Just Deserters

By Zeman, Corinne | Humanities, September/October 2011 | Go to article overview

Just Deserters


Zeman, Corinne, Humanities


PENNSYLVANIA IN THE EARLY HOURS OF DECEMBER 13, 1864, twenty-five soldiers surrounded the home of Tom Adams, the leader of an armed band in Knox, Pennsylvania. Drunk and caught by surprise, the bandits surrendered, except for Adams, who dashed upstairs and from a second-story window shot a mounted private. Tearing an opening in the wallboards of a gable, he vaulted into the garden, where he was accosted by soldiers and fatally shot. Adams's crime? Abandoning the 149th Pennsylvania Volunteers, with which he had served six months in 1863.

The "Bloody Knox" incident, as it became popularly known, is a sound illustration of Pennsylvania's Civil Warera politics, which pitted antjgovernment protestors against federal marshals. "The U.S. government," explains Robert Sandow, "considered Pennsylvania to be one of the strongest parts of resistance in the entire North." Sandow, who authored Deserter Country: Civil War Opposition in the Pennsylvania Appalachians, lectures for the Commonwealth Speakers series, sponsored by the Pennsylvania Humanities Council.

Composed of hard-drinking, rough-and-tumble residents, the lumber region in northern Pennsylvania was a hornets' nest of partisan strife. It doubled as a safe haven for antiwar Democrats and truant soldiers - the nimble Adams, among them. They placed community over country, resented federal intervention, and scorned the presence of industrialists. The Enrollment Act of 1863 was the bane of these hand-to-mouth farmers and loggers, who were needed at home.

As questions of loyalty plagued the Appalachian mountainsides, partisan lines were drawn. Sandow explains, "Democrats, naturally, wanted to be the defenders of individual rights, but Republicans were saying, 'Listen, in times of war, there are no political parties. You should put aside partisanship and be patriots in support of the nation.'" As the Civil War raged on Pennsylvania's southern border, the lumber region was divided by an inner civil war, fought over dinner tables, in newspapers, on storefronts, and in the streets.

After the offices of a Democratic newspaper were gutted and set aflame, an editor urged Democrats "not only to defend their property but to strike back." "Dissenters used every means possible to defy federal authorities," writes Sandow, "including lying, mtimidation, assault, and murder. Opposition came not from a single class of people but from whole communities.

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