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Sleuthing a Caldwell County Deserter: Goodwyn Harris, 26th North Carolina

By: Judkin Browning, January 15, 2024


Goodwyn Harris¹ never had any serious intention of enlisting in the Confederate army. He turned thirty-five on December 4, 1860, just two weeks before South Carolina seceded. When war officially broke out in April 1861, and North Carolina belatedly joined the Confederacy, Harris did not succumb to the rage militaire that inflamed hundreds of his Caldwell County neighbors, who flocked to join four companies that formed in the spring and summer. In the market, in schools, in church, war was all anyone could talk about in this county situated in the foothills and eastern slopes of the Blue Ridge Mountains. It put many residents in “a state of feverish excitement,” as George W.F. Harper wrote. Perhaps Goodwyn Harris attended the recruitment muster in the county seat of Lenoir on Saturday, April 27, when 97 young men rushed to the tables erected in front of the county courthouse and signed up to join the Caldwell Rough and Ready Guards, a unit that would become Company A of the 22nd North Carolina Infantry. Perhaps he went to other Saturday enlistment festivities, such as the one on July 15, when 79 men enlisted in the Hibriten Guards (named after the 2,265 foot mountain overlooking Lenoir). The unit would go on to become Company F of the 26th North Carolina, immortalized by its astounding sacrifice at the battle of Gettysburg. But it is equally plausible that Harris did not bother to attend any of these martial events.

Harris and his wife, Anna, had a rented farm and a large brood of children to manage. They had married in Union County, North Carolina, east of Charlotte, in 1844, and moved to the tiny village of Lovelady in southeastern Caldwell County in the 1850s. Their oldest child, a daughter named Permelia, was just 16. Their youngest, Margaret, was only four, and in between the two were another girl and four boys. Life on the farm was busy, and there was little free time or disposable income. Though Goodwyn and Anna were both literate, they did not send any of their children to school. And life was about to become more challenging. As the men of the Hibriten Guards were marching off to war that warm summer, Anna began experiencing the symptoms with which she was all too familiar–she was pregnant once again. Even if he had desired to share in the martial glory that seemed to beckon (and there’s no evidence that he did), Goodwyn felt there was no way he could leave his young family, as dependent on him as they were.

When Lieutenant James Daniel Moore returned to Caldwell in February 1862 and canvassed the county recruiting more men for the 26th North Carolina, Harris passed.

James Daniel Moore

He had more pressing matters. As Moore returned to the regiment in March with 64 new recruits, Goodwyn and Anna welcomed their eighth and last child, Mary Emma. Doubtless, Goodwyn had been hearing of events in the war, but one event would soon have a dramatic impact on him and his family. On April 16, the Confederate Congress passed a Conscription Act, requiring all men between the ages of eighteen and thirty-five to enlist in the army. The family likely breathed a sigh of relief when they read the news, because Goodwyn had just turned thirty-six five months earlier. However, Congress amended the law five months later, on September 27, 1862, extending the draft age to forty-five years of age. Goodwyn knew he would no longer be able to avoid military service.

Goodwyn “was taken from home a conscript” in early January 1863 and carried to Camp Holmes, north of Raleigh (roughly where southbound Wake Forest Road merges into Capital Boulevard today–thanks to Mark Turner for his sleuthing on this!). On January 12, 1863, he was assigned to Company I of the 26th Twenty-Sixth North Carolina, a Caldwell County company. Perhaps the Conscript officers believed that he would be more likely to stay with a unit composed of his neighbors. After a few weeks of training at Camp Holmes, Harris joined the unit in eastern North Carolina, shortly before it was ordered to Virginia in May 1863. But he would not stay in the unit or Virginia for long. This tenant farmer deserted in June 1863, as the regiment marched north toward its rendezvous at Gettysburg.

A researcher (or ancestor) would not discover this fact about Harris if they only consulted the excellent published roster volumes, North Carolina Troops: A Roster (22 volumes)--the best, most comprehensive set of rosters from any state. His entry in volume VII mentions nothing of his desertion. This is because the published roster volumes rely heavily on the Compiled Service Records–created by the Federal government after the war, when War Department clerks went through all the captured Confederate muster roll volumes and assorted other military documents they could find. The original muster roll volumes for much of 1862 and 1863 are missing for the 26th North Carolina. They did not wind up in the National Archives with the other Confederate military records. However, we learn that Harris deserted from two other sources.

Ironically, the first source is a 26th North Carolina muster roll that did not end up in Uncle Sam’s hands, and therefore never became part of the Compiled Service Records. At the end of each month, regimental clerks filled out the muster rolls in triplicate–one copy went to the Adjutant General’s Office in Richmond, one went to the individual company commanders, and one went to the quartermaster for payroll and equipment distribution purposes. The first two copies of the June 30, 1863 muster rolls disappeared during the war. However, Captain J.J. Young, the regiment’s quartermaster, retained his copies in his personal possession after the war. He knew their sentimental value and wrote in 1889 that he intended to keep them “as heirlooms for my children.” Captain Young died in 1904, and his children held on to the documents until they finally donated them in 1927 to the North Carolina Historical Commission, which became the State Archives of North Carolina.

