By Lauren Stepp
The 21st century has seen a renewed interest in the American Civil War, with Ken Burns’ newly restored series, The Civil War, hitting Netflix and talk of Confederate memorialization hitting newsstands. But few accounts accurately depict the gritty intricacies of battle, instead choosing to villainize or consecrate the war’s key players. Max Hunt, a senior writer for Mountain Xpress, prefers a more realistic rendition.
“The war has been reinvented to serve particular political and cultural narratives since the guns fell silent 150-plus years ago,” he says. “The facts of the conflict have largely given way to romanticized, overly simplified notions that do little justice to the actual participants on either side and, more often than not, strip them of their humanity in favor of convenient plot lines.”
Hunt partnered with the Rural Heritage Museum at Mars Hill University to curate The Civil War in the Southern Highlands: A Human Perspective. The exhibition includes contributions from Carolyn Comeau, Katherine Cutshall, Maynard Shelton, Dan Slagle, Ryan Phillips and museum director Les Reker. It is open Tuesday through Sunday, 11 a.m. to 5 p.m., and runs through March 4, 2018.
Distinguishing itself from other Civil War displays, A Human Perspective presents artifacts that “lend an ordinariness to the lives of those caught up in this horrific conflict,” says Reker. An 1861 wedding dress from the Swannanoa Valley Museum & History Center, for instance, symbolizes the pride and dignity that persisted in the South despite simmering tensions. Letters between soldiers and their wives document the heartache that ensued in the war’s midst, long after wedding bells had rung.
Other items include a coverlet from the Carson House in West Marion, an appliqué quilt from Western Carolina University’s Mountain Heritage Center and a McClellan infantry saddle on loan from Madison County resident Cecilia Roberts Ward, whose great-grandfather fought in the U.S. Cavalry. In addition to an officer’s writing desk, Civil War bonds and coins, Slagle located and loaned a frock coat once worn by Lt. Col. James Keith, a man with close ties to the Shelton Laurel Massacre—the brutal killing of Lincolnites in Madison County. The civilian dress coat, says Reker, had traveled to the state of Arkansas when Keith fled there after the war.
But unlike more tangible artifacts, bloodshed and lore have remained very much rooted in the mountains. “The Shelton Laurel Massacre drove a deep wound into the rural communities of Madison County that lingers to this day,” says Reker. “The new scholarship we have provided sheds light on the complex, apocryphal nature of the conflict that still reverberates deep in the hollows and gaps of the Blue Ridge.”
The exhibition and the accompanying film were sponsored by the Madison County Tourism and Development Authority.
The Rural Heritage Museum is located in Montague Hall on the campus of Mars Hill University. Admission is free. For more information, call 828.689.1400 or visit mhu.edu/museum.