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Avery, Alphonso Calhoun

by Isaac Thomas Avery, Jr., 1979

11 Sept. 1835–13 June 1913

"Portrait, Accession #: H.1964.123.60." 1933. North Carolina Museum of History.Alphonso Calhoun Avery, Confederate officer and judge, was born at Swan Ponds in Burke County, the fifth son of Isaac Thomas and Harriet Erwin Avery. While his father was a wealthy man, he believed that his sons should know farming thoroughly and raised them to follow the plow for at least one season. Once this training was over, young Avery was prepared for college at the Bingham School in Oaks, Orange County, and then entered The University of North Carolina; he was graduated with the A.B. degree in 1857, excelling in Latin and mathematics and standing first in his class.

Avery spent the next two years in Yancey, now Mitchell, County, in charge of a grass and stock farm for his father. He began to study law under the well-known teacher Richmond Pearson, later chief justice, at Logtown and within a year, in June 1860, was licensed to practice in the county courts. He was preparing to stand for his examination for license to appear before the superior court when the war intervened. On 27 Feb. 1861, he married Susan Washington Morrison, daughter of the Reverend R. H. Morrison of Lincoln County and granddaughter of General Joseph Graham of Lincoln County. The Reverend Mr. Morrison was a Presbyterian minister and the first president of Davidson College.

Three months later, Avery was helping his brother Isaac Erwin raise a company in the Sixth Regiment, North Carolina troops, and was granted a commission as first lieutenant in the same regiment. As a lieutenant in Company F, commanded by his brother, Captain I. E. Avery, he saw action in the battles of First Manassas and Seven Pines. After the Battle of Seven Pines, Captain Avery was placed in command of the Sixth Regiment, and shortly thereafter, A. C. Avery was promoted to captain and became the commander of Company E, Sixth Regiment. With his keen mind and legal education, however, he was considered to be of more value at headquarters than in the field and consequently was transferred to the staff of his brother-in-law, Major General Daniel Harvey Hill, in December 1862. There he was promoted to major and served for some time as assistant inspector general of Hill's division in the Army of Northern Virginia. In 1864 he went with the ill-fated Hill to the Army of the West, where his brother-in-law served for a time as a corps commander. When General Hill returned to Richmond, after a disagreement with General Braxton Bragg, Major Avery remained in the West, serving on the staffs of generals John C. Breckenridge, Thomas C. Hindman, and John B. Hood; he was with Hood in the retreat from Dalton to the Chattahoochee River.

Because his three older brothers had already been killed in action and his father was dying, Major Avery was granted a leave of absence by General Hood in the summer of 1864; within a month or so he was transferred to the Department of North Carolina. In the fall of that year, at the suggestion of the adjutant general of Western North Carolina District, he was authorized to organize a battalion that was subsequently enlarged to a regiment and used for the protection of the northwestern frontier of North Carolina. For a few months, Avery's battalion served a useful purpose, but it was unable to cope with the large Federal force that was moved to East Tennessee in the spring of 1865. At this time, Major General George Stoneman, with a division of Federal cavalry, moved into western North Carolina on a mammoth raid, and Major Avery was captured while doing military business at the Confederate army headquarters in Salisbury. With other captured prisoners, he was marched back to Tennessee and confined at Camp Chase until August 1865, at which time he was paroled.

Avery returned to Swan Ponds to begin the practice of law in Morganton. However, he was in no way returning to the life he had left. Led since childhood to believe that he would assume a favored position in the community, he was profoundly disillusioned to learn that in the ferment following the war years, his economic status had abruptly changed. There developed for him and others like him a ceaseless struggle against the blight of poverty and the crush of debt. Families were as large as ever and as demanding as ever, but money was almost nonexistent and the people were in no position to pay for services. As soon as he returned home, he became actively engaged in politics and in 1866 was elected to the state senate from a district composed of Burke, Caldwell, and McDowell counties. During his tenure of office, he originated and secured the passage of an act implementing the extension of the Western North Carolina Railroad to Old Fort. With the passage of the Reconstruction Act by the U.S. Congress in 1867, however, the Conservative Democrats were swept out of office and the Republican party was formed and took over. Composed of blacks, die-hard Unionists, disaffected Confederates, carpetbaggers, and scalawags, it ruled the state in a tempestuous fashion until 1877, a period of almost ten years.

