Will McTeer and his Civil War memories

June 28, 2019 | By Jim Stovall | Filed in: books, writers, writing.

Will McTeer was one of more than two million soldiers who fought to preserve the Union during the Civil War years of 1861-1865. He was not looking for a fight. He did so because he loved his country and what it represented and because he feared the Confederacy – an idea with which he, his family, and his community disagreed.

McTeer grew up in the mountains of East Tennessee, a state that seceded from the Union and joined the Confederacy, although it did so reluctantly. McTeer might just have easily sided with the rest of his state, put aside his allegiances, and cast his lot with the Confederacy. Many others did.

McTeer did not. In 1862, when McTeer made his way past Confederate patrols, traveled to the Cumberland Gap, and joined what became the Third Tennessee Volunteer Cavalry, the end of the war and its outcome was by no means certain. Had the Confederacy prevailed, he might have become an outcast – or even a traitor – unable to return to his beloved mountains. McTeer took that risk, as did many other sons of the South, and the nation owes all those like him a huge debt of gratitude.

The Blount County Friends of the Library is about to publish McTeer’s account of his war experiences in Loyal Mountaineers: The Civil War Memoirs of Will McTeer. McTeer first wrote about his Civil War memories in 1879 in a series of articles published by the Knoxville Chronicle.

We owe McTeer our gratitude for looking back on his experience and recording it for us. As Ed Caudill points out in his excellent introduction to this edition, McTeer’s memoir is a welcome antidote to the Lost Cause palaver that flowed out of publishing houses and into the nation’s brainwaves during the first half-century after the War is in no way glorious and can be justified only by the contemporary intentions of those who conduct and fight it.

McTeer gives us what we find all too rarely: a detailed, exciting, but modest account of his actions and his reasons for taking those actions. He remembers his friends and neighbors with whom he fought. Many of them returned home to live active and productive lives. Many of them did not. McTeer does not dwell on justifications or rationalizations. The reasons he gave three years of his life to his country are self-evident to him, and he assumes, rightly so, that they should be self-evident to others.

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