“A light has penetrated these hills that cannot be totally extinguished.” — Elihu Sutherland, Dickenson County historian
To preserve the history of each individual county’s contribution and experience during World War I across the state of Virginia, the Virginia War History Commission created a collection of short, historical reviews written by local historians about their home counties. This volume was published in 1927 and individual copies of “Wise County in War Time” and “Dickenson County in War Time” can be found in the UVa-Wise library and the Wise Public Library. These brief recollections on the wartime experience in Wise and Dickenson counties provide a keen insight into how the war impacted this region.
The authors place this small corner of Southwest Virginia into a larger global picture, something they had not had occasion to do before the war. Beyond simply recollecting the names of members of various boards and the exact amount of money each community raised during the Liberty Loan Drives, these sources reflect on how each county viewed itself and its contribution to the war while also illustrating a very high-minded and patriotic outlook on the entire nation’s role in the war. No single quote illustrates that point better than this one from local historian E.J. Sutherland of Dickenson County: “The war is over and peace has come. But to none of the people of Dickenson County will the world ever be the same as it was on April 6, 1917. . . [T]o many the change will have been profound and lasting – new life, new energy, new hopes, new vision. A light as penetrated the hills that cannot be totally extinguished.”1 The Great War era was a transformative time for Southwest Virginia, an area that had been isolated from the rest of the world before a surge in the demand for coal and the construction of railroads through the region brought economic prosperity and a growing worldview that coincided with the outbreak of war in Europe.
Of the two counties, Wise had a significantly wealthier population. This can be clearly seen when comparing the total money raised during the Liberty Loan Drives in which Wise County routinely outperformed its quotas2 while Dickenson County struggled to meet its own.3 It was not a lack of patriotic fervor that caused that discrepancy, but the plethora of resources that could be found in Wise County. Wise completely devoted itself to coal production across the county and, at their peak, local mines were shipping out twelve million tons per week during the war.4 This boom in production would poise Wise County for an economic breakout after the war. According to “Wise County in War Time” author Tate Irvine, “During the war it required the straining of every energy to produce and ship twelve million tons per week. At this time , with from one-fourth to one-third of mines inactive, it is difficult to limit production to twelve million tons.”5 The people of Dickenson County had never worked for particularly high wages and as a result were able to contribute comparatively little money to the war effort, although the men of the county were prepared to fight for their country.6 The arrival of the first railroad in the county in 1915 and subsequent growth in coal and timber industry found many workers making three to four times more than they had been prior to 1915.7 The fruit of that influx of money into the county were several new buildings and businesses, including improvements to the courthouse in Clintwood in 1915 and the establishment of a new bank in Haysi in 1919.8
The attitude towards the war prior to United States involvement was also somewhat different in these two neighboring counties. As to Wise County’s attitude towards involvement, Irvine wrote that, “There was little expressed pro-German feeling in the county. What there was of pacifism among well-meaning citizens soon gave way to hope that militarism might be obliterated once and for all.”9 The tone of the Dickenson County history is noticeably different when referring to the pre-war attitude: “The county was shocked with the news that Germany had brutally crossed Belgium, and eagerly awaited to see if Paris could be taken. On the part of most citizens there was a comparatively neutral attitude . . . As the Germans drew near Paris, and the fierce fighting around Verdun was in progress, the citizens began openly to express the hope that the Allies would win, although many of them thought our people should not go across the seas to fight for the other nations.”10 Wise County seems to have been far less neutral in their feelings on the war than Dickenson County, but when it came time to fight men from both counties readily signed up and supported the draft law.
In the history of both counties, the authors boast about several young men being so eager for war that they did not have to wait for the draft to compel their entry into the service.11 Propaganda certainly played a role in ensuring that locals of all ages supported the war effort. A fascinating section of “Wise County in War Time” shows that not only was propaganda used, but it was actually a point of pride among citizens. On local schools, Irvine writes, “Lessons on the causes of the war, German Kultur, and German aggression and lust for world power were taught by loyal and devoted teachers. The bright, sensitive minds of the children quickly grasped the significance of these lessons, carried them home, and disseminated the knowledge among the older members of the family.”12 Prior to the war, patriotic displays were apparently rare in Dickenson County schools, but that changed after America joined the war, when “flag drills and salutes, with other patriotic exercises, were introduced in many of the schools.”13
When the war finally ended, local soldiers returned home to much fanfare. There were parades honoring the men as well as frequent, informal parties at the homes of friends and family.14 Soldiers came home and in numerous cases managed to return to the jobs that they had left behind. The excitement following the end of the war and the homecoming of soldiers combined with a burgeoning new economy made the years following the Armistice somewhat rocky, especially in Dickenson County. The men who came home from Europe were able to find jobs with much better pay than what they had left, which in consequence left deficits in crucial areas including teaching and farmwork.15 After a few years the area settled into a new norm, although it would be noticeably different than it had been less than a decade before. The war changed Wise and Dickenson counties by bringing greater wealth and a new, larger world view to what had historically been a poor and isolated area.
1. E.J. Sutherland and J.H.T. Sutherland, “Dickenson County in War Time,” Virginia Communities in War Time (Richmond: Virginia War History Commission, 1927), 110.
2. R. Tate Irvine, “Wise County in War Time,” Virginia Communities in War Time (Richmond: Virginia War History Commission, 1927), 665-666.
3. E.J. Sutherland and J.H.T. Sutherland, “Dickenson County in War Time,” 94-96.
4. R. Tate Irvine, “Wise County in War Time,” 668.
5. R. Tate Irvine, “Wise County in War Time,” 668.
6. E.J. Sutherland and J.H.T. Sutherland, “Dickenson County in War Time,” 94.
7. E.J. Sutherland and J.H.T. Sutherland, “Dickenson County in War Time,” 98, 106-107.
8. E.J. Sutherland and J.H.T. Sutherland, “Dickenson County in War Time,” 86.
9. R. Tate Irvine, “Wise County in War Time,” 660.
10. E.J. Sutherland and J.H.T. Sutherland, “Dickenson County in War Time,” 86.
11. E.J. Sutherland and J.H.T. Sutherland, “Dickenson County in War Time,” 93; R. Tate Irvine, “Wise County in War Time,” 662.
12. R. Tate Irvine, “Wise County in War Time,” 662.
13. E.J. Sutherland and J.H.T. Sutherland, “Dickenson County in War Time,” 91-92.
14. E.J. Sutherland and J.H.T. Sutherland, “Dickenson County in War Time,” 103-105.
15. E.J. Sutherland and J.H.T. Sutherland, “Dickenson County in War Time,” 106-107.