Unionist Heroes of America and the Red Strings

Jeffrey Weaver’s history of Thurmond’s Partisan Rangers mentions that the unit was involved in the rounding up of members of the Heroes of America. I thought little of the incident since Confederate officials often employed home guards and rangers to round up dissidents and deserters throughout the Confederacy. During my meeting with Dr. Thorp last week, we talked about the role the 44th Va Cav played in SW VA. He mentioned that rumors of potential saboteurs floated through SW VA during the later stages of the war, and that Confederate authorities cracked down on members of an organization known as the “Red Strings.” Dr Thorp recommended I read Kenneth Noe’s “Red String Scare: Civil War Southwest Virginia and the Heroes of America.” I did, and I realized that the Unionist Heroes of America and the Red Strings were the same organization. Rumors that the Heroes of America were going to sabotage the V&T RR led Confederate authorities in Richmond to crack down on Unionists in SW VA and convinced many officials that SW VA was overrun with dissidents. This is an interesting story that ties into the V&T RR and also speaks to the issue of loyalty in SW VA during the late Civil War. I am following this rabbit hole.

This entry was posted in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.

8 Responses to Unionist Heroes of America and the Red Strings

  1. KJ says:

    Just read your reception essay — curious to know how this article fits with the book? Don’t get lost following the rabbit’s trail!

  2. nicknowland says:

    Dr Jones, well I am facing two problems with my thesis. First, I need to link two separate themes: the V&T RR and guerrillas. Despite my hopes, the guerrillas simply did not play a large role in southwestern VA. They did play a role in helping blunt Union raids aimed at the railroad, however I do not think I can sufficiently link these guerrillas, most of whom were simply defending their homes in southern West Virginia, to the defense of the railroad. Obviously they did help defend the railroad, but I have not yet found much proving that they actively sought to defend the railroad. However, guerrillas in Southwest VA did round up Unionist and dissidents, including the Red Strings, in southwestern VA, thus playing a role in stopping a perceived saboteur threat against the railroad. That is why I am looking at the Red Strings.

    • kj says:

      I’m a bit confused…they blunted union raids against RR but they weren’t focused on trying to defend the RR? So they weren’t thinking strategically as would a military leader, they were thinking as a civilian police force intent on protecting a community? So Is it the “unintended consequences” of guerrilla warfare that you are seeing?
      Would it be helpful to think about how the presence of the RR (makes the RR the centerpiece, key actor in the thesis) shaped guerrilla actions in SWVA– or is that just saying differently what you are now saying you don’t think the evidence supports? Or could you ask who the guerrillas were, and why they acted, and what the consequences of their actions were? (makes guerrillas the key actor)? Defense of the RR becomes one of the consequences, even if not what motivated guerrillas?
      Hoping my questions can help you see readers’ confusion, even if my questions are far removed from your intent!

      • nicknowland says:

        Guerrillas played a role in harassing and hampering Union raiders that entered SW VA in order to attack the railroad. I do not think I can argue that they were actively seeking to defend the railroad, but now that you mention it, I am not sure I have to say that. I could say that they were defending their homes, and in doing so, they defended the railroad. I can start my thesis by explaining the significance of the RR to SW VA and the larger Confederacy, then explain how the RR attracted Union attacks, then talk about how guerrillas inadvertently defended it.

    • Melanie Kiechle says:

      Have you come across anything about rumors in your research? I’m struck by your mention of a “perceived saboteur”and think that rumors might be the thing that would link guerrillas and the RR.

      My first thought though was that, if your sources don’t tell you that the RR and guerrillas are connected, why are you trying to force that connection? Is this your preconceived idea of the project getting in the way of the listening to the sources? Or do the sources tell you that that the connection is different from the one you originally hoped to find?

      • nicknowland says:

        I have only focused on the primary sources for the railroad. I have looked at newspapers for guerrilla activity, however I have not found reports about SW VA guerrillas, which is understandable considering the large distances between these guerrillas’ AOR and the cities like Lynchburg and Abingdon that have newspapers. Right now I have only done secondary source work for the guerrillas. However, the guerrillas in SW VA did not leave a lot of primary sources behind, and thus I do not think the sources will tell me that the guerrillas explicitly sought to defend the railroad.

  3. kj says:

    And apologies for the length of this comment: Makes me wonder what other primary sources might help you investigate the guerrillas. Do you know the names of individuals who participated in guerrilla activities and could they be tracked in census records to figure out social status of the guerrillas? It’s been useful for researchers who study lynch mobs as a way to help them unpack the motivation behind lynchings. (Seems the answer is no,but thought I’d check.) Would you find records about guerrilla actions in Confederate military sources (I don’t know the kinds of military records that you would have to draw on but might reports from the area have ended up in the hands of either the government or the military. The Red Strings article seems to suggest so.) If the RR is so strategically important, and attracted Union attacks might you find information there about guerrilla activities in Union military records?

    Other questions (other potential rabbit holes?) — are guerrillas active in other areas of VA or other areas adjacent to SWVA. Were guerrillas active in West VA? If you want guerrillas to be the focus of your thesis, you might have to branch out to other areas
    Or, if it’s the RR you want to write about…what sorts of questions can you ask that combine your interests in economic and military history?

    I’m also curious about the secondary literature on Confederate guerrillas — what’s been done about actions elsewhere? Wouldn’t this literature be one of your daisy petals?

    • nicknowland says:

      Dr Jones,

      I think your question about guerrilla activity elsewhere in the Confederacy is an important one. I spent last semester completing a historiograpahical review of guerrilla warfare throughout the south, so I do have the information I need to tie southwestern VA into the larger guerrilla conflict. I am realizing that I need to expand my discussion of guerrilla warfare into southern West Virginia because many of the guerrillas who operated in southwestern VA originated from counties in southern West Virginia. As Union armies pushed farther into eastern TN, eastern KY, and Southern West VA, some Confederate guerrillas, especially semi-legitimate partisan rangers groups, shifted their area of operations to southwestern VA. Thus, as I link these guerrillas to the railroad, I am going to have to explain that their roles changed. They initially intended to defend their homes from Union invasion, but his changed as Union armies pushed into Appalachia. However, as guerrillas retreated East from their home counties, they were still harassing the invaders of their homeland, albiet they were now doing it in a geographic area that was intricately linked to the V&T RR. Thus, although they did not set out to defend the RR, they ended up defending the V&T RR by fighting Yankees in southwestern VA.

      You are correct, I can find info about guerrillas through the Union military records. I have Crook’s memoirs, records of the campaigns into SW VA in the Official Records, and letters from other Union officers who served on these campaigns. I have not yet looked at letters from average soldiers on these campaigns. Unfortunately, Union soldiers rarely named the bushwhackers and guerrillas that harassed their units, and thus it is hard to link specific units, such as Thurmond’s Rangers or Hounshell’s Batallion, to specific actions.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *