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Western North Carolina was spared from the major fighting of the Civil War, which began 150 years ago. At the same time, the area can stake a claim to hosting the war’s final volleys.
For proof, witness an off-the-beaten-path monument nestled between two mid-20th century homes on Sulphur Springs Road in Waynesville. The stone and cement, conical-shaped marker is shaded by trees and clad partly in ivy. A small Confederate flag and wreath are pinned to the ground next to it.
Commissioned by the local chapter of the United Daughters of the Confederacy in 1923, the monument was one of scores built across the state by a generation that knew the war firsthand. It honors the “last shot of the war between the states,” as a bronze plaque puts it — a shot purportedly from the rifle of a Confederate soldier who hadn’t gotten the word that the war had effectively ended by the time he squeezed the trigger.
“When I first moved here, there were several of those Confederate veterans’ daughters still alive,” recalled Don Trull, a retiree who’s lived next door to the monument for 50 years, in an interview last week. “They just worshiped that old thing. They were here every weekend and kept flags flying around it.”
The spot doesn’t get many visitors nowadays, though. Every couple of weeks, Trull pushes his lawn mower around the 10-by-10-foot plot the monument sits on to keep things tidy. Once in a while, a teacher will bring a bus full of students out to have a look, and that’s about it, he said.
But even as memories of the Civil War fade, monuments like this one are coming back into focus. The war’s sesquicentennial has prompted historians and state archivists to compile, before it’s too late, a complete record of the ways the war is memorialized in North Carolina — the state that both provided the most troops and lost the most of its citizens in battle.
A full accounting at last?
What the researchers are finding might surprise casual observers who view the monuments as static relics of a bygone era. In fact, in Western North Carolina, as elsewhere in the state, the monuments chronicle a history that is still unfolding and unsettled, to this day.
For a few years, state history officials met to plan how to commemorate the Civil War’s 150th anniversary in North Carolina. During the discussions, Tom Vincent, a records analyst with the N.C. Office of Archives and History, put forth a suggestion that stuck: The state needs an up-to-date survey of monuments to the war.
Today, that survey of North Carolina Civil War Monuments is online. It’s a work in progress that aims to ultimately become “the most comprehensive listing of Civil War monuments in North Carolina.”
For that to happen, the state’s Civil War buffs will need to contribute their insights and findings, according to Vincent, who administers the site.
“I’ve been collecting this information for years,” he said in a recent interview. “But stuff is still coming in, in dribs and drabs, from people around the state, and we’re still adding it to the site.”
The survey’s focus, Vincent stressed, is on monuments devoted exclusively to the war or those that stress specific war-time roles of individuals or institutions, as opposed to the state’s ubiquitous roadside historical markers on parts of the war or the thousands of individual gravesites of Civil War veterans.
The survey’s criteria, for example, exclude the sizable Vance Monument in downtown Asheville’s Pack Square. It honors Zebulon Vance, who both fought in the war and served as North Carolina’s governor for most of the conflict. While Vance played an important role in the war, Vincent noted, the Buncombe County native also served as a peacetime governor and senator, and his monument makes no mention of the Civil War.
The monuments that do qualify are sometimes difficult to pin down.
“Some of them are literally a moving target: They were moved from their original location,” Vincent said. “Many were built in the middle of the road, for example, in main intersections, and cars would run into them over time, so they eventually were moved.”
That’s a threat that hasn’t gone away: just last month, a Greensboro man drove his van into a Rockingham County Confederate monument, toppling its stone soldier onto his vehicle.
Further complicating the survey is the fact that some monuments have been stolen or vandalized, and that some were built in towns that either ceased to exist or exploded in population since the war.
‘An unusual lot’: WNC’s monuments
Given the challenges, it helps to have regional specialists assisting the state’s monument survey.
“In Western North Carolina,” Vincent said, “I’ve been getting a lot of help from a gentleman named Michael Hardy.”
A Florida native and longtime resident of Avery County, Hardy has authored numerous books on the Civil War in North Carolina and elsewhere. On the strength of that work, the North Carolina Society of Historians named him the state’s historian of the year in 2010.
