Western North Carolina’s Hidden Civil War Connections

(From the May/June, 2012, online issue of GO Magazine, a publication of AAA Carolinas.)

By George W. Martin

A century and a half ago, our nation was in the midst of the bloodiest conflict it had ever known, the American Civil War. Beginning in 2011 and continuing through 2015, the United States will remember those desperate years with reenactments, commemorations and other events, many held on the actual sites of battles.

North Carolina has its share of noteworthy Civil War sites, including Fort Fisher, a Confederate coastal fort near Wilmington; Salisbury, site of a major prisoner-of-war camp; Bentonville, where the last major battle of the war was fought; and Bennett Place near Durham, where General Joseph E. Johnston surrendered the Confederate Army of Tennessee to Union General William Tecumseh Sherman.

Hidden among the mountains of Western North Carolina are several sites of interest to Civil War buffs. Many attractions and lodgings have Civil War connections unknown to visitors.

High in the western North Carolina mountains stands the small town of Cashiers, intersected by U.S. Highway 64. Just 1½ miles south of town on North Carolina S.R. 107 stands the High Hampton Inn, originally the summer residence of Wade Hampton III, Confederate cavalry general.

Retreating from heat, humidity and malaria-carrying mosquitoes, Hampton followed the lead of many wealthy South Carolinians in establishing homes in the North Carolina mountains.

Hampton purchased the land in the Cashiers Valley in the 1830’s, first constructing a hunting lodge. Though initially opposed to secession, Hampton organized and financed the “Hampton Legion,” a unit made up of infantry, cavalry and artillery.

Hampton rapidly gained prominence during the conflict, eventually commanding the cavalry arm of General Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia. Following the end of the war, Hampton returned to his mountain sanctuary, to which he invited his fellow generals to come visit. The old general would later serve as governor of South Carolina and as U.S. Senator from the state.

In 1922, the property was purchased by E. L. McKee, who constructed an inn. The original structure burned in 1932, but a new inn was built in 1933, and has been in operation since. Three buildings originally constructed by Wade Hampton are still in use on the property. The High Hampton Inn is listed on the National Register of Historic Places, and holds a AAA 3-Diamond rating. The inn will be celebrating its 90th year in 2012, opening the last weekend of April. More information is available online at http://www.highhamptoninn.com, and reservations can be made by calling or visiting your local AAA office.

About ½ miles south of the Inn is another hidden gem, the Zachary-Tolbert House Museum. This circa 1840’s dwelling is also listed on the National Register of Historic Places and is a Civil War Trails site.

Administered by the Cashiers Historical Society, the Zachary-Tolbert House is a pristine example of antebellum construction, as the house has never had plumbing or electricity installed, and contains much of its original hand-made furnishings.

The Greek Revival-style house was built by Mordecai Zachary, who was a friend of Wade Hampton and who sold Hampton the land for his hunting lodge. According to Mark Jones, Jackson County Commissioner and Staff Member at the High Hampton Inn, Wade Hampton was sitting on the porch of the Zachary-Tolbert House when he received notice of his election as governor of South Carolina.
According to his tombstone, Zachary served during the Civil War in the Thomas Legion, a Confederate unit made up of volunteers from the Cherokee Tribe. Mordecai’s brother Alexander, who lived nearby, supported the Union, aiding Federal soldiers who escaped from South Carolina prison camps.

The museum is open Friday and Saturdays from June through October, and year-round by reservation. Contact the Cashiers Historical Society at 828-743-7710 or visit their website at http://www.cashiershistoricalsociety.org.


In the little village of Flat Rock, just south of Hendersonville, stands the home of Carl Sandburg, known as “Connemara.” Thousands of people visit the estate each year to see where one of America’s greatest literary minds resided during the later years of his life.

As they tour the house, passing through room after room of Sandburg’s books and treasures, many are unfamiliar with the house’s Civil War connection. The land was purchased in 1836 by Christopher Memminger, a Charleston attorney who, like many other wealthy Low-Country notables, sought to escape the oppressive summer heat and humidity of the South Carolina coast by building summer homes in the mountains of Western North Carolina.

Memminger named his home “Rock Hill” for the many stone outcroppings on the property. Memminger served as Confederate Secretary of the Treasury from February 25, 1861, to July 18, 1864, after which he returned to Rock Hill, where he resided until the war’s end in 1865.

Along the foundation of the house’s lower level, guests will notice a slit cut into the rock wall. During the last years of the war, and for some time following, Western North Carolina was a haven for army deserters from both North and South, as well as partisan guerrillas known as “bushwhackers.”

Rock Hill served as a haven for locals seeking refuge from attacks by these roving bands. This and other slits were actually gunports cut into the walls to allow for musket fire from within. Sandbags were placed around the first floor windows and doors to protect the defenders.

