The vast majority of the 86,000 North Carolinians called into service during World War I served willingly, but four thousand of their number did desert during the war. Discontentment with conditions in training camp or bad news from home was the most likely reason for young recruits to go “AWOL” (absent without leave) long enough to earn the technical distinction of deserter. Most were either caught or voluntarily returned to face their punishment.
In Ashe County in June 1918, however, a group of forty deserters decided to hide out in the hills for the duration of the war. “The Ashe County Case” consists of a series of telegrams exchanged between officials in Ashe County and Governor Thomas W. Bickett on the crisis. When Bickett received the first telegram, the renegade band had just held off an armed civilian delegation that had tried to apprehend the deserters. One member of the posse had been shot and killed.
In an effort to avoid further bloodshed, Governor Bickett went to Jefferson, the county seat of Ashe, to address the anxious townspeople. He ordered the local draft board to “send notices by special messengers to every nook of Ashe County, especially the disaffected districts” about his upcoming speech. Bickett stressed, “I especially want all friends and relatives of delinquents notified.”
Before Bickett began to speak, one of the deserters presented himself to the Governor. Bickett, in turn, gave the lad a letter to present to his commander at Camp Jackson in South Carolina in which the governor vouched for the deserters’ loyalty and urged leniency on their behalf.
In his oration, Bickett pledged to “save wayward and willful boys from the sad and certain consequence of ignorance and sin.” He expressed his belief that the deserters were not cowards but were somehow ignorant of the purpose of the war and the details of the draft law. He also commended Ashe County’s patriotic heritage and discussed the war and the draft.
Bickett’s justification of U.S. involvement in the war is a prime example of wartime patriotic rhetoric. He first emphasized America’s peaceful nature, stressing that the nation only reluctantly joined the conflict after German aggression made neutrality impossible. He then cast the war as a contest between American democratic civilization and the despotic German Kaiser and the brutal German “Hun.”
After Bickett returned to Raleigh, the rest of the deserters turned themselves in and asked to be reinstated. The Ashe County case was commented about in the North Carolina press for weeks afterward, but the county disputed any reputation it might have gained for disloyalty. In all, 536 Ashe County men served in the military in World War I, 461 draftees and seventy-five volunteers. The statewide draft evasion rate was 2.7 percent; Ashe County’s was less than 1 percent.
Source: ‘Public Letters and Papers of Thomas Walter Bickett, Governor of North Carolina, 1917-1921,’ Raleigh: Edwards & Broughton, 1923; summarization by Michael Sistrom, at Documenting the American South