KICKLER: Not your typical HOA

"The Battle of New Bern," illustration in "Harper's Weekly" magazine, April 5, 1862, pp. 216-217 | Creative Commons

For many, HOA is an acronym for their homeowners association. I’m referring, however, to the Heroes of America, a clandestine group during the American Civil War that supposedly originated in Randolph County, opposed secession from the United States, and helped build a post-war Republican Party in North Carolina.

The HOA story reveals a “cultural distinctiveness” in what some call the North Carolina Quaker Belt. Also, it is an example of what I call “constructive historical disruption.” In other words, the story of the HOA, also known as Red Strings, makes one think about an oversimplified past.

As the HOA network spread during the war, their numbers were estimated at 10,000. Historians, though, will never know the actual amount. It was, writes historian William T. Auman, a “secret, underground, anti-Confederate organization of militant Unionists.”

The Heroes of America were inspired by the Biblical story of Rahab and the spies (Joshua 2). She helped two spies down the city wall with a rope and encouraged them to hide in the hills for three days. As a result, one HOA password was “three days,” with one person saying one of the words and another replying with the unsaid word. The HOA also wore red strings on clothing or hanged red string in specified places so that draft dodgers hiding out in Purgatory Mountain (the N.C. Zoo’s location) or a runaway slave might recognize friendlies.

HOA also had special initiation ceremonies and handshakes — one description of an elaborate HOA call-for-distress symbol reminds me more of assistant coaches calling plays from the sideline than an actual effort to remain undetected. Different levels of membership also kept certain information discreet.

Although there was rumored support for Abraham Lincoln as early as 1861, the conscription acts really bothered working class men in the Quaker Belt and mobilized them to form and join Heroes of America. Many simply did not want to fight for the Confederacy. As a result, guerrilla warfare turned the Piedmont into a bloody inner civil war.

To avoid fighting for what they deemed disagreeable, conscripted Red Strings agreed to work in places such as the salt mines in Wilmington. Gen. W.H.C. Whiting, however, suspected the workers — whom he speculated were two-thirds HOA — were communicating with Union spies. He called HOA “a treasonable organization” with “very strong” ties in Randolph County. He preferred to transfer the HOA to the front lines, and have free blacks and slaves work the salt mines. At the front line or in the salt mine, when conscripted HOA were captured by Union soldiers, they were treated the same as other Confederate soldiers — POWs.

The election of 1864 made public the Heroes of America. Editor of the widely read North Carolina Standard and later a controversial Republican governor during Reconstruction, William W. Holden, not a member, was associated with Heroes of America. In 1864, the Peace Party wanted to rejoin the Union under the Copperhead basis. (HOA and former Whigs had different goals.) Although Zeb Vance won the election, Holden did well in Wilkes and Randolph counties and Jamestown and High Point and in places where HOA had spread like Raleigh and Johnston County.

After the Civil War, judge, novelist and a key Republican framer of the 1868 North Carolina Constitution, Albion Tourgee, edited not only the Greensboro Union Register but also Red String, “the official organ of the H.O.A.” In 1867, all HOA officers were encouraged to help draw attention to the paper and help circulate it.

Not too long ago, I was walking with a friend past the Confederate statue in front of the historic courthouse in downtown Asheboro. He quipped: “You know, he could have possibly been a Red String.”