To repeat myself: one of my great-grandfathers was a Confederate soldier in Alabama, and my other three great-grandfathers in Louisiana and Arkansas all had brothers who served in the Confederate army. And I could not be happier to see the racist Confederate battle flag taken down from public buildings and now recognized for what it always was and remains — a symbol of white supremacy.
My great-grandfather Simpson served just short of four years as a Confederate soldier. Two of his younger brothers followed him into the CSA, enlisting in the same unit in which he did, comprised largely of farm boys from his home county of Tuscaloosa and surrounding Alabama counties.
His service papers show that he did two stints in the hospital, one in Mississippi (at Columbus or Enterprise: the location is not clear), and another in Dalton, Georgia. His two brothers serving in the same unit both died at the hospital in Corinth, Mississippi, of pneumonia, the illness afflicting my great-grandfather. The oldest brother of this family had enlisted in another CSA unit in July 1863 and in September of the same year was wounded at Chickamauga, dying of his wounds two days after the battle. Yet another brother was a CSA soldier in Mississippi, and another brother disappeared during the war, apparently abandoning his family in Tuscaloosa Co., Alabama, and heading to Texas under murky circumstances never explained by any record I've seen.
Despite having had three sons die out of five who enlisted in the Confederate Army, and despite having owned eight slaves (per the 1860 federal census) when the war broke out, the father of these sons, my great-great-grandfather, is said to have had Union sympathies. Soon after the war ended, he was among the initial group of men in Tuscaloosa County to swear an oath of loyalty to the Union.
When he and my great-great-grandmother both died in 1869, the final administrator of their estate, a son-in-law (my great-grandfather had first undertaken the administration and then was relieved of that responsibility after a family squabble broke out), filed a claim for reimbursement for items taken from the family's farm in April 1865 by Croxton's Union troops, noting that his father-in-law had been a Union sympathizer. Though when I first learned of this claim, I was initially inclined to be skeptical — Can a man who owned slaves and had five sons who were Confederate soldiers really have been a Unionist? — as I thought about the dossier of affidavits supporting the claim and other pieces of evidence, I gradually became inclined to think that this ancestor of mine had, in fact, sided with the Union.
As the affidavits in this and other similar Union claims case files in the northern half of Tuscaloosa Co., Alabama, suggest, a majority of people in that part of Alabama did not favor secession, but had little ability to change the political situation of their slaveholding part of Alabama when the war arrived. My great-grandfather's mother-in-law also filed a Union claim for reimbursement for items taken from her by Croxton's troops.
Her claim states that she had done her best to keep her two sons out of the Confederate army, but conscription forced the older of the two into the army. It also notes that during the war, men escaping conscription hid in the woods near her farm, and she fed and helped to hide those men. An uncle of this ancestor, who was a Methodist minister and who represented Tuscaloosa County in the state legislature, was well known to have anti-slavery sentiments while he himself held slaves.
I heard stories about this long-ago person in my family tree as I was growing up. The stories speak of how his Methodism influenced his view of slavery and caused him to want to divest himself of the slaves he owned, and to assist slaves who were cruelly treated by their masters. I was told as a child that slaves being beaten by their owners would often escape to this relative of mine and ask him to buy them, so that they could be free of abuse.
I think there has to be truth to these stories, when I find an 1845 deed in Tuscaloosa County in which this relative bought a house and lot in Northport, Alabama, for the use of a free man of color bearing his surname, Winn (a free man who was surely a blood relative of my family, I have long suspected). The deed indicates that, while my relative held the title to the house and lot, he turned it over to the free man of color for his use as a dwelling and blacksmith's shop. By setting things up in this way, this relative would have enabled the free man of color bearing his family name to circumvent the legal problems any free person owning property and maintaining a business in a slaveholding state would encounter.
This relative's will also specifies that after his death, he wanted his slaves to be allowed to buy their freedom from his widow and then be taken to Liberia by the free man of color named Winn, so that they could live freely there. This relative of mine had a brother, a slaveholding planter in Mississippi and Arkansas, who lived most of his adult life with a free woman of color with whom he formed a family. Though he could never marry this woman, he acknowledged her as his common-law wife.
