An enlightening interview about the Civil War in Rowan County
By Nils Skudra
On Jan. 30, I had the opportunity to interview Aaron Kepley, executive director of the Rowan Museum. I first made contact with him through the museum’s Facebook page when I expressed interest in learning more about Salisbury’s Civil War experience. During our initial correspondence, he indicated that Rowan County’s experience was more multifaceted than many people realize, as it pitted diehard Confederates against local Unionists and dissidents calling for an end to the war. I previously visited Salisbury three years ago, and I was eager to come down again to meet Kepley and listen to his insights.
We then began our discussion of the Civil War in Rowan County. “The county is interesting because you have a lot of reluctance to secede,” Kepley said. During the secession crisis in the winter of 1860-61, The Carolina Watchman — Salisbury’s local newspaper — spoke vociferously against secession since many North Carolinians did not feel that Lincoln’s election was sufficient grounds for leaving the Union. However, by the time of Fort Sumter, the situation was changing, with the Watchman stating that North Carolina should not secede unless Lincoln tried to invade South Carolina. As soon as Lincoln issued a call for 75,000 troops, the newspaper declared its support for secession.
In elaborating upon Salisbury and Rowan County, Kepley told me that the city and county have always been at odds politically. Kepley pointed out that the eastern half of the county was strongly anti-secession, and there was a minority who held anti-slavery views. Prominent examples included Hinton Rowan Helper, author of the antislavery tract The Impending Crisis, and Prof. Benjamin Hedrick of UNC Chapel Hill, who was fired because of his views and narrowly escaped being lynched.
In discussing Rowan County’s wartime dissidence, Kepley pointed to the burning of railroad cars carrying cotton. Curiously, however, the newspaper editorials did not ascribe any motive to this activity. Nonetheless, “there was something of an antiwar movement” in Rowan County, manifested in evasion of the Confederate draft. Also, the Heroes of America, a secret Unionist organization, was active in present-day China Grove, and at one point “there was a big meeting across the river in Davidson County against the war.”
Local response to Unionist and dissident activity was manifested in the Watchman’s editorials which decried the Red Strings (a reference to the Heroes of America) for sedition and accused numerous people of membership in the organization, which prompted the said individuals to come to the authorities and recant their alleged involvement. A famous example of dissident activity was the Salisbury food riot of March 1863, in which a group of 150 local women raided food stores in response to inflation of food prices. Kepley noted that these riots first began in Richmond and then spread throughout the Confederacy.
We then discussed Salisbury Prison, a Confederate POW camp which is now home to Salisbury National Cemetery. Kepley indicated that some members of the 54th Massachusetts, the first all-black Union regiment from the North, are buried there, and pointed out that the U.S. Colored Troops suffered a much higher death rate at Salisbury than other prisoners, which I was unaware of. “You have a pecking order,” he explained, “among the prisoners: the officers, NCOs, enlisted men, and then the Colored Troops. The guards didn’t care for them, and then they have the other prisoners to deal with.”
Following the breakdown of the Dix-Hill Cartel, Salisbury Prison’s population went from 1,000 to over 10,000 in a space meant for 2,500. Due to overcrowding, Kepley stated, “typhoid and typhus really kill the most prisoners, and there was a big concern that the outbreak would spread to town.” Nonetheless, several prisoners managed to escape through various means, including the aid of certain local residents. A notable example was Luke Blackmer, a Northerner living in Salisbury who instructed Union prisoners on how to get to North Wilkesboro — they would only talk to slaves who guided them to North Wilkesboro by night, and from there they made their own way to Tennessee.
Overall, I found our discussion very enlightening, and Kepley was very knowledgeable and engaging. Since Civil War memory is a contentious issue in today’s society, his elaboration on Rowan County’s wartime experience demonstrates how critical it is to engage with that history and explore its various nuances. In doing so, we will not only add context to our discussion, but we can achieve a deeper appreciation for the war’s multifaceted nature as a conflict that played out within local communities as well as between the armies.
Nils Skudra is a freelance journalist and graduate pursuing a master’s degree in library and information sciences at UNC Greensboro, where he received a previous master’s degree in history. The Civil War is his great passion, and his goal is to find a full-time position as a professional historian.