Cold Mountain and my summer vacation (a review)

Cold Mountain is a good movie, based on a good book by Charles Frazier. I think most reviewers missed the most important thing about the movie – it is movingly anti-war at a time when the Bush administration has the country bogged down in brutal occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan. When we saw the movie, the audience, in a multiracial suburb of Chicago, left in a quiet and thoughtful mood.

The story is about Inman, a Confederate soldier from the mountains of western North Carolina. He is a reluctant recruit who is skeptical about the war and the Confederate cause, but nevertheless feels obligated to fight. His experiences with the brutality and senseless violence of the war convince him to desert and walk back over 400 miles from Petersburg, Virginia, to Cold Mountain, N.C. The book/movie is the story of his walk home.

What does this have to do with my summer vacation? One intriguing aspect of this story is the antiwar and anti-slavery sentiments attributed to some of the main characters from the village of Cold Mountain in both the book and the movie. Just so happens that this past summer we spent two weeks vacation in the mountains of western North Carolina.

A friend of mine told me that Don West, the famous poet, civil rights and Southern labor activist, once said that there were more abolitionists in western North Carolina than in Boston. I don’t know if that’s true, but we did find some evidence to support it very near Cold Mountain. Cades Cove, N.C., is an interesting area that was once a thriving mountain farming community and is now preserved as part of the Great Smokey Mountain National Park.

Without knowing much about the history of the area, we stopped in the park to see the Cades Cove Primitive Baptist Church, one of the oldest buildings in the park. A volunteer ranger told us an interesting aspect of the church’s history.

The church was firmly anti-slavery and anti-Confederacy, as were several other churches in the area. He said the congregation prayed over the matter and consulted their Bibles and decided that “slavery was an abomination and the Confederacy an offense to God’s law.” The church had to shut down for the duration of the war because of harassment by the Confederate “Home Guard,” a kind of vigilante militia that terrorized anyone suspected of supporting the Union. As portrayed in Cold Mountain one of the Home Guard’s main functions was to capture and often murder run-away slaves and Confederate deserters.

The ranger pointed us to the gravestone of Russell Gregory in the church cemetery. Gregory was one of the founders of the church and one of the first white settlers in Cades Cove. He was murdered by Confederate irregulars because he had organized an ambush against Confederate raiders who constantly looted and harassed folks suspected of Union sympathies in Cades Cove. His headstone reads, “Founder of Gregory’s Bald about 1830, Murdered by North Carolina Rebels.” Records indicate that 21 young men from Cades Cove fought for the Union and 12 with the Confederates.

The ranger also played for us a recording of shape note or “Sacred Harp” singing, a beautiful kind of a cappella style hymnal music featured in the movie.

The movie does have flaws. A major one is that while its true that there were not a lot of large plantations exploiting hundreds of slaves in the mountains of western North Carolina, there were slaves there. That doesn’t come through at all. And the real role of Black Union troops in the Siege of Petersburg, the battle Inman deserts after, is not told.

A minor flaw is that, born and raised in the South, I just couldn’t believe Nicole Kidman as a Southern Belle. Renee Zellweger on the other hand gives one of her best performances ever.

The author can be reached at scott@rednet.org.