Uniting a divided history
N.C. Civil War center will help better tell a complex story that continues to shape us today
From the robust public discussion about North Carolina’s legacy of Civil War monuments, it’s clear that — a century and a half after its close — we’re still sorting out how to make sense of that war and memorialize those who fought it.
Our state’s history in the Civil War is complicated and full of nuance — not one single legacy but many: of soldiers who fought for both the Union and the Confederacy; of enslaved people for whom the invasion by United States troops meant liberation; of free persons of color caught in the middle of warring armies; of women and families left behind to fend for themselves as their husbands and sons and fathers marched to the battlefront; of all those who labored on the home front to provide food and clothing and medical care and all the rest.
This many-faceted legacy forms the core narrative of the North Carolina Civil War History Center in Fayetteville, an exciting project several years in the making and soon to be a reality, to be operated under the auspices of the state Department of Natural and Cultural Resources. As its founding documents make clear, “The History Center is designed to be a ‘teaching museum’ rather than a ‘collecting museum’ ” — with one of the nation’s first digital master plans to make interpretive resources available to students and other citizen across the state.
The effort is being coordinated by the Winslow Group, which led successful campaigns to restore Wilmington’s Bellamy Mansion, to support the Battleship North Carolina, and to establish the International Civil Rights Center & Museum in Greensboro. Two former governors, Democrat James B. Hunt Jr. and Republican James G. Martin, serve as honorary chairmen of the Board of Advisers. The nonpartisan Board of Directors and Board of Advisers include more than 70 noted historians, business and community leaders, teachers and university chancellors, museum professionals, and distinguished public servants.
The History Center is a $65 million project — funded by a private-public partnership — that will occupy a four-acre site on the grounds of the historic Fayetteville Arsenal — in many ways the perfect location, for reasons both practical (Interstate 95 is nearby) and symbolic.
When Gen. William T. Sherman embarked on his Final March through the Carolinas in Spring 1865, he set the arsenal squarely in his sights.
The arsenal was a magisterial structure, both beautiful and functional, occupying almost 100 acres of meadows shaded by stands of hardwood. The main citadel, which took more than 20 years to build and was only completed on the eve of war, was a fortress 500 feet by 500 feet, with guard towers rising four stories high at the corners. The brick and sandstone walls were painted in a yellow wash, and inside, the doors were built of mahogany strapped with brass hinges and locks — not the usual wrought iron.
It was a showplace, but also a factory seized by the Confederates in 1861. It turned out 10,000 Fayetteville model rifled muskets and nearly a million paper-wrapped cartridges, along with gun carriages, artillery fuses and ramrods. Four thousand people worked at the arsenal, including women who made the cartridges.
The people of Fayetteville regarded it as a beautiful civic monument, a kind of Central Park, and on weekends and holidays the grounds were crowded with picnickers, strolling couples, even wedding parties.
When Sherman occupied the city, he made the arsenal his headquarters. He wrote to Secretary of War Edwin Stanton, “I cannot leave a detachment to hold it, and therefore I shall burn it, blow it up with Gunpowder, and then with rams Knock down its walls. I take it for granted the United States will never again trust Carolina with an arsenal to appropriate at her pleasure.”
It took a regiment of Michigan engineers three days to level the arsenal. Meanwhile Sherman sent as many as 25,000 “contrabands” — liberated slaves — downriver on steamboats and mule trains to Wilmington, where many settled.
The arsenal site is now bisected by a four-lane highway — N.C. 401, Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. Expressway. So like North Carolina — whose white population was split about evenly between Unionist and Confederate — the site itself is divided. A third of the population — 330,000 enslaved black persons — had no say in the matter.
The 60,000-square-foot main museum will be built outside the U.S. Arsenal’s archaeological footprint — the great foundation stones that survived Sherman’s demolition — and include the existing 1896 E.A. Poe House and three Civil War-era structures.
The entrance to the History Center will bridge the highway — restoring the integrity of the site and metaphorically connecting present with past — and leading the visitor into a hall of stories that explore the many and varied experiences of those who fought and endured the war — on the battlefront and the homefront, for North Carolina was both.
As Gov. Zebulon Baird Vance famously remarked, it was a “rich man’s war but a poor man’s fight.” One of the enduring paradoxes is that so many farmers and workers who owned no slaves fought and died for the benefit of the slave-holding system. Vance himself was elected to Congress as an ardent Unionist, then led the 26th North Carolina heroically in battle, and won further renown as the wartime governor — often at loggerheads with CSA President Jefferson Davis. For example, he refused to allow conscription patrols to round up deserters, so that for the last two years of the war western North Carolina became a haven for thousands of them.
All told, North Carolina fielded for the Confederacy more than 80 regiments of infantry, cavalry, and artillery. For the Union, the state fielded four regiments of white infantry, and four infantry and artillery regiments of what were designated U.S. Colored Troops (USCT).
One in four men of military age in the state died of battle wounds or illness during the war — 30,000 to 35,000 men. Many fell on faraway battlefields — such as Sharpsburg and Gettysburg — from where their bodies were never recovered. How many civilians died — women, children, free blacks, Lumbees, Cherokees, slaves — is a calculation yet to be made with any accuracy. Cities and towns were devastated, the economy ruined, factories and farms destroyed, railroads wrecked, and tens of thousands faced starvation and loss of property, homes, safety, and loved ones.
The Civil War was not just an event — it was a state of life, after which private and public lives would be irrevocably changed.
If we wish to know ourselves, we must understand those Civil War ancestors — for we are living in the future that they created, still wrestling with the political and ethical issues that divided them so deeply. I eagerly await the day I can walk across the bridge into the North Carolina Civil War History Center and feel the present unite with the past, listen to all the individual stories and thereby honestly face the complexities of the great story, in a place that reminds us of how violent passion can destroy what is beautiful, and how with cooperation, good will, and perseverance we can reclaim it.
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Philip Gerard is the author of 11 books and teaches Creative Writing at UNCW. He serves on the Advisory Board of the N.C. Civil War History Center — www.nccivilwarcenter.org. His book “The Last Battleground: The Civil War Comes to North Carolina” is forthcoming in 2018.