’s “visit,” sixty-three-year-old Pleasant Simmons wrote out a new will and filed it in court.

Before the war ended, that will was executed. In February, 1864, less than one year after the Owens band took over Simmons’ workshop, a deadly shoot-out ended his life. According to newspaper accounts, a gun battle erupted when Simmons and Jacob Sanders, a neighbor, rushed from the house to protest the Owens band’s latest forced entry, this time into Simmons’s smokehouse. Sanders fired on the intruders, wounding two of them, including Bill Owens, but the gang members fired back, killing both Simmons and Sanders. “Damned secessionists,” they cried out as they fled the scene. Reported one witness, “the yard was strewn with human gore. . . . it stood in some places in puddles where the men lay.” The Civil War had converted neighbors into coldblooded killers of one another.

Pleasant Simmons belonged to a social network of slaveholding artisans, planters, and lawyers who actively supported the Confederacy. Militia officer, Peter Shamburger, was his son-in-law. His nephew Alexander P. Leach, was captain of the Montgomery County Home Guard. Too often, it appeared to plain folk, wealthier folks escaped the worst effects of war. Unwilling to risk their lives any longer, they not only deserted the army, but regularly harassed their pro-Confederate neighbors. Resentment of a “rich man’s war and poor man’s fight” gathered steam, pitting family against family, slaveholder against nonslaveholder.

As the Owens band’s takeover of Pleasant Simmons’s property revealed, divisions of class and kinship quickly eroded reciprocal economic relations between planter and yeoman, employer and employee. Still, wartime divisions were not always drawn cleanly along lines of slaveholding status. The murdered Jacob Sanders, a carpenter who owned no slaves, may also have worked for Simmons. Yet Sanders remained a fierce supporter of the Confederacy, said to favor the “extermination” of all deserters.

The Long Shadow of the Civil War: Southern Dissent and Its Legacies, is scheduled for release in Feb., 2010, by the University of North Carolina Press.

Vikki Bynum

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