Monday, December 12, 2011

Courage, Claustrophobia And The Confederate Sub Hunley

Courage is doing what you're afraid to do. There can be no courage unless you're scared.                          — Edward V. Rickenbacker, American WWI Fighting Ace*

A cutaway of a life-size model
of the Confederate sub Hunley
at the  S.C. State Museum shows
the claustrophobic conditions
 under which the vessel's eight-man
crew worked in 1864. 
When I saw the sailor bent over the crankshaft in the CSS Hunley model, I thought drums were beating in some far reach of the museum. Then I realized my heart was pounding in my ears. A wave of claustrophobia crashed over me. 

I edged closer to a cutaway in the iron skin of a replica of the Confederate sub to inspect the life-size mannequin. He sat on a narrow bench inside the sub’s cramped belly, bent over a long crankshaft. When the sub's crewmen, elbow to elbow, turned the crankshaft on a winter's night in 1864, a single rear propeller pushed the lethal “torpedo fish” through the black waters of Charleston Harbor.

By candlelight they toiled, a crude arrangement of pipes and bellows periodically substituting fresh air for stale air when the sub neared the surface. A line of silver dollar-sized portholes marked the sub's stealthy progress toward the Federal blockader Housatonic. 

The famous oil painting of the
Confederate submarine H.L. Hunley
by Conrad Wise Chapman, 1863.
Photo, National Underwater
and Marine Agency.
The Hunley's crew, no doubt, fought fear. Already, 22 men had perished while testing the 40-foot-long, 4.5-foot-tall, arms-length-wide Confederate submarine, a fact that compelled the Confederacy to demand that only volunteers could board the Hunley for its deadly assignment nearly 150 years ago. Yet, eight men went down the hatch and entombed themselves in the iron fish’s bowels for something they believed in, right or wrong.

Stonewall Hilton of Friends of the
shows the size of portholes
on the Confederate submarine,
depicted in a recent drawing.
For more, see PHOTOS page.
I revisited the life-sized model of the Hunley recently at the South Carolina State Museum in Columbia, where Stonewall "Stoney" Hilton was lecturing to mark the Civil War sesquicentennial. Hilton, a former Navy petty officer, volunteers with the organization Friends of the Hunley.  The group supports scientists, archaeologists and historians who work to unravel the iron sub’s mystery at a laboratory and museum in Charleston.

Hilton told the group gathered one Saturday that the museum's Hunley model, a bit shorter and wider than the real artifact now being studied, reflected a famous oil painting by Conrad Wise Chapman rendered in 1863. The resurrection of the real thing in August 2000, five years after its discovery on the ocean floor in 1995, set a few things straight.  Hilton said that in addition to the model size being incorrect, the sub's "spar torpedo" actually was attached to the bottom of the vessel's nose (see drawing at left) instead of the top. 
Hilton said that when a team of marine archeologists raised the Hunley from the ocean floor and the crewmembers’ remains were discovered still at their posts, we learned that the men’s heights ranged from 5 feet 6 inches to 6 feet even. That means the tallest sailor probably had no choice but continually to hunch over the crankshaft when the sub departed the shores of the first state to secede from the Union.    

The resurrected H.L. Hunley
 gets kid-glove treatment at the
specially built Warren Lasch
Conservation Center in Charleston.
Hours later, the Hunley blasted 300 years of submarine history by becoming the first manned submersible combat vessel to sink an “enemy” ship. Never mind “the enemy” was the United States of America.  

It happened on the night of Feb. 17, 1864. The Hunley swam through moonlit waters off Sullivan’s Island to its target, 4 miles off shore. The crew rammed the sub's bow into the wooden hull of the Housatonic, depositing the spar torpedo loaded with 130 pounds of gunpowder.  The crew quickly reversed the crankshaft, unfurling 100 feet of cord attached to the bomb. As the cord stretched taut, the torpedo exploded, blowing away the Housatonic’s stern.

