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Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 1,154

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This is the grave of Thomas Clingman.

Born in Huntsville, North Carolina in 1812, Clingman grew up relatively elite for western North Carolina, but not necessarily at the peak of the southern aristocracy. He went to the better schools in that region and then was off to the University of North Carolina, where he graduated in 1832. He then went into the law, passed the bar in 1834, and started a practice in the town of Huntsville.

As was so often the case in these days, Clingman immediately leveraged his law practice into a political career. He ran for the state legislature in 1835 and won a seat, even though he was only 23 years old. He was a strong Whig, which we have to remember was quite common among the southern elite during these years. The 1830s and 1840s are just not the point yet where southern extremism was much of a thing, outside of South Carolina. So lots of slaveowners believed in a strong manufacturing economy and relatively centralized government that could get things done, so long as those things didn’t threaten slavery. Clingman rose pretty fast, despite losing his first reelection bid in 1836. He went back to his law practice for four years and then he went to the state senate in 1840 and then in 1843 went to Congress.

Well, immediately upon his admission to Congress, Clingman became scandalous. William Yancey, who was one of the most hard-core pro-slavery members of Congress, hated Clingman. This is because Clingman entered as a strong partisan and would say some pretty nasty things about Democrats on the House floor. Yancey then gave a speech where he personally insulted the new congressman. So Clingman did what so often happened in these situations–he challenged Yancey to a duel. By this time, most northerners were rolling their eyes at this barbaric and yet so accepted practice in the South. In any case, they both missed, perhaps intentionally. Honor was maintained, manhood shown. And so they both went back to Congress. Huge eyeroll.

Clingman stayed in Congress until 1857, when North Carolina sent him to the Senate to replace Asa Biggs. By now, he was a Democrat. Anyone who wanted a political career in the South had to be by this time. Clingman became as strong a supporter of slavery as Yancey by this time, or close to it. This was a midterm replacement and he was sent back for a full term in 1860. This really took a shift by Clingman. When he was in Congress, he followed the Clay line of opposition to Texas annexation and opposition to the gag rule over slavery. To say the least, he changed. That happened over a period of years. He was technically a Whig until 1852. He left the Whigs that year after it would not approve of the Fugitive Slave Act as a party position.

But then in 1861, North Carolina committed treason in defense of slavery. Clingman didn’t have to follow his state into treason, but he did. So he was one of the 11 senators expelled from the body for treason. In fact, western North Carolina was not a particularly pro-secession area and would have a lot of Unionists in it throughout the war. It was Clingman, along with a couple of other local politicians, who led the charge in early 1861 for secession and convinced enough people to go along. So he deserves a lot of blame for North Carolina committing treason in defense of slavery. In fact, I was looking at John Inscoe’s 2010 book Race, War, and Remembrance in the Appalachian South in working on this post and he makes a pretty compelling case that one thing that made western North Carolina and east Tennessee different in terms of how they responded to the war was that Tennessee had people such as Andrew Johnson who vociferously opposed the war and kept doing so, making that region a real problem for the Confederacy, while western North Carolina had Clingman instead, who undermined local unionist support.

Clingman then became a Confederate officer, first as a colonel and then rising to become a brigadier general. He became the commander of the 25th North Carolina Infantry. This of course despite having zero military experience, but north or south, that barely mattered early in the war. It was who you were before the war that made a high-ranking officer. He saw major action in the Peninsular Campaign, where George McClellan really showed just what an incompetent louse he truly was. He was at Cold Harbor as well. Generally, he’s seen as a middling officer, without anything really to say for him but not really anything massive to say against him either.

After the war, Clingman became interested in the mountains of North Carolina and Tennessee. This is what he is primarily known for today. He wanted to know precisely how tall these mountains were. So he spent a lot of time, energy, and money climbing these mountains to measure them. This makes an important foundational figure in the protection of what is now Great Smoky Mountains National Park. As a matter, Clingman’s Dome, the highest mountain in Tennessee (and on the border with North Carolina but it’s not the highest mountain in that state) was named for him and is a popular attraction in the park today.

You know what–we need to rename Clingman’s Dome. I am sorry, there are plenty of people we can name mountains after. I don’t care that it’s even an appropriate naming. He was a leading traitor in defense of slavery. There’s no reason to name popular mountains after such a person who did such an awful thing. Traitors in defense of slavery–especially leading ones–deserve to have nothing named after them except maybe a brand of chamber pots.

All this attention paid to the mountains was part of Clingman’s larger goal of developing western North Carolina. Bringing in tourists was a great way to improve the economy and he would live long enough to see the benefits of this. As he was barred from electoral politics due to the provisions of the Reconstruction amnesty for traitor leaders, his only political actions during the last three decades of his life was as a representative to the state constitutional convention in 1875 and as a delegate to the 1876 Democratic National Convention. Otherwise, he lived the life of a rich business promoter of the New South. He had always been a big business and regional promoter. This was at the core of his politics back when he started as a Whig. He also gave a lot of lectures, though I am not clear what they were about. If I wanted to work hard enough, I could find some on Google Books and read them, but c’mon even I ain’t that crazy.

Clingman died in Morganton, North Carolina in 1897. He was 85 years old.

Thomas Clingman is buried in Riverside Cemetery, Asheville, North Carolina.

If you would like this series to visit other treasonous senators kicked out for their treason in 1861, you can donate to cover the required expenses here. Louis Wigfall is in Galveston, Texas and James Chesnut is in Camden, South Carolina, though his wife Mary, also there, is by far the more interesting of the two. Previous posts in this series are archived here.

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