ASHE COUNTY-Nearly a century ago, the Governor of North Carolina showed up at the old Ashe County Courthouse in search of 40 local men who’d reportedly deserted the military in the summer of 1918.
The speech Governor Thomas Bickett gave was so powerful it convinced all 40 to return to their posts and prepare for the battlefields of World War 1.
The Ashe County Museum of History will pay homage to that historic speech this week at West Jefferson United Methodist Church’s Hensley Hall.
World War 1 was raging
The United States entered the First World War in 1917, and ultimately mobilized roughly 4 million soldiers for the fight. That effort included drafting hundreds of men from Ashe County and the High Country by 1918, many of whom were sent to learn the basics of soldering in the South Carolina summer heat.
Discontent at being drafted
The Selective Service Act of 1917 was passed to allow the United States to raise the fighting force it needed. All males from 21-30 to were required to register for military service, but since the system was new it wasn’t fully understood. That’s according to Gilly Macknee, a performer who’s spent weeks studying Governor Bickett and the situation surrounding his famous talk. “You had these mountain boys were told they were going to have to fight in places they might have never heard of,” Macknee said. “Now combine that with the fact that they’re drilling with sticks on their shoulders in the blistering heat in South Carolina when they could have been tending their crops. So many were probably trying to figure out what they were doing there.”
40 Ashe County deserters
That’s roughly the number of men who gave up their training and decided to head back to their mountain homes, according to contemporary reports. And they weren’t the only ones. Men from Pitt and Jackson Counties made similar decisions.
And the situation turned serious, fast
At least one civilian was killed on June 24, 1918, as Ashe County authorities attempted to round up the deserters, according to a telegram from W.E. McNeill, at the time the chairman of the Local Exemption Board of Ashe County. McNeill had even wired Washington for aid from armed soldiers.
A plea to the governor
Two days later McNeill requested the governor’s help. “Situation here appears to be acute,” McNeill said in part. “Opinion is that an organized force in addition to local officers will be needed to cope with the deserters. Is reported that every inducement has been offered them to voluntarily surrender and that the proposal has failed to bring results. The sheriff is reported to be in sympathy with fugitives, and I am informed that he will not cooperate. Citizens report that approximately thirty deserters are around and in hiding ready to resist arrest. Authorities believe if militia is sent that the deserters will surrender without resistance. I am convinced that the only solution is to send an outside force.”
Bickett to the rescue
Governor Bickett, a Monroe native and the state’s 54th governor, decided to respond to the situation himself, without the help of armed aid. He issued a plea for the deserters – and their local support nets – to meet at the Ashe County Courthouse in Jefferson.
Turning on the charm
Bickett essentially charmed the packed house crowd and appealed to the logic of both the deserters and their families. ‘Why do these men seek to hurt their country, when every hand should be stretched to help?” Bickett said. “Certainly, it is not because they are afraid to fight. The mountaineer loves a scrap. He would just a little rather fight than not, for the same money.”
No shirkers in the hollow
And Bickett reminded the crowd that he didn’t believe any of the men who’d deserted were attempting to duck their duty. “Nowhere on earth will you find truer hospitality than right here in these hills, and if you were to tell any man in this crowd that he was unwilling to pull his end of the single-tree, to tote his end of the log, that he was a slacker who wanted to saddle his job on another man’s shoulders, you would—well, in a few minutes you would devoutly wish that you had been born with enough sense to keep your mouth shut,” Bickett said.
Just a misunderstanding
Bickett then proceeded to explain the reasons he believed the United States had entered what was, at the time, known simply as the Great War, and why they’d been drafted. He also reassured the men that only shirkers would attempt to desert. “ In a general way the single men will be called first, married men without children second, and married men with children third,” Bickett said. “Unskilled labor is called before skilled labor, and the idle before the industrious. Indeed, in the forefront of the first class will be placed married men who have not habitually supported their families. The man who has been boarding with his wife is going to try Uncle Sam’s grub for a while.”
The speech was effective
The speech was reportedly effective. Bickett sent letters to the deserter’s commanding officers requesting leniency, and all 40 were said to have returned to their units. For the remainder of the war, Ashe County’s desertion rate was actually far below the state average.
A role Macknee couldn’t turn down
Macknee, a self-described “sucker for performing,” will perform excerpts of Bickett’s speech Tuesday night. “The thing about this speech in particular is how tightly written it was,” Macknee said. “The points Bickett raised throughout the talk – he reinforced them all the way through. I’ve had an easier time cutting Shakespeare than cutting this particular talk.”
Reach Adam Orr at 336-489-3058 or Twitter.com/AdamROrr.