Within three minutes, the 16-gun sloop-of-war sank. No one, Union or Confederate, died in the explosion. The Hunley dove deep, awash in victory. Yet, the sub's crew never made it back to shore. The heroes’ welcome awaiting them never took place. For more than 140 years, the submarine rested on its starboard side at a 45-degree angle, beneath 30 feet of water. As years passed, three feet of silt and ever-growing myths engulfed the Civil War sub.

View of the propeller
on the Hunley model.
Since its 2000 resurrection, Hunley researchers ensured the sub remained at the same angle as it rested on the ocean floor in a specially designed tank of freshwater at the Warren Lasch Conservation Center, built largely with public funds.  Last summer, scientists completed a slow rotation to expose the Hunley’s underbelly in their search to answer the question, “How did the crew die?”  
“We’d love to know that,” Hilton said.

Studies of crew members' remains have confirmed they did not perish in the torpedo explosion. At rescue, their bodies still sat at their posts, indicating they died without panic. Leading theories suggest suffocation.

What if the Hunley had returned to shore? I asked Hilton after his presentation.

“The Confederacy would have ordered 10 more subs,” Hilton said with a shrug and a smile. “And people in Boston might be whistling ‘Dixie’ today.”

In 2004, the Hunley crew finally received its heroes' welcome. Thousands of people attended a memorial service and burial for them in Charleston. In the last Confederate burial, horse-drawn caissons accompanied by a procession in period dress took the eight men to a final resting place in Charleston’s Magnolia Cemetery, next to the others who lost their lives testing the submarine.

Like many attending the Charleston ceremonies, I see the Hunley as an icon to the abundance of courage, inventiveness, and strength of Americans during the Civil War. But I wish Southerners would stop posing the question, “What if?" This prolongs the historical claustrophobia already surrounding The Lost Cause and keeps old wounds from healing. We should honor courage, but we need to take a hard look at the cultural claustrophobia worshiping fallen heroes can keep alive.

REST IN PEACE: Lt. George E. Dixon, Hunley commander; Arnold Becker; Corp. J. F. Carlsen; Frank Collins; _ Lumpkin; _ Miller; James A. Wicks and Joseph Ridgaway. Hunley designer and namesake, Horace L. Hunley, died in a test run of the submarine.

* Edward Vernon Rickenbacker (Oct. 8, 1890 – July 27, 1973), an American fighter ace in World War I, was awarded the Medal of Honor and numerous other citations for courage. He also won fame as a race car driver, automotive designer, military consultant, pioneer in air transportation and as the longtime chief of Eastern Air Lines. 

COMING SOON: More on my Confederate ancestors. See PREVIEWS page. 

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Bull Run Redux: Washington Wars and The End Of Innocence

In July 1861, newly minted Confederate forces clustered around Manassas Junction, 25 miles southwest of Washington, near a snaky little river known as Bull Run. Under public pressure, untested Union troops took them on. At the end of the momentous, two-day clash of amateurs in the First Battle of Bull Run, the Federals fled in defeat; the Confederates puffed up with victory; and the nation realized that Civil War would not be brief, brilliant or bloodless. It was an end of innocence.

And so it was, all over again in the steamy July of 2011, after the unbearable political bloodletting over raising the debt ceiling. The U.S. Congress, held hostage by a rebellious minority under the guise of virtue and principle, took the entire country to the precipice of disaster. If we had any illusion that politicians would work out differences on the economy without leading America close to debt default, more joblessness and market chaos, the July battle marked our end of innocence. 
Woodcut of First Battle
of Bull Run, also called
the First Battle of Manassas.
Library of Congress.

At the heart of it?  South Carolina, of course. Again. Seems the anointed leaders of the state can’t help but cling to their historic role of fomenting rebellion, as it was 150 years ago when the Palmetto State became the first state to secede from the Union, ensuring a protracted war that would claim more than 620,000 lives and bring the South to its knees for decades.     

All five South Carolina Republicans in the U.S. House defended their belief that the federal budget must be eviscerated while they refused to raise taxes to support growing needs of an expanding, aging population. The S.C. Five continued their fight for tax breaks for the super-rich, apparently in line with the way of life they protect for themselves and envision as The American Dream for others.