With this turn of events, Avery joined an underground resistance movement instituted by the Conservative politicians of the state. A leader in the organization of the Ku Klux Klan in western North Carolina, he rode with the vigilantes. The Klan was a powerful resistance movement against the Republican party, its principles, and its policies. Confederate soldiers and respected citizens manned its ranks. It functioned actively and effectively during the late sixties and early seventies and promptly disbanded when it was no longer needed. There was no resemblance between it and subsequent organizations of the same name.

Avery, Alphonso Calhoun. Memorial address on life and character of Lieutenant General D. H. Hill, May 10th, 1893. Courtesy of the Internet Archive.Avery was elected a Conservative delegate to the North Carolina Constitutional Convention of 1875. This body revised the state constitution, which had been rewritten by the Republicans in 1868. In 1876 he was a Democratic presidential elector. In 1878, with the return of the Democrats to power, he was elected a judge of the superior court of North Carolina. The same year he professed his faith and became a member of the First Presbyterian Church at Morganton. On 2 Nov. 1879 he was ordained and installed as a ruling elder in this church, an office that he fulfilled in an exemplary manner for more than twenty-five years. In 1886 his wife died, and three years later he married Sara Love Thomas, daughter of Colonel W. H. Thomas, a prominent political figure in western North Carolina. In 1889, Trinity College conferred on him the M.A. degree, and in the same year, The University of North Carolina honored him with the LL.D. degree.

Avery rode the circuits as a superior court judge for ten years and in 1888 was elected an associate justice of the Supreme Court of North Carolina. He served on the supreme court for eight years and during this time filed more than five hundred opinions, in which he displayed an absorbing passion for the rights of man. In 1892, the year Trinity College was moved to Durham, he assumed the burden of its struggling law school as dean and teacher, serving in this capacity for more than a year.

After his retirement from the bench in 1897, Avery conducted a private law practice in the courts of western North Carolina and also taught a law class in Morganton. He was a member of the Southern Historical Society and a prolific writer, not only on legal matters, but also on historical and biographical subjects. His Life and Character of General D. H. Hill has been recognized as the best sketch of this famous Confederate officer. At the time of his death he had just completed a History of the Presbyterian Churches at Quaker Meadows and Morganton but never had the opportunity to proofread it.

Avery had eleven children, among them Isaac Erwin Avery, the local editor of the Charlotte Observer whose untimely death in 1904 shortened what might have been a brilliant career in writing. Other children of Avery and his first wife, Susan Washington Morrison, were Harriet Eloise, Morrison Robert, Susan Washington, Alphonso Calhoun, and Alfred Lee. Avery's children with his second wife, Sallie Love Thomas, were Lenoir, Gladys (Mrs. Charles Tillett, a special representative of the United States to the United Nations), and Edith.


Samuel A. Ashe, ed., Biographical History of North Carolina, vol. 7 (1908).

Alphonso Calhoun Avery, History of the Presbyterian Churches (1913).

Elroy McKendree Avery and Catharine Hitchcock (Tilden) Avery, The Groton Avery Clan, vol. 1 (1912).

Walter Clark, ed., Histories of the Several Regiments and Battalions from North Carolina in the Great War, 1861–1865 (1909).

Edward W. Phifer, "Saga of a Burke County Family," North Carolina Historical Review 39 (1962).

Additional Resources:

Avery Family of North Carolina Papers, 1777-1890, 1906 (collection no. 033). The Southern Historical Collection. Louis Round Wilson Special Collections Library. University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. (accessed February 11, 2013).

Alphonso Calhoun Avery Papers, 1761-1977 (collection no. 03456). The Southern Historical Collection. Louis Round Wilson Special Collections Library. University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.,Alphonso_Calhoun.html (accessed February 11, 2013).

Address by Alphonso Calhoun Avery concerning the history of Burke County [Extract], Avery, Alphonso Calhoun, 1835-1913, Volume 10, Pages 712-713:

Avery, Alphonso Calhoun 1835-1913 in WorldCat:

Alphonso Calhoun Avery in the North Carolina Digital Collections:

Image Credits:

"Portrait, Accession #: H.1964.123.60." 1933. North Carolina Museum of History. Available from (accessed February 11, 2013)

Avery, Alphonso Calhoun. Memorial address on life and character of Lieutenant General D. H. Hill, May 10th, 1893. Raleigh, N.C., Edwards & Broughton, printers. 1893. (accessed February 11, 2013).

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