Brittney Lofthouse – Contributing Writer
Slavery across the South during the Civil War was very real. While minimal in Macon County, it did exist and remains as a dark chapter in our nation’s history that continues to have real implications on our society today. Slavery was a central cause for the Civil War. The nation was expanding – while Southern states campaigned for new territories to be slave states, the North wanted them to be free. It was one point of contention that undeniably led to the Civil War. However, as is the case with most divisive issues today, that contention wasn’t present in Macon County during the Civil War. History recounts the decision for North Carolina to join the war as being one of survival – if they fought for the North, they would be joining the Union after the first attack on South Carolina, leaving North Carolina to be the southernmost Union state and most certainly an entire battleground for the War. With the surrounding states seceding to join the Confederacy, North Carolina followed suit and the brave men who answered the call to join the fight did so because there was no other choice. Newspaper archives from the time prove that men in Macon County went into battle fighting someone else’s war and just praying to return home. When many of them didn’t return, a monument was erected in their remembrance in downtown Franklin.
Before monuments began being removed across the country, even as recently as two weeks ago when North Carolina Governor Roy Cooper ordered the removal of two monuments at the state capitol, a total of 109 Civil War monuments or memorials stood across North Carolina. Of those 109, 100 were dedicated to Confederate efforts during the war and eight represented the Union. There is also a memorial dedicated to the African American soldiers who fought during the War.
Over the last few years, Civil War monuments have been the subject of heated debates, with opponents calling for their removal and supporters calling for their protection. The effort to remove Civil War monuments cites the racial sentiments of many monuments across the South that while dedicated to the Civil War, were erected during the Jim Crow era as a passive attack on black Americans, according to one source. Southern leaders against segregation were said to have orchestrated the creation of hundreds of monuments in Southern States under the guise of preserving history and the Confederacy, but detractors infer it was an intimidation attempt and a silent warning for black Americans fighting for equality.
Even before the vast numbers of monuments were built during the Civil Rights era, dozens of monuments were built in the early 1900s in the South with similar passive intentions – a way to protest the Union’s victory. However, not all monuments are created equal. There is no denying that monuments across the South symbolize slavery and the resistance to segregation or accepting the Confederate loss, documents available to the public at the Macon County Historical Society Museum tell a story of setting out to establish a monument in Franklin to honor the 300 men who never returned home from the War – a memorial site to serve as a gravesite for families for generations to be able to visit since their soldiers remains never made it off of battlefields across the country.
Robert Shook, curator for the Historical Society Museum noted that North Carolina was one of the last states to secede and did so in part due to all neighboring states already joining the Confederacy. Because of the state’s reluctance to be involved in the war at all, there was a greater sense of importance and pride taken to honor the men who died in a war they never wanted to be a part of, which is why the monument in Rankin Square is dedicated to soldiers from Macon County, and not that war or soldiers in general. While Southern states built memorials for the Confederacy in the early 1900s for a variety of reasons and intents, history shows that the charge to erect a monument in Franklin was led by a Civil War veteran in the last years of life who wanted to honor his fallen brothers.
The first documented conversation regarding erecting a monument in Macon County in honor of Confederate soldiers was held in September 1903 during an annual reunion of Charles L. Robinson Camp No. 947. Major Nathaniel P. Rankin, who moved to Macon County from Guilford County after the end of the war, suggested during a business meeting that members of the camp form a monument association in an effort to erect a memorial on the public square.
The work on the Civil War monument in Macon County dates back to 1903 when a number of Confederate veterans met Nov. 26, 1903, and formed the Macon County Monumental Association. Major Rankin read a plan of organization and submitted a form of constitution which was adopted. Nine officers were elected for the association president and seven as vice presidents, and secretary and treasurer. Of the seven vice presidents, one was chosen from each of the seven companies that served in the war. Four years later, the North Carolina General Assembly voted to approve an Act to Incorporate the Macon County Monumental Association at the request of the Confederate veterans of Macon County.
Minutes from Chapter 165 of the 1907 session of the General Assembly states, “The Confederate Veterans of Macon County, North Carolina, including alike those who sacrificed their lives either upon the field of battle or in obedience to their country’s call, as well as those yet living and stumbling upon the brink of time were a noble and patriotic body of men, whose devotion to principle was only equal to their patriotism and valor and whereas deeply cherishing the memory of these fallen and fast falling heroes, and their many acts of bravery and deeds of valor in the late war between the States, together with the sacred influence of their pure and bible lives as citizens and civilians.”
The act goes on to say that the Monumental Association was formed for the direct purpose of erecting a suitable monument to those, “who sacrificed and offered their lives upon the altar of their country in the late War between the States in a course sacred and just, as an ever-living reminder to succeeding generations of their valor and patriotism.