In this summer's War In Washington, South Carolina made its mark as the state with the only solid front of GOP representatives refusing to compromise, even at the eleventh hour, despite mounting fears around the country. 

A television station in Columbia, South Carolina's capital, reported: “The five Republicans in South Carolina's congressional delegation collectively are taking credit for pushing House Speaker John Boehner to take a more conservative approach to finding a debt deal.”

And so, we regular folks, so fed up with Congress that only 14 percent of us approved of the representative body by the end of July, faced a figurative First Battle of Bull Run. I do not mean to trivialize the suffering and sacrifice that occurred on the battlefield near Manassas, where casualties approached 9,000, but as I research the American Civil War for a book I am writing, I can’t ignore comparisons between how America stumbled into a largely unexpected, long, and devastating war against itself 150 years ago and what’s happening today. 

Congress, in its desperation to reach agreement, has set the scene for a second, possibly more destructive, battle over the budget deficit and a dangerous conflict among the haves and the have-nots, the old and the young, and opposing ideas of what America and democracy mean.      
Republican Leadership in the U.S.
House of Representatives in July
2011. AP Photo.

As anti-government "South Carolinization" seeps across America, we must realize that many of our elected leaders could again march us into disaster if we fall under their Pied Piper spell. In the war of words  roiling Washington — similar to the antebellum brinkmanship between supporters of a slave-labor, plantation economy and supporters of a free-labor, capitalist economy —a minority of recalcitrant leaders again are framing The American Dream as an undemocratic, trickle-down-happiness economic model.  

From my book-in-progress, Dear Father I Am Sorry To Tell You (Copyright B.J. Welborn; all rights reserved.):

            In the pre-Civil War era, New England’s religious, literary and social leaders spearheaded America’s passionate anti-slavery movement.  In the Deep South, a planter elite piloted an aggressive defense of slavery.  The South’s social, economic and political leaders asserted that the region’s agrarian, semi-feudal economic and social systems depended on slavery.  Fire-eating extremes pitched region against region.
            In a letter dated August 24, 1855, Lincoln wrote to a Southern acquaintance:  “The slave-breeders and slave-traders, are a small, odious and detested class among you; and yet in politics, they dictate the course of all of you, and are as completely your masters as you are the master of your own negroes."

The let-them-eat-cake attitude toward everybody but the rich that South Carolina's representatives and their tea party ilk uphold, shouldn't dupe the middle class into abandoning our own self interests (read Medicare and myriad other programs). In 2011, it's not region against region as it was in the Civil  War, but ideology against ideology.  Most Americans stand to lose in this war.

Now that the dust has cleared on the Washington battlefield in the summer of 2011, shouldn't we tell our elected officials that enough is enough? Or are we ready for a Second Battle of Bull Run — same war, same location, same outcome?

SOURCE: The AMERICAN HERITAGE New History of The Civil War, edited by James M. McPherson. 1996

Monday, July 25, 2011

Beyond Words: Handwriting Analysis of Civil War Letter

Civil War history became personal for me when I found war-era letters from Southern ancestors handed down in my family. Eager to know more, and possibly under the influence of one too many television crime shows, I decided to analyze the handwriting in the letters.  I've recently been blogging about David Lindsay Welborn,whom the Confederacy assigned in 1864 to an ironclad gunboat protecting Richmond, so I tackled his letters first. 

Portion of a letter home from my Civil War
ancestor David L. Welborn. A family
member later punched the holes to store
the 1864 letter in a notebook. For the
entire letter, go to LETTERS page.
Although I'm a rank amateur graphologist, I tried my hand at one of David's letters to his father, Joseph Welborn, of Randolph County, North Carolina. I consulted a handwriting analysis book* that’s been on my library shelf for years, and discovered a rudimentary personality profile that mere words on paper could never reveal. 

But first, I assembled known facts about my farmboy ancestor.  I knew from reading the unsuccessful petition to the local conscription board that David had filed in July 1864, that he had blue eyes, black hair, fair complexion, is 5 ft. (illegible) inches, was born in Randolph, is a farmer and was raised up to the business. The petition also told me that David, at age 20, had joined the 63rd Regiment of the North Carolina Militia. David wrote at least two letters to his father soon after he was assigned to the CSS Fredericksburg patrolling the James River just south of the Confederate capital.   

