Review: Fear in North Carolina

by Fred Ray on January 11, 2009 · 0 comments

Fear in North Carolina: The Civil War Journals and Letters of the Henry Family
by Karen L. Clinard (Compiler), Richard Russell (Compiler)

Paperback: 443 pages
Publisher: Reminiscing Books; First edition (April 1, 2008)
ISBN-10: 0979396131
ISBN-13: 978-0979396137
Product Dimensions: 9.3 x 5.9 x 1.3 inches
Price: $29.95

Social history is very much in fashion these days and much of it frankly a bit tedious, especially when accompanied by a lot of interpretation. What I do find interesting, however, is reading the primary source material. What did the people think then, as opposed to how we see it now?

Richard Russell, a fellow Ashevillian, compiled and edited the journals and letter of the Henry Family, leading citizens of Asheville during the Civil War. Although there is a great deal of family material in the book (Russell had the active cooperation of the Henry family descendants) like photos, letters, etc. the bulk of the book is three daily journals kept by Cornelia Henry between 1860 and 1868. These constitute an invaluable look into an era forever gone. It was, for example, a much more formal age. In her diary, and presumably in person, Cornelia refers to her husband as “Mr. Henry.”

William L. Henry and his wife Cornelia ran an inn/resort at Sulphur Springs, just outside Asheville. They were slave owners. There was no plantation economy in the mountains, but the Henrys had a sprawling spread with mixed agriculture, animal husbandry and orchards. Most of this they used either themselves or for inn, and sold the excess on the market. Some slaves were “learned a trade” such as carpentry and hired out. Still, the life of a slaveholder was no bed of ease. Although Cornelia was spared many of the most odious domestic tasks, she still filled her days with cooking, sewing, and a lot of domestic work, plus having and raising several children. Then there was the management of the slaves. On Dec. 11, 1861, Cornelia notes: “Nothing of interest going on…Jim Parker had to thrash some of the negroes yesterday evening & Jim [a slave] ran away last night. Jim Parker started after him this morning.”

When war came William Henry did not do regular service but served in a Home Guard company, where in addition to security duties he had the disagreeable task of hunting down an ever-growing number of deserters. Henry was wounded slightly at an action at Warm Springs and participated in the Battle of Asheville (one of the last Confederate victories, fought on April 6, 1865). The Henrys were staunch Confederates and hoped for independence until the last. Hunted by Col. George Kirk’s men after the fall of Asheville, he barely escaped with his life and and had to flee to South Carolina.

We moderns may sneer at period gender roles, but women of the time were respected, even by their enemies. Even though her house and inn were plundered several times by Union soldiers, she seems to have had no fear for her safety or virtue. Even when Kirk’s raiders entered her home—who would have killed her husband on sight—they said they would respect her. For Cornelia the spring of 1865 was an eventful one. With her husband on the run for his life, she gave birth to a baby boy on April 22nd, just in time to see the town occupied by Yankees who sacked the house and took their wagon and many of their animals. To add to her problems the newly-freed slaves left her to run the place on her own.

William Henry eventually returned to rejoin his family and lived to a ripe old age. After the war, following a fire and the loss of their bound labor, the Henrys’ fortunes declined, although they remained prominent citizens. Cornelia put her thoughts and feelings on paper each day as it passed, had no particular agenda, and did not attempt to revise the diary later.

The Henry journals have been known for some time and available since they were donated to the Asheville library by a descendant in 1980, but Russell deserves credit for making them available to a wider audience. Reminiscing Books is, like CFS Press, a micropublishing outfit here in Asheville. The book is in paperback only, and is attractively laid out and well indexed. An added value are the excerpts from the local papers concerning things like hiring slaves, recruiting, capturing deserters and the like, as well as photos of the Henry family and contemporary personalities, documents (e.g. slave schedules, Henry’s amnesty) and family letters. In all, there is a huge amount of information for the for the researcher and though it’s not exactly a page turner, I recommend it highly.


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