The initial association approval in the General Assembly was comprised of a list of more than 50 Macon County residents working toward creating the monument in Franklin. The act goes on to specifically state, “The association shall have power to build and erect either on the public square or at some other convenient place in town of Franklin, Macon County, North Carolina, a monument, not to cost exceeding five thousand dollars and such design and material shall be agreed upon; the same to stand as a perpetual memorial to perpetuate the memory of those brave soldiers who either lost or offered their lives in the service of the Confederate States.”
Once approved by the General Assembly, the Monumental Association got to work raising the money to build the monument in Franklin. Among the more than 50 names listed as being members of the association were wives and children who lost their husbands and fathers in the war. The women spearheaded fundraising efforts.
“A quarter at a time, the families of those fallen soldiers raised the money themselves to build the monument on what was then the public square,” said Shook.
Two years later, in February 1909, the North Carolina General Assembly voted to authorize the Macon County Board of Commissioners to donate a modest plot of land to the association for the purpose of erecting the monument.
The statue in Franklin specifically names seven units who fought in the war and originated from Macon County. The county’s first Confederate military force was Company H, 16th North Carolina Regiment; they were honored with their inscription placed directly above the primary inscription. The three remaining sides of the monuments each display an inscription to an infantry unit and below, a cavalry company.
On Sept. 30 1909, Macon County prepared for the unveiling of the highly anticipated monument. The event was a grand occasion with grand stands built around the monument to house the more than 1,500 people in attendance.
The “Confederate Veteran” publication recorded the event.
“Maj. N. P. Rankin, president of the Macon County Monument Association, called the assembly to order and requested Adjutant W. A. Curtis to act as master of ceremonies. Rev. J. A. Deal, of the Episcopal Church, invoked the divine blessing. In most fitting and tender manner the minister returned thanks for the benefits and privileges of the day, for the brave men who had gone before and those who still remain and whose heroism and devotion are to be honored by this memorial. Then the Franklin Choir rendered “The Old North State Forever!”
The September celebration included a break for lunch at the Junaluska Lodge.
“Hon. J. Frank Ray delivered the address of welcome in an admirable and appropriate manner, which was responded to by Hon. J. M. Gudger, Jr., of Asheville, N. C., a former Congressman from this district. The unveiling address was appropriate and beautifully delivered by Miss Elizabeth Kelly, daughter of Lieut. M. L. Kelly, of Company D, 62d North Carolina Regiment,” reported the “Confederate Veteran.”
With the intent of honoring the men from Macon County, the honor of unveiling of the monument was given to the families of men representing all seven companies from Macon.
“The following ladies, descendants of the commanding officers of the seven companies that went from Macon County to the war, Mrs. F. T. Smith, Misses Kate Robinson. Irene Ashe, Lassie Kelly, Esther Rogers, Maggie Angel, and May McDowell, marched to the front of the monument and pulled the cord, and the veiling fell gracefully from the statue and floated gently down right and left of the shaft, and the monument stood unveiled in all its grace and majestic beauty, while the assembly applauded,” wrote “The Confederate Veteran.”
The monument reads:
“IN MEMORY OF
THE SONS OF MACON COUNTY
WHO SERVED IN THE
CO. H, / 16TH REGIMENT, N.C.T.
39TH REGIMENT N.C.T.
62ND REGIMENT N.C.T.
9TH REGIMENT N.C.T.
39TH REGIMENT N.C.T.
65TH REGIMENT N.C.T.
Just before the celebration broke for dinner, North Carolina Governor W.W. Kitchen gave a speech the “Confederate Veteran” remembered as being “polished, scholarly, and historical, and held his audience spellbound for an hour or more.” Veterans in attendance were treated to a private dinner with both Gov. Kitchen and Gov. M.F. Ansel of S.C. who also attended the celebration.
The monument was formally presented by Adjutant W. A. Curtis, from whose address the following extracts are taken:
“It is appropriate that this monument has been reared in memory of the sons of Macon County who served in the Confederate army during the period of the war, 1861-65. It will remind our children’s children of the heroism and devotion of a people who fought through four years of the greatest conflict ever known on this continent in defense of home and State and our beautiful Southland.”
North Carolina was the first state to experience a casualty during the War, when a soldier from Edgecombe County was killed. From then, North Carolina went on to lose more men during the war for its population than any other state fighting in the Confederacy. As Curtis remarked years later during his address at the annual reunion of Confederate Veterans, the families of the men lost in battle have no gravesite to visit to mourn and victory to celebrate. Which, according to Shook, is why the monument was so important to the families of the 300 men who died from Macon County.
“Men who died on battlefields across the South weren’t brought back to Macon County to be laid to rest,” said Shook. “That monument serves as a gravesite for those families to visit to honor their lost loved ones.”
It wasn’t until sometime later that the area on Main Street now known as Rankin Square was named for N.P Rankin for not only his efforts in securing the monument for Macon County, but to honor his service in the Civil War as well as his work as a teacher and civic leader up until his death. Rankin was buried at the Presbyterian Church Memorial Gardens just four years after the monument’s unveiling.