Driving south on Lake Logan Road, in the Pigeon River Valley and the shadow of Cold Mountain, headed towards Inman’s Chapel the other day, I could not help wondering whether or not the Inman in Charles Frazier’s “Cold Mountain” was a real person.
The dedication of a highway marker at Inman’s Chapel that day gave me some idea that somebody named Inman was important enough to have a chapel named after him.
As I neared the chapel, I passed Inman Branch Road and then Frazier Road. Good evidence that Inmans and Fraziers lived close by—and that they were real.
Other “Cold Mountain” readers and moviegoers may also wonder about the lead character, W.P. Inman, that strong-willed, determined, and principled North Carolina Civil War soldier and his odyssey from battlefield, to a hospital, and a long walk across the state towards his mountain home.
But was he a real person?
Charles Frazier insists that his Inman was a fictional character. But he concedes that family stories about his great-great-grandfather and his ancestor’s brothers inspired the novel.
At the highway marker ceremony, I met two Inman family historians, Cheryl Inman Haney and Phyllis Inman Barnett. Both have written books about the Inman family. I learned from their books that W.P. Inman was indeed a real person. Like the fictional Inman, he fought in the “Battle of the Crater,” was wounded, deserted from a hospital in Raleigh, and made his way back to his mountains.
According to the family historians, in December 1864, the real William Pinkney Inman went to Tennessee, where he signed an oath of allegiance to the United States. On his way back home, he was killed by the Home Guard at a place called “Big Stomp.”
Someone complained to Charles Frazier that the title of his book should have been “Big Stomp,” not “Cold Mountain.”
The family histories report that a few months before his death, W.P. Inman and Margaret Henson had a daughter, Willie Ida Inman. She grew up, married, and had five children and a host of descendants. Thus, the real W.P. Inman’s descendants are scatted across North Carolina and the rest of the world.
W.P. Inman and five of his brothers went to war. Only two survived.
Although W.P. Inman is, thanks to Charles Frazier’s book, by far the best known of the brothers, the attention at the dedication of the historic marker at the chapel was focused on his oldest brother, James Anderson Inman.
James Anderson and two other Inman brothers were captured early in the war and sent to a prison at Camp Douglas in Chicago. Conditions were harsh. Although James Anderson survived, the other brothers died in prison.
When he returned to the Pigeon River Valley, James Anderson became a minister in the Universalist church. Universalism was a form of Christianity that emphasized a God of mercy, rejecting the idea that God would condemn any soul to an eternity of suffering in Hell. This and other liberal Universalist beliefs were foreign to the fire and brimstone image of the Bible belt and conservative mountain religion.
Like Cold Mountain’s fictional Inman, James Anderson Inman was ready to stand up against cultural norms if he did not think they were right. Over time he built a loyal congregation, had the chapel constructed, and won the respect of the people of the valley. His successor in the pulpit, a woman named Hannah Powell, carried on and expanded programs of education and social service that people in the valley still remember.
Inman’s Chapel no longer hosts an active congregation, but it can still inspire and remind us that there was indeed a very real Inman.
In fact, more than one.