Confederates at Calvary

HOW FIRM A FOUNDATION: First opened in 1859, Fletcher's Calvary Episcopal Church was built from bricks made of clay excavated and fired on-site by enslaved people. While much of that original structure burned in a 1935 fire, other physical relics of the institution's past ties to slavery and the Confederacy remain. A collection of monuments built to highlight positive aspects of antebellum culture remains on the church's grounds. Photo by Jon Elliston

Nowadays you could be forgiven for not knowing that Calvary Episcopal Church in Fletcher was once a local hotbed of the Confederacy, or that it still retains unusual relics of the effort to whitewash the South’s role in the Civil War. In fact, if you visit the church — one of the oldest and most venerated in Western North Carolina — you’ll find a congregation committed to decidedly more modern and progressive concerns. The church’s current efforts include an active and expanding food pantry, providing shelter and financial assistance to families in need, and outreach to diverse communities.

Yet the lore of the Lost Cause” — the once widespread notion that the South fought the war solely for independence and other righteous causes — remains a tangible physical reality on Calvary’s grounds. A quiet corner of the property contains the remains of the Open-Air Westminster Abbey of the South, a series of rough-hewn granite boulders with bronze plaques commemorating a kind of Confederate hall of heroes and a laundry list of related cultural figures.

“The people who founded the church … had relocated here from Charleston [and] were slaveholders,” notes the Rev. J. Clarkson, who was recently appointed Calvary’s rector after ministering there for the past two years. “So the land that we’re on, the original congregation, comes out of that wealth.”

Last month marked the 400th anniversary of the introduction of slavery to North America, triggering a new round of national soul-searching about human bondage and its complex legacy. And closer to home, the monuments at Calvary Episcopal offer reminders of the country’s troubled history and this region’s place in it.

Monumental problems

Within a few decades after the Civil War ended, monuments to key figures of the Confederacy had become ubiquitous in the South. Conspicuously displayed in public spaces, they remained generally unquestioned, weathering the years with little overt criticism.

Times have changed, though, particularly in the last few years. Confederate flags have come down from state capitols, and some monuments have been relocated or destroyed.

Here in North Carolina, protesters sparked considerable controversy in 2017 when, in broad daylight, they toppled the statue of a Confederate soldier that had long proudly stood outside the old Durham County Courthouse. The following year, a nighttime campus rally by UNC Chapel Hill students left “Silent Sam,” a similar figure, crumpled and stomped on the ground, echoing the fate of statues of Saddam Hussein and other deposed tyrants.

The state’s western region has seen its share of such incidents as well. In Asheville, the towering downtown obelisk honoring Zebulon Vance, an ardent white supremacist who was North Carolina’s Civil War governor, has been a flashpoint. In both 2015 and 2016, the words “Black Lives Matter” were spray-painted on the monument (and in 2017, the same phrase was painted on a building at Vance’s birthplace, a state historic site in Reems Creek). Near the base of the obelisk, a monument to Confederate military commander Robert E. Lee was vandalized in 2017 and again last year; a similar one in Henderson County was effectively put out of commission in 2017 when someone removed the bronze plaque praising Lee from its stone base.

Reaction to these incidents has been decidedly mixed. Some Southern state legislatures have effectively prohibited removing such monuments from public spaces, but officials in cities like Atlanta have responded by supplementing the memorials with new markers offering less positive views of the Confederacy. In Asheville, the joint city/county African American Heritage Commission is exploring similar plans for recontextualizing Pack Square — once home to Buncombe County’s slave market — and the Vance Monument, which stands at its center.

These and related controversies show no signs of waning, and in the meantime, most such monuments still stand exactly where they were originally placed, despite the sometimes dramatic shifts in cultural context. And thus far, Calvary Church’s unique assemblage of paeans to Confederate leaders and luminaries hasn’t sparked any furor — for reasons that might surprise even longtime observers of the struggle over Southern memory.

Wartime and beyond

In some ways, Calvary’s monuments seem right at home. Opened in 1859, the church initially served slave-owning planters from South Carolina. And when the Civil War broke out two years later, the parishioners, like many of their neighbors, embraced the Southern rebellion.

“Many are the stories connected with Calvary Church during this war period,” reads an official history written for the church’s centennial in 1959. “When the Confederacy would need more infantry or cavalrymen, word would be sent out. … From the mountainsides and coves men would come with their rifles and horses to meet and organize companies of fighters. This meeting place was Calvary Church and from here they would march forth to defend what they held to be right.”