David opened his brief letter, written in a schoolboy's hand on paper apparently torn from a small notebook, with this salutation: “This is from your son D.L. Welborn.” The greeting struck me as peculiar.  Surely Joseph recalled he had a child with the initials “D.L.,” but by October 1864, Joseph had three sons fighting in the war. (A fourth son, Lyndon, died in battle in November 1863.) And David, whose mother died when he was barely four years old, probably felt lost among widow Joseph’s brood of ten children. Hence, David's reminder to open his letter.

Back page of a second
letter from David Welborn
of the N.C. Militia, 63rd
Regiment, to his father
So much for the facts; time to consult the handwriting analysis book. I concluded that David, young and free of accumulated emotional baggage, was:

- Emotionally even-keeled and not depressed, not yet anyway. David’s writing follows the lines of the paper. A moody person’s words would undulate up and down, regardless of the lines.
- Extroverted and needing to be in the middle of things. David centered his large script on the paper, indicating his social outgoingness.  As for his need to be at the center of the action, this plea had already made that point:  Pleas right as soon as you get this    tell me all the news that is going on.
- Open-minded, as illustrated by the open spaces between words, and up front with his feelings, shown by the script's slant toward the right.  Of course, I had picked up on these traits somewhat when I read: I have a hard time      I got here yesterday mornin and hav been sic ever sins     night and day
- Adventurous (writing doesn’t hug the left margin), but unorganized (haphazard grouping of words), and uncertain about the future (writing doesn’t hug the right margins), but duh!
- Unreliable, as evidenced by the uneven pressure David exerted on letters and his uneven spacing between words; and, 
- Honest, with nothing to hide (no crossed out letters or “cover strokes” over letters). 

The nearly 150-year-old letter David penned aboard the Fredericksburg tells more about him than what he wrote. By studying how he wrote his letters, I learned something of who he was. And, though I never met David, because I could read beyond the words in his letters, I liked him.

I plan to scrutinize the other Civil War letters handed down in my family for clues to my ancestors' personalities.  If you are lucky enough to have old family letters or documents in your possession, why don’t you get your hands on a handwriting analysis guide, do some sleuthing, and open a personal window to America's past.     

As Emerson said, “There is properly no history, only biography.”
* The guide I consulted was “Handwriting Analysis: Putting It To Work for You,” by graphologist Andrea McNichol with Jeffrey A. Nelson. Contemporary Books, Inc., 1991. 

Thursday, July 14, 2011

An Unmarked Watery Grave Hints At Precious Truth

If Mr. Krick hadn’t informed me, “The remains of the James River Squadron, including the CSS Fredericksburg, are not marked in any way,” my half-mile trek up the riverbank might have proved disappointing, but he had added, "Their location is indeed visible from the observation platform at Fort Drewry, on Drewry’s Bluff.”

View from top of Drewry's Bluff.
The corpse of David Welborn's
ironclad likely is buried in the
pictured section of the James River.
A cacophony of birds, insects and traffic on nearby Interstate 95 rang in my ears as I peered ninety feet down from Drewry’s Bluff, where the James River veers sharply east after flowing ten miles south from Richmond, the old Confederate capital.  Following instructions from Robert E.L. Krick, historian at Richmond National Battlefield Park, I peered a hundred yards downstream toward the opposite shore. 

Despite all the bad information I’d uncovered about the ironclad gunboat that my Confederate ancestor, David Lindsay Welborn, was assigned to only months before the Civil War’s end, there it was, the unmarked watery grave of the CSS Fredericksburg, at least according to Mr. Krick.

Not long before the Frederickburg's demise, David wrote to his father, Joseph Welborn of Randolph County, North Carolina, of his new position in the Confederate navy. (See July 6 blog in ARCHIVES.)

