- A Rabun County slaveholder who voted against Georgia’s secession from the Union…but then didn’t.
- A rebellion against Georgia’s government by disaffected Confederate soldiers and Union sympathizers.
- 300 Rabun County men who fought for the Confederacy, including one at Appomattox with Robert E. Lee at the surrender in 1865.
These facts would seem to illustrate a conflicted attitude of Rabun County men and women toward the Civil War. There was, indeed, pro-Union sympathy and resistance to the Confederate cause, but at the same time, Rabun County soldiers were dying for the Confederacy.
This story begins in 1852 when Rabun County was thought to be on the cusp of dramatic change. Construction began that year on the Blue Ridge Railroad that was to run from Charleston through Rabun Gap and then to Cincinnati. Locals hoped this railroad would usher in a new era of prosperity and development. By 1859 the line between Anderson and Walhalla, SC, had been opened and several tunnels near the Chattooga River were nearing completion, but with the growing likelihood of war, all further construction was halted, leaving small-scale, subsistence farming as the main economic activity in Rabun County.
Like most mountain counties, Rabun’s topography prevented the formation of large farms, thus eliminating the need for any significant amount of slave labor. By 1861, only 248 slaves were owned by 60 Rabun families or an average of four per family. This stands in stark contrast to the vast slave populations on the sprawling cotton plantations farther south.
One of Rabun’s slaveholders was “Colonel” Samuel Beck, who moved to the county in 1822 and led a company of volunteers to fight in Florida’s Seminole Wars during the 1830s. A prominent landowner and holder of 19 slaves, Beck was elected, along with Horace Cannon, to represent Rabun County at the secession convention in Milledgeville in 1861. Concerned about the impact of war and consistent with Rabun’s pro-Union sentiment, both men initially joined other mountain counties in voting against secession. But pressure from firebrands proved irresistible. Beck and Cannon eventually voted for secession. The final vote was 160 to 130 for secession, with the majority of the pro-secessionist vote coming from counties south of line running from Augusta to Atlanta. Following the convention, Cannon enlisted in the Confederate army and served as a sergeant for the duration.
Eric Foner’s 1989 book, The South’s Inner Civil War, quotes a Rabun County resident who claimed: “I canvassed the county in 1860-61 myself, and I know that there were not exceeding 20 men in this county who were in favor of secession.” That may be true but loyalty to Georgia caused 300 Rabun men between 18 and 45 to serve in the Confederate army by early 1862.
Approximately two-thirds of these men served in Company E, 24th Georgia Infantry, which fought in the bloody engagements at Gettysburg, The Wilderness, Spotsylvania and Cold Harbor under the command of Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia. The rest of the Rabun County soldiers were assigned to Company F, 52nd Georgia Infantry Regiment, known as the Beauregard Braves, which served in North Carolina, Virginia and Vicksburg, Mississippi. Samuel Beck’s son served in this unit and surrendered at the war’s conclusion in April 1865 at Greensboro, N.C.
The Civil War did not touch Rabun County in terms of battles and bloodshed. However, 210 of the Rabun County men who served in the army were married, leaving their wives and children in near-destitute conditions. According to historical accounts, there was no coffee, no sugar and no salt. Coffee substitutes were made from parched corn and rye, and dirt from smokehouse floors was boiled to extract salt. By 1863 Georgia appropriated money for the relief of soldiers’ families. Rabun County was allocated $10,000 for destitute families. However, checks payable to families were backed by Confederate scrip, which was worthless by the end of the war.
Dissatisfaction with the war started as early as 1862 in the Georgia and North Carolina mountains due to a series of conscription acts that blatantly discriminated against the poor and non-slaveholding farmers. During the latter part of that year, Rabun County became a refuge for deserters from Confederate ranks and Union sympathizers, who organized a rebellion against the state government. These men were outlawed, with the rabid secessionist governor, Joseph E. Brown, dispatching infantry and cavalry to quell the rebellion in short order.
In April 1865 Rabun County soldier Jacob Hunter of the 24th Georgia Infantry Regiment was present at Appomattox when Lee surrendered to Union General Ulysses S. Grant to end the war. Hunter was fortunate to live for the duration of the war but 120 Rabun men did not. Nearly one-third of those conscripted in 1861-62 were either killed in action or died of disease, the greatest killer on both sides of the conflict. Many others were wounded and permanently disabled. There are 173 marked Confederate gravesites in Rabun County, including those of two black soldiers. Three Union soldiers, who most likely deserted, also are buried here.
Rabun County was occupied by Union troops after the war. The military government insisted upon strict adherence to the law, particularly as regarded corn whiskey. This marked the beginning of the long and sometimes violent relationship between moonshiners and government law enforcers.
The Rabun County Historical Society holds several original loyalty oath documents that the defeated Confederate soldiers were required to sign for their peaceful return to civilian life. In addition to requiring the signers to defend and support the Constitution of the United States, the loyalty oath signed by Rabun County resident James Ellerd on September 13, 1865 reads: “I will abide by and faithfully support all laws and proclamations which have been made during the existing Rebellion with reference to the emancipation of slaves.” The Historical Society also holds a document dated January 1, 1896 from the Executive Department of the State of Georgia listing the names of nine disabled soldiers in Rabun County who were paid $50 pensions for the year ended October 26, 1895.
The war-related deaths and disabilities of so many men, combined with the war’s economic impact, left Rabun County in a state of depression for the ensuing 40 years. The county’s difficulties were accentuated by the decision in 1859 to halt construction of the Blue Ridge Railroad. Prosperity did not begin to return until the turn of the twentieth century with the coming of the Tallulah Falls Railroad and its eventual extension northward to Rabun County. A huge toll was exacted from a county conflicted over the Civil War.
This article by Society member Richard Cinquina was originally published in The Georgia Mountain Laurel magazine in January 2020.