W.J. Cash builds a straw man at the beginning of his 1948 classic, “The Mind of the South,” then spends the next 500 pages or so methodically destroying fantasies of a once great Old South under the benevolent rule of a gracious antebellum aristocracy.
The North Carolina newspaperman describes this fabricated dream as “a sort of stage piece out of the 18th century,” with a “manorial social pattern,” a place “where gesturing gentlemen move soft-spokenly against a background of rose gardens and dueling grounds, through always gallant deeds, and lovely ladies … They dwelt in large and stately mansions, preferably white with columns and Grecian entablature. Their estates were feudal baronies, their slaves quite too numerous ever to be counted, their social life a thing of Old World splendor and delicacy.”
This mythical time is familiar, and Cash’s descriptions ring true of a nonexistant era when people were “singularly polished and mellow and poised, wholly dominated by ideals of honor and chivalry and noblesse.” Cash sketches the Old South my extended family subscribed to, one I experienced in small but potent doses during visits to Virginia.
My brother is younger, sparing him inoculations of Old South values, but for my benefit, and that of my sister, the older women of the family would incant our lineage in fully realized Southern drawls: through Judith Early Pate to Confederate General Jubal Early, who served as division commander for Stonewall Jackson; Daniel Chaney, Abram Rives and Robert Bradley, all participants in Pickett’s Charge at Gettysburg; and Ephraim Rives, Abram’s brother, who suffered a grievous wound to the neck and was captured by the Yankees.
A small, rusty tin box holds a few reminders of this family legacy. It inexplicably landed in my hands and not my sister’s, though she assiduously collects family pass downs. Inside this box, there is my grandmother’s Daughters of the Confederacy button, plus a tag with her name that says, “Anne Eliza Johns Chapter of Danville, Virginia.” Another button bears two versions of the Stars and Bars. Looking them up, I found one is a depiction of the Confederate Battle Flag and the other, the third official flag of the Confederacy.
Before you judge us too harshly, know this: It’s complicated.
Also in that box? A button bearing the American flag and a lapel pin, the Gold Star, given to my family to honor my grandfather following his death in World War II. My family, my grandmother and those great-aunts and great-uncle, those closely related cousins and many-removed cousins, they were patriotic people who believed in God and Country. It’s just in their Old South version, Robert E. Lee existed on the same elevated plane as, say, George Washington.
One day, I suppose, I’ll give the tin box to my sister, who will delight in receiving it. She will, I suppose, give the box and its contents to her daughter; who will, I suppose, pass it down to her children, who are of mixed race. Their father is African-American.
Like I told you – it’s complicated.
In these mountain counties, an estimated 10 percent of the population (this includes the Cherokees) held slaves. As Cash noted in “The Mind of the South,” there were no baronies, no plantations and no manors, simply the “homespun Scotch-Irish, dogged out of Pennsylvania and Maryland by poverty and the love of freedom.” Spared the darker history of my forbearers, most natives of Western North Carolina were not spoon-fed false narratives and romanticized family history.
Here, the story goes, things were different. Mountaineers were reluctantly forced from their log cabins to fight in a war they barely understood. And, if by some small chance they did march to battle for political reasons, it was not about slavery, but to defend states’ rights.
This is all probably more true than not, though it’s a gross oversimplification of a complicated time. But this is fact: the Confederate memorial now roiling emotions in this county was built, at least in part, on the same Old South ideals threaded through my family history.
“This is the noblest of civic investments,” the chairman of the monument association, James H. Cathey, wrote for the May 14, 1915, issue of the Jackson County Journal. “It is an investment from which future generations, far distant, will declare the largest dividends, not in paper, but in patriots.
“And do we not owe the survivors of that war something? In our little town there still lingers a small number of the men who followed the fortunes of the ‘stars and bars’ with a ‘fidelity and faith’ unequaled in the annals of war … Happily we are the sons of Southern cavaliers. Happily the genius of Southern chivalry is not dead and in the knowledge of all our fathers and mothers have suffered for us we shall do full and appropriate justice to them living and dead.”
As first envisioned, Jackson County’s monument was to consist of two columns forming a granite arch, with a bronze tablet, one on each column, bearing “an appropriate inscription to the men and the other to the women of the Confederacy.”
It’s not entirely clear why the plans were changed, but today’s monument, an anonymous soldier on a simple base, probably proved less expensive. The monument association raised $1,400 in donations, not including the foundation.
Cathey again: “This monument when once erected will constitute a subject of perpetual inspiration, gratification and pride to all who had a part in its building. It is the opportunity of a life-time. We the sons and grandsons of the men and women who suffered for 40 years in the defense and rehabilitation of our Southland, who made possible our very prosperity and peace at this auspicious moment – it is singularly our opportunity.”
The unveiling ceremony took place in September, 1915. “Every train brought crowded coaches, and long processions of wagons, buggies, carriages and automobiles, flanked and reinforced by riders on horseback,” the newspaper reported. “The old battle-scarred banner, cherished and fondled by its keeper, and loved by every one of the old boys for whom it was tenderly made by fair hands in other days, was borne proudly by a veteran in Confederate gray.”
A choir sang “Maryland, My Maryland,” Miss Beulah Dills sang “The Sword of Lee,” Miss Lucy Grindstaff sang “The Flag of Dixie,” and eight “boys and girls dressed in white and gray, assisted by 12 young ladies dressed in red, white and blue, bearing 12 state flags” unveiled the monument. The chorus sang two more songs, “Dixie,” then “The Old North State.”
“Never again until the imperceptible attrition of the elements – the inexorable knowing of the tooth of time, or the conscienceless work of vandal hands shall destroy (heaven forbid!) this pile of granite and bronze will any generation be blessed with so lofty a privilege,” Cathey wrote. “All patriotic monuments are educators in the noblest sense. They speak to us in language at once the most tender and sublime of the cardinal virtues of the race – of honor, truth and love; of justice, liberty and law; of the greatest of all virtues – personal sacrifice.”
Take the monument down, or let it stand? Keep the family memorabilia, or throw it away and don’t pass it down?
It is complicated.
Ellison is editor of The Sylva Herald.