Robert Eller

On the 4th of July in 1893, a group of Confederate veterans gathered at the Hickory Opera house for a reunion. An account of the “celebration” noted that “not even one unfortunate incident” occurred during an all day ceremony that began around 10 a.m. After selecting posts for the coming year, they sat down to hear a veteran’s account of the Battle of Chickamauga, a bloody three-day conflict that, though it is considered a Confederate victory, ultimately spelled doom for the Confederate Army of Tennessee.

Clinton Cilley

Captain Clinton A. Cilley as a young man and adult

What made the Chickamauga address unique was that it was delivered by what so far, was Hickory’s only Congressional Medal of Honor winner. He was at that battle and according to his citation, he “seized the colors of a retreating regiment and led it into the thick of the attack.” His actions on the field of battle were certainly courageous, but the speech to the veterans of Hickory may have also given him pause, because the speaker fought for the Union.

Captain Clinton A. Cilley was born in New Hampshire to a family who opposed slavery. He received his degree from Harvard and when the war broke out, he was serving as head of a seminary in Minnesota. On the heels of the attack at Fort Sumter, Cilley was quoted as saying to his students, “Would it were God’s will that peace prevailed, but now we can do no other than serve our Union cause. Are you with me?” They were. The group formed company C of the Second Minnesota.

Cilley was in Sherman’s army as it came through the Carolinas, after the ‘March Through Georgia.’ Captain Cilley was first appointed head of the Freedman’s Bureau in Salisbury, then Lenoir. He read for the law in Lenoir with Colonel Folk, a Confederate veteran, married Emma Harper, whose brother died in the war as a Confederate soldier and later practiced law with another southerner, Colonel Macellus Eugene Thornton.

And yet, Cilley stood up at the meeting and gave a thorough, unflinching account of the battle, recalling valor on both sides as the two armies clashed. He did not apologize for his performance in the conflict, nor did he rub it in that Federal forces used the loss at Chickamauga to mount a successful campaign that helped end the war.

The speech reminds us of something we may not fathom about the bloodiest conflict ever engaged in by the United States, a war with itself. After hatred to the point of armed warfare, the two sides could step back and accept each other as fellow citizens, both seeking to make their community a better place. Captain Cilley was respected by his contemporaries as a man of honor, his reputation so sound that he was eventually elected Lenoir’s first mayor. He was also elevated to a judgeship in the courts of this area. Likewise, the captain respected the men whose invitation he accepted, and gave what was, by all accounts an interesting and thoughtful speech.

The veterans of Hickory did not want a speech of self-applause, they wanted an opportunity to learn. Both knew the horrors of the war in which they had fought, even if it was on opposite sides. Still, they remained bonded together in their past service, and they were willing to hear a candid account of the war from another point of view. Perhaps more importantly, they were interested in forming new bonds with those they once opposed, in order to craft a new path that headed toward a more unified future.