SHOW ME A SIGN: A historical marker on U.S. Route 25 recognizes Calvary Episcopal’s collection of monuments. Photo by Jon Elliston

During the war, Calvary sometimes served as a Confederate barrack and makeshift hospital. As the fighting was winding down, Union Maj. Gen. George Stoneman’s raiders briefly took up residence there. According to the same historical account, Stoneman “was so impressed with [the church’s] beauty and spirit that he ordered his men to take special care not to disturb or destroy anything in this House of God.” The men, the account relates, “slept inside but were careful of conduct and language,” though the Yankees did avail themselves of the church’s red carpet, which they repurposed as saddle blankets.

It’s more than a little ironic, then, that the man who would create the church’s “shrine to Southern immortals,” as one reporter called it at the time, was a native New Yorker who happened to be a descendant of another Union general, George McClellan.

Clarence Stuart McClellan Jr. served as Calvary’s head from 1925-32. Known for his speaking and public relations skills, he made use of the then-new power of radio to attract more parishioners. But it was the Open-Air Westminster Abbey of the South, which he established in 1926, that really put Calvary on the map. Indeed, for a time, McClellan’s brainchild became an attraction that drew thousands of visitors a year.

As the name indicates, McClellan was inspired by the memorials to rulers, aristocrats, artists, scientists and other notables in London’s historic Westminster Abbey, but it was a tribute to Robert E. Lee that truly sparked what he dubbed his “pet project.”

High ideals

In 1926, WNC-based chapters of the United Daughters of the Confederacy installed a series of markers along U.S. Route 25, which they dubbed “the Dixie-Lee Highway.” One was prominently placed right by Calvary Episcopal’s driveway, “where all tourists motoring over this wonderful scenic highway may see the beautiful tribute to the South’s greatest hero,” the UDC wrote in a history of the myriad monuments it had sponsored across North Carolina.

“The nucleus of my idea is the Robert E. Lee marker,” McClellan explained in a 1931 interview. “Lee is here depicted mounted on Traveller [his horse] journeying into the South. It is Lee facing a new day, the day of his real greatness as president of Washington and Lee College, later to become Washington and Lee University. We here commemorate not Lee the fighter, but Lee the educator. That was the true Lee. ‘He cometh to his own,’ says the tablet. That was true, and so we want all the noble men and women of the South to come into their own.”

The Abbey’s main purpose, he said, was “to keep before the eyes and minds and hearts of the coming generations the great ideals of the South its songs, its poems, its books of prose and their writers, its famous statesmen; in other words, its idealists.”

Clearly, McClellan’s vision for the project was considerably more nuanced than the standard take on mythologizing the Confederacy. Yet he quickly found common cause with the UDC, a group of women of Confederate lineage who sought to inculcate a version of history that had nothing but praise for the rebel cause and the racial order it sought to maintain.

Shifting visions

Shortly after the UDC placed its Lee marker, McClellan began collaborating with the organization to install similarly styled ones on the church’s property. Apart from the bronze plates’ inevitable greenish patina, these relatively simple structures appear today essentially the same as they did when they were put in place almost a century ago, though they’ve been relocated a couple of times over the years and are now something of a sidelight on Calvary’s grounds.

Strolling among them, one is struck by how all-over-the-map the markers’ honorees are. Not all of the 19 figures enshrined at the Abbey were Confederate leaders or even native Southerners, but most had either significant ties to the Confederacy or to romantic conceptions of the antebellum South. (See sidebar, “Who’s Who at the Abbey,” for the complete roster.)

Another thing most of them have in common is their connection with the United Daughters of the Confederacy. According to professor Karen Cox of UNC Charlotte, the UDC “aspired to transform military defeat into a political and cultural victory, where states’ rights and white supremacy remained intact.” In Dixie’s Daughters, her 2003 history of the organization, Cox documented how those determined women went so far as to laud the Reconstruction-era Ku Klux Klan.

In a 1941 summary of their monument-building efforts, those same UDC leaders praised McClellan as a “wonderful man” who had created “the first sanctuary of its kind.” The project, in fact, became something of a fixture in Confederate Veteran magazine, in whose pages the UDC regularly touted new additions to the Abbey. “Daughters of the Confederacy and all other true Southerners will be especially interested in this ‘Abbey’ because of its association with the days of the Confederacy,” the 1941 summary noted.

