The Mourning Cloak: An Appalachian History

Mary Elizabeth Golden Carter
Mary Elizabeth Golden Carter

Mary-Elizabeth Carter was born in in 1850 in Jackson County, Alabama, in the heart of the southernmost Appalachian Mountains to Alfred B. and Martha F. Carter. She was the baby of the family and grew up playing in an area that was rife with rattlesnake, every representation of Eastern wildflower, and the fragrant citrusy pines of northern Alabama and eastern Tennessee. She lived near what is now Russell Cave National Monument, a stunning natural 7.2 mile cave at the foot of Montague Mountain. Her family was solidly middle class and of Scottish descent. She was one of four children–Hulda, Mary-Price (who died in infancy), Mary-Elizabeth, and Hiram, the only son.

Russel Cave National Monument
Russel Cave National Monument

When Mary was born, her father (a native of North Carolina) was an active member of his town council and opposed the succession of the state of Alabama from the Union, but later, he relented and joined the Army of Tennessee and died on July 20th, 1864 in the Battle of Peachtree Creek, now a city park in the very center of the city of Atlanta. At the time, it was a mill named for a man called “Collier” and the battle was depicted by Union Maj. Gen. J.D. Cox in his memory as such, “Few battlefields of the war have been strewn so thickly with the dead and wounded as they lay that evening around Collier’s Mill.”

Confederate Graves at the Battle of Peachtree Creek, July 20, 1864 One is Albert's.
Confederate Graves at the Battle of Peachtree Creek, July 20, 1864
One is Albert’s.

By the time Mary was 15 years old in 1865, the war had ended, she’d lost her father, and her town was overrun by Federal troops who routinely burned, looted, harassed, and even tortured the remaining locals who were mostly women, children, the elderly, newly freed slaves, and badly wounded and half-starved Confederate veterans. The cotton plantations had been replaced  by wheat, Indian corn, and livestock farms about 40 years prior, but what did remain, went up in smoke never to be replanted or sold back down the Mississippi (via the Elk River) to New Orleans on gigantic cargo barges.

By the time Lee was surrendering at Appomattox, many of the residents of Jackson County had fled to the hills and deep caves surrounding the area. It is not known if Mary and her mother, sister, and brother did this, but it is suspected that they did, as most widows and their children sought any available refuge from the violence that plagued their small Appalachian villages. In Godspeed’s History of Franklin County, in very nearby Tennessee, there is record of early settlers eating the bark from trees and any available game in order to survive the unseasonably brutal winter of the Appalachian plateau, and it is assumed that the descendants of these settlers did the same in order to avoid the starvation that often results from war.

While Reconstruction worked, for only a painfully short time,  to support the African American slave, it ruined the existence former slave owners. It toppled former cotton and tobacco magnates, reducing them to paupers, beggars, and refugees headed West. Mary’s mother was eager for her daughters to find suitable husbands to ensure that the family did not deepen their story of tragedy and sorrow, which was a constant lament throughout the devastated region of the South. And in 1867, Mary wed a man 10 years her senior named George Washington Gifford, who would soon change his surname to Locke. This was a common practice for former Confederates after the war in order to avoid having to pay heavy restitution fines, employment discrimination, and imprisonment for having betrayed the Union. No doubt, many a former slave in Jackson County, Alabama felt little sympathy for the new sufferings of their former owners.

George had miraculously survived a head wound when a musket ball pierced the parietal lobe of his brain during the Battle of Seven Pines, part of the bloody Peninsula Campaign. He was transported on one of the first hospital trains from Chattanooga to Richmond, where he spent the remainder of the war undergoing surgeries and treatments for “soldier’s melancholy” at Chimborazo Hospital and, later, No. 9, where he served as a nurse and watched the city of Richmond burn from his view in the wayside hospital, a converted tobacco warehouse facing Grace Street.

