Today, February 22nd, is the birthday of Thomas N. Crumpler. Although his last name is instantly recognizable to residents of Ashe County, the story of his life has never been fully explored. This brief biography attempts to understand the life of this important historical figure.
As time goes by, and one generation gives way to the next, it is easy to forget those who came before. Even those individuals who were well known and highly regarded in their own time can quickly become erased from history. Names that once rang with reputation in Ashe County, like Elijah Calloway, Stephen Thomas, and Nathan Waugh, are now totally foreign to the majority of modern residents. However, one Ashe County resident of the 19th century has been able to hold a spot in our collective consciousness even into the 21st century, and it has largely been a result of a post office. Thomas Crumpler, the man whose name is now printed on the envelopes of thousands of Ashe County residents, was, for a brief moment, one of the most well known figures in Ashe County.
One would expect that Thomas Crumpler lived at one time in the community that now bears his name, but he didn’t. In fact, Crumpler was not even a native of Ashe County, and was only a resident for a few years. Instead, Crumpler was a native of Surry County, where he was born on February 22nd 1831. Crumpler was the son of Thomas Crumpler, Sr. and Elizabeth Parks. From a young age, Crumpler pursued a higher education. He attended UNC-Chapel Hill and graduated with a law degree by the time he was 20. By the early 1850s, he set out to begin his legal career, relocating to Jefferson in Ashe County.
Crumpler must have been a popular young lawyer. Just a few years after his arrival in town, Crumpler, who was still in his 20s, was elected as the state representative from Ashe County. Immediately upon his arrival in Raleigh, Ashe County’s new representative began attracting attention. At the time, the North Carolina State Constitution forbade any member of the Jewish religion from holding public office. As North Carolina was the only state in the nation with such a law, an amendment to overturn the practice had been proposed. Crumpler quickly became notorious across the state for his vocal opposition to the change. He argued that Jews were untrustworthy and exploitative and would threaten the state if allowed to hold public office. Even in the days of slavery and overt, systematic racism, Crumpler’s remarks went too far for the majoirty of North Carolinians. One newspaper editorial, written to the Charlotte Bulletin, summarized this general sentiment, stating “I am surprised that any person in this age of enlightenment, with any claim to education (sufficient to represent a free people), should assail a people of whom his speech proves him to be entirely ignorant.”
Despite his initial stumbles as a young representative, Crumpler was soon able to redeem himself in the eyes of many. After Lincoln’s election in 1860, states across the deep South began seceding from the Union. Although some in North Carolina clamored to join their fellow southern states in rebellion, an equal number were hesitant to leave the nation they loved. Crumpler quickly became a dominant voice for the concerns of the pro-Union North Carolinans. Although Crumpler did not own slaves himself, he was a ardent defender of both slavery and the controverisal Fugitive Slave Act, a law that enraged northern abolitionists. Crumpler felt these northern activists were the cause of much of America’s discord and often criticized the abolitionist movement; however, he reserved much of his harshest criticism for the rebellious Southern states, whose fervent desire for secession, Crumpler believed, had led them to deliberately sabotage all opposition to Lincoln, thereby guaranteeing his election. Crumpler claimed that
“The present unhappy condition of the country is but the result of the programme laid down by the disunionists at Charleston, in the [Democratic] National Convention held there last spring. . .Conceiving that some better excuse for disunion than any which had yet arisen must be made before they could hope to arouse the passions of the Southern people and bind them to their policy, they set to work to bring that excuse into existence.”
Crumpler was an enthralling speaker, and soon became a hero to North Carolina’s pro-Union factions. Crumpler began travelling to pro-Union meetings and was always one of the most admired speechmakers. One witness to his performance noted that “Mr. Crumpler, of Ashe, was introduced to the audience and entertained them for an hour in a strain of wit, humor, and argument which has seldom been surpassed. The loud and frequent applause with which he was greeted by the large assemblage showed that their hearts were with him and the Union cause.”
Unfortunately, Crumpler’s rhetoric was not enough to save North Carolina from the Civil War. As more states seceded, popular opinion began to shift in favor of leaving the union and on May 20th, 1861, North Carolina joined the other states of the south in rebellion.
One would expect Crumpler, who was one of the most public proponents of the Union, to resist service in the Confederate Army. However, Crumpler’s true allegiance was to North Carolina, and he was willing to follow his state wherever it led. He wrote that
“I yield to no man in devotion to the rights and honor of my State. If the evil must come, if wise and moderate counsels are not to prevail, if the bosom of my country must be bared to the ploughshare of civil war, I pledge myself to gentlemen here and now, when the drum shall beat and the bugle shall sound, and when the roar of the cannon shall mark that Carnage has sat down to his feast, we will be found as far advanced against the broken ranks of North Carolina foes as the most fiery spirit among [the secessionists].”
Crumpler was as good as his word. Almost immediately after the declaration of secession, he began organizing a cavalry force to join the Confederate war effort. By August of 1861, Crumpler was the captain of his own company and he and his 100 followers, the majority from Ashe County, had set off for the camp of Colonel Robert Ransom near Ridgeway in Warren County, North Carolina.
Crumpler and his cavalry unit were added to the 1st North Carolina Cavalry Regiment and were soon attached to the Army of Northern Virginia, which at the time was attempting to prevent a Union assault on Richmond. Crumpler was quickly promoted to Captain, and seemed to have a promising military career ahead of him. Unfortunately, his time in the Confederate Army would be short lived. On June 30th, 1862, Crumpler’s company, along with the rest of the Army of Northern Virginia, assaulted the Union lines at the Battle of Glendale. Sometime during the fight, Crumpler was shot and killed, reportedly while charging the enemy on horseback. He was 31 years old.
Crumpler’s body was returned to Surry County, the place of his birth, where he was buried alongside his parents. Crumpler’s grave was adorned with a large obelisk marker, engraved with a brief summary of his gallant death. However, the citizens of Ashe County provided Crumpler with a memorial even more impressive. Despite the fact that he had lived in the county for less than 10 years, the citizens of Ashe must have felt they owed something to the young lawyer who had so forcefully argued for the Union cause, a cause that the majority of Ashe had been equally behind.
In 1885, Ashe was in need of a new post office to serve the growing community of people living near the recently discovered Healing Springs. The new post office was named Crumpler, in honor of the young lawyer who had died over twenty years earlier. It was determined that the new post office would be located in the home of J.C. Plummer, with his daughter, Lula, serving as postmistress. Over time, other, smaller post offices like Blevins, Aster, and Nathan’s Creek were consolidated into the Crumpler office. Today Crumpler is one of only 11 post offices still remaining in Ashe County, and is one of the largest, with over 2,000 residents calling the district home. Even though the story of Thomas Crumpler’s life may be unknown to many, every letter, package, and card that comes through the bustling office named in his honor is a small memorial to a once famous resident of Ashe County.