He also had a first cousin, like him a devout Methodist dubious about slavery while living within the slaveholding system, who represented Gwinnett Co., Georgia, in the secession convention of that state. This cousin of mine voted against secession. When it became evident that Georgia would leave the Union, the other representative from Gwinnett changed his vote and approved secession. My cousin refused to do so.
And yet, another first cousin of my Methodist relative in Alabama dubious about the morality of slavery was a Confederate general in Mississippi, who died in Charlottesville, Virginia, in 1863 of wounds he incurred in battle . . . .
These are, you see, complicated stories. They lack the clean moral line we'd like to see in narratives from the past, in which the good and bad players are clearly evident, easily parsed and separated from each other, and in which there are no moral ambiguities of the kind experienced by people (like us) caught in a system whose immorality they glimpse, but who find themselves relatively powerless to change that system. My great-great-grandfather, he of the five sons in the Confederate Army who claimed to be a Unionist, was established on the path of slaveholding early in his life by the will of his step-father in South Carolina, which bequeathed slaves to him through the hands of his mother, who would hold them until he came of age to claim them.
And yet when he administered the estate of his father-in-law in Alabama in 1851 and almost all of his brothers-in-law purchased slaves from the fourteen slaves sold at the estate's property sale, he refrained from buying a slave himself — though there seems to have been a certain pressure for family members to buy the estate's slaves and keep family units intact.
So that's one story I might tell you to preface my statement about how, despite my own family roots in the slaveholding South, I could not be happier to see the rebel flags coming down from the flagpoles. I could also tell you stories about my great-grandfather Lindsey, whose two oldest brothers served as Confederate soldiers aboard the warship Queen of the West in Louisiana. One of these brothers was lost when the Queen of the West was sunk by Union fire in April 1863. The other brother, an officer, died within two years of the war's end, and his widow's pension application states that he never recovered from the exposure he suffered while waiting for rescue after the battleship was sunk.
I might also tell you about my great-grandfather Batchelor, who had a brother who was a Confederate soldier from Hot Spring Co., Arkansas, and who died at the battle of Belmont in Kentucky in November 1861. A step-brother of this great-grandfather was in the same military unit as this brother, and was captured by Union troops in the battle. He then chose to go over to the Union side and became a Union officer.
An uncle of this great-grandfather also chose to join the Union Army late in the war, as marauding raiders claiming to represent both sides swept back and forth through Hot Spring County and the rest of central Arkansas, making life a living hell for citizens who could never be certain who was representing whom when raids occurred on their property. At some point during one of these raids, my great-grandfather Batchelor was tortured by some marauding group, who thought he had military information (he was a young teen at the time), or perhaps thought that he knew where something of value had been buried to hide it from these marauders.
They put a rope around his neck and pulled it over a tree limb, trying to force him to talk by hanging him. I'm told that he bore the scars from this event the rest of his life. His uncle who became the Union soldier was killed in August 1864 in Hot Spring County, and is said to have been tortured to death in front of his wife. The band of raiders doing this claimed to represent one side or the other — I suppose the Confederacy, if they knew that he was in a Union unit — but were really hoping to find money and other valuables that the family had hidden.
And then there's my great-grandfather Snead, whose oldest brother was a Confederate soldier in Texas, and whose uncle was murdered in February 1870 in Ringgold in Bienville Parish, Louisiana, in a store this uncle co-owned with my great-great-grandfather. The murderer was never named or brought to justice, though an official federal account of the incident states that it was among a number of political "outrages" in this part of Louisiana following the Civil War, which had to do with settling scores that originated in the war. That uncle had been a Confederate soldier along with several of his brothers-in-law. Though my great-great-grandfather was of an age to have enlisted in the army, he did not do so.
And so it goes, the complicated, twisting fais do-do of complicated, twisted history, full of injustice, betrayal, political intrigue, with the light of courageous moral deeds and powerful moral thought sometimes unexpectedly illuminating the darkness of the everyday. No matter my own insertion in this complicated pattern of heritage, it has been absolutely clear to me from childhood forward that the Confederate flag is a symbol of ugly racism.
And I am delighted to see that flag go the way of other ugly historical symbols now consigned to the dustbin of history marked Ignominy.
The cartoon at the head of the posting is by Clay Bennett of Chattanooga Free Press by way of Truthdig yesterday.