Second of two parts
RECAP: In 2008, the City of Asheville commissioned Conservation Solutions, Inc., of Santa Fe, NM, to conduct an “assessment of condition” of part of the city’s inventory of sculptures and artwork. The conservator’s report revealed that the Vance Monument on Pack Square was in “fair to poor” condition, suffering from both external and internal structural damage and in urgent need of extensive – and expensive — professional repair. City officials say that they recently began setting aside funds for this purpose and expect to have moneys to release for the project by 2015, although they point out that the funds have been reserved “on paper only.” Critics argue that the proposed repair budget falls short of the estimated cost even at present, and that in two more years additional damage to the monument will have driven the restoration costs up even further. A unit of reenactors, the 26th North Carolina Reactivated, is now raising funds, with the city’s blessing, to jump start the restoration.
In August of 1861, 31-year-old Zebulon Baird Vance was elected Colonel of the 26th North Carolina Infantry and led that regiment at New Bern and later in the successful week-long defense of Richmond known as the Seven Days’ Battles. Then he resigned his commission to run for Governor of North Carolina. He won and presided over his state until the war’s end, when he was captured and imprisoned. He was never charged with anything and was paroled in the summer of 1865.
His old regiment, meanwhile, went on to become one of the most famous units in the Confederate army. It lost 687 of its 843 men on the first day’s fighting at Gettysburg (including 13 color bearers and Vance’s successor, the “Boy Colonel” Henry King Burgwyn) but occasional reinforcements kept a remnant of the regiment intact until it surrendered with Lee at Appomattox.
But there is still – or again – a 26th North Carolina. It inhabits the twilight world between present and past. It numbers about 300 members from across the state, and it materializes at battle re-enactments and living history events nationwide. It has also proved itself adept at raising very real money in the real-time world for such projects as the restoration of the battle flags of several North Carolina regiments, the refurbishing of the North Carolina Memorial at Gettysburg and the purchase and protection (together with the Civil War Preservation Trust) of some of the area of that battlefield where the original 26th shed so much blood a century and a half ago.
The present Lieutenant-colonel and PR officer of the 26th is Weaverville resident Chris Roberts, who says he had been “keeping an eye on” the condition of the Vance Monument for several years and had become increasingly concerned at the lack of attention being paid to it. Roberts, a devotee of all things Vance (he served for several years as a volunteer interpreter at Vance Birthplace Historic Site), says he became aware after talking with city officials that the monument’s rate of decline, and therefore the cost of repair, had already outstripped the rate at which the city was earmarking money to begin work. With Roberts as sponsor, the 26th has now taken on the task of raising funds to close the time and cash flow gap and get the project going. Armed with letters of endorsement from the city, Vance Birthplace Historic Site and the North Carolina Department of Cultural Resources, the regiment is now receiving donations for the restoration and has already approached Karkadoulias Bronze Art of Cincinnati, the firm employed by the 26th to restore the Gettysburg statue, for an estimate.
“They originally quoted us $91,000, but because we have a very good working relationship with them, they offered to do the job for $81,000. Of course, that was awhile back and if there’s more damage done before the money can be raised, we may be looking at still more money,” Roberts says, noting that the $81,000 figure far exceeds the $70,000 estimated in the city’s 2008 report.
Despite the city Parks, Recreation and Cultural Arts Department’s assertion that it began earmarking money for the project two years ago, an April 15, 2012, letter from PRCA Director Roderick Simmons to the 26th appears to put the ball for financing the restoration squarely in the reenactors’ court. It states that “the 26th North Carolina will administer the fundraising and collect funds for the project … the funds will be turned over to the City of Asheville and set up in a restricted account dedicated to the restoration …”
Also mentioned in the 2008 report is the Robert E. Lee/Dixie Highway monument at the foot of the Vance obelisk. The marker was erected by the United Daughters of the Confederacy 1926 and is also of granite, roughly the size of a large headstone and decorated with, on its front, a bronze plaque showing Robert E. Lee on horseback and, in the back, a smaller plaque that reads “In memory of Colonel John Kerr Connally, Commander of the celebrated 55th North Carolina Regiment, C.S.A., wounded at Gettysburg, July 3, 1863.” The report gives this monument “high” priority for cleaning and lists its condition as “fair.”
Only a few yards downhill, near the side entrance to the Buncombe County Courthouse, stands a monument to the 60th North Carolina Infantry, another notable Confederate regiment. Its roster included men from Buncombe, Madison, Henderson and Polk counties, and its exploits formed the basis for Thomas Wolfe’s short story “Chickamauga.” The memorial was dedicated in November of 1905 and Commissioner Locke Craig received it on behalf of the county. It is of once-white marble on a gray granite base, both now deeply begrimed, and branches from nearby trees obscure it from view, even in winter. In places, green moss grows from its mortar joints. As county rather than city property, it is not included in the CSI report and county park officials were unavailable for comment on its condition or plans for restoration at press time.
Whether under city or county jurisdiction, these and other Civil War-related Asheville monuments have fallen into disrepair because they are now considered to be on the wrong side of the political correctness fence, according to a growing number of those familiar with Asheville’s history.
“There’s two kinds of neglect” says Southern heritage activist H.K. Edgerton. “There’s passive neglect, where you don’t know something’s being neglected, and there’s a kind of deliberate neglect, where you know something needs taking care of but you just don’t do it.”
Edgerton, a former president of the Asheville NAACP chapter, says municipalities across the South have become increasingly subjected to cultural blackmail regarding Confederate memorials, as special interest groups and a hostile media establishment insist on equating them with black slavery and latter-day racism. Edgerton himself, carrying a Confederate flag, marched 1,300 miles from the Vance Monument to Austin, Texas, to protest the dead-of-night removal of two Confederate plaques from the Texas Supreme Court building. “The same thing happened in Memphis,” he says. “They put up a bust of [Confederate General Nathan Bedford] Forrest and a bunch of folks put a rope around it and tried to pull it down; then they got rid of it. And these various city and county governments are either on the same side as these vandals or they’re scared to death of them.
“I have been hearing for at least two years that there is an orchestrated plan to get rid of the Vance monument, one way or another,” Edgerton says. “I guarantee you the 26th North Carolina, bless their hearts, are the only ones actually raising money to repair the Vance Monument. I hope they succeed. I bet that really messed up plans to just let it get in such bad shape it would have to come down.”
When word of the Vance obelisk’s state of decay surfaced in local media last month, editorials cautiously endorsed repairing it, provided the restoration could not be construed as condoning the fact that Vance’s family owned some slaves. As America observes the sesquicentennial of what is officially known as The War Between the States, official historians are insisting that the South’s determination to preserve slavery was the chief, if not sole, cause of the war – a position borne out in recent films and books. Other scholars strenuously object to presenting the 1861-65 conflict as a moral crusade rather than as an inevitable political and economic clash between two incompatible cultures.
Some sociologists say that, forced to choose sides, institutions and municipalities are opting to take the official party line rather than risk censure or a loss of federal funding.
But, says Dr. Neill Payne, Board Chairman of the Southern Legal Resource Center, “We are not allowed to veto the past because it has fallen out of style … other Confederate monuments are also suffering from this ‘institutionalized forgetting,’ but the Vance monument is the most prominent and must be restored. I would like to think that this is just a result of misplaced priorities. Let’s hope so.”