Daughters, Sons of The Mountains

Among the more than 1,300 monuments on the Gettysburg battlefield is one to the 7th West Virginia Infantry, erected on the spot where the Union regiment helped repel a Confederate charge that nearly turned the tide.

Topping the inscription is a four-word phrase telling the world who these men were:

Sons of the Mountains.

They had another title, too: the Bloody Seventh. The unit, including many men from this area, fought in some of the worst battles of the Civil War. Their regimental flag, restored and on display at West Virginia Independence Hall, lists Antietam, Chancellorsville, Fredericksburg and Gettysburg, among others.

In camp one night on their way to Gettysburg, some of the 7th’s soldiers talked about their then-brand new state. Someone mentioned the unit’s American flag had just 34 stars. How, they wondered, could they go into battle without a flag bearing a 35th star for West Virginia?

So some of them waited until very late, sneaked to the camp of another regiment, and cut a star out of its flag. It was taken back and sewn onto the 7th’s banner.

West Virginia meant something to these sons of the mountains. During the nearly 150 years since our state was established, being from West Virginia has meant something to many, many sons and daughters of the mountains.

It’s difficult to explain, even to ourselves. Perhaps it’s a disease of some sort.

If so, the symptoms can be found throughout the world. Ask someone from here, living now in another state, where he or she is from. As often as not, no matter how long the person has lived somewhere else, the answer is West Virginia.

Living elsewhere has been a necessity for too many Mountain State natives, but quite a few will admit that, no matter how they’ve prospered, something just doesn’t feel right. There’s a vague discontentment. Flatlanders say it’s backwardness and inability to adapt.

No, it is not.

It’s a feeling common to many mountain folk, both here and in other states.

During the 1930s, when Shenandoah National Park was being created, thousands of residents in that area of Virginia were told they had to leave. Some were evicted forcibly.

They were given nice homes down in the valley and most were far better off materially than they had been up on the mountain.

Sociologists sometimes asked the mountain folk if they didn’t feel better off having left behind the hardscrabble lives from which they had been “saved.”

No, some said. Life was better on the mountain, they remarked.

So it is with many West Virginians, even those of us who live in the valleys and lower hills of this region. We still see ourselves as sons and daughters of the mountains. That has as much to do with our fellow West Virginians as with terrain, I think.

We’re about to observe our state’s 150th birthday. Folks in other states, including Virginia, may wonder, given our history, what on earth there is to celebrate.

But we know. And that’s all that matters.

Myer can be reached at: mmyer@theintelligencer.net.