Richmond, Va   Oct 30 1864
Dear Father

            I will try to right you a few lines to let you know where I am      eight miles below Richmond on the Fredricksburg Stemer      That is an iron clad gun boat     We  have six long guns on this boat

           I have a hard time      I got here yesterday mornin and hav been sic ever sins night and day and am not well but I am told that cannons are moving hear every day    

          I would give the world to be home but can’t be thair    I thought that I would work in the navy yarde but they put me on the boat. . . and my. . . the lice

Historic photo of Confederate
battery at Fort Drewry atop
Drewry's Bluff along James River.
I get planty to eate sutch as it is       they have cald me on deck now so no more

From you son D.L. Welborn

This nearly 150-year-old, handwritten letter, which came to me in handed-down family papers, provided a compass toward precious truth.  In my research of the Civil War for my book-in-progress, Dear Father I Am Sorry To Tell You, I’ve found “truth” varies according to source. Some reports declare the scattered remains of the CSS Fredericksburg, which the Confederates blew up (along with the CSS Virginia) during the frantic evacuation of Richmond in April 1865, have not been located.

The battery at Drewry's Bluff today.
For more, go to PHOTOSl page.
Other reports claim the gunboat's wreckage was raised decades ago. Even the exact date of its scuttling varies.  (Some reports say the remains of the CSS Virginia, also assigned to patrol the James River in defense of Richmond, lie near the wreckage of the Fredericksburg.)

One lesson I’ve absorbed during my decades of exploring and research for my history/travel books is that a never-ending war rages among scholars, educators and historians about nearly every detail of American history.  Two things I’ve concluded: 1) You’ve got to believe the best sources, or cobble together facts from reliable sources to get at precious truth; and, 2) No one alive today lived during the Civil War. So, we’re all looking at historic accounts that might not be reliable in the first place, or we're imbuing reliable accounts with personal spin. There’s a lot of room for prejudice, misinterpretation and error.

As far as facts about the CSS Fredericksburg, I’m sticking with Mr. Krick, who further said, “I believe that the wreck, if it is there, is protected from the periodic channel dredging by being so close to the shore.” 

This is the kind of history I appreciate, the “to-the-best-of-my-hard-earned-knowledge” type of statement, one that claims no hold on elusive truth.  But the difficulties of tracking history didn't dilute the excitement I felt standing atop Drewry’s Bluff one summer day, amid what’s left of the Confederacy’s Fort Darling.  I had found another palpable link to my past. 

COMING SOON:  More on David and his trials aboard the gunboat. 

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

I Visit Richmond To Learn About David And The Gunboat

To learn about David Lindsay Welborn, my ancestor whom the Confederacy drafted in the summer of 1864, I visited Richmond, Virginia. David, at age twenty, ended up on an ironclad gunship, the CSS Fredericksburg, a tough, junior addition to the James River Squadron.  The fleet patrolled the river that flowed partially around the Confederate capital, a mere one hundred seven miles from Washington.

"The Rebel Iron-Clad Fleet...In
The James River, 1865." Line engraving
from Harper's Weekly; CSS Fredericksburg
at right. Photo, U.S. Naval Historical Center.
Tredegar Ironworks in Richmond made the 1,000 pounds of iron plating for the Fredericksburg, which was assembled in the local navy yard and launched in June 1864. I wanted to visit Tredegar, and I also wanted to locate the spot in the James River where the shattered Fredericksburg today lies buried beneath six to fifteen feet of mud. The gunship’s own crew blew her up on April 3, 1865, during the evacuation of Richmond, to ensure Union troops didn’t seize or pillage her.

But first, let me tell you what I’ve learned about David while researching my book-in-progress, Dear Father, I Am Sorry To Tell You.

Model of the CSS Fredericksburg
at visitor center of Richmond Battlefield
National Park located in the former
Tredegar Iron Works along the James River.
In February 1864, the Confederacy, now desperate and worn down, adopted a third conscription law, expanding the draft age limits to include males from seventeen to fifty. The draft ensnared David, ninth child of Joseph Welborn’s ten children.  He enlisted as a private in 63rd North Carolina Militia, B Company, of Randolph County.

