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Tom Wise (left), John Wise (center) and Newton Wise were brothers that fought for the
Confederacy. Tom wears an iron cross on his jacket, an award for service presented by the
United Daughters of the Confederacy.
Photo courtesy Michael Hardy

Originally published: 2012-01-27 11:46:00
Last modified: 2012-01-27 11:46:34

Our Avery County: Confederate pensions: Just one challenge for new Avery County

Michael Hardy / (

The formation of Avery County does not seem that far in the past. We still know people (a few people) who have been around as long as, or nearly as long as, the whole history of our great county. In contrast, the America Civil War, fought 150 years ago, seems like an eternity of time distant from our own. Yet when Avery County was created, a century ago, numerous old Confederate veterans still lived in the area, and some were even still drawing pensions for their wartime service. 

When it comes to soldiers in our area, determining who wore the gray and who wore the blue is not always a simple matter. Basing a search on the 1860 census, Watauga County stretched as far as Linville Falls, while everything west of the North Toe River was part of Yancey County. Overall (and these numbers are preliminary), there appear to have been 104 Confederates and 14 Union soldiers from the area that Avery County encompasses today. Getting an exact number will never be possible. 

The end of the war left North Carolina impoverished. As bad as things were, the state began to take care of its veterans in 1867, providing prosthetics to those who had lost an arm or leg while serving in the Confederate army. It appears that no one from our area (the future Avery County) applied for this type of aid. 

In 1885, a pension act was passed by the General Assembly, granting aid to those who were disabled or indigent widows. According to the records from the state, there were 10 former soldiers and four widows who applied for a pension under the 1885 Act. 

A revised Pension Act was passed in 1901. The pensioners were divided up into four classes: The first class members were totally disabled; the second class included those who had lost a leg above the knee or arm above the elbow; third class were those who had lost a foot or leg below the knee, or an arm below the elbow or had received a wound that made a limb useless; and fourth class consisted of those who had lost an eye, were unfit for general labor, or widows. In 1901, first-class pensioners received $72 per year, while fourth class received $30. The 1901 Pension Act was modified several times, including once in 1927 when black men who had served in the Confederate Army as cooks and wagoneers became eligible. All counties in North Carolina were required to have pensioner boards to help interview the applicants and facilitate the distribution of funds. By 1906, there was one first-class pensioner, and 35 fourth-class pensioners. 

When Avery County was created in 1911, the new county commissioners would have taken over the administration of the Confederate pensioners. Pensions were usually paid twice a year. An old soldier or widow applying for a pension would often need to go to the county courthouse to fill out a form or affidavit. The information would include date of application, applicant's name, age, post office, company and regiment, date of enlistment, date and circumstance of wounds, nature and extent of disability and an oath of eligibility. Usually two witnesses who were in the same company, or who knew the applicant, were required. 

Old age or disease, supposedly contracted during the war, were the primary reasons listed as to why an old soldier applied for a pension. A few, like Alexander Fortner of the 16th North Carolina State Troops or John A. Shook of the 37th North Carolina Troops, stated on their applications that they had been wounded during the war. Fortner was wounded during the battle of the Wilderness in Virginia on May 6, 1864, and was reported absent wounded for the rest of year. It is unlikely that he ever rejoined his regiment. Shook was wounded in the hips a few days after Fortner, on May 12, 1864, at the battle of Spotsylvania Courthouse in Virginia. He returned to his regiment a few months later, and was captured on April 2, 1865, below Petersburg, Va., and was held in prison until June 20, 1865, after taking the Oath of Allegiance. 

A veteran could have come from a different state and still received a North Carolina Confederate pension. Samuel Clifton served in Company K, 50th Virginia Infantry. Clifton was wounded in the knee and captured during the battle of the Wilderness and spent more than a year at the prison camp in Elmira, N.Y. 

Once a soldier died, his widow could petition the state to continue to received a pension. They had to prove that they were destitute, that they had no other source of income, and owned less that a certain amount of real estate. 

All of these old soldiers are gone now. The last North Carolina Confederate soldier to die was Samuel Bennett, a member of the 58th North Carolina Troops, who passed away in 1951 and is buried in Yancey County. Every-so-often, we can come across one of their graves in a local cemetery. Some of them are marked with traditional tombstones, while other are marked with marble or granite tombstones supplied by the Veterans Administration. While it is unknown just what part these old veterans played in the formation of Avery County, they would have been around, at church, or at one of the local stores, possibly just waiting for a captive audience to relate an old war story or two. 

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