“Sleep on O Gallant men, Both Blue and Gray, You gave your all for what you thought was right.”
~Louise McNeill Pease
Molly Must had a daunting task for her second mural to be installed in Pocahontas County – to collect stories to create an image of the county during the Civil War.
“The original idea was to have it about the Battle at Droop Mountain, but I was more interested in the experience of war in the local community than just the one battle, even though the one battle was very important,” Must said. “I actually Googled Civil War murals a bunch, and there’s so many battle scenes it’s kind of been done.”
The nearly completed mural was unveiled to the public Sunday at Must’s studio above the Pretty Penny Café in Hillsboro.
Must researched the Civil War, focusing on the life and times of the residents of Pocahontas County. As she met with Dr. Denise McNeel at the Pocahontas County Historical Society Museum, she discovered one of her ancestors whom she depicts in the mural.
“We always knew that my great-great grandfather, Andrew McLaughlin, fought in the Battle of Droop Mountain, but I was really looking for a story of the experience of women in the area,” Must said. “Denise McNeel, she told me this story of Bill’s [McNeel] great-great grandmother and so after we thought about it awhile, we realized she’s my great-great-great grandmother.
“Her name was Margaret Price and she lived across from the Marlinton Covered Bridge,” Must continued. “We’re not sure which side set fire to the bridge, but she went down by herself with buckets of water, back and forth, and put out the fire. She had five sons in the Civil War and so she was really holding down the farm. I painted her but I also wanted her to represent all the women who were left behind to tend their homes and their farms by themselves.”
Similar to Must’s other mural, this painting includes words and poems that help to tell the story.
“It starts with all this propaganda up top with all this enthusiasm underlying the political climate on both sides at the beginning of the war,” Must said. “I found it interesting that a lot of the language used on both sides was the same. You read some of the things written there and they could come from either side. ‘Let the people rejoice. People true to liberty. Freedom is triumphant.’ It’s ironic that there’s all this speech about freedom in the south as well as the north when slavery was still happening.”
Although it is a negative part of the past, Must included slavery in the mural, with hope attached to the characters.
“I wanted to have a diverse array of characters that were affected by the war,” she said. “At the far left, I have this little boy who is based on Oliver [Campbell]. I used a lovely, cute model. He is looking up at the night sky. Growing up as a little black boy in the south, I think there’s a lot of mythology of looking at the North Star and looking at the sky. In the far left corner, I have this compass and the stars. There’s the Big Dipper and that side of the Big Dipper points to the North Star.”
Oliver is the son of Pretty Penny owner, Blair Campbell.
While Must tried to focus less on the larger impact of the battle, she did include marching soldiers because of the massive number of troops that fought in Pocahontas County.
Droop Mountain Battlefield State Park superintendent Mike Smith said an estimated 4,000 union and 2,500 confederate soldiers fought in the Battle of Droop Mountain.
“That’s more than the population of the county,” Must said. “I can’t even imagine living in small town Hillsboro – can you imagine that many soldiers coming through. One on the heels of the other and all this tension.
“This is the part that is representative of Droop Mountain,” Must added pointing to the mural. “Just the mass of men moving through the county. I really wanted to depict the general experience of war over the course of the four years. The hard, hard, hard four years of all these people being affected by what’s going on.”
At the end of the “story,” at the right of the mural, Must ends the war with a man reflecting on the past.
“I have this little older man, looking back,” she said. “One thing I haven’t painted yet is, he’s going to be holding a hoe. So his gun kind of turns into a farming tool. He’s looking back. Maybe he was in the battle. Maybe he fought. There’s a poem by Walt Whitman here that’s about looking back and thinking about his comrades he lost in the war. As we know the Battle of Droop Mountain was extremely fraternal. There were two brothers that fought against each other. There was a son and a father who fought against each other. There were cousins, neighbors.”
Through her research, Must said she realized she didn’t know much about the Civil War, and that added to the experience.
“The Civil War in Pocahontas County was a hard, tragic and confusing time because this county was so torn,” she said. “There were maybe four to five times as many Confederate soldiers enlisted from the county than Union yet we were within the Union boundary that had been drawn, and, of course, West Virginia was born in the Civil War. This area in particular, I just can’t imagine. There were a lot of feuds that began. Neighbors pitted against neighbors. It was a hard time in Pocahontas County.
“In doing this research, I realized how ignorant I was starting this project, and it’s been a real privilege and treat to do this depiction, and learn a lot both locally and nationally,” she continued. “It’s been an incredible experience.”
The mural was meant to be installed on the wall of Hudson’s Variety in Marlinton, but due to the massive fire that tore through the building, the mural is currently “wall-less.”
“One thing about finding a wall, an ideal wall would be north facing,” Must said. “Second best would be east or west facing. I can’t put it on a southern facing wall, it’ll fade.”
With two large murals for the county under her belt, Must said she is looking forward to taking a break.
“I feel like my whole painting career has been working toward a big final product,” she said. “I haven’t given myself a lot of time and space to just evolve my style and technique. It’ll be nice to work on some small stuff. I love painting murals. I want to keep doing it. I’ll probably paint many more murals in my lifetime, but I’m going to take a break after this one for awhile.”
Must is also working on two large paintings to be installed in the former Fort Savannah Inn in Lewisburg. The space has been turned into a community space and Farmers Market.
Suzanne Stewart may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org