The family, reeling from the recent death of David’s older brother, Lyndon, as he defended Richmond, struggled to save the family farm. Grief and hardship forced them to wage their own battle to keep David out of the draft and on the farm. Two years earlier, David and his widowed father, a prominent Randolph County farmer, had paid a substitute to serve in the army in David's stead if he were called to serve.  The Confederacy had adopted a second draft law expanding the draft eligibility, a development noted by David's older brother, Lyndon, of the First North Carolina Troops, in a letter home in 1862. 
Petersburg, Va
May AD 31st 62

Dear Sister

. . . ask David what age that man was that he hired to take his place in the war
if he was between 18-35 he (David) will have to go yet in his place if called on but I hope he was not subject to that. . .

So write Soon to your effectionate Brother

My research into the Civil War and
my Confederate ancestors now takes me
from Warrenton, N.C., to Richmond.
By the summer of 1864, the Confederacy had cracked down on the practice of buying draft substitutes. David and Joseph regrouped. David petitioned The Confederate States of America Bureau of Conscription, 7th North Carolina Congressional District, which included Randolph County, for release from the draft.

April 11, 1864

State of North Carolina
To his Excellency, Jefferson Davis, President of the Confederate States:

David L. Welbourn, of Randolph County, by petition, respectfully showeth unto your Excellency, that he is a private of Bedlick Co. Capt: Chilcutt, 63 Reg. N.C. Militia, has blue eyes, black hair, fair complexion, is 5 ft. (illegible) inches, was born in Randolph, is a farmer and was raised up to the business; that his father is 73 years old and infirm and cannot labor; that his father owns 346 acres of land and has the use of 104 acres during his life on Muddy Bank which are productive lands; that his father has two daughters and a small child, and a son aged 16 years, who has lost the use of his right arm which is stiff and with which he cannot labor at all; that he also has an old negro, aged 90 years, who is intirely helples; that the only person upon whom they are dependant is your petitioner; that it is said the aged father owns no other slaves and as consequence of his scarcity of laborers cannot employ any one to work his farm if your petitioner is carried off into its service. . .

I found a handwritten copy of David’s petition to Confederate President Jefferson Davis among family papers.  The justice of the peace who penned the three-page document probably pressed a ruler or some straight object onto the pale blue paper to produce row upon row of smudged inked words. 

James Deitz, the court officer who wielded the pen, apparently was a member of Randolph County’s draft board. Whether the reasons stated in the petition to the board were true (yes, with the Confederacy drafting all able men, laborers were scarce,  and the 90-year-old slave — probably Harry — wasn’t much help); partly true (yes, sixteen-year-old son Robert might have been able to work, stiff arm or not); or embellished to present a more compelling case, I can only guess. David's petition made a compelling case.   

     . . . that in consequence of the helplessness of said family your petitioner hired a substitute and placed him in his service and has been since engaged in working for the said family; that he has wheat sowed and has compacts to raise as much oats and corn as the land can cultivate; that he raises hay and he has a fine prospect for a large quantity of pork if he can be left at home to raise corn. . .

 Then David and Joseph made an offer they hoped the Confederacy couldn’t refuse.

. . . with which to fatten it that he will bind himself to furnish the government with 500 lbs  pork at such price as the Confederate appraisers shall fix; that he will employ his skill, means and labor diligently and exclusively in the production of grains, hay, fodder and pork and other produce, the surplus of which he is willing to sell to the government and the families of soldiers at such prices as the aforesaid officers shall fix; that if he is not left upon the said farms to raise grains and take care of the said helpless and crippled and infirm family that they will come to absolute want and suffering; that he had a brother who went into the service at the very commencement of the war and died lately in the service, was killed in an engagement with the enemy; that your petitioner is 20 years old and is a true and loyal citizen:  For these reasons and on the grounds of public necessity, equity and justice, your petitioner most respectfully prays your Excellency to exccept or detail the said David L. Welborn, your petitioner, to remain on the said farm and take care of and support the said dependent family and for such others and further  relief as to your Excellency shall seem meet and as in duty bound your petitioner will ever pray.   
April, 1864    James Dietz J.P.

