Steven E. Nash: Who Was Virgil Lusk?

Reconstruction's Ragged Edge: The Politics of Postwar Life in the Southern Mountains, by Steven E. NashWe welcome to the blog a guest post by Steven E. Nash, author of Reconstruction’s Ragged Edge: The Politics of Postwar Life in the Southern Mountains. In the book Nash chronicles the history of Reconstruction as it unfolded in the mountains of western North Carolina. He presents a complex story of the region’s grappling with the war’s aftermath, examining the persistent wartime loyalties that informed bitter power struggles between factions of white mountaineers determined to rule. For a brief period, an influx of federal governmental power enabled white anti-Confederates to ally with former slaves in order to lift the Republican Party to power locally and in the state as a whole. Republican success led to a violent response from a transformed class of elites, however, who claimed legitimacy from the antebellum period while pushing for greater integration into the market-oriented New South.

In a previous post, Nash addresses the vandalism of an Asheville, N.C. monument on Martin Luther King Jr. Day in the context of the racial politics of Reconstruction-era Asheville. In today’s post, Nash tells the story of a former Confederate officer who took on a difficult task during the Reconstruction period.

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It was a cold, rainy December afternoon when my wife finally asked the question: “Who was Virgil Lusk?” It was a fair question. After all, I had dragged her around Asheville’s historic Riverside Cemetery for well over an hour trying to locate his grave. With each grave adorned with a miniature Confederate battle flag, my frustration mounted. Lusk was a Confederate soldier. So why was my strategy of driving toward those flags not producing any results? Was his flag missing? Who was Virgil Lusk?

Let us start with the basic facts. Lusk was born in a section of Buncombe County later carved off to form part of Madison County. He was a lawyer, a Confederate cavalry officer, and a prisoner of war. So where was his battle flag? Maybe the answer lies after the war. Unlike many Confederate veterans, he surrendered both his sword and the cause in 1865. Lusk became a Republican. Nowadays, Republicans constitute a major part of the electorate in western North Carolina. During Reconstruction, however, many mountain whites viewed Republicans as akin to traitors. A sectional party built upon an adherence to a free labor ideology praising labor and middle class respectability, the “Party of Lincoln” carried the stain of defeat in the South. Tens of thousands of southerners—white and black—rallied to the Republican Party seeking a greater voice in local government after the war; those men like Lusk who did so after donning Confederate gray earned the enmity of their bitterly defeated former friends.

Lusk’s rise to prominence stemmed more from the oft-ignored Reconstruction period in the Carolina mountains. The state legislator appointed district solicitors in those days. The 12th District solicitor was David Coleman, a Confederate colonel with a not-so-secret drinking problem. His appointment dated from December 1865, and his short time in office was controversial. Although western North Carolina was predominantly pro-Confederate in its wartime sympathies, pockets of Unionism, growing wartime disaffection, and economic hardship strained mountaineers’ ties to the Confederacy. Coleman earned a reputation for unfairly prosecuting Unionists after the war, and the military removed him from office in 1868.

Lusk benefited from Coleman’s fall. Without a doubt, Lusk won no favor among the local Conservative Party leadership by taking the job. The historical record gives the distinct impression, however, that Lusk cared little about Conservatives’ feelings. The new solicitor used his office to fight against a growing Ku Klux Klan threat in his district. The Klan made its presence felt in western North Carolina in the spring of 1868. Threats against African Americans and federal agents announced its arrival as early as April. When Asheville erupted in violence on election day in November, at least one local observer blamed the Klan.

Prosecuting alleged Klansmen was no easy matter, but Lusk felt obligated to resist the lawlessness plaguing his community. It was an uphill battle. When he brought charges against suspected Klansmen, convictions proved near impossible. The Klan intimidated witnesses, lied under oath, and packed juries. They attempted to intimidate the Republican solicitor as well. In 1869, a local Klan leader attacked Lusk on Asheville’s public square. After repeated blows from the Ku Klux’s cane, Lusk managed to pull his revolver and wound his attacker. Lusk pushed on. Through the 1870s, he served as a district attorney for a newly created Western District of North Carolina, where he continued his efforts to bring Klansmen to justice and support the Republican Party.

Of course, mountain Republicans are nothing new to modern readers. But Reconstruction-era Republicans like Lusk were different. They represented a broad coalition. Laborers and farmers commingled with professionals. Whites worked alongside people of color. Former Confederates cooperated with white Unionists. Their goal was a greater sense of democracy within politics, an empowering of the people against traditionally elite privilege vested in the state legislature.

Despite their best efforts, however, they failed. Their reliance upon federal support and patronage left them vulnerable in the 1870s when federal power retreated across the South. Nor were they capable of rising above the racial ideology that allowed them to embrace African American voters but not officeholders. Ultimately, violence, the politics of economic development, and heightened racial rhetoric forced the mountain Republicans to choose between African Americans’ civil rights and their federal allies or the benefits of a railroad link to the national market.

And their failure parallels Virgil Lusk’s career. He ceased to be District Attorney in 1881, the year after the arrival of the Western North Carolina Railroad to Asheville largely ended the struggles of Reconstruction in the region. But Lusk and the Republican Party did not fade away. The former Confederate officer stayed active in Republican politics through its fusion with Populists, retreat to McKinley, and Theodore Roosevelt’s 1912 Progressive revolt. Lusk and Republicans may have persisted, but the possibilities embodied by their biracial party of Reconstruction did not.

Steven E. Nash is assistant professor of history at East Tennessee State University. His book Reconstruction’s Ragged Edge: The Politics of Postwar Life in the Southern Mountains is now available.