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Divided Family

As we witness daily, almost hourly, reports of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, it reminds us of how war can divide not only countries but also often families.

Because Ukraine was so long under the control of the old Soviet Union, whose dictators mandated that Russian be the official language of Ukraine, most Ukrainians learned to speak that language. Today, however, 67 percent of Ukranians speak Ukranian as their first language, and 30 percent speak Russian as their first language. Ukranian is closely related to Russian; it also has similarities to Polish.

But Ukrainian and Russian are only two of about 20 languages that are spoken in Ukraine. Other languages that Ukrainians speak as either their first or second language, are Romanian (7 percent), Crimean Tartar (5 percent), Bulgarian (3 percent), Hungarian (3 percent), Armenian (1 percent), and Belarussian (1 percent).

Most Ukrainians who speak Russian as their first language live in the eastern and southeastern portions of the country, the first areas that Russian troops conquered in the first few days of the invasion.

But I've learned that a division occurred among members of even my own ancestors' families, though it occurred at a differernt time, in a different place, during a different war, and for a different reason.

The time was 1861-65. The place was Western North Carolina and East Tennessee. The war was the War Between the States. And the reason? Well, I haven't learned that yet.

Joshua Peterson, my direct paternal ancestor and great great grandfather, joined (or was conscripted into) the Confederate North Carolina Home Troops. I do not know his reasons for siding with the Confederacy. A Confederate flag graces his tombstone.

William Graybeal joined (or was conscripted into) the Union army in East Tennessee. He was my paternal grandmother's grandfather. My grandmother's sister, my great aunt, once told me that she remembered as a child that William used to parade proudly around the community after the war wearing his Union uniform. Neither do I know his reasons for siding with the North.

I do know, however, what was NOT these men's reasons for joining the armies they did. It was not slavery, although that fallacy is often thought to have been the sole reason for the entire war. First, slavery did not predominate in the hills and mountains of either Western North Carolina or East Tennessee. In fact, both of those areas tended to be antislavery and antisecession. Most of the counties of East Tennessee outside the city of Knoxville even voted against secession in two different referenda before Tennessee seceded.

Second, both men and their families were small, subsistence farmers, not wealthy planters or plantation owners. Their families could not have afforded to own slaves. Instead, they worked their fields themselves.

Then why did they fight for their respective sides in that conflict? I haven't found any answers to that question. Their reasons might have been economic. Economic issues contributing to the conflict included the tariff (the North was for a high tariff, the South against it); internal improvements, which would tax the people of all states for public works programs that benefited only certain regions (the North was for them, the South opposed to them); and the fact that secession potentially would have cut off 60 percent of the North's exports and reduce its revenues, forcing them to compete with Great Britain (and other countries) for the South's trade and commerce.

Joshua might have believed that he was helping defend his home state and nation from invasion by the North. William might have believed he was defending the Union. Both of those reasons are more often mentioned in the letters and comments of average soldiers than slavery, which is rarely mentioned.

A lot of questions of this kind remain unanswered. The war divided the family. But the good news is that following the war, both families apparently reconciled--otherwise, I wouldn't be here today!

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