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Burnsville and the American Iliad: Battle Flags and Monuments

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By Mike Scruggs-The subtitle of Ludwell Johnson’s provocative 1978 book, North against South, was appropriately called: The American Iliad 1848-1877. Johnson’s dates covered most of the buildup to hostilities beginning with the 1848 election to the end of Reconstruction in 1877, a period of nearly 30 years. He referred to the “Civil War” and “Reconstruction” era as the “American Iliad” because it has had and continues to have such tremendous influence on American culture and literature, much as the great epic poem about the ten-year Greek siege of Troy (Ilium) about 1250 BC has had on European culture and literature.

The Iliad has its historical underpinnings, but it is probably more accurately defined as epic myth or mythologized history. Because of war propaganda and the modern spinal disease of “political correctness,” recent Civil War history frequently contains strong elements of mythological narrative. As the saying goes, “the victors get to write the history,” whether it is truth or not. In addition, the American Civil War was such a traumatic event in terms of casualties, destruction, and sweeping economic and social change that it is a defining epic of American history. Added to the war-trauma were the cruel years of political despotism and economic plunder misnamed “Reconstruction.” These events impoverished the South for many decades. According to Confederate General John B. Gordon, later Governor of Georgia and U.S. Senator, Reconstruction caused more enmity between North and South and black and white than the war.

Burnsville, a picturesque mountain town of 1,700 people is the county seat of Yancey County, North Carolina. The population of the county was estimated at 17,630 in 2010. Included in the breathtaking mountain scenery of Yancey County is the massive Mount Mitchell, at 6,684 feet, the highest elevation of the Appalachian mountain chain and the Eastern United States.

At one end of the Burnsville town square is the County Courthouse built in 1832. Two large memorial stones in front of the courthouse contain the names of Yancey County soldiers, sailors, and airmen who have died in American wars since 1860. Two Confederate Battle Flags about 18 inches high flanked the largest memorial stone on the day I visited Burnsville, November 9, two days before Veterans Day. This memorial contained the names of 144 Confederate dead. According to historian and author Terrell Garren, the total dead was actually 188. The population of Yancey County in 1860 was 8,655. By 1870, it had fallen 32 percent to 5,909. Also according to Garren, a total of 1,045 Yancey County men served in the Confederate Army. Besides the dead, 152 were listed as wounded—this usually meant seriously wounded. Another 207 had been captured, which often resulted in lasting disabilities. Garren puts the total casualties at 547 or 52 percent.

To see how Yancey County Confederate dead (144) on these monuments compared to Yancey County dead from other wars, I simply counted names. The World War II population was 17,202 in 1940, nearly twice the 1860 population. The 31 World War II military deaths recorded must have been painful, but it was less than one-quarter of the Confederate total. Adjusting for population growth, Yancey County suffered over nine times the trauma of local military deaths during the Civil War as it did during World War II. Hence the tragedy and significance of the Civil War was clearly of epic proportions in Yancey County.

With 18 percent dead of the 1,045 of those who served, Yancey was by no means the most traumatized of Western North Carolina counties. Buncombe County had 524 deaths or 19 percent of the total serving. Henderson County had 273 dead and a 21 percent death rate, and McDowell had over 29 percent dead. Catawba with 500 dead had a 33 percent death rate, and Cleveland County had 688 dead and a 34 percent death rate. Twenty-one Western North Carolina counties had 5,840 dead or 21.4 percent.

The idea that the Confederate Battle Flag symbolizes slavery is unfortunate ignorance driven by late Civil War propaganda and modern politically correct politics. To the Southern people and the Confederate soldier, the Confederate Battle Flag symbolized their Christian heritage and resistance to invasion and political and economic tyranny. It symbolized the rule of Constitutional law established by their Revolutionary forefathers, and it came symbolize the courage and blood sacrifice of the Confederate soldier in defending their homes, their families, and their belief in the justice and righteousness of their cause. Honorable people pursuing a just and civil society do not seek to dishonor and marginalize the heritage and symbols of others.

Yancey County war deaths in other wars were small compared to the Civil War and World War II. Seven were killed in Vietnam, six in Korea, three in World War I, and two in Afghanistan.

The tragedy of war hit some families very hard. Of the 144 Confederate dead listed on the memorial, there were seven with the surname Ray, and seven with the surname Honeycutt. There were six with the surnames Edwards, Wilson, and Hensley. Many of the surnames on the Confederate memorial are repeated on the World War II, Vietnam, and Korean War rolls of patriotic sacrifice.

As a Vietnam combat veteran and the great grandson of a Confederate Cavalry veteran, I am glad to see all our dead and all our veterans honored. They do that exceptionally well in Yancey County. While my wife was shopping on Burnsville’s Main Street, I took a break for some coffee and a pastry. When the patriotic and generous lady who manages the coffee shop found out that I was a Vietnam veteran, she refused to let me pay. There is a strong tradition of military service in Western North Carolina, and many retired veterans settle here, too. Although there are no major military installations in Western North Carolina, we have a large population of military veterans.

Leonard M. (Mike) Scruggs is the author of Lessons from the Vietnam War: Truths the Media Never Told You, 2009; and The Un-Civil War: Shattering the Historical Myths, 2011.

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