                                                                                                D.L. Welborn (signature)

State of North Carolina,
Randolph County
Personally appeard before the subscriber an acting Justice of the Peace in and for said county, J. W. Steed, Allen Lamb, David Coltrane and B.F. Hoover, four respectable  citizens of said county who being duly sworn, depose and say that they are well acquainted with the aforesaid David L. Welborn; that the facts set out in his petition are true and correct.
Sworn and subscribed
Before me this 11th day April, 1864
J. H. Horvat   J.P.

David fought the draft in an above-board manner, although hundreds draft-dodgers and deserters from the Randolph County area, a hotbed of pro-Union violence, chose to hide in the hills and wait out the war. David, however, ended up serving a lost cause — as did three of his brothers — in conditions worse than a fugitive life in the hills.  Many considered assignment to a gunship patrolling the James River among the Confederacy's harshest. 

SOURCES: Southern Historical Collection, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill; National Underwater and Marine Agency, The Encyclopedia Virginia

Coming Soon: “they put me on the boat…and my….the lice…”

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

No New Tricks On The Mean Streets of War

During the last years of the Vietnam War, I worked as a greenhorn reporter in Fayetteville, North Carolina. About seven months was all I could stand in the home of Fort Bragg (named for Confederate General Braxton Bragg), one of the U.S. Army’s largest bases and a jumping off point for two hundred thousand soldiers headed to Southeast Asia.

The Virginia State Capitol
during the Civil War. Photo
Virginia Historical Society.
It was the early 1970s.  On any given night — or broad daylight for that matter – young men roamed Hay Street, “Fayettenam’s” main drag, seeking alcohol, drugs and women.  They found all in abundance, just as Civil War soldiers found them on the mean streets of Washington, D.C.; Memphis, Tennessee; and Richmond, Virginia, in the early 1860s.

I can imagine the scene along Richmond’s Broad Street in 1862 because I worked along Fayetteville’s notorious Hay Street in 1972, soon after President Nixon authorized a massive bombing campaign against North Vietnam.  During both wars, people compared the Southern cities to the wicked biblical city, Sodom.  From what I know, the comparisons seem justified.  Hay Street in the early seventies out-sleazed Boston's Combat Zone and New Orleans' Bourbon Street combined.

The author as a young reporter, right,
about to experience a PR ride aboard
a reconnaissance helicopter at Fort
Bragg in 1972.  Photo, U.S. Army.
Working in Fayetteville, I’d sometimes stand on the curb in front of The Fayetteville Observer where I worked, located downtown then, waiting to cross Hay Street to grab lunch at a storefront diner. There I stood, Bambi, with a polyester miniskirt up to here and brown hair down to there, within a stone’s throw of the railroad station where prostitutes gathered every morning to ply their trade.

“Hey, how much you charge for all of us, baby?” The question usually came from a GI among a carload of grinning GIs cruising Hay Street.

On the sidewalks, shotgun-carrying cops roamed among stoned soldiers and sleazy men wearing purple fedoras and long coats, impervious to sandy-soiled Fayetteville’s infamous heat. With a little prompting, one of these street capitalists might open his coat to reveal gold watches, bags of heroin and pills, vials and syringes pinned to the lining.

"What for you today?" he'd ask.

Near-naked women danced in the windows of a bar that once was a clothing store. Loud, throbbing music beckoned boys into smoky, beer-humid joints where any women patronizing the trough could strip on a tabletop in exchange for greenbacks, a drink or the next hit.

Routinely, sirens screamed from a “Vomit Comet,” one of many shuttle vans between the army base and Hay Street. MPs jumped from the Comet to harvest the near-lifeless bodies that managed to crawl out of the bars and prop against streetlights. The MPs wordlessly threw the bodies into the van; the driver revved the engine and they continued their rounds.

In the 1860s, as the Civil War ramped up, Richmond’s population exploded from about 38,000 people to possibly triple that. An estimated 10,000 to 15,000 troops, fighting fear and frustration, waited in camps for fighting orders, as did Confederate ancestors, whom I'm writing about in my book-in-progress, Dear Father I Am Sorry To Tell You. The Confederate capital harbored