Keener Virtual Private George W. Rabb Confederate Memorial Park
“I must confess now, while old, I had lots of fun and was lucky to lose only one leg, all of which I thank my Heavenly Father for.” — George Washington Rabb (1929)
I must confess now, while still somewhat coherent, that I am even less impressed with the new “Private George Rabb Confederate Memorial Park” on Highway 16 in Newton, North Carolina than I am with the existing public ones in our community. For starters there’s already one just like it (albeit for another rebel soldier, and in Lincoln County) only a few miles south in Pumpkin Center, and neither of these private memorials include any parking or observation areas — much less copies of Rabb’s memoir or the servile imitation of a flag he apparently carried in rebellion against his country at the impressionable young age of nineteen. But now that it exists we may be stuck with it short of an act by our General Assembly, so here’s some context for this memorial for my first cousin three times removed.
A “servile imitation” of history
“The renowned naval scientist Commander Matthew Fontaine Maury began lobbying as early as April 1861 to dump the flag…
George Washington Rabb, the son of John Franklin and Rebekah (Rebecca) Keener Rabb, was born in Catawba County on December 21, 1841. Rebekah was born in Lincoln County in 1813 (the daughter of John Keener), and she married John Rabb around 1838. George was educated in the whites-only public schools and attended the same Lutheran Church that my great-great grandparents attended. His father was a farmer and is buried in the old Haas Cemetery in Maiden where my great-great grandparents are buried.
George was a very enthusiastic young cog in the “grand cause” of the 1860s that he would later claim to have known nothing about in his role as a major local proponent of a revisionist “Lost Cause” narrative about the war. George enlisted in the so-called “Confederate Army” fifteen days after rebel forces fired on Fort Sumter. He returned home in 1865, with only one leg, and became a prominent local leader and legislator who later led an effort to erect a monument at the county courthouse to a “cause so grand.”
“I didn’t know much about the issue, but enthusiasm, patriotism, and the fact that all my companions were enlisting, made up for the lack of knowledge and decided me.” — George Washington Rabb (1929)
After the war, he taught himself to make shoes (“something a cripple could do”) and got involved in local government (as county treasurer) and in the local cotton industry. The nearby town of Maiden was incorporated in 1883 as a trading center and cotton mill site run by H.L. Carpenter and George Rabb. Alexander Keener, one of the first commissioners of the town, also served as a rebel soldier and ambulance driver in the Civil War and was almost certainly related to George’s mother. But unlike George, Alexander didn’t write a book or erect any monuments to “this miserable war.” Neither did Peter Keener, another one of Rebecca’s relatives who was also a rebel solider and a slave owner in Lincoln County.
“We went out of the Union because we wanted the worth of our slaves in our own way. We believed then that slavery could not flourish unless we succeeded. Let us be frank.” — Albert Smith Marks, Governor of Tennessee (1879 to 1881) and Confederate colonel during the Civil War, as quoted in The Newton Enterprise (December 4, 1880; Page 1)
The “Confederate Monument Association of Catawba County” (North Carolina) was formed in 1897 “for the purpose of erecting a monument to the Confederate dead” of the county. George Rabb called the first meeting to order on August 14, 1897 and a list of contributors was published in The Newton Enterprise on September 3 along with the organization’s bylaws and minutes of their meeting. Top contributors among the $379 (of $2,000) raised thus far included George Rabb ($50), M. S. Deal ($50), R.A. Bost ($25), and J. F. Smyre ($25). No Keeners appear on the list, but I wouldn’t be surprised if some eventually contributed. It would take the association until October of 1906 to raise $1500, half of the amount originally desired.
The final design for the monument was selected by Confederate soldiers and a contract was awarded to construct it during an “eloquent tribute” to Robert E. Lee in January of 1907. Rev. J. D. Arnold delivered the tribute in Newton to the insurgent leader “and to the cause for which the South fought.”
“The war was not a rebellion against the government the South had made. Slavery was the cause, and sole cause, of the war. The differences between the sections on that question could have been settled in no other way but by war, and [Lee] believed it was the will of Providence that we should fight it out to a finish and settle the question for all time.” — Rev. J. D. Arnold speaking at the Robert E. Lee tribute in Newton, as quoted by The Newton Enterprise (January 24, 1907)
In June of the same year, The Newton Enterprise reported that the Daughters of the Confederacy had also secured “two cannon and a lot of cannon balls to be placed beside the Confederate monument.” In the end only one canon arrived in Newton, and it turns out to be a Union armament — which you wouldn’t really know given the context of the cannon beside an anonymous “Confederate soldier” atop a pedestal on the courthouse lawn.
Rabb’s fundraising efforts continued. On July 4, 1907 The Newton Enterprise printed a last “call for money.” They were still $250 short of the amount needed to pay for the monument, but George still wasn’t finished.
In late July, Rabb was by then a sixty-five year old “business farmer,” “brave, one-legged Confederate” and a “fine Christian gentleman” who was still lobbying “in the interest of the Confederate monument” while attending the Lutheran reunion in Hickory (August 1, 1907). On the same day, C. B. Webb of Salisbury and G. E. Coulter of Newton, the contractors for the monument, were laying its foundation of cement.
