Second installment of patriotic, fictional short stories for the Fourth.
“No, I ain’t going.”
Virgil Harris’ father cut off Old Man Carter and his talk of see-cession. Old Man Harris stayed away from talk of politics. He was not a man to get riled up and not a man to rile up others. He just wanted to be left alone to hoe his corn and look after his family and farm.
But there sitting on the cabin’s front porch step – a stacked pile of flat rocks hauled from Big Elkin Creek — was his 15-year-old. Son Virgil didn’t say anything but he took it all in.
And it all burned in his heart. They’re picking a fight, and Virgil did not even know if he wanted to avoid it like his daddy.
Fall was in the air, and Virgil wrapped up the dwindling daylight hours, following school and field work, by splitting wood and packing the woodshed for the coming winter chill. His contact with the world beyond the farm for the most part was limited to talk, chiefly among the boys on the grounds of his one-room school along Grassy Creek.
“The Yankees can’t tell us what to do,” one boy defiantly roared during lunch. “We ought to go on our own.”
What? the silent Virgil thought. What about all we’ve learned in there, in the schoolhouse, like Washington and beating the Redcoats and the Declaration of Independence? We’re in the United States of America!
As the end of 1860 approached, people young and old here in the hometown area were talking long and hard. They were talking in the fields and at the stores. They held community meetings, though minus Old Man Harris. Then Lincoln’s election ramped it up.
“Every imaginable point of view was expressed,” wrote historian Bill Powell, a former professor of mine, in his 1977 book, “North Carolina A History.”
The question of North vs. South had festered for decades. North Carolinians like Virgil Harris in the Elkin-Surry Township had “real affection … for the Union,” as Powell described it. But newly elected Lincoln, an abolitionist politician, had a way of riling people up, not unlike the president of today.
“Why don’t you go vote, Dad?” young Virgil finally spoke up. The General Assembly had called for a referendum to settle the question once and for all.
“I’m not getting into that debate,” Dad spat, except he did not use the word “debate.”
It’s a surprise to most folks today that North Carolinians, on Feb. 28, 1861, actually voted against secession 47,313 to 46,672. Virgil felt relieved. He felt he could still honor all of those pledges of allegiance he gave at school. He still lived in the land of Washington and the Patriot founders.
Most importantly, he would not have to fight the inevitable war had the vote gone the other way.
Then as spring was in the air old man Carter came a-running. Virgil had never seen him RUN up the road before.
“They did it! They did it!” Carter called out. In the middle of a corn field Old Man Harris and son learned of the firing on Fort Sumter in South Carolina. The old man just dropped his head and went about his hoeing; Virgil, however, felt his heart sink. But we voted, he thought to himself. We can’t go to war now, can we?
As the war fever burned Virgil resisted his buddies’ dares to sign up for the South. “Just tell ‘em you’re 18,” they chided Virgil.
But the young Patriot kept thinking back to those wonderful stories he had heard in school. Washington at Valley Forge. Ringing the Liberty Bell. Jackson at New Orleans. Taming the West and reaching the Pacific Ocean. When young Virgil gave the pledge each day in school, he meant it.
So Virgil kept his head down. He kept quiet, something that came natural for him. Secretly he loved the Union, still loved America. He felt sick about the war. And he would have no part of it.
Then came the day. “You might as well sign up now,” a buddy told him. “Better that than letting them come and get ya.”
Virgil’s heart froze with the news of Confederate conscription, which would start just before his 17th birthday. In a year Virgil would have to go.
But in years gone by they’d talked in school about what a wonderful country this was. Freedom and rights for the little man and being whatever you want – all of those talks and history lessons reverberated in Virgil’s ears.
Then he heard that there was a man up in Traphill taking men up through the Cumberland Gap and to the American army. Virgil knew what he was going to do. He would not take up arms against his country. His America.
So a chilly December night before Christmas, he lit out on foot for Traphill and then Cumberland Gap and his destiny, which lay with the Union.
And in such patriotic spirit I celebrate the Fourth of July today. Have a happy Independence Day.
Postscript: My great-grandfather Virgil Harris returned from the war to the hometown, raised a family and lived to 86. Though this story is made up, the names, places and many of the events are real. Virgil’s portrait hangs in my home. On Easter I decorate his grave with an American flag.
Stephen Harris returned home to live in State Road.