Short Takes

by Fred Ray on May 9, 2010 · 4 comments

Relatives, friends and re-enactors re-dedicated a memorial to Col. George Wesley Clayton, who saved Asheville from the Yankee hordes in the Battle of Asheville on April 6, 1865.

Historian Jeff Lovelace believes that without Clayton’s successful defense of the town of 1,200 in the Battle of Asheville, the consequences would have been dire.

“The town would have been burned,” he said. “Every home would have been looted and pillaged and robbed. The womenfolk would have been terrorized. It would have been unpleasant to say the least.”

Clayton’s descendants and Civil War re-enactors honored his legacy Saturday with a burial site rededication service at the Clayton family cemetery on the grounds of the Crowne Plaza Resort in Asheville.

I have seen Lovelace’s reconstruction of the battle, which is difficult as the terrain has changed quite a bit. There are a few earthworks left near the university but for the most part few traces remain. Apparently at the time the road passed thru a sort of gap. The Union force failed to scout the high ground and the ragtag Confederate defenders took them under fire as they approached.

Union Col. Isaac Kirby of 101st Ohio Infantry had set out from Greeneville, Tenn., with 900 troops and an estimated 200 partisans and Confederate deserters, according to the N.C. Department of Cultural Resources.

With word of their approach, Clayton, Asheville’s highest-ranking officer at the time, called upon the Home Guard to defend the city. The 44-member “Silver Grays,” who counted among their ranks a 60-year-old Baptist minister, were bolstered by about 250 more men that Clayton “bullied, argued or shamed” into taking up arms.

Clayton, a West Point graduate, gathered the men and two cannons and marched them to earthworks that overlooked the French Broad River.

Camp Pope Publishing

“He was able to rally the troops and lead the defense of the city that day,” Lovelace said.

The victory, one of the last for the Confederacy, was temporary, and the city was occupied a few weeks later.

On this day in 1864 the Army of the Potomac lost one of its most popular corps commanders, Maj. Gen. John Sedgwick. In contrast to the bruising fights on May 8 at Laurel Hill and other locations near Spotsylvania Court House, things had settled down somewhat on the next day.

“Uncle John,” as his men affectionately called him, joined his chief of staff near the guns to oversee the deployment, forgetting his promise of an hour before. On the brow of a low hill 500 yards away, a Confederate rifleman, probably from Lt. Gen. James Longstreet’s First Corps sharpshooter detachment, noted how the others deferred to two men who had just arrived. He adjusted the sights of his Whitworth rifle and began gently squeezing the trigger.

All this Federal movement drew “a sprinkling fire” from their opponents. Mixed in with the popping of the service Enfields, however, was “a long shrill whistle” of another type of round. Although no one was hit, some of the men instinctively dodged. “What! what! men, dodging this way for single bullets!” said Sedgwick, laughing. “What will you do when they open fire along the whole line? I am ashamed of you. They couldn’t hit an elephant at this distance.” Another of the whistling rounds passed close by, even as the general prodded one of the men with his boot. “Why, my man, I am ashamed of you, dodging that way,” he said. He repeated that “they couldn’t hit an elephant at this distance.” The soldier defended his actions. “General, I dodged a shell once, and if I hadn’t, it would have taken my head off. I believe in dodging.” Sedgwick, who was in a genial mood, chuckled and said, “All right, my man; go to your place.” The sharpshooter, now sure of the range, touched the trigger once more.

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{ 4 comments… read them below or add one }

Brendan May 9, 2010 at 9:55 pm

“Yankee hordes???” Seriously? I mean, sure, being born in Connecticut may have given me claws, fangs, and an insatiable desire for human flesh, but my liberal educators taught me to keep all that under wraps–at least until our Muslim president allows us to terrorize your womenfolk again.

Can we discuss some actual facts? The “Battle of Asheville” was a skirmish at best. According to the NC Highway & Historical Marker Program, “reports of casualties vary from zero to three” (http://www.ncmarkers.com/Markers.aspx?ct=ddl&sp=search&k=Markers&sv=PPP-1%20-%20BATTLE%20OF%20ASHEVILLE). Historians John Inscoe & Gordon McKinney, in their book, The Heart of Confederate Appalachia: Western North Carolina in the Civil War (UNC Press, 2000), claim Kirby only ordered a retreat because he mistakenly thought the Confederates had been reinforced (p.252).

What I’d really like to know is who this “historian” Jeff Lovelace is, and what evidence he actually has to back up his speculation that “Our ladies would have been subjected to every sort of drunken Union soldier and criminal in the state” (http://thereadonwnc.ning.com/forum/topics/battle-of-asheville). Having read the full text of his commemoration, I can’t help but think Lovelace is another Lost Cause propagandist. As juvenile as it is to generalize Ohio Yankees as a bunch of drunken huns, I find it even more appalling to suggest that North Carolina Unionists were criminals.

The Civil War was more horrific than words could ever describe. I don’t like to see generalizations and name-calling when it comes to discussing those soldiers from well before our time. I hate the depictions of Yanks as bloodthirsty vandals just as much as I hate to see Confederates made to look like slave-driving hicks. Jeff Lovelace, if you have a political opinion to espouse, just say it–don’t drag our forbears through the mud to serve your Lost Cause mythology.

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admin May 9, 2010 at 10:22 pm

Fred,

I’ve got to agree that Lovelace seems a little “Lost Cause-ish”. I’m curious, did the Yankees who occupied town several weeks later pillage and burn, rape and plunder and generally run amuck, or did Asheville survive the horrible fate of Yankee occupation intact? 😉

Brett

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Fred Ray May 10, 2010 at 10:37 am

Chill, guys. The “horde” comment was meant tongue in cheek because I did think the article a bit overwritten. Still, if you’re a small mountain community of 1,200 souls and you have about that many bluecoats headed your way, it sure looks like a horde, especially since a good part of them were partisans and deserters known for their brutality.

We don’t know what Col. Kirby’s intent was. Lee’s army was still in the field and he may well have burned the town, or at least anything of military value (Asheville did have an arms factory). Looting and burning was certainly common, even by regular troops, and western NC was home to savage and brutal guerrilla campaigns by both sides.

I refer you both back to my review of Fear in North Carolina (http://www.brettschulte.net/CWBlog/2009/01/11/review-fear-in-north-carolina/) as to what actually happened. Yes, there was extensive looting in Asheville after its occupation a couple of weeks later, and during a raid by Stoneman’s cavalry just prior to that.

Lovelace (whom I have met briefly) did some research on the casualties and concluded that there were probably a dozen Union wounded and maybe three or four killed, but this is hard to verify. As you say, a skirmish more than a battle.

Not taking sides here, but given the conditions at the time he may well be right that the battle saved Asheville.

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Brendan May 11, 2010 at 1:40 am

Fair enough. Fred, I hope you know my anger was really directed at Lovelace and not at you. That said, I did get a bit too worked up. What can I say–Confederate History Month put me on edge! Different state, different issue… Your background information definitely helps put this particular engagement in better perspective.

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