Tomorrow night, I will be heading up the Burke County Civil War Round Table at the Burke County History Museum, so I thought we might spend some time surveying Burke County and the War. By the way, the program, on June 26, 2012, begins at 6:00. Everyone is welcomed.
Burke County, in the western portion of the state, was created in 1777 and named for Thomas Burke, delegate to the Continental Congress and governor of North Carolina from 1781-1782. The county is the parent county of Alexander, Buncombe, Caldwell, Catawba, Madison, Mitchell, McDowell, and Yancey counties. The county seat is Morganton, incorporated in 1784 and named for Gen. Daniel Morgan, who led the Patriot forces during the battle of Cowpens.
In 1860, there were 9,237 people who lived within the confines of Burke County. This included 2,471 slaves, and 276 free persons of color.
One of the Burke citizens was local politician William W. Avery. Avery had served in the General Assembly, and in 1856, was speaker of the Senate. Avery ran for the U. S. Congress in 1858, but lost to Zebulon Baird Vance. In 1860, Avery chaired the committee which introduced the resolution that split the party, leading some members to walk out of the meeting. He later served in the Provisional Confederate Congress, but was defeated for election. Avery returned to western North Carolina, and was in the process of recruiting a cavalry battalion when he was killed.
Avery County men cast 470 votes for Breckinridge, 447 for Bell, and 4 for Douglas in the 1860 presidential election. In the February 1861 call for a convention to consider a secession convention, Burke Cast 718 votes for, with 273 against the convention. Surprisingly, the voters elected Dr. John Calhoun McDowell, who opposed secession, as the local representative, over lawyer Burgess S. Gaither. McDowell's brother, Dr. Joseph A. McDowell, also served in the convention, representing Madison County.
Local men served in Company G, 1st North Carolina State Troops; Company D, 6th North Carolina State Troops; Company D, 11th North Carolina State Troops; Company E, 16th North Carolina State Troops; Company B, 46th North Carolina Troops; Company H, 6th North Carolina Cavalry; Company G, 3rd North Carolina Junior Reserves, and Company G, 8th Battalion North Carolina Junior Reserves. There were also a few men in the 2nd and 3rd North Carolina Mounted infantry (US). Several of the Avery slaves also served in the 40th United States Colored Troops. Overall, Terrell Garren in Mountain Myth, writes that there were 1,450 men from Burke County who served in the Confederate army, and 28 men who served in the Union army. Of the Confederate forces, 308 died while in service.
Probably the most famous soldier from Burke County was Isaac Avery, colonel of the 6th North Carolina State Troops and brother to W. W. Avery. Colonel Avery, after being mortally wounded on day 2 of the battle of Gettysburg, penned the hauntimg words "Major, tell my father I died with my face to the enemy." This blood-spattered letter is a part of the collection at the North Carolina Museum of History. Another Avery brother, Col. Clarke Moulton of the 33rd North Carolina Troops, was killed the following year during the battle of the Wilderness. A fourth Avery brother, Maj. A. C. Avery, led a cavalry battalion, known as Avery's Battalion, during the war. A. C. Avery was a brother-in-law to Stonewall Jackson.
Confederate officials established Camp Vance in Burke County, to the east of Morganton not far from where the railroad terminated, in mid-1863. The camp was a base for the efforts in western North Carolina to deal with new soldiers (such as the junior reserves in 1864), and for conscripts rounded up in periodic sweeps through the area. Men were taken to the railroad depot and sent further on, back to their regiments or to Salisbury prison. Camp Vance contained several buildings, such as a jail, barracks, and a hospital. In June 1864, Capt. George W. Kirk, of the 2nd North Carolina Mounted Infantry, led a raid out of east Tennessee, through the mountains of western North Carolina, and attacked Camp Vance. The camp was forced to capitulate, and the Federals captured over 200 men. Kirk's band, after burning a train, boxcars, and other supplies, along with the buildings of the camp, set out back to east Tennessee. They fought three different skirmishes in northern Burke County. In one skirmish, Kirk used some of his prisoners as human shields, and then laughed when the local home guardsmen shot and killed Confederate soldiers. In another of the skirmishes, W. W. Avery was mortally wounded. Kirk, wounded himself, was able to make it back to Federal lines. Camp Vance was rebuilt.
The war was never far from Burke County. Numerous small raids were conducted through the area in 1864 and 1865. In April 1865, a large contingent of Federal soldiers, conducting what has become known as Stoneman's Raid, arrived in Burke County. On April 17, Union soldiers battled with the local home guard at Rocky Ford along the Catawba River. After holding the Federals at bay for several hours, the local home guardsmen began to run low on ammunition for both small arms and their one artillery piece. Also, a large Federal force soon attacked at Flemmings Ford, pushing aside the defenders. The main defensive force at Rocky Ford was forced to withdraw. Federal cavalry was soon in Morganton. Homes, barns, and smokehouses were ransacked. Louisa Norwood wrote that the Federal soldiers "tore everything to pieces... and put pistols to the ladies' heads, drove them out of the house and took what they liked, guided by a negro boy." Some homes were burned, including that of Dr. Felix Dula, and the records from the courthouse. On April 19, the Federal cavalry headed west toward Asheville.
Following the war, a permanent post for the Federal army was established in Morganton, and continued in operation for a number of years. On June 22, 1918, a Confederate monument was dedicated on the grounds of the Burke County Court House. There is also a Civil War Trail Marker at Rocky Ford and Morganton.