Friday, July 29, 2011

Avery County

If you have the read this blog for any length of time, you probably already know a great deal about Avery County and the war. For the past ten years, I have called Avery County home, and I spend a great deal of time, working with school and scout groups, and the community, both learning about and and teaching others about what went on in the area during the war.

Avery County is celebrating its 100th anniversary of formation this weekend (the actual date was in February, but unless you want to ski down the street, we don't expect many folks at a parade in Avery County in February). There will be a parade, concerts, festivals, and I'm even participating in a local living history on the square in front of the courthouse. So, I thought we could make Avery County the focus of our next North Carolina in the Civil War county profile.
Since we are celebrating the 100th anniversary of our founding, you've probably figured out that Avery County did not exist during the War. The area was a part of Watauga, Mitchell, and Caldwell Counties, with the majority lying in Mitchell.

Avery County was sparsely settled in the 1860s, with most of the inhabitants living in the southern, less mountainous region, which in itself is a contradiction, considering that the whole area is pretty mountainous. Most men in the area served in Company A, 58th North Carolina Troops, also known as the Mitchell Rangers. This company was organized in December 1861, a reaction to the bridge burnings in east Tennessee. The Mitchell Rangers were a part-time infantry and cavalry organization. They spent their time guarding mountain passes from the Unionists in east Tennessee. After  the conscription ordinance was passed, the infantry of the Mitchell Rangers became Company A, 58th North Carolina Troops, while many of the mounted men transferred to the 5th Battalion, North Carolina Cavalry, and even later, the 6th North Carolina Cavalry. There were a few others who served in the 6th North Carolina State Troops and the 29th North Carolina Troops. There were also some men who served in the 3rd North Carolina Mounted Infantry, a Federal organization made up of men from the mountains of western North Carolina and east Tennessee.

Within the confines of Avery County there was the Cranberry Iron Mines, which produced iron ore for the Confederacy, employing up to 40 men during the conflict. In June 1864, Capt. George W. Kirk of the 2nd/3rd North Carolina Mounted Infantry led a raid through the area and into Burke County. The Federals' goal was Camp Vance, which they successfully destroyed. They fought several skirmishes with local home guard contingents on their way back up the mountain. Kirk's Raiders were armed with seven-shot Spencer rifles, so the contest always tipped in favor of Kirk's men. Once back into present-day Avery County, the Raiders burned the home of Col. John B. Palmer and destroyed the iron works at Cranberry.

One other important part of local history can be found in the Banner Elk community. There was an underground railroad that ran through Watauga County, with Banner Elk as one of the stops. This underground railroad funneled escaped prisoners from Salisbury and from South Carolina, along with other dissidents, through the mountains and into Federal-held territory in east Tennessee. The Banner Elk community was a Unionist haven, while at the same time, ironically enough, the Banners were the largest slave owners in the area.

There were no veteran groups in Avery County, nor is there a Confederate monument. The only monuments can  be found in the numerous cemeteries scattered throughout the county.

1 comment:

jpbenney said...

It should be no surprise that there are no Confederate memorials in Avery County when one realizes that the county’s political results during the “Solid South” era spell a Unionist haven!

Since Avery County formed in 1911, no Democratic Presidential candidate has obtained forty percent of the county’s vote, and only Lyndon Johnson in 1964 and Jimmy Carter in 1976 have ever passed thirty percent. In 1936, when Franklin Roosevelt carried North Carolina by 48 percentage points, his Republican opponent Alf Landon won Avery County by 55.96 percent! (Along with Robert La Follette in the Texas German counties of Comal and Gillespie twelve years before, this must rank as the largest ever deviation of a county from its parent state in a Presidential election).

Such results show that Avery County, more so than Mitchell from which it was taken, must have been a Unionist haven, as you imply. Avery’s fiercely Republican voting during FDR’s landslides was rivalled only by a tiny number of culturally identical counties in southern Kentucky and adjacent eastern Tennessee.

The Unionist aspects of Avery County seem obvious from how Banner Elk was a Unionist refuge. Was it true that what people who lived in contemporary Avery and Mitchell Counties were so fiercely opposed to secession as their (grandchildren’s) voting in the 1930s suggests?? It seems as if contemporary Avery and Mitchell Counties were not under Union control until much later than Unionist East Tennessee - can you confirm this??

History books – at least basic ones – often neglect how many whites in the slave states opposed secession due to simple unwillingness to fight a war for the plantation owners – which yeoman farmers knew they would have to do in the event of secession. In this sense, the Civil War was a Black Belt war, not a Southern war per se. However, I have never read of Union memorials in Unionist counties of North Carolina and Tennessee, and as far as I know they seem to be neglected in Missouri, Kentucky, West Virginia and Maryland, where the Unionists were strong enough to keep them in the Union against secessionism in plantation areas (“Little Dixie” and the Bootheel, the Jackson Purchase and Bluegrass, and the Eastern Shore respectively).