In August 15 the same year George was finally presented with “a medal in recognition of his work in procuring the funds for the monument.” On that day, between eight and ten thousand people — almost half the county’s population at that time — gathered at the county courthouse for the unveiling of a “handsome shaft of Barre granite from Vermont, surmounted by the figure of a Confederate Private” (August 22, 1907). Freeze’s Drug Store advertised post cards at a price of two for five cents.
“Not one of this large crowd, from the soap vendor to the beautiful young belle with her hair and face sprinkled with talcum powder thrown by the mischieveous [sic] young men, was out of humor. Even the old maids and school teachers were not offended by the talcum and confetti thrown by the ball [sic] headed bachelors. The crowd was not only good natured and out for a lively time but not a drunken man was seen on the streets.” — Hickory Democrat (April 22, 1907)
The Janurary 1908 Report of the Ransom Sherrill Chapter of the UDC (via The Newton Enterprise on January 16, 1908) shows that their organization raised $313.50 for the Confederate monument and paid $313.50 in expenses to unveil it, including $139.46 to George Rabb as the contractor (not including the $2.50 they paid for his badge or the $10 they gave him to cover the hands he used to haul the cannon to the courthouse).
Local backlash in NC to the removal of Confederate monuments in New Orleans
“I hope this miserable war will soon close.” — Alexander Keener, “Catawba Braves” (Company K, 46th Regiment), in a…
“More than forty-five years have passed since the tattered flag of the lost cause was furled to be forever held as a sacred memento of the daring deeds of Catawba’s true and gallant sons, who so willingly and obediently offered their services when they saw that war was inevitable.” — George W. Hahn (1911).
Rabb’s political career was just getting started. In July of 1910 the Hickory Democrat reported that he was “in the city Wednesday and says his prospects of election to the [N.C.] house are very encouraging.” He was elected to represent Catawba County in the North Carolina General Assembly later that year and would run again in 1912.
While George Hahn published a book about the war in 1911, Rabb did not publish his own memoir about his experiences in the bloody conflict until 1929 (at the age of “eight-eight years and four months” he wrote). Neither the flag he supposedly carried into battle nor the monument that he worked so hard to erect at the courthouse are mentioned in his book. And the “cause so grand” for which he proudly fought is mentioned only briefly.t.
Rabb’s memoir tells us that the war was “lots of fun” and that it had nothing to do with slavery: “Slavery did not enter into the question.” When North Carolina formerly seceded within a week of his arriving in Raleigh, he said he experienced the biggest time of his life: “A full battery of artillery was fired, there was hollering everywhere, and bells were ringing.” He had apparently missed the speech by Tomas Crumpler of Ashe County on January 10, 1861:
“[A]lthough all the Southern States are alike interested in the preservation and protection of the institution of slavery, yet, the interest of the cotton States, and our interest in that institution, are in one particular diametrically opposite. Our interest in the slave is his price, theirs his labor. We estimate him by what he will bring in market, they value him for the cotton he can produce. We sell slaves, they buy them. It is to our interest that slaves shall be high, it is to their interest that they shall be cheap.”
George also tells us that his father didn’t own any slaves, but he doesn’t mention any of his mother’s relatives who did — like Henry Keener, who raised a “mulatto” girl named Sena. She ran away from an “E. Caldwell” in 1849, and he posted a reward of $25 for delivery back to him in Lincoln County.
George’s memoir makes one wonder if he ever read the actual inscription he and his fellow rebel soldiers chose to put on the monument at the Newton courthouse. The ideas expressed in Leonidas Spratt’s letter to the Mr. Perkins of February 13, 1861, criticizing the provisional constitution adopted by the Southern Congress at Montgomery, Alabama supposedly did not cross his mind:
“Such, then being the nature of the contest, this Union has been disrupted in the effort of slave society to emancipate itself; and the momentous question now to be determined is, shall that effort be successful? That the Republic of the South shall sustain her independance [sic], there is little question. The form of our society is too pregnant of intellectual resources and military strength to be subdued, if, in its products, it did not hold the bonds of amity and peace upon all the leading nations of the world. But in the independance [sic] of the South is there surely the emancipation of domestic slavery? That is greatly to be doubted. Our property in slaves will be established.”
Unlike George, Alexander Keener didn’t have “lots of fun” nor later write a memoir about his experiences in the war. He did write about it, but contemporaneously to his wife who repeatedly begged him to desert.
Alexander had a completely different take on the conflict at the time than the eighty-eight year old Rabb did later in 1929. In January 1864 Alexander wrote to his wife, Ruth: “I hope this miserable war will soon close.” His insurrectionist feelings, if he ever actually had any, were quickly vanishing and his participation in violent rebellion against his country was coming to an end.
The following year (1865) Rabb returned home with one leg amputated as a result of injuries. It is not known if Alexander ever transported him in an ambulance, but they both eventually returned to Catawba County.
Alexander had been captured by the United States Army at the Battle of Hatcher’s Run in Virginia and confined for several months at Point Lookout prison in Maryland, where the Army sometimes rotated African-American soldiers from the front to guard prisoners — which could include their former masters. Alexander would eventually become one of the first commissioners of the new cotton mill town run by Rabb and H.L. Carpenter.
“My father was no slave owner and that issue never came into my mind.” — George Washington Rabb (1929)
“Times is very gloomy.” — Alexander Keener (1865)
The emptiness of covering and removing what’s “left behind” from our civil strife
“Today we take another step in defining our City not by our past but by our bright future.” — New Orleans Mayor Mitch…
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