“I have the ground for a bed and the sky for a cover and yet I am in good health,” wrote Ambrus R. Collins to his wife Sarah Jane. It was August 28, 1862, a year into the Civil War. His unit was camped near Richmond, Virginia, and he was a stalwart Confederate. “If you and the children can make out at home I can make out here till I fulfill my duty in the war.”
The Collins farm was just north of Dobson where 601 crosses the Fisher River. He was confident, as many Confederates were, that the war would be a quick and decisive affair. He wrote again Sept. 8 from Frederick County, Maryland.
“Dear wife and children …. We have to march to Baltimore and then to Washington City (D.C.) and there I think the war will end for the Yankeys (sic) is running all the time and the New York papers is in favor of giving up and letting the south have their rites (sic).”
Nine months later another Surry farmer Isaac Thompson wrote to his friend Archie Cameron.
“Our leaders are getting so bold in wickedness that I can but think that God will crush them for their deeds. I believe that all the soldiers nearly in the Confederacy is for peace. Let it come as it will. … if my family has to suffer and die for want of something to eat what good would it do me to gain independence? For if I fight at all let me fight for my family’s rights. … I am a southern man with southern principles yet I’m not in favor of fighting until we are worse off than we would be to be subjugated.”
Too often we see history as a list of battles and great deeds, removed from the humanity of the very human people who lived through them. We see history in stark terms: all good or all bad when, in reality, history is complicated because people are complicated. Our ancestors did not walk in lockstep any more than we do today.
David W. Worth, of Guildford County, was drafted into the Confederate Army in October 1864 with three friends, Joseph, William, and JC Gilmer. They were among the many citizens in the Piedmont counties and in the western mountains of the state who were staunch Unionists and often pacifists on religious grounds.
Dozens of families migrated from Surry County to Indiana in the first half of the 19th century. During the war men who objected to violence or who supported the Union, joined relatives and friends there to avoid military conscription. Worth and his friends tried but they were captured in Tennessee. Eventually the Gilmers “succeeded in deserting the Rebel Army and are now in Rush County, Indiana,” Worth wrote from prison to Union Brig. Gen. Huffman in a petition for freedom in 1865.
He was granted his freedom and fought the rest of the war as part of the Union.
The Civil War was a pivotal moment in America. A harsh transition from America’s “Peculiar Institution” to the vilified policies of Reconstruction.
Surry was the site of a large gathering in July 1863 where local leaders, including slave owners, called for peace and a return to the Union. “The Constitution as it is and the Union as it was.”
After the war, while there were plenty of abuses and cases of bigotry in the area, the Unionist peace movement gained steam in Surry, Stokes, Yadkin, Forsyth, and Guilford counties. Surry County voters in the 1866 gubernatorial race favored the Unionist candidate nearly two to one.
In April 1867 the Hamburg Chapter of the Union League was formed at Browers Mill in Hamburg (near the Mount Airy Middle School). Jacob Brower, who had built a sprawling complex of grist mills, textile mills, and other manufacturing businesses that regularly out-produced most other producers in the region, chaired the meeting.
The organization worked for tuition-free public schools for all, to do away with voting restrictions based on land ownership and to get freedmen registered to vote and to the polls.
Founding members included leading businessmen such as Thomas Schaub and J. M. Marshall, the owners of Surry’s two wagon works. Several, including the Browers, built their businesses, at least in part, with enslaved labor.
History is complicated because people are complicated. History is also heartbreaking.
Rufus Collins, who wrote so eloquently to his wife in Dobson, died just days after he wrote the letter above at the Battle of Antietam.
Isaac Thompson, the loyal Southern man so disillusioned with his leaders, was killed at the Battle of Cedar Creek.
David Worth, a veteran of both the Confederate and Union armies, returned to the state and operated a gristmill in Westfield.
By Kate Rauhauser-Smith is a local freelance writer, researcher, and genealogist.