Amid the recent battles over Confederate markers, however, the UDC has had little to celebrate. Last December, activists loudly protested outside a meeting of North Carolina chapter leaders in Raleigh. And in April, the UDC lost a legal challenge in Winston-Salem against city leaders determined to move a Confederate monument situated on land the county had sold.

In response, Wake Forest resident Sara Powell, who is president of the UDC’s North Carolina chapter, sounded a protest of her own. “You can’t change history,” she declared. “You can’t change yesterday. You can’t change your parents. You can’t change what happened 100, 150 years ago. It’s important that we remember our history, and we can learn and grow from it.”

Driving the point home, the state UDC’s website leads with an image of Silent Sam, the statue that was toppled in Chapel Hill, next to a Bible verse from Proverbs: “Do not remove the ancient landmarks which your fathers have set.”

Higher hopes

For his part, the Rev. McClellan had grander ambitions for the project than were ever realized. He intended to install as many as 150 markers at the Abbey, he said, in sections that would highlight what he viewed as the South’s legacy of high culture, as opposed to memories of combat and martial gallantry.

On the one hand, he reasoned, the markers could help foster national healing. “We have had enough of war; let us emphasize the arts of peace,” McClellan told a reporter in 1931. “To foster prejudices and keep aflame the heat of the Civil War, to create sectionalism and to carry on some phase of history that should be entirely forgotten, are absolutely foreign to my dream for this Abbey. I recall Lee’s last words: ‘Lay aside all these local animosities and train your sons to be Americans.’”

At the same time, however, the endeavor he envisioned would employ stark stereotypes to recast Southern history in a way that honored the mythology of the Lost Cause.

“My plans call for a bronze, life-sized statue of the Southern Negro Mammy,” McClellan elaborated. “I want to see her with her big, wide, white, well-starched apron, her turban, her calico dress, and I wish to see her seated in an old-timey rocking chair as if before some great open fireplace in a log cabin on a windy night with spooks prowling about in the dark. I want to see her hands hard with toil, and her face — a spiritual face — recalling some of those exquisite spirituals of her race. I want to see all old-fashioned flowers a-growing … all the flowers the Old Mammy used to love.”

And once the grand memorial was completed, said McClellan, “I want this Abbey dedicated by the singing of old Negro spirituals by trained Negro singers on some moonlit night in the summer. Can you get the picture? Can’t you feel it?”

The Abbey today

McClellan’s dream didn’t come to fruition, however. In 1932, he left Fletcher to head up a parish in Virginia, and while he remained revered by Confederate memorial groups, the Abbey grew no more.

Calvary’s current rector is fairly new to the position, and leadership turnovers at the church have limited opportunities to address its place in the broader controversy surrounding Confederate memorials, he says. But Clarkson — a Nashville, Tenn., native who loathes the notion of white supremacy — is acutely aware of both the tensions in play and the underlying concerns.

“For us, this has given us a conversation, in the sense that we really need to talk about that,” he says of Calvary’s Confederate roots. “But we haven’t quite been ready to take it on. In the church, there is not only an awareness of our need to take it on, but a need to examine that history more widely.”

SHEPHERDING CHANGE: The Rev. J. Clarkson was recently appointed Calvary’s rector after ministering there for the past two years. Photo by Jon Elliston

The unorthodox nature of McClellan’s pantheon further complicates the undertaking, as the Abbey includes everyone from poets and songwriters to top-ranking Confederate political and military leaders. “That’s a very Episcopalian move to try to make,” notes Clarkson, adding, “We often see ourselves as trying to be a big tent and hold things in tension.” Nonetheless, he continues, “I’m not sure that you can parse Robert E. Lee the way [McClellan] did.”

And meanwhile, there’s little to be seen of McClellan’s original vision today. The occasional visitor to the Abbey finds an almost forlorn set of markers — well maintained, to be sure, the grass around them regularly trimmed. But they’re bordered by orange construction netting in connection with a road expansion, and they seem like an afterthought amid the considerable efforts of church volunteers to greatly expand Calvary’s food pantry.

“My blood pressure goes up when a reporter calls about Confederate monuments,” says Clarkson. But it may go down again when he passes by the back of the sanctuary, where the congregation has placed a decidedly different kind of marker. The small but significant framed paper sign is set next to a patch of exposed brick in the bell tower, the only part of the original structure that survived a major fire in 1935.

“The bricks were formed from clay dug nearby and fired on these grounds by enslaved African people,” the sign states. “May we build, in our day, the reconciliation of all people.”


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About Jon Elliston
Former Mountain Xpress managing editor Jon Elliston is the senior editor at WNC magazine.

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