Civil War studies “have been a lifelong thing for me,” Hardy explained in a recent interview. In 1982, when he was 10 years old, “an uncle took me to a battle reenactment, and I’ve been hooked on it ever since.”
The state’s Civil War monuments, and Western North Carolina’s in particular, have gone woefully understudied, Hardy said. He sees the sesquicentennial as an opportunity to redress that, and presented a paper on the topic in Raleigh last month at the state’s official commemoration conference.
“It is hard to believe that after 150 years, and tens of thousands of books and articles, that today there is much about the Civil War, including the role of remembrance in Western North Carolina, that remains unexplored,” Hardy wrote.
“The Confederate monuments in Western North Carolina are an unusual lot,” he added, explaining some of his main findings about them:
- They appeared relatively late, but with some vigor: The state’s first monument to Confederate dead was built in Fayetteville in 1868, three years after the war. The first in Western North Carolina didn’t appear until 1903, when Asheville’s chapter of the United Daughters of the Confederacy installed a stone spire in the Newton Academy Cemetery off Biltmore Avenue. Two years later, the Asheville UDC “unveiled three monuments on a single day” in the heart of downtown, Hardy noted, “a feat unrivaled to this day in the Tar Heel state.”
- They are fewer and sparser than the rest of the state’s: According to Hardy, there are roughly 130 Civil War monuments in North Carolina, and only 20 or so of them are in Western North Carolina.
- They continue to be cultivated: The mountain area has steadily added Civil War monuments in recent years. In 1998, Wilkesboro’s chapter of the Sons of Confederate Veterans sponsored one (“Interestingly, the names on this monument are not of the ‘glorious Confederate dead,’ but of the members of the camp who put up the marker,” Hardy noted in his paper.) In 2008, a monument to N.C.-native Union troops was placed in Hendersonville. A year later, one went up to Confederates from Burnsville. And Mitchell County got a new one this very year.
Monuments lost and found
Hardy explores the sometimes-mysterious fate of area monuments on one of his blogs, North Carolina and the Civil War.
In a recent post, he traced the path of the three monuments that the United Daughters of the Confederacy planted in downtown Asheville in 1905. The main one, to a regiment of Confederate soldiers from in and around Buncombe County, remains next to the courthouse. The other two, honoring two area Confederate leaders, now sit next to their gravesites some distances away.
For all their apparent permanence, Western North Carolina’s Civil War monuments sometimes face a uncertain future. Consider the fate of one of the area’s monumental anomalies — a tribute to Federal troops in what was supposed to be wholly rebel country.
In 1985, a group of “descendants and friends of the Union veterans,” as the plaque put it, erected a monument in front of the Etowah branch of Henderson County’s public library on Brickyard Road. It praised the boys in blue from Henderson and Transylvania counties — a small but significant minority amid their gray-clad Confederate neighbors — and “the women who carried on at home while husbands and brothers were fighting to preserve the Union.”
In 2008, the Etowah library moved to a new building about a half-mile up the road, and now the monument is steady but obscure, relegated to a spot between a young pine tree and the storage shed for a childcare facility’s playground. County officials considered moving the monument to downtown Hendersonville, but that proved impractical, so the county erected a smaller, simpler monument to Union troops next to the county heritage museum that same year.
The original Union monument was the brainchild of James B. King, a Hendersonville native who lived out his days in Michigan before passing away in the summer of 2009.
“J.B. had ancestors who fought on both sides of the war,” Stella Mace, a volunteer with the Henderson County Genealogical & Historical Society, Inc., said last week. “There were plenty of tributes to the Confederate side, but he thought that both sides should be honored, so he raised the money to build that monument in Etowah.”
King “would be disgusted to hear what’s become of the monument today,” said Pace, who helped King research the area’s lesser-known Unionists. “He worked so hard to make that happen.”
The overlooked Union monument might find a new level of recognition soon, though. When Carolina Public Press asked Vincent, the state archives employee, about the monument, he said he’d never heard of it.
“So far, we’ve counted nine Union monuments in North Carolina,” he said. “This one would make 10.” Vincent pledged to include the monument is the state’s online survey, if provided with a photo and some basic information.