|Charlie Zerphey pays his respects to North Carolinians who died fighting for the Union.|
Nothing puts our recent political squabbles in perspective quite like a visit to a Civil War grave. It's a sobering reminder that while today is not America's finest hour, neither is it our worst.
I found some particularly interesting graves last week while "hiking the Appalachian Trail." Go ahead and snicker at Governor Sanford's infamous and lame euphemism, but I swear it was just an innocent trip with an 83-year-old retired printer from Pennsylvania, and all we were doing was climbing the highest mountain in Greene County, Tennessee.
Euphemisms abound when we're talking about the American Civil War. Depending on your perspective, it may have been the War Between the States, the Southern Rebellion, the War of Northern Aggression, the Freedom War, or my favorite understatement—the Late Unpleasantness.
I wonder what David and William Shelton called it. They are the soldiers who are buried—along with their 13-year-old lookout, Millard Fillmore Haire—in a meadow atop Coldspring Mountain along the Tennessee-North Carolina line.
Tombstones erected by the government in 1915 are undated and identify them only by name and regiment. David Shelton served in the 3rd N.C. Mounted Infantry, and his nephew William was in the 2nd N.C. Infantry.
If you didn't know better, you might assume they were rebels. But the stones don't say which side they fought on (perhaps to avoid desecration). The only indications are the little American flags placed each summer when the graves are faithfully redecorated by their descendants.
These are not Confederate graves. Like many men from the mountains, the Sheltons enlisted with the Yankees.
That's one aspect of the Civil War that is not widely understood or acknowledged. The South was divided against itself. Descendants of the Overmountain Men were more invested in the preservation of the Union than they were in the defense of slavery. When North Carolina seceded, families had to choose sides. Often, this turned neighbors into mortal enemies—especially in cases where men may have sold their souls to the Union for a $100 enlistment bonus. The ensuing malice might be described as the War Within the States.
To explore other nuances of the war, I wrote a daily newspaper in 2015 to relive the 150th anniversary of Stoneman's Raid. The end of the Civil War was only a backdrop to some unforgettable stories. Read all about it in The Stoneman Gazette.As far as I can tell, the Sheltons never went North. Their regiments were involved in recruiting home guards in Union-friendly parts of eastern Tennessee. One day when they crossed the mountain to visit family in the Shelton Laurel community of northern Madison County, N.C., they were ambushed and shot by Confederates who were probably their neighbors.
There are differing accounts of the ambush, and there is some reason to doubt the date on Haire's tombstone, which was placed by his family just a few years ago and says he died on July 1, 1863. (See notes below.)
If that date is correct, it's terribly ironic. July 1, 1863, was also the first day of the Battle of Gettysburg.
North Carolina shed more blood at Gettysburg than did any other state.
If the Sheltons had enlisted with the Confederacy rather than the Union, there is a good chance they would have been on the front lines at Gettysburg.
Ultimately, they might have died on the same day, either way.
- Were there two "Shelton Massacres"? On January 19, 1863, a Confederate regiment executed 13 Union sympathizers and buried them in a mass grave. They were later reburied in a family cemetery in the Shelton Laurel community south of Coldspring Mountain. Two David Sheltons and one William Shelton are among the 13 names on the gravestones--but no Millard Haire. Were these the same men who lie under the undated stones on Coldspring Mountain? It is possible that the Sheltons were re-reburied up there, and that Haire died separately on July 1, 1863. However, from what I read, it seems more likely that there were two separate incidents involving separate victims with the same names. Besides, it makes a better story.
- It is interesting that Haire was named for Millard Fillmore, a New Yorker who became the 13th president when Zachary Taylor died in 1850. Fillmore was a complicated character: pro-Union yet pro-slavery, and anti-Confederacy yet anti-Lincoln.
- The highest point on Coldspring Mountain is called Gravel Knob. Via the Appalachian Trail, it requires a 12-mile roundtrip hike, and the top offers no views, only thorns. There's no good reason to go there unless you are involved in the hiking subculture of county high-pointers and want to claim Greene County TN.
- Gravel Knob was the 10th county high point that Charlie Zerphey and I have climbed together. Charlie was in his 60s before he started climbing seriously. At 83, he has reached not only the highest mountain or hill in 49 states (lacking only Alaska) but also the highest point in every county in 13 states from Maine to Virginia. Click on this list of his accomplishments.