George had lost the use of his right side, but he managed to return to Jackson County, marry his bride,  no doubt a girl he had grown up with, and work at farming his own small patch of scorched earth. But by 1876, George had moved Mary and their four children to Howell, Missouri, a burgeoning railroad town facing West, because he could not properly provide for them where the memories and ghosts of the past lingered so heavily in the air. That same year, Mary-Elizabeth Golden (a middle name given to her because her hair was golden at birth) died in a small cabin on the rich Missouri soil. The cause of her death is unknown, but she left behind a devoted husband and very young children who relied on her for every aspect of their care, affection, and survival. She was 26 years old.

Mary-Elizabeth is my 3rd great grandmother, and I began thinking of her today while I sat on my porch swing, crocheting a shawl I’m fashioning after a Mourning Cloak Butterfly that landed on the wooded trail I recently traveled near my home in the foothills of the northern Appalachian Mountains. The beautiful creature stopped so suddenly at my feet, that I nearly tripped trying to avoid it. It wings were a velvety black, streaked with bright periwinkle blue and a cheerful canary yellow. In the center of its large wings, was a wide swath of deep claret, the color of aged blood.

It allowed me only a moment’s notice before it flew away, and its beauty caused me to reflect on my good fortune to be living near the mountains I love most. I grew up out West, where the Appalachians are considered merely “speed bumps” in the scheme of North American ranges, but I love these mountains the most. I have to retreat deep into them every summer and fall, because sitting at their feet is not enough. I feel immediately connected to my people, to my ancestors in these mountains as I do in no other location on Earth.

That morning, I walked away from that spot on the trail wondering about the Mourning Cloak, wondering who I might create this shawl for.  It has to be for someone who has suffered much in life, for someone who needs to be reminded that she is not alone, that other women who have suffered are with her in solidarity.

I thought of four friends who’ve lost children. I thought of another who is battling cancer. I thought of my sister who is doing well, but far from home. And then today, while working on family tree information, I thought of Mary-Elizabeth. Surely she saw Mourning Cloaks in her cave at the foot of her own end of our shared mountain range. And so, with my third great grandmother in mind, thinking of the woman who had lost a father to war by age 16, who married by age 18, survived in caves and on tree bark, hid herself from drunken soldiers, loved and cared for a man who sometimes woke in the night screaming from terrors that made him ill with fever and violent shaking, a man who could use only the left side of his body to till the land he planted with wheat the spring before, Mary who moved West and left her family and took on a new surname that had nothing to do with her husband’s family or her own, because being a Southerner was to have been born the enemy. This Mary.

Mary-Elizabeth Golden Carter would have worn a crocheted shawl, as was the preferred needle art in the 19th century American South. In the picture above (which I can only enlarge for you, My Dear Readers, after I get a better version of it from my great great uncle John) she is not wearing a customary shawl. But this image was probably taken during the summer or spring, possibly even her May wedding when she was only 18. But her shawl would have been thicker than one found in a more southerly part of Alabama, as she lived in the mountains where it is often cool in the evening and much milder even on summer days. She would have used cotton yarn, and she would have had a spinning wheel and worked the cotton out into a fine, but sturdy thread. She would have been taught by her mother to perfect her tatting (intricate lace crochet), and to knit socks and other clothing for the war effort and for her family.

The dress in her picture may have been purchased by another seamstress or made by her or her mother. Because they were not poor, they may have had a choice in the matter. Either way, my Mourning Cloak Shawl, of which the beginnings are pictured here, is in honor of Mary-Elizabeth, and when I have completed it, I hope it finds a good home for another hard working mother who will be as moved as I am (and Mary probably was) by all the colors of Appalachia.

The very beginnings of the Mourning Cloak Buttefly Shawl
The very beginnings of the Mourning Cloak Butterfly Shawl (Ani Burnett Designs)


  1. […] I started a version of The Mourning Cloak Butterfly Shawl back in 2015. You can find a link to my earlier version, and the story that goes with it, if you just google my name and “Mourning Cloak” or by going here, to my author site. […]


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