After passing through several other hands, the property was purchased by Carl Sandburg in 1945. In a bit of historical irony, Sandburg produced a one-volume biography of the ultimate anti-Confederate, Abraham Lincoln, compiled from his Pulitzer Prize-winning six-volume Lincoln biography while living at Confederate Secretary Memminger’s former home.

Connemara is open daily from 9:00am to 5:00pm year round, except Christmas Day. Visitors may tour the grounds for free, and there is a nominal fee for touring the house. More information can be found at http://www.nps.gov/carl.

Just up the road from Connemara is the beautiful St. John’s in the Wilderness Episcopal Church. St. John’s was established by several South Carolina planters while they spent their summers in Flat Rock. The church is on the National Register of Historic Places, and is the burial site for Secretary Memminger.


Following the war’s end, another ex-Confederate official temporarily made his home in Flat Rock. In 1872, George Trenholm, who had also served as Secretary of the Treasury, purchased an estate known as “Solitude.” The main house stood on a hill overlooking the Highland Lake Inn, Trenholm owned “Solitude” for only one year, selling the property in 1873 to Henrietta Aiken, wife of the governor of South Carolina. The Inn is also home to Season’s at Highland Lake Inn, a AAA 3-Diamond ranked restaurant.


Just north of Flat Rock is Hendersonville, the county seat of Henderson County. Known for its yearly Apple Festival, held over Labor Day Weekend, Hendersonville is also home to the Henderson County Heritage Museum.
The museum is located in the restored 1905 County Courthouse on Main Street, and currently houses an excellent exhibition commemorating the Sesquicentennial. The exhibit includes a diorama depicting a North Carolina soldier in camp, a Home Guard outfit, authentic Union and Confederate flags, and several displays of weapons and uniforms.

The Henderson County Heritage Museum is free to the public, and is open Wednesday through Saturday from 10:00am to 5:00pm, and Sundays from 1:00pm to 5:00pm. Nearby on Main Street are several AAA 3-diamond restaurants, including Flight Wood Grill, Never Blue, Square One Bistro, and “Mrs. G and Me.”


High on a bluff located on the campus of Asheville-Buncombe Community College is Asheville’s oldest dwelling, the Smith-McDowell House, built by James McConnell Smith around 1840.

At the beginning of the Civil War, owner William W. McDowell organized the “Buncombe Riflemen”, Company “E” of the First North Carolina Infantry. McDowell later served as major of the 60th North Carolina Infantry, participating in the battles of Chickamauga and Bentonville.

The Smith-McDowell House is listed on the National Register of Historic Places, and is a Civil War Trails Site. Each room in the house has been decorated in the style of different decades from the 1850’s to the 1890’s.

Several Civil War-themed events have been planned. For more information, including hours of operation and admission fees, contact the museum at 828-253-9231, or visit their website at http://www.wnchistory.org.


The Botanical Gardens at Asheville contains not only many varieties of native Appalachian plants and habitats, but also the site of one of the last actions to take place in the Civil War.

During the Battle of Asheville, on April 6, 1865, a home guard unit of some forty-four old men and boys (ranging in age from a 14-year-old youth to a 60-year-old Baptist minister) along with some 250 other quickly assembled volunteers, some of them convalescing wounded soldiers, stood off nearly 900 Union troops advancing on the city.

After five hours of exchanging fire, the Federals withdrew. A pathway crosses below the remains of the Confederate fortifications. (The old earthworks are very fragile – please do not climb on them.) The Botanical Gardens are located at 151 W.T. Weaver Boulevard on the campus of the University of North Carolina-Asheville.


Just northeast of Weaverville is the Vance Homestead State Historic Site. This Civil War Trails Site is a reconstruction of the birthplace of Zebulon B. Vance, wartime governor of North Carolina.

Born in 1830, Vance began his career as a lawyer in nearby Asheville. In 1861 he was elected captain of the “Rough and Ready Guards” of the 14th North Carolina Infantry, and was later appointed colonel of the 26th North Carolina Infantry.

Vance was elected governor of North Carolina in 1862, and at war’s end was briefly imprisoned. Practicing law in Charlotte, he defended Tom Dula, made infamous in the folk song Tom Dooley. Vance was reelected governor and later to the U.S. Senate.

The Vance Homestead represents early 1800’s life in western North Carolina.
A small museum displays events in Vance’s life along with numerous artifacts. Several Civil War events are planned for the coming year, including a period music and story event in June and a Civil War living history event in August. Admission to the Vance Homestead is free, and is open Tuesday through Saturday from 9:00am to 5:00pm. More information is available at http://www.nchistoricsites.org/vance.

Although there were no major battles ocurring in Western North Carolina, the region was definitely touched by the Civil War.   Skirmishes were fought throughout its mountains and valleys. Troops, guerillas, Cherokees and “Bushwhackers” fought and died in forgotten corners of the mountains.

The state of North Carolina has erected roadside tablets throughout the section, and other Civil War Trails markers can be found at numerous other sites. More information on the Civil War Trails marker program can be found at http://www.civilwartrails.org.