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Saturday, July 2, 2011

Patriotism, An Appalachian Value

Appalachia And American Democracy

Patriotism is one of the ten basic cultural values identified by Loyal Jones in his landmark book, "Appalachian Values".  Jones says of Appalachians that:

"Appalachians have a special feeling about the flag of the United States.  This is the land that gave them freedom to be themselves, and when that freedom was threatened, they led in seeking independence." Loyal Jones, "Appalachian Values", p. 107

Jones goes on to cite several examples of how Appalachian have led the country in efforts to seek freedom from Great Britain prior to the American Revolution, how the mountains were settled by Revolutionary War veterans who were given land for their war efforts, how Union recruitment was high during the Civil War, how East Tennessee was an area of strong Union sympathy,  how both Georgia and Alabama had Union counties during the Civil War,  and how Winston County Alabama seceded from Alabama during the Civil War. 

The most awarded soldier in World War I was Sgt. Alvin C. York of Fentress County Tennessee.  He captured two German machine gun nests and marched back into camp behind 132 German prisoners in the Argonne Forest on October 8, 1918.  John Alexander Williams gives a compelling description of York in "Appalachia, A History". 

"York was never simply an American hero", Henry Shapiro has commented. "He was first and last a mountaineer because his virtues were the virtues of the native American folk.  Tall and lanky, stolid, loyal, simple, choosing duty over his Christian convictions and his pacifism, his sinewy muscles developed by splitting logs on the hillside farm, his marksman's eye trained in squirrel hunting, Alvin York was the mythic mountaineer come to life."  By practicing his mountaineer virtues as readily in France as in Tennessee, York validated the notion that these virtues derived from a culture, not just an environment.  His legend reinforced the widespread belief in Appalachian exceptionalism while at the same time confirming the essential Americanism that was at the core of the mountaineer image."  John Alexander Williams, "Appalachia, A History"; page 223.

Photo of Sgt. Alvin York

While it is inspiring to read this description of the quintessential Appalachian war hero, it is even more inspiring to visit Fentress County Tennessee, as I did in 1990.  I was, at that time, the Advance Scout for the Vision Quest Wagon Trains, a private for profit juvenile delinquency company which travels across the southeast with juveniles, horses, mules, and wagons.  I was able to secure a campsite on the old York family farm near both the grave of Sgt. York and the Sgt. Alvin C. York Historic Park on US 127 in Pall Mall, Tennessee.  During the night we camped on the farm, which is privately owned, we also screened the Hollywood film about York which starred Gary Cooper.  I was also able to meet and talk with a few members of the York extended family as we were passing through the area. 

Sgt. Willie Sandlin was an Eastern Kentucky soldier in World War I also and managed to wipe out three German machine gun nests and receive the Congressional Medal of Honor for his efforts.  In addition to these two outstanding examples, hundreds and thousands of native Appalachian soldiers, both male and female, have served honorably for hundreds of years in all branches of the US military. 

Photo of Sgt. Willie Sandlin

Pvt. Jessica Lynch, a female soldier from West Virginia, was captured by Iraqi forces during Operation Desert Storm and for quite some time was the public relations face of that conflict.  She eventually left the Army and returned to a somewhat difficult civilian life in West Virginia. Her biography, "I Am A Soldier Too", by Rick Bragg is well worth reading.

Photo of Pvt. Jessica Lynch

In many ways, Pvt. Jessica Lynch represented a kind of Appalachian military volunteer upon which the media and military have fed for many years. Poor Appalachians with little formal education and poor job prospects have often joined the military as  a means of becoming self sufficient and obtaining education.  While they have fought admirably and often won distinction, they have also been used as cannon fodder, advance scouts in the jungles of Viet Nam, bomb disposal technicians in Iraq and Afghanistan, and public relations tools when they succeed. Pvt. Jessica Lynch's time as a prisoner of war and the treatment she received after leaving the military led cartoonist Mike Keefe of the Denver Post to draw the following strongly worded cartoon in 2003:

Human interest stories such as those told above are telling and generate justified pride in Appalachians.  However, researchers tend to love statistics.  The numbers of Congressional Medals of Honor awarded to Appalachians tell just as compelling a story.  John Alexander Williams, in his classic work, "Appalachia, A History" presents in graph form, on pages 384 & 385, the distribution of Congressional Medal of Honor recipients from Appalachia in contrast to the entire rest of the country and also shows figures of the representation of the total male population in Appalachia.  In World War II, 58 of 440 Congressional Medals of Honor went to Appalachians for a total of 13.2% while Appalachian males over the age of 14 represented only 12.4% of the US male population.  During the Korean War, Appalachians were awarded 26 of 131 Medals of Honor which totaled 19.8% of medals while male Appalachians over the age of 14 represented only 11.4% of the US male population.  During the Viet Nam War, Appalachians were awarded 32 of 239 Medals of Honor which amounted to 13.4% of the medals.  At that time, Appalachian males over the age of 14 only represented 8.7% of the US male population.  As of the 2002 publication of Williams' work, Appalachians had been awarded 116 of 810 Congressional Medals of Honor for a percentage of 14.3%.  The numbers of awards for valor in all categories in the US military have always been disproportionately received by Appalachian males. 

Another story of Appalachian valor in war time which is rarely if ever told involves the participation and deaths of a large contingent of Appalachian volunteers at the Alamo.  Texans hold the Alamo dear to their hearts and their history.  But to my knowledge, almost no one is ever told that Davy Crockett was not the only Appalachian who volunteered to fight and die resisting Santa Anna.  There were at least 16 of Davy Crockett's "Tennessee Boys" who also died at the Alamo. William Travis himself was from South Carolina.  But today, almost no one knows that he was not a native Texan.  Nearly a third of  the men at the Alamo have been proven to have come from the states in the Appalachian Region to join the fight for Texas independence simply because they felt it was the right thing to do and an effort worth dying for.

Photo of Davy Crockett

General Charles Elwood "Chuck" Yeager was a native of Myra on Mud River in Lincoln County West Virginia and entered the military as a buck private in the US Army Air Forces.  He became the first man to break the sound barrier after qualifying for flight training and receiving an officer's commission.  He developed a reputation as one of the best test pilots in the entire US military.  He retired as a brigadier general and was later promoted to major general in retirement due to the successes he achieved as a pilot.  He also commanded fighter squadrons during the Viet Nam War.  He was a combat ace with 11.5 official kills. He actually became an "ace in a day" with 5 kills in one day.  He was also one of the handful of pilots chosen to fly and learn about the first MIG-15 which US forces obtained via a defection.   While his individual accomplishments outstrip those of nearly all other Appalachians in the military, they are not totally atypical.  He was one of many Appalachian men and women who made the military a career and earned their way to positions of authority based purely on their individual skills. 

Photo of Major General Charles E. "Chuck" Yeager

Appalachians have fought and died in nearly ever major conflict in which this country has been involved.  In nearly every one of those conflicts, the statistical involvement of native Appalachians was highly disproportionate to their statistical representation in the population at large.  Their representation in the military continues today at levels just as high as it has ever been.  Appalachians continue to be placed in positions of greatest risk by their commanders and they nearly always justify the trust in their abilities which causes the placement.  

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