Of the several statues surrounding the state Capitol on Union Square, a grand total of two portray lifelike movement. One is the ultra-realistic Vietnam memorial, in which two soldiers half-carry, half-drag a wounded comrade while scanning the sky for a rescue chopper. The other honors a son of the Confederacy who earned a dubious distinction indeed.
I knew something was up one day last week when, on a walk along Salisbury Street, I caught sight of Henry Lawson Wyatt, normally a healthy bronze, covered in what appeared to be black goo. I asked a couple of workmen attending the statue what was going on. "Making a mold," was the answer. "Oh," I replied, as if they had explained everything.
Wyatt, atop his pedestal, crouches as if to sprint forward, rifle held across his chest at the ready. Quite probably that's just how he looked on June 10, 1861, in the moments before he took a musket ball in the forehead. He became the first Rebel soldier to die in battle.
His statue, as The N&O later reported, is being reproduced for display in a South Dakota museum devoted to the works of sculptor Gutzon Borglum, creator of Mount Rushmore. The Wyatt piece's clone will be joined by one of Gov. Charles B. Aycock, whose likeness as rendered by Borglum also stands on the Capitol grounds. Aycock also got the goo treatment, followed with a nice coating of plaster.
Wyatt's story is pure historical footnote, but one that resonates with the random personal tragedy of war. He was a carpenter from Tarboro, age about 20, serving as a private in the First North Carolina Regiment. His unit was deployed on the York-James Peninsula in southeastern Virginia, near present-day Hampton and Newport News. Union forces maintained a stronghold at nearby Fort Monroe.
When a skirmish broke out at a place called Bethel, a Confederate officer called for volunteers to go forward and torch a building — maybe a church — occupied by Union troops. Wyatt did what many soldiers down the years have done — volunteered for a risky mission and paid with his life. Was it a noble mission? Not by our contemporary lights. But common soldiers at the time hardly had the luxury of historical hindsight applied through the lens of modern values.
Wyatt became an emblem of North Carolina's sacrifices in the Confederate cause. A figure that still amazes is that men from this state accounted for a quarter of all Southern battle deaths. The state's Civil War motto, inscribed on the Confederate monument facing west up Hillsborough Street from the Capitol, became "First at Bethel, Last at Appomattox." (Anyone who knows about the soldier who was the last to fall, if that motto is to be taken literally, please enlighten us.)
Well, the Wyatt story was one with which I was familiar, although on our family trips to Yorktown, Va., I have yet to take the Big Bethel Church Road exit from Interstate 64 to inspect what's left of the site. Maybe next time. But what I hadn't known about was the semi-unsavory streak in the story of John Gutzon de la Mothe Borglum.
Who would have guessed that the creator of that American icon in the Black Hills, the shrine to four of our greatest presidents and champions of liberty, had a thing for the Confederacy and became a bigwig in the Ku Klux Klan?
The N&O's Samantha Thompson Smith referenced Borglum's KKK sympathies in an article Sunday about the Wyatt and Aycock statues. A click on Wikipedia fills out the picture. Borglum, an Idaho native born in 1867, was drawn to themes of heroic nationalism. Lincoln was a favorite, but that didn't stop him from admiring leaders of the rebellion. Having made his reputation as a top sculptor, the United Daughters of the Confederacy signed him up to fashion a trio of gigantic likenesses (R.E. Lee, Jefferson Davis, Stonewall Jackson) from Stone Mountain, near Atlanta. The Klan helped fund the project, which was on a scale never before attempted.
In the mid-1920s, the carving bogged down in the face of technical obstacles. But Borglum had established ties with the Klan, and he wound up a life member. Only later, under public pressure, did he "superficially" repudiate the racist organization that was tied to lynchings and the worst sort of anti-black discrimination in the name of white, native American supremacy. Something to ponder the next time your heart swells in patriotic admiration at the thought of Borglum dangling on the side of Mount Rushmore — his successful follow-up to the Stone Mountain venture.
So Borglum would have been a natural to sculpt Henry Lawson Wyatt; that statue was dedicated in 1912. Aycock's followed in 1924. Our original "education governor" is now recognized, of course, as a hybrid saint-sinner. He boosted public education while at the same time winning election in 1900 as the candidate of Democrats who had conducted a viciously racist campaign. Sounds like Gutzon Borglum's kind of guy.