News & Events

The Rural Heritage Museum At Mars Hill University Opens New Exhibition: "The Civil War in the Southern Highlands: A Human Perspective"

Museum James KeithThe Rural Heritage Museum at Mars Hill University opens a new exhibition, "The Civil War in the Southern Highlands: A Human Perspective," beginning August 19, 2017. This exhibition presents an account, using rare original letters and newly-discovered documents, of the personal struggles of the people living in Madison County and the Southern Appalachian Mountains during the middle of the 19th century. Along with an extensive narrative produced for 18 large, didactic panels, the exhibition includes dozens of photographs and authentic objects from the period, including a wedding dress, a jacket worn by Lt. Keith, confederate currency, flags, books, sabers, ammunition, a McClellan cavalry saddle with brass stirrups, a coverlet, a very rare appliqué quilt and many other objects of everyday life owned by individuals on both sides of the war.

For many families in Madison County, each January has marked a sordid anniversary that’s difficult to forget, even more than 150 years later. As the snow lay thick across the mountains and valleys in January, 1863, Confederate soldiers summarily arrested then executed 13 prisoners -- mostly old men and boys -- in the remote Shelton Laurel valley.

The “Shelton Laurel Massacre,” as it became known to posterity, drove a deep wound into the rural communities of Madison County that lingers to this day. In many ways, the events of January, 1863, have become emblematic of the Civil War as fought in the mountains: confused and complicated, often conducted outside the “rules” of war by individuals with changeable loyalties, looking only to survive. The resulting consequences were often brutal for the women, children, and former African-American slaves left to tend to the homes and farms left behind.

The business of this exhibit is not to pick sides or cast blame, but simply to present the viewer with the “facts” as best we know them to be. The rights and wrongs of the conflict are beyond our vantage point to judge. But by way of careful study, the exhibition organizers attempt to shed light on the complex, apocryphal nature of the conflict in the devastated Southern Highlands, which still reverberates deep in the hollows and gaps of the Blue Ridge.

The larger lessons to be learned―of survival, hope and desperation; of the best and worst behavior mankind is capable of―these lessons pick no side, but stand silent and as impartial as the mountains that witnessed these events so long ago.

This exhibition, coordinated by Les Reker, Director of Rural Heritage Museum, was curated by Max Hunt, senior writer for the Mountain Xpress newspaper, along with historian Katherine Cutshall and authors Maynard Shelton and Dan Slagle, with editing, writing, research and design provided by Carolyn Comeau and Ryan Phillips.

This exhibition is made possible through a grant from the Madison County Tourism and Development Authority.

The Rural Heritage Museum is open daily (except Mondays) from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m., and by appointment. It is located in Montague Hall, 80 Cascade Street, Mars Hill, North Carolina. From Asheville take US 19 North to exit 11, then on Rt. 213 1.3 miles to the campus of Mars Hill University, a 20 minute drive. Admission is free.
Mailing address:
Rural Heritage Museum
Box 6705
Mars Hill University
Mars Hill, North Carolina 28754.

For more information or to schedule a group tour, please call (828) 689-1400 or view the museum's website.