Saturday, June 11, 2016

Historical Memory and Political Imagination (2): The Magis of History That Frees Our Imaginations to Recognize More Possibility for Present and Future

Here's the historical anecdote I wanted to attach to what I wrote yesterday about how history itself, the real McCoy, the raw data prior to the historical massaging given to the data by historical narratives, always contains a magis, a more, a complexity and imbrication that surpass what historical narratives usually tell us to imagine about history. And so, as I proposed yesterday, paying attention to history — in a way that exercises a justifiable hermeneutic of suspicion about what we've been told to make of historical events and facts — allows us to keep our imaginations about what is possible now and for the future sharp and open when the cultures in which we live want to herd them into official grooves and ideological channels.

As I've been discussing these matters with my friend Alan McCornick of the Hepzibah site, I recounted to Alan a story about the kind of culture in which I grew up and some of the effects that growing up in this formative culture has had on my imagination about my family's history. I went to a public high school in a smallish (about 25,000) town in south Arkansas, which also happened to be a rather affluent town, in that oil had been discovered in that area in the 1920s, and some families had become exorbitantly wealthy as a result. I often heard it said as I was growing up that our town had more millionaires per capita than any other community in the nation, though that might well have been a bit of chauvinistic elaboration on the facts. One positive effect of having so many wealthy families in the community was that the public high school — the white but not the black one — was exceptionally well-funded and had top-notch teachers, the best that money could buy. The well-heeled families in our town wanted their children well-prepared for college and were willing to pay for this.

Our town had a large professional community related to the petrochemical industry. Many of those working in that industry in managerial and professional positions had moved there from outside Arkansas, from places like St. Louis, Chicago, and Detroit. Over half of the people in the town's tiny Catholic parish were from such backgrounds. There was also, it goes without saying, a large labor pool of working-class white people without extensive education, on whom the petrochemical plants relied for manual labor. 

I'm not sure of the statistics for the racial demographics of our town in the years in which I was growing up there, but I'd hazard a guess that the town was at least a third African-American. Today, it's majority African-American. It's 20 miles north of the Louisiana border and was in the lowland, Deep South half of Arkansas in which slavery was well-entrenched prior to the Civil War. Many African-American women worked as domestics in white households including my family's. There were almost no jobs for many African-American men, other than a limited number in the lumber industry which tended to be concentrated south of town in the direction of Louisiana. Many African-American men had historically, and during my growing-up years this pattern continued, gone north to find work, splitting up their families.

When the school integration process began in 1967 in the spring semester of my junior year of high school, after our community had dragged its feet about integrating and had begun the process only when the federal government informed us it would cut off funding to schools in our area if we did not comply with the law, there was, it goes without saying, hot resistance on the part of many white citizens of our town, including at least one act of heinous violence. Three of my classmates shot and killed an African-American teenager in cold blood and got off the charges without any punishment — though almost everyone in town was convinced that the three teens had, in fact, murdered the other teen for racial reasons.

Here's how we began our school assemblies in the white high school up to integration: down one aisle of the gym, someone would march with the American flag. Down the other aisle, someone else would march with the Confederate flag. As the procession took place, the band played "Dixie," a lively, blood-stirring rendition. 

The flags would reach the dais, and the Confederate flag would then be crossed over the American flag. The entire school, teachers, pupils, administrators, would shout, "The South shall rise again!" And then the flags would be placed in their sconces on the dais and the assembly would begin. 

This practice ended when the school was integrated, but not after debate about this issue took place in the school's governing organizations. I belonged to something that was, as well as I recall, called Key Club, sponsored by Kiwanis, I think, and I seem to recall that, in those years at least, one had to be elected to it, and it had some kind of advisory role in student government. My high school best friend, whose family were well-known contrarians (his grandfather on the Louisiana side of the border had even dared to oppose Huey Long, and vocally so), never allowed me to forget that I was among those who voted to retain the playing of "Dixie" to begin school assemblies, while he took the countervailing and minority side and voted against it. The school's administrators had enough sense to reject our advice to hang onto "Dixie" and the flag-waving and defiance-shouting nonsense.

That's the world in which I came of age — part of it, at least. Given that I came of age in such a world, it was always perfectly apparent to me that any of my ancestors who took an active role in the Civil War had been on the Southern side, the "right" side, the side I was raised to revere. Some families may have talked about the glorious war of the 1860s. To be honest, mine really never did so, and had no real memories of it, though I do remember my father's brother telling me that my paternal grandfather (Lindsey) had two uncles who were Confederate soldiers aboard the captured Union gunboat Queen of the West when it was sunk by Northern fire on the Atchafalaya River during the war. One of the two uncles died in this event.

Because it was perfectly apparent to me when I began to do family history research in earnest in the mid-1970s that any of my ancestors involved in the Civil War took the Southern side, I tended not even to entertain the possibility that I might find records of them connected to the "other" side. And so imagine my surprise when I fairly quickly discovered that, though my mother's paternal grandfather (Simpson) had been a Confederate soldier in Alabama, when that grandfather's parents both died in 1869 in Tuscaloosa County, Alabama, a slaveholding, plantation-culture county (and both of their families [Simpson and Pryor] had been slaveholders and planters), their heirs filed claims with the Southern Claims Commission for reimbursement for items taken from that family's farm by Union troops during the war, stating that the family had been Unionists.

And then I just as quickly found that the mother-in-law (Braselton, née Winn) of that same grandfather of my mother had also filed a Southern Claims Commission claim, stating that she had helped to hide men out during the war so that they could avoid conscription in the Confederate army. Her family, too, had been planters and slaveholders.

As I began working on that set of ancestors, I then discovered the identity of a relative (Winn) about whom my mother's family had, in fact, told stories, but ones predating the Civil War. I had heard throughout my childhood about some relative back in Alabama who was a Methodist minister opposed to slavery, but a slaveholder himself, who would buy up slaves he thought were being mistreated, so that slaves would escape from harsh master and come to him and plead that he buy them.

I found that man in the records of Tuscaloosa County, Alabama, and confirmed that he was, in fact, a Methodist minister who was the uncle of the great-great-grandmother who had filed the Southern Claims Commission claim stating that she hid and abetted men escaping conscription in the Confederate Army. I found the will of this man, who served a term in the Alabama state legislature, a will specifying that he wanted several of his slaves to be permitted to buy their freedom when he died, and others taken to Liberia and given their freedom. 

The slaves named in the will, who were to be allowed to buy their freedom, had our family name. I find that their father, who had already been freed before the Civil War, also filed a Southern Claims Commission reimbursement claim in Tuscaloosa County, Alabama, stating that his "old master" (Winn) was the father of the Methodist minister leaving the will that requested the sons of this freed man also be allowed to purchase their freedom, the progenitor of our family in that county.

Then I extended my research, and found that a first cousin (Winn) of the Methodist minister-uncle in my family line was a delegate to the secession convention back in Georgia where my family had lived before moving to Alabama, and was one of the few delegates to vote against secession. Unlike the other representative from his county, who changed his vote to an affirmative vote when it was clear the state wanted to secede, he voted consistently against secession, though, like my branch of the family, his had a considerable number of slaves and a history deeply embedded in the plantation system.

You see my point, of course? What I was predisposed to "know" about my own family's history turns out to have been wildly wrong, when I began to encounter actual history, facts, documents, inescapable tidbits of information which proved that I had been completely wrong to assume my family was unambiguously on the "right" side in the Civil War. I then found that though my mother's maternal grandfather (Batchelor) had had a brother who was a Confederate soldier in Kentucky, a step-brother of that brother (Robinson) who enlisted with him went over to the Union side when he was captured in the same battle in Kentucky, and became a Union officer.

And an uncle of that same great-grandfather (Bachelor) had been a well-known Unionst back in the slaveholding county in Tennessee from which this branch of my family came to Arkansas, and, after the war, was appointed physician in charge of building the cemetery at Shiloh near his farm. He and his family had gone to Kentucky during the war to escape hostilities some of their neighbors mounted against them for taking the Union side.

Also on this side of my family, I discovered, an uncle (Byrd) of this same great-grandfather of  mine had joined a Union unit in Arkansas, and is buried as a Union soldier in the National Cemetery in Little Rock. I have even found, to my surprise, that the grandfather (Snead) of my maternal grandmother, whose family I'd have tagged as the most racist of all my family lines based on what I overheard them saying about racial matters as I was growing up, was appointed to an office by the Reconstruction governor of Louisiana following the war. A brother-in-law of his (Jones) with whom he was in business was shot to death in front of him at the store they co-owned in Louisiana during the Reconstruction period, because it was perceived that he was cooperating with the Reconstruction government, though he had been a Confederate soldier.

