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Wednesday, 06 May 2015 14:43

Civil War commemoration attracts history fans

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fr sheltonhouseFor 10 years, museum curator Jackie Stephens has prepped The Shelton House for Civil War commemorations.

She carefully displays old war medals, rifles and other artifacts donated to the Museum of North Carolina Handicrafts in hopes of attracting Civil War enthusiasts. It’s a job she takes very seriously and often gets so caught up in planning and executing the events that she rarely has time to truly reflect on the meaning it carries for so many people in the South. 

But three years ago she stepped out onto the front porch of The Shelton House to see all the crosses placed on the front yard representing all the soldiers from Haywood County who died during the Civil War. 

“Looking out over the yard, the names covered the entire grounds and all of a sudden my heart was heavy for this small town and all these veterans killed during the Civil War,” Stephens said. “It was overwhelming for me — I had a chill come over my body.”

Stephens’ experience is probably the same sort of “ah-ha” moment many tourists have when they travel to historic Civil War sites. Even though it ended 150 years ago, there is something surreal about standing in the exact same spot where history was made. A part of that history — the last shot fired in the war east of the Mississippi — happened in Waynesville. 

The Shelton House and community volunteers who helped put these events together hope that piece of history will attract more people to the area who want to be part of the commemoration events scheduled for this weekend and the first weekend in June.

From re-enactments, walking tours, gravesite and monument visits, special presentations and even Civil War fashion shows, Haywood County will have plenty to offer for history buffs this coming weekend. 

Steve Morse, director of the Hospitality and Tourism program at Western Carolina University, said Civil War tourism has the potential to be a successful niche for communities if marketed correctly. In fact, Tennessee has initiated a “CW-150” marketing program to capitalize on the 150th anniversary and draw tourists to the state’s Civil War trails.

“Tourism officials hope that the CW-150 events and similar historic attractions will attract tourists for the main reason to visit.  There is a group of Civil War enthusiasts with deep interests in the Civil War, but personally I don’t think the interested group is as big as tourism officials want,” Morse said. “There may be some secondary spin-off trips of people that discover the Civil War sites after they get to their destination.”

But why are people still so captivated by the Civil War 150 years later? Aileen Ezell, a member of the Asheville chapter of the Daughters of the Confederacy, admits it was a dark time in our history — a war of “brother against brother” — but it is our history nonetheless.

“It was a terrible time for our people — the South was devastated after the war,” Ezell said. “This is our history and it made us who we are.”

People from the South and the North have deep roots in the Civil War. Ezell said that connection to ancestors was one big reason why Civil War sites are so heavily visited up and down the eastern seaboard. Genealogy is an increasingly popular pastime and passion.  

“Lineage is a big thing — everyone wants to know who their ancestors are and a lot of people want to travel to see these places,” Ezell said. “With Daughters of the Confederacy, our interest is genealogy. I’m a member because I want my children and grandchildren to have records of their ancestors.”

Morse said there would always be history buffs who enjoy uncovering local stories of battles that occurred right in their back yards and those who enjoy traveling to locations where significant Civil War events occurred. 

“The Civil War was during a period when people recorded history by the written word,” Morse said. “Thus, history buffs of the Civil War have been uncovering documents that continue to unveil the local elements of the Civil War.”

Western North Carolina Civil War Round Table is one organization that strives to educate its members about the many battles during the Civil War by offering expert speakers at monthly meetings and taking trips to the not-so-well-known historic sites.

“I think it was one of the most important events in our country — it defined us,” said Paul Turner, president of Civil War Round Table. “A lot of people have ancestors that fought on both sides. Our membership is about 50-50 of people who had family fight for the Union and for the Confederates — so there’s a lot of interest.” 

So how can Haywood County harness the Civil War curiosity and draw tourists to the area? Morse suggested a Civil War festival to allow locals to share their histories and stories, a “Last Shot Fired” branding and perhaps even a “Last Shot” offered at the local breweries. 

Turner said Haywood had the historic markers placed throughout the county, but tour guides who can explain the events and put them in context for visitors are needed.

Malinda Messer, Shelton House operations manager, said the museum received a $2,000 grant from the Haywood County Tourism Development Authority to help promote the upcoming Civil War events. She said the funding was used to promote the events throughout the state and markets in Tennessee, South Carolina and Georgia as well. 

Specifically, Messer said the marketing was geared toward people active in the re-enactor communities. 

“We placed rack cards at historic sites trying to target communities a couple of hours away,” Messer said. “We’d like to see people spend the night here in Haywood.”

TDA executive director Lynn Collins said history is a marketable niche for Haywood County, especially Civil War history. The visitor centers carry the North Carolina Civil War Trails brochure and give that out frequently. While Civil War tourism is not something the TDA spends money on every year, Collins said it is mentioned in the visitor guide and in the TDA’s media releases, as well as in pitch sheets that pertain to history.  

“We do share the information about the last shot fired with visitors who have questions about the history of the area,” she said. “The special events surrounding the anniversary of the last shot fired will certainly attract visitors to the area.”

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