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Originally published: 2012-08-02 13:52:36
Last modified: 2012-08-02 13:52:36

Our Avery County: Deserting in a time of war

Michael Hardy / (

It has always been the purpose of this column to go where no one else has in exploring and recording the history of Avery County. In this installment, we’ll take on the complex and multi-layered topic of local soldiers who – for whatever the reason – were declared AWOL or deserters during the Civil War, World War I and World War II. Many of these stories are not happy ones, but, as Sharyn McCrumb writes in “The Ballad of Frankie Silver,” “Happy stories mostly ain’t true.”

Numerous stories exist about those who wished to evade military service during the Civil War who sought refuge in the area. Linville Caverns supposedly held several deserters during the war. One was a bootmaker who repaired or made shoes in exchange for food. 

Lyander Pyatte, for whom the Pyatte community was named, hid out in the woods near his home. In December 1863, he was caught by the home guard when he was sneaking into his own house. The Confederate government had passed a law in April 1862, requiring Pyatte, and other young men between the ages of 18 and 35 (later raised to 45), to serve in the army. Pyatte was conscripted into the 58th North Carolina Troops, but died of disease in a hospital in Atlanta in January 1864. 

Thaddeus Braswell was also conscripted into the 58th North Carolina Troops. However, according to his family, he never served, instead choosing to spend the war hiding out in a cave off Sugar Mountain Road No. 2. 

A thicket near the Sam Banner Home in Banner Elk also housed not only deserters, but escaped Union prisoners trying to make it to Union lines in east Tennessee. 

Fast forward 50 years: The United States is involved in the Great War against Axis Powers in Europe. Almost 350 men (and at least one nurse) from the newly formed Avery County served in the armed forces during the conflict. Since most of these men served overseas, stories of soldiers absent without leave or officially declared as deserters are few. But there was a problem with soldiers abandoning their duties. In Ashe County, there were 40 deserters. North Carolina Governor T. Walter Bicknett visited Ashe County in 1918, imploring the deserters to return to their regiments. The governor’s plea worked. 

This story about a confrontation in the Avery County area appeared in Winston-Salem Journal on Feb. 9, 1919. The article does not state if any of these men were actually from Avery County, or if they were simply hiding out in the mountains:

“Avery county officials declare that Avery County is the first county in the state to clear itself of draft evaders and deserters. There were 13 of these gentry at large in the county, it is stated, until S. Glenn Young, special agent of the department of justices, paid the country a visit a short time ago. After taking in five and shooting several times at another, the remaining eight came in and surrendered, clearing the county. The Avery County officials believe that their county is the first in the state to be absolutely free of deserters. 

Two decades after the “War to end all Wars,” World War II broke out. Hundreds of local men enlisted or were drafted to serve in the army, navy or marines during the conflict. Between January 1942 and August 1945, there were 59 men arrested for desertion and housed in the Avery County jail. While almost all the “crimes” were listed as desertion, the majority of the men were simply absent without leave; they had overstayed their furloughs home, and were picked up by local law enforcement to be returned to the army or navy. Most of the arrests seem to have taken place in the first half of each year. 

It would be interesting to be able to compare these numbers with those from other counties in our area, or even other rural locations across the United States. Maybe more research can be done in this area. If you have more information on this subject, please drop me a line. 

Yet just one more piece of our Avery County’s past.