And then just recently this happened: something prompted me to resume a search I had given up almost 40 years ago for a Civil War service record for an uncle of my maternal grandmother about whom I often heard her and her brothers talk as I was growing up. My grandmother had only the foggiest of memories of this uncle, who had been born in Ireland and whose name was Patrick Ryan. He died when she was just a girl of five, and she could remember his funeral and events following it, but could not remember her uncle himself with any great specificity.

But she talked about him as if she had known him, as did her brother Ed, who was not even born when his uncle Pat died. Two other of my grandmother's brothers that I also knew and often visited, her brothers Monroe and Pat, who was named for this uncle, were old enough to remember their uncle and also told stories about him.

All of them told me that their uncle Pat had had a patch over an eye that had been lost at some point. Because this great-great-uncle was born in 1846, I assumed — I think, or perhaps my grandmother and her brothers told me this, but I don't think so — that Pat Ryan had lost his eye during the Civil War. He'd been of just the right age to have served in the war, and so I seem to have had this thought about his missing eye for as long as I can recall.

When I began pursuing family history in earnest in the mid-1970s, I looked for a Civil War service record for Patrick Ryan — a Confederate record, reasoning that, since my family had lived in the southern half of Arkansas where slavery and plantation culture were facts of life, he'd have joined the Confederate army. I did, in fact, quickly discover two Patrick Ryans who served in the Confederate Army from Arkansas, but it was apparent to me as I looked at their service records that neither was the uncle for whom I was seeking a military record.

And then I gave up on the search, assuming that this great-great-uncle must have lost his eye in some other way and must not have been in the war at all. Until it occurred to me recently that I hadn't ever searched Union records in Arkansas for Pat Ryan . . . .

And so I did so. And there he was. As soon as I saw the index card (by way of Ancestry and Fold3) showing an Irish-born boy of 18 enlisting on 8 November 1863 in Little Rock in the 3rd Regiment of Arkansas Cavalry, Co. K, Union Army, under Col. Abraham Hall Ryan, son of an Irish-born father, I knew I'd found my family's Pat Ryan. He fudged his age slightly, as many young men have long done when they've joined the military, making himself 18 in 1863 when he was actually 17, per his date of baptism back in Ireland and the information on his tombstone. 

The service packet told me that Pat Ryan was a farmer, 5'5" in height, with light hair and blue eyes, who brought a horse and saddle to his military service, and was the wagoneer of his company, which saw quite a bit of service throughout Arkansas during the war. And then I noticed a listing for a pension record, and ordered it, and found it contained pages and pages of information including a detailed affidavit he himself made about how he lost his eye: at the end of October 1865, when he was still in service, he was at home with his parents Valentine and Bridget Tobin Ryan, when the houshold's fire had gone out.

As he attempted to revive the fire, he took a flintlock gun and sought to make a spark with it, while holding a bottle of powder in his left hand. The powder exploded, taking out his right eye and also leaving him with a permanent disability in his left hand and wrist. Pat was 19 when this accident occurred.

The pension file is full of information I didn't have, including affidavits from my great-grandparents George R. and Catherine Ryan Batchelor which tell me that Pat married in 1866 a wife I had never known he had had, Rosanna Hill, the widow of one of his fellow soldiers, John H. Spann. Rosanna died on 31 October 1868, and he then married the wife about whom I had always known, Delilah, daughter of Conrad and Sarah Rinehart.

There are also interesting affidavits about his injuries from a man I always heard referred to in family stories as "old Dr. Reynolds," whose nephew Lewis married my grandmother's sister Fannie. I had known that Pat and his wife Lilie were childless, and adopted several orphans, and that at least one of them was brought to them by "old Dr. Reynolds" when he found an infant on his doorstep. 

History: a whole lot more is possible in it than we customarily imagine. And recognizing that this is the case opens doors to our imaginations that have the potential to release let them from the prisons in which they have often been held captive due to our cultural formations, our refusal to try to learn more and understand more, etc. 

I only wish my grandmother and her brothers were still living so that I could share with them all of this information about an uncle of whom they spoke so fondly. Of course, it's entirely possible they knew much of it all along, and never shared it with me — perhaps because I was so intent on understanding my family's history as the history of a family that took the "right" side during the Civil War.

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