Long memories

To many people, the Civil War probably seems remote from their everyday lives.

But they haven’t ridden with Jim Holbrook in his black GMC pickup truck to get a look at the house where his great-granddaddy, a Confederate soldier, once lived.

Holbrook Road (named for his family) runs parallel to the Smokey Park Highway on the western edge of Asheville. On this early December day, the road seems to straddle time itself.

To the south, McDonald’s golden arches peep over the ridgetop; to the north, Holbrook points out his parents’ home. Farther down the road, we stop at an aging, two-story white frame house where his great-grandfather, William A. Holbrook, once resided. A sign warns against trespassing.

“They bought this place with a quart jar half full of gold dust,” Holbrook recalls.

William A. Holbrook — his great-grandson says the family called him Alex — served as a lieutenant in Company B of the 39th Regiment, N.C. Troops.

His bones lie in a neatly kept grave marked with a small Confederate battle flag at the Acton Church Cemetery.

“My daddy remembers him sitting on the porch and a wet spot on his left leg, left thigh,” Holbrook says. “It still drained.”

There are other memories, too — family treasures that, over time, have taken on the flavor of legend.

The Macon County native and his brother (“dirt farmers,” says Holbrook) joined up separately; Alex joined the North Carolina militia before the state seceded from the Union, while his brother entered a Georgia regiment. Alex received his leg injury at Chickamauga, where he lay in a cornfield, his head resting on a recently hilled mound, Holbrook reports.

“And that night, there came a real hard rainstorm. … He’d a drowned if they hadn’t just hilled that corn,” says Holbrook.

When Alex returned home after the war, he hung up his sword in the family smokehouse and used it to slice off hunks of ham.

Holbrook’s interest in the Civil War and family history have come full circle.

“As a kid, I was intrigued by it. As an adult, I really didn’t get interested until I was 45 years old. I was more interested in NASCAR racing, hunting and fishing — things boys do,” Holbrook says with a laugh.

The U.S. Forest Service retiree joined the Sons of Confederate Veterans 10 or 15 years ago. “It was a Civil War group, and I just wanted to talk Civil War … not to refight the Civil War,” he explains.

He’s now the commander of the Asheville-based Zebulon Baird Vance Camp No. 15 of the Sons of Confederate Veterans. Accordingly, Holbrook is serving as co-chairman of the SCV’s 2003 reunion, to be held in Asheville this summer.

At the same time, Holbrook says he’s trying hard to steer clear of the current controversy within the ranks [see “The War Between the Sons”]. Yet he obviously still struggles with the issue that almost always comes up when talk turns toward the Civil War: slavery.

“I’d be the last to say that slavery wasn’t an issue of the planters. But those two boys wouldn’t have joined up to help some planters in Charleston maintain his right to own slaves,” Holbrook says about his ancestors.

Why does he think they enlisted, then?

“I really think it was to do with states’ rights,” offers Holbrook. And though he acknowledges that many people say “states’ rights” translates into the right to own slaves, something about the idea still doesn’t sit right.

“That can’t be it,” Holbrook exclaims, adding, “I don’t have the answer, in one line, what the cause of the Civil War was.”

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