THE WORLD MADE STRAIGHT by Ron Rash
was twelve years old when I first realized my family’s involvement in
the Civil War was much more complex than I had imagined. This was 1965,
the centennial of the war’s end, but the South was still winning in the
creeks and woods where my friends and I re-created battles. We wore gray
infantry caps ordered from the backs of comic books, Daisy air rifles
our muskets. I’d just come home from yet another Southern victory when I
found my great-uncle in our living room visiting my parents. We lived in
Boiling Springs, North Carolina, a small town in the Appalachian
foothills solidly Confederate during the Civil War, but both of my
parents’ families had lived in the higher mountains since the 1700’s, my
father’s side primarily in Buncombe and Madison counties, my mother’s in
Watauga County. My great-uncle was from Madison, and when he saw the
Confederate cap on my head he frowned. “Why are you wearing the hat of a
bunch of traitors,” he grumbled.
As I grew older and learned more of my family’s history-- particularly
its history from 1861-1865—my great-uncle’s reaction became
understandable. Perhaps because they were isolated enough to do so, my
mother’s ancestors in Watauga appear to have largely stayed out of the
Civil War, few actually enlisting in either army. Their sympathies,
however, seem to have been more with the Union than the Confederacy. I
say this because during World War Two some of my relatives had refused
to reset their clocks to acknowledge daylight savings time, Roosevelt
Time, as they disdainfully called it. They were unwilling to support any
initiative put forth by a member of the political party that opposed
My paternal ancestors in Madison County had been allowed no such luxury.
From family members and my own research, I found out my kin in that
county had fought on both sides. My great-great-great-great grandfather
Dr. Joshua Candler, a country doctor before the war, was a Confederate
captain in the North Carolina Sixty-Fourth. He served alongside his
brother, Zachary Candler. At the same time, my great-great-great
grandfather Martin Rash served in the Union Army’s North Carolina
Mounted Infantry division, joined by his cousin Joe Black.
One of the most troubling aspects of history is how some of the worst
atrocities have occurred among people who have coexisted for
generations, as in Nazi Germany and more recently in Rhwanda and Bosnia.
Such was the case in the county known as “Bloody Madison” during the
Civil War. The worst atrocity, and there were many, occurred on a
bitterly cold day in late January of 1863. The Confederate army sent a
regiment into the Unionist hotbed of Shelton Laurel, even today one of
the most isolated portions of Madison County. The Confederate soldiers,
almost all from Madison County themselves, rounded up fifteen of their
neighbors and took them prisoner. It was hardly a force of fighting men
they captured. Many of the men were in their sixties, the youngest,
David Shelton, was thirteen, his brother fifteen. The prisoners and all
the members of the regiment, except their leader Colonel Keith, believed
the men and boys were to be taken to a prison stockade in Tennessee.
Inclement weather delayed the march several days (long enough that two
of the prisoners escaped), but on the morning of January 18 the soldiers
and their captives began their trek westward. They had marched only a
few miles up the Knoxville Road when Colonial Keith ordered the
prisoners to line up Soldiers drafted for the firing squad at first
refused to shoot, until Keith threatened to kill them as well. The
regiment was the North Carolina 64th.
For a number of years I believed that my ancestor Joshua Candler was
among the executioners. It is disturbing to imagine him there. Here was
a man who had taken an oath as a physician to heal, yet on this cold
morning of January 23, 1863, he was, if not one of the actual shooters,
a witness to this taking of life. What has haunted me even more is the
possibility that before the war some of the prisoners were Dr. Candler’s
patients. Had he perhaps once saved a man or boy whose life ended that
morning in Shelton Laurel? If so, what had he felt as the prisoners
lined up? If he was a member of the firing squad, had he deliberately
missed? Or had he instead aimed carefully for a mercifully quick kill?
Or had the war so inured him to violence and suffering he felt—either as
witness or executioner—no compassion or horror at all?
I do not know and probably will never know. Older relatives and
historical sources have given me more questions than answers. But I have
known since my twenties that I would eventually write about what is
today known as the Shelton Laurel Massacre. In the early 1990’s I
published several poems about the massacre, but these were just warm-ups
for the novel I had been carrying in my head for two decades. After a
visit to Shelton Laurel in the spring of 2003, I finally began The World
Made Straight, a novel that dealt not only with the massacre but its
continuing importance over a century later to the participants’
descendants. In The World Made Straight, Doctor Candler makes two winter
visits to Shelton Laurel. The first is to minister to eight-year-old
David Shelton, who is near death due to scarlet fever. Five years later
Dr. Candler will return to Shelton Laurel with the North Carolina 64th.
The novel’s other story is set in the 1970’s and centers on two of the
descendants of Joshua Candler and David Shelton, a down-and-out former
schoolteacher and a seventeen-year-old high-school dropout.
In a recent conversation with an older relative, I found out that after
the war Martin Rash’s son married Joshua Candler’s granddaughter. What
Dr. Candler thought of his granddaughter marrying a “homemade yankee,”
as such Union soldiers were called, is another question I have no answer
for. In the 1890’s the Rash and Shelton families would also be
intertwined by marriage. One other fascinating note about Martin Rash is
that he did not join the Union army until after the Shelton Laurel
massacre. My older relative believes his enlistment was a response to
The day after the massacre members of the Shelton family brought an ox
to the meadow and filled the sled with their dead. They planned to haul
them back to the Shelton family cemetery, but a snowstorm prevented them
from getting there. Rather than risk the bodies being devoured by wild
animals, they buried all thirteen in a single grave.
They still lie there now, almost one-hundred-and-forty-two years later.
Over the grave is a single small stone marker, thirteen names etched
into the granite. In the spring of 2002 I stood before this grave. It
was a warm, cloudless day, but a stand of oak trees kept most of the
sunlight from reaching the gravesite. It was so quite and still that it
seemed the world had taken a long, deep breath and held it.
We live in an era that, much to its own peril, seems incapable of even
acknowledging there is a past , much less that some resonance of that
past might linger in a particular place, but I know that what I felt at
that gravesite on that spring morning was a sense of being in a place
where something of consequence was acknowledged, not just by the marker
but also by the oak trees and the land and the very air itself. The
World Made Straight is an attempt to render what I felt that morning
into words. Perhaps I also believed that writing a novel, particularly
one that addresses the possibility of past wrongs set straight, would
dim a scene that has haunted me waking and sleeping for years. This
scene, gleaned from first-person accounts, is of thirteen-year-old David
Shelton’s last moments in that Madison County meadow.
I have finished my novel now, have put all that I know and feel about
the Shelton Laurel Massacre in its pages. But the image of
thirteen-year-old David Shelton standing in that snowy Madison County
meadow remains: He is shot in both arms, his father and three brothers
dead beside him. He tells the soldiers that he forgives them all for
killing his father and three brothers, then pleads to be allowed to go
home to his mother and sister. But the soldiers do their duty.
I am haunted still.
About the author
Ron Rash is the author of the prize-winning novels ONE FOOT IN EDEN and
SAINTS AT THE RIVER, as well as three collections of poetry and two of short
stories. He is the recipient of an O. Henry Prize, the James Still Award
from the Fellowship of Southern Writers, and the Weatherford Award for Best
Novel of 2004 (for SAINTS AT THE RIVER). Rash holds the John Parris Chair in
Appalachian Studies at Western Carolina University and lives in Clemson,
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