From Progress to Collapse: Mountain Elites and the Transformation of Society in Western North Carolina from the Antebellum Period to the Civil War

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CONFERENCE: CLAS: Colby Liberal Arts Symposium

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Hull, Colin
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Despite historical and popular misconceptions of appalachia and western North Carolina as backwards, homogenous, isolated, and dominantly unionist during the Civil War, mountain society was complex, interconnected, and relatively diverse. It is therefore deserving of a more sophisticated representation. These misconceptions led to the creation of the myth of a mountain culture. However, a study of elite families and mountain society from the antebellum period to the end of the Civil War has undermined the myth of a mountain culture. Mountain elites served as the mouthpiece and driver for economic, social, and political development in their communities across the region throughout the antebellum period. This development continued until part way through the Civil War when mountain society made a dramatic transition. Society transformed from an interconnected and developing system to one that turned on itself. During the Civil War, highlanders endured impressment into Confederate and Union military service, requisitions of resources, deprivation of various necessities, guerrilla violence, and general social and economic disintegration. Originally the backbone of their society, elites turned inwardly, pursuing their self-interest without aiming to preserving their communities. By the end of the war, mountain society had almost entirely collapsed. This disintegration had an enduring legacy for western North Carolina well into the twentieth century, as it served as the basis for these stereotypes and the myth of mountain culture.