Saturday, April 25, 2015

Build Confederate capital near Asheville?

Asheville in the 1850s (drawing by C.H.G.F. Loehr)
     Decades before George Vanderbilt laid his eyes on Asheville, other visionaries had Biltmoresque dreams for the Land of the Sky. 
     They thought the Asheville area would be an ideal location for the permanent capital of the Confederate States of America.
     Richmond, barely 100 miles from Washington, D.C., was too vulnerable to remain the seat of Confederate government. The need to defend Richmond kept Robert E. Lee tied down.
     In 1864, the former Confederate secretary of the treasury, Christopher Memminger, urged President Jefferson Davis to move the capital to Henderson County, N.C.; according to historians John C. Inscoe and Gordon B. McKinney in their book The Heart of Confederate Appalachia. It seems likely that Memminger envisioned a new planned city (similar to Washington) in the picturesque French Broad River valley between Asheville and Hendersonsville.
     The mountains surrounding Asheville would make it much easier to defend than Richmond. Despite its isolation, Asheville was centrally located, with five Confederate states within 100 miles.
     Once the railroad reached Asheville in 1880 and Vanderbilt broke ground for the Biltmore House in 1889, Asheville became a destination. Today, Asheville likes to call itself Beer City USA, Ash-Vegas, the San Francisco of the East, or even the Paris of the South. As cosmopolitan as Asheville has become, though, back in the 1860s it was a long way from looking like a national capital.
       One reason the Confederacy had moved its capital from Montgomery, Ala., to Richmond in 1861 was to be located in a significant city. At the time, Richmond's population was 37,000, compared to Montgomery's 9,000.
     Asheville's population in 1860 was just 1,100 (though there were over 23,000 people locally if you counted all of Buncombe and Henderson counties). Stoneman's men in Asheville numbered 1,700, so when they camped there 150 years tonight, they more than doubled the population of the town.
C.G. Memminger
     Culturally and economically, Buncombe and Henderson counties had more in common with the Old South plantations than anywhere else in the mountains. There were 1,913 slaves in Buncombe County in 1860, most of them owned by Lowcountry aristocrats who had summer homes in the mountains. (Watauga County, by contrast, had a population of 4,957 in 1860 but just 104 slaves, the fewest of any county in North Carolina.) Memminger, a prominent lawyer in Charleston, had six slaves at his summer home in Flat Rock. 
     Needless to say, by 1864, planning a new national capital was not a priority for the embattled Confederacy, and I doubt that Memminger's invitation was ever seriously considered.

     North Carolina historian Michael C. Hardy recently published a book entitled The Capitals of the Confederacy. In addition to Montgomery and Richmond, he also counts Danville, Greensboro, and Charlotte. Jefferson Davis presided for a few days at each location near the end of the Civil War. 
     You could also make a case for Abbeville, S.C., where Davis held his last Council of War meeting as Stoneman's cavalry closed in on him. The Stoneman Gazette will have a report from Abbeville May 2.
     One other capital candidate emerged during Stoneman's Raid, when the 15th Pennsylvania Cavalry camped April 14-15 in Statesville, N.C. This was where Stoneman's Raid heard the news of Robert E. Lee's surrender on April 9. 
     "Statesville is a very pretty town," Capt. Henry Weand wrote in his journal. "It was said that it had been picked out as the future capital of the Southern Confederacy, but from present appearances, the latter won’t need a capital."
C.G. Memminger (1803-1888, secretary of the treasury under Jefferson Davis) built "Rock Hill" as a summer home in 1836 and used it as a refuge during the last year of the Civil War.
 Carl Sandburg (1878-1967, biographer of Abraham Lincoln) bought the house in 1945 and renamed it "Connemara." Sandburg's home is now a National Historic Site, open daily for tours.

NEXT: Destroy Charlotte! Will Asheville do?

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