150 years later, Civil War still mesmerizes many

Buffs, enthusiasts, aficionados, nuts: call them what you will, but remember the saying about strength in numbers. American’s fascination with the Civil War history is alive and kicking in the Appalachian mountains, where a group of 75 Civil War fans — collectively known as the Western North Carolina Civil War Round Table — meet monthly to study the finer points of war’s history.

No topic seems too myopic for them to tackle. Chuck Beemer doesn’t think they’ll ever run out.

“God I hope not. I am the program chairman,” said Beemer, 71, a retired lawyer in Waynesville. Beside, he points out, “there were an awful lot of battles.”

And a lot of personalities. Personally, Beemer can’t wait until next October, when the great, great granddaughter of the president of University of North Carolina will talk about the Romeo and Juliet love affair between her ancestor — a belle of well-heeled Southern stock — and a high-ranking Union officer during an occupation of Chapel Hill.

Next May’s program also promises to be a humdinger, when the club will dive in to the life and times of a female Confederate spy named Belle Boyd, a.k.a. Cleopatra of the Secession.

“We don’t just study the battles but the people and personalities involved on the political and battlefield side,” said Ray Rouser, a longtime club member from Waynesville.

Beemer has programs lined up for the next 12 months, and is even plugging in some speakers for 2013.

At times, it’s a challenge to find speakers who know more than the club’s members on a certain subject.

“If you know all about something and somebody else is talking about it, it isn’t as interesting as something that is new,” said Rouser, who runs a photography studio in Waynesville since 1958.

One endlessly fascinating subject is what went wrong in a particular battle, the most debated perhaps being Gettysburg.

“Where did the South go wrong, what could they have done differently,” Rouser said. “There’s probably 10 or 15 different theories about how the South could have won the battle at Gettysburg.”

Luckily, there’s no shortage of books to fan the flames. There’s 55,000 titles on the Civil War.

Beemer was reluctant to admit on the record just how extensive his own book collection is.

“I’ve got a quite a few. More than my wife would like to think I have. I probably have upwards of 200,” Beemer said.

After he retired, he renovated a spare bedroom into an office with built in bookshelves to hold his burgeoning collection.

Personal libraries brimming with too many Civil War books was such a common problem, the group concocted a collective solution. Members donate books after they’ve read them for a monthly raffle. The proceeds pay travel expenses for the speakers.

Civil War enthusiasts can devour books at an alarming rate, so the book raffle also serves as a supply line.

Rouser is relishing in the 150th anniversary of the Civil War, which got under way this year. It’s a dream come true for the buffs.

“It is fantastic. It will go on for five years now,” Rouser said. He’s already looking forward to 2013, when the battle of Gettysburg will be enacted on the 150th anniversary with a week of festivities planned.


No choosing sides

The Civil War Round Table prides itself on a neutral stance toward the war.

“We do not take sides,” Rouser said.

Rouser and one friend have taken to calling each other “Yank” and “Reb.” Fighting words to some, but not in this amicable group.

“That is just good humor. It is not facetious. We are really good friends,” Rouser said.

Occasionally, someone with partisan leanings on the war comes to the round table and realizes it isn’t what they thought it was.

“When they see that people with ancestors on both sides get along they realized it wasn’t their cup of tea and they quit,” Rouser said.

The group formed as an outlet for enthusiasts who want to study the Civil War, not dwell on which side was right or wrong. It’s a scholarly approach, not an emotional one, said Carrie Kirkman, an insurance salesperson in Sylva.

It’s not always easy.

“In the South you can’t go back two or three generations without coming in contact with a Civil War solider,” Kirkman said.

Stories of the war’s toll were handed down through the generations, and the bitterness is hard to forget.

Captured Confederate soldiers would be paroled and sent home if they signed paperwork pledging their support for the U.S. Constitution, but Rouser’s great, great, grandfather spent 21 months in a prisoner camp in the middle of frigid Lake Superior because he refused to sign it.

“Some people had very strong opinions,” Rouser said.

Rouser’s own family has passed down a story about Union troops raiding their farm, looking for hams and horses.

“Three soldiers came to her door, but word had got out. People went out in the community and said, ‘The Union soldiers are here. Hide your food, hide your horses, hide your valuables!’” Rouser recounted.

East Tennessee, which was known for its Union leanings from the start of the war, fell to Union control by 1863.

Union troops short on food and supplies made forays over the mountain into Confederate territory of WNC to forage, with at least three excursions into Haywood County. A special legion was assigned to protect the mountain passes along this frontline in the Civil War between the North Carolina and Tennessee mountains.

Mountain lineage isn’t a requisite for joining the Civil War Round Table. In fact, its growth over the past decade is due partly to retirees with a Civil War fascination moving here.

There’s also been a marked growth in women with an interest in the Civil War. Some, of course, have their husbands to blame.

“I guess I drug her around to enough battlefields that she began to get the bug,” Rouser said of his wife.

But others came into the field on their own.

Kirkman has witnessed the rise of women in Civil War circles. When she traveled to Civil War conferences and symposiums in the early 1900s, she was lucky to find another woman.

“But in recent years, 50 percent of the attendees at a seminar would be women, and the attendance of our round table reflects that,” she said.

The role of women in the Civil War, as they struggled to eek out a living with the men away, is an important part of Civil War history, one told again and again through letters in Civil War archives.

“It was very disheartening to the soldiers for their wives to write a letter saying, ‘We don’t have any food. Can you come home?’” Rouser said.


The passion

Every Civil War enthusiast has a story about how they found their passion. For Rouser, it was a book report in fifth grade. Rouser went to the school library at Hazelwood Elementary and picked out a book on General Stonewall Jackson.

“I can still remember the first page of that book, it just clicked with me,” Rouser said.

Kirkman picked up the passion from her father as a child.

“When my mother was preparing supper she would say ‘Read to the children.’ So my dad read Lee’s Lieutenants and my brother and I would sit and listen,” Kirkman said.

The Civil War Round Table was started by two Western Carolina University history professors in 1997.

Word spread quickly among fellow Civil War buffs, who have an uncanny knack for ferreting each other out of a crowd.

“I don’t know how we find each other, but somehow we do,” Kirkman said.

Far from dwindling, the group has gone from 50 members 14 years ago to 75 today.

It’s unique to find a Civil War group of this caliber. It takes people with the gumption and drive to start it, plus hard work to keep it going.

The group goes on regular fieldtrips, with one planned this weekend to the site of Bloody Madison, the famous Shelton Laurel massacre where Confederate soldiers rounded up and executed an unarmed group of Union sympathizers and deserters.

The average age of the group is on the older side, but that’s when most people finally have time to pursue their hobbies and passions. Beemer himself didn’t join til he retired.

“January 1, 2007, the day I retired, is the day that joined the Civil War Round Table,” Beemer said.

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