Captain J.J. Young

They reside there today, and interested researchers can go and view the hard copies of the original muster rolls, and will learn a lot about the 26th North Carolina that they can’t find in the published record–such as the fact that more people (like Goodwyn Harris) deserted from the regiment than was previously known. Beside Goodwyn Harris’ name on the muster rolls, the company clerk wrote the remark: “deserted in June 1863.”

The second way we know that Harris deserted is that he tells us himself. Or more accurately, he told Governor Zebulon B. Vance in a letter dated July 13, 1863. He explained to Governor Vance, that "my better informed Judgment was over ruled by my sympathy for my family and there well fare." He claimed that his wife was "very weakly" and that his family, four sons and four daughters ranging in ages from one to eighteen, were "dependent on my daily labors for their subsistence.” “[K]nowing to[o] that provisions were all most out of the reach of the poor," Harris felt duty bound to return home and make sure that he could provide sustenance for his family. He does not say that he had received letters from Anna telling him of their difficult plight, or asking him to come home, but that can be inferred, especially since it was already happening all throughout the county. In November 1862, Ella Harper of Lenoir had written to her husband, an officer in the 58th North Carolina: “if there is not something done for the support of the soldier’s families, [soldiers] will not stay away when their wives write to them that they are suffering for the necessarys of life, and many of them are doing that now.”² Goodwyn already knew the tenuous existence his family faced before he was taken against his will into the army. It is no leap to imagine that he fretted about their circumstances the entire time he was away, until he could stand it no longer, and decided to take the chance of returning home.

After he had returned home, he began to fear punishment he might face, especially with local militia units seeking out draft evaders and deserters. He also had heard about the regiment’s near annihilation at Gettysburg. Perhaps he felt some sense of remorse or guilt for not having endured what his comrades had. But he felt he had made the correct choice. His duty to his family was more powerful than his military duty. Having done what he could at home, he begged the governor for a pardon to "escape punishment for I was honestly in search of all that was near and dear unto me."³

Harris wrote to Governor Zeb Vance

Vance did not reply to Harris, who was arrested as a deserter in late July 1863, and along with David W. Watson, a comrade from the same company who had deserted on June 3. It is not known if they were forcibly taken, or turned themselves in, though Goodwyn’s tone in his letter suggests the latter. He was taken back to Camp Holmes near Raleigh. Goodwyn avoided any punishment thanks to the fortuitous timing of President Jefferson Davis’ Amnesty Proclamation of August 5, 1863, which granted “amnesty and pardon… to all who have been accused, or who are undergoing sentence for absence without leave or desertion.” Harris returned to his unit, and took a bullet in the thigh at the Battle of Bristoe Station, Virginia, on October 14, 1863. The wound was so severe that he was allowed to return home on November 20 for forty days to recover. When he returned to his unit in early 1864, the wound continued to nag and hinder him and he served the rest of the war as an attendant at various hospitals in and around Raleigh, as he was deemed “unfit for service.”

Harris survived the war, and lived until January 12, 1898. His wife, Anna, preceded him in death in June 1894. Six of their eight children were still alive when they both passed. Harris’s story is unknown, but illustrative of the complicated and conflicting loyalties among soldiers who served in the Confederate army. Desertion is not an act simply to be categorized as either cowardice or antipathy to the Confederacy. Governor Vance, to whom Harris and so many other deserters appealed in poignant letters, felt the same way. If soldiers deserted for a variety of reasons, Vance did not think treason was often one of them. “I do not believe one case in a hundred,” he wrote in May 1863, “is caused by disloyalty.” Rather, he attributed it to “home sickness, fatigue, and hard fare.” Goodwyn Harris would have argued that for more than just home sickness; a genuine concern for loved ones was a primary motivating factor for forsaking one’s military duty.

For a more in-depth look at the experience of the 26th North Carolina at Gettysburg, see "Deconstructing the History of the Battle of the McPherson's Ridge: Myths and Legends of the Twenty-sixth North Carolina on the First Days Fight at Gettysburg" Gettysburg Magazine, 2015.

For more on the experience of Caldwell County, North Carolina, during the war, see: "'In Search of All That Was Near and Dear to Me': Desertion as a Window into Community Divisions in Caldwell County during the Civil War," in Nash and Stewart, eds., Southern Communities (UGA Press, 2019)

  1. Just a note, while his name is spelled Goodwin on most official documents and his tombstone (obviously erected after his death), he signed his own name as Goodwyn, so I defer to how he identified himself.

  2. Ella Harper, quoted in John C. Inscoe and Gordon B. McKinney, The Heart of Confederate Appalachia: Western North Carolina in the Civil War (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2000), 114.

  3. Goodwyn Harris to Zebulon B. Vance, July 13, 1863, Governor’s Papers, State Archives of North Carolina, Raleigh, NC.

  4. Raleigh Daily Progress, August 12, 1863.

  5. Zebulon B. Vance to Jefferson Davis, May 13, 1863, in Joe A. Mobley, ed., The Papers of Zebulon Baird Vance, vol. 2 (Raleigh, NC: Office of Archives and History, 1995), 152.

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