On April 8, 2018, our principal consultant, Dr. Eric Plaag, spoke at the Town of Boone's headstone re-dedication service for three Union soldiers who died and were buried in the Boone Cemetery in April 1865. The following is a typescript of his remarks from the service. You can read a press account of the service AT THIS LINK.
Good afternoon. As the chairperson of the Boone Historic Preservation Commission, I am grateful for the work of the Town Manager, my fellow commission members, and especially the Planning and Inspections and Public Works staff of the Town of Boone for preparing this hallowed ground and all of the logistics for this occasion today. I am also thankful for the participation of Michael Bossé, our bugler, and all of the members of Major General George Stoneman Camp No. 6 of the Sons of Union Veterans of the Civil War, particularly Robert Crum, who went to great lengths to make sure we got everything right about this long overdue ceremony.
And now, I take off my chairperson hat and speak to you as Eric Plaag, historian and preservationist. Those are fancy titles for someone who is really just an interpreter for the dead, especially since the dead typically do not speak for themselves from beyond the grave. So what I say here are my words, my thoughts, and my interpretations, to be taken as you see fit.
It is no secret that our re-consecration of the graves of these three Union soldiers, Private William T. Bradley, Private Henry P. Evans, and Private John E. Maricle, is not without its controversy. It is no secret that the politics of our time have made some feel more comfortable in expressing their lingering anger at and hatred for men like these soldiers, simply because they wore blue in a mountain landscape where neighbor sometimes killed neighbor over the purest example of irrational tribalism our nation has ever known. As one man recently wrote in the comments section of one of our local, digital newspapers, grinding his axe to use once more against the context of history, “These men were criminals. They were a part of Sherman’s dirty crew.”
I spent three years of my life in the swamps of South Carolina, hunting down and mapping the exact paths of Sherman’s men, and as someone who was threatened and called a traitor for demanding the removal of the Confederate flag from Columbia’s State House grounds, I will nevertheless be the first to tell you that many examples of criminal behavior can be found in the stories of Sherman’s men. But for every one of those stories, there is another from the Confederate side, detailing how the men in grey robbed and pillaged their own civilian population, especially as the war looked lost in 1865. That story was repeated here in Watauga County. Yes, there were horrible tales of overzealous Union troops preying on local civilians—Jacob Mast Councill, unarmed and pleading for his life in his field, was nevertheless gunned down and lies buried not 50 yards from here. But the Confederates of Watauga County exacted their own horrors from Watauga’s civilians, too. John Preston Arthur told us in 1915 that the western Watauga Home Guard hanged Levi Guy for no other crime than feeding his Unionist sons when they came home, and that the Home Guard that defended Boone in March 1865 was there not as a Confederate force but to guard “against the robbers and marauders of both sides.” Corruption, evil, and injustice privileged neither the Blue nor the Grey as their preferred ally.
Further complicating the narrative was the reason for the war itself. Neo-Confederate apologists like to trot out the “states’ rights” defense, a one-trick show pony so simpleminded that its deceits are betrayed by the pro-slavery arguments made by their own secession convention politicians. Sherman apologists often like to say that Union troops were fighting against the evils of slavery, apparently forgetting that the war in the beginning for most Unionists was about exactly what their name implied—preserving the union. Lincoln and Sherman both resisted emancipation as an end goal until it was clear that the war would last longer than anyone had originally expected. Even in 1863, following the issuance of the Emancipation Proclamation, Lincoln underscored the cause of the great conflict: “We are in civil war. In such cases there always is a main question; but in this case that question is a perplexing compound—Union and Slavery. It thus becomes a question not of two sides merely, but of at least four sides, even among those who are for the Union, saying nothing of those who are against it.”
Buried in that analysis, of course, is the truth for these three men whom we honor today. They were not slave owners. They were not politicians. They were not powerful businessmen who played both sides in the interest of war profiteering. They were the lowest ranking of the rank and file, men whose lives had been disrupted by conscription. All three were poor farmers who probably had no dog in the fight over the question of slavery. Evans was 33 years old. Maricle was 29. Bradley was an 18-year-old boy. As was the case for most Civil War dead, these men were cut down not by bullets but horrific diseases like typhoid pneumonia and measles. And although they were mustered into service in Tennessee, Evans and Bradley were both North Carolina boys, and Maricle from Kentucky, suggesting that the war found them, perhaps after being given a choice between service in the Union army or wasting away in a federal prison camp.
This is the story of war in America, and it remains so today. In the Civil War, men who could afford to paid bounties so that other men would serve in their place. In later wars, when that was illegal, the wealthy and well-connected avoided the draft through college deferments or cushy stateside assignments or doctor notes about bone spurs that nevertheless didn’t hurt their golf game. And too often, it is the well-connected who freely choose to sacrifice the lives of our young men and women for ends that would never have benefited those men and women. And when it ends poorly, we tend to blame those who fought, rather than those who chose to make us fight. It is so easy to denigrate the memory of men like Bradley, Evans, and Maricle when we have not marched even a mile in their shoes, let alone taken a moment to learn something about who they were and why they served.
So, on this day when we pay them that courtesy, 153 years after their deaths, I urge you all to follow the example of Benjamin Councill, Sr., on whose land we now stand. In late March 1865, Mr. Councill hauled up this hill the coffin containing his son, Jacob Mast Councill, who had been murdered in cold blood by Union occupiers, and laid his son to his final rest. Two weeks later, Mr. Councill consented to his land being used for the burial of three other men, this time from the same army that had killed his son. When federal officials returned 14 years later to erect proper memorials on their graves, the Councill family—who still owned this land—did not object. May we all be accorded such respect by those with good cause to dismiss us as their enemies.
I thank you all for joining me in this occasion to do right by these three men, by whom history and local sentiment have often not done right. May their graves be treated with respect and care, and the complexity of their lives and their history be honored and remembered, for centuries to come.