On Thursday, February 13, the Western North Carolina Historical Association at the Smith-McDowell House will open “North Carolina in the Great War,” an exhibit exploring state and local contributions to World War I.
The exhibit is on loan from the North Carolina Department of Natural and Cultural Resources and has been supplemented with artifacts from the Smith-McDowell House collection telling the stories of local men and women from western North Carolina who put their lives on the line in service to their country. Entrance to the exhibit is included with Smith-McDowell House admission and runs through May 16, 2020.
The Smith-McDowell House Museum is open Wednesday – Saturday from 10:00am – 4:00pm. Admission is $10 for adults, $5 for children and students 8+, and free for members and children 7 and under.
The exhibit seeks to put the local men and women who served in context with the larger events happening in North Carolina, the United States, and the world. In the exhibit, visitors will find displays and interactive elements telling the stories of just a few of our hometown heroes.
Though the United States did not officially enter World War I until 1917, many men and women from western North Carolina fought with British and French forces soon after the war began in August 1914.
Madelon “Glory” Battle Hancock
Madelon “Glory” Battle Hancock, who grew up in Asheville, left the United States for Belgium on August 13, 1914, to serve as a nurse with the first British Hospital Unit. In 1918, Hancock wrote to her family:
“I’m still on the front & such days & nights. We are having to be in every night and send as many off next day as possible. It’s interesting but tiring & I’m sick to death of it. We have stretchers and beds in every corner ready for this Push lets hope we’ll advance this time. It’s rotten weather and the trenches must be ghastly.”
Hancock nursed soldiers on the front lines, surviving artillery fire and gas attacks. She remained in their service through the end of the war and became the most decorated nurse to serve with the Allied Forces in World War I.
Kiffin Yates Rockwell
Kiffin Yates Rockwell attended Asheville High School and, in April 1916, became a charter member of the Lafayette Escadrille in France, a squadron of American volunteer pilots. On May 18, 1916, Rockwell was the first American to shoot down a hostile airplane. He wrote to his mother:
“If I die you will know that I died as every man should–in fighting for the right. I do not consider that I am fighting for France alone, but for the cause of humanity, the most noble of all causes.”
On September 23, 1916, Rockwell entered into a dogfight with a German plane. He was shot in the chest and his bullet-riddled plane crashed into a field of flowers. He was the second American killed in aerial warfare during WWI. There is an American Legion post in Asheville that still bears his name.
America Enters the War
With the declaration of war by President Wilson in 1917, North Carolinians rallied to the cause. Women joined the American Red Cross, YWCA, and Salvation Army to serve as nurses in military hospitals at home and in France. Farmers grew victory acres and children grew thrift gardens to earn money to buy war bonds. Individuals and industry united to support the war effort.
Despite the bonds brought by patriotism during the war, segregation and the racism that precipitated it relegated African-American servicemen to segregated companies commanded by white officers. African-American troops also endured the added burdens of the Army’s discriminatory supply and pay policies.
Many Americans who fought in WWI joined via the newly-formed selective service. Cashus Melton Morgan was one such soldier.
Cashus Melton Morgan
Cashus “Cash” M. Morgan was born February 9, 1893, in the Candler section of Buncombe County, NC, to a farming family. Like most men born during the final decades of the 19th century, Cash was required to register for the selective service on June 5, 1917.
Less than a year later, the 24-year-old was drafted into the army and sent overseas to fight. Though Cash did not become a decorated war hero like Hancock or Rockwell, his wartime experience is representative of most men drafted and sent overseas to fight.
“We began making dug outs – building Pill boxes – and putting up barb [wire] entanglement German shells were continually flying over our heads. We would have to fall in ditches and holes to get out of the way.”
On display in the exhibit is Morgan’s uniform, steel helmet, and gas mask – all put to great use during the young man’s time in the army. As visitors navigate through the exhibit they are invited to read excerpts from Morgan’s wartime diary chronicling the day-to-day drudgery of war until he is wounded and must try to survive through no man’s land on the Western Front.
The World War I exhibit acknowledges the 86,457 North Carolinians who fought in the war, and that North Carolinians were involved in all major battles on the Western Front in 1918. The toll was 828 killed, 3,655 wounded and 1,542 who died of disease, mostly from influenza.
The 1918 influenza epidemic impacted military personnel and civilians alike. Also featured in the exhibit are two nurses uniforms, one from the Asheville area, as well as stories of the nurses who cared for the sick and wounded in our area and abroad.
Special thanks to:
North Carolina Department of Cultural Resources, Western Regional Archives, Jeff Futch
Mountain Gateway Museum, Jesse Bricker
Mountain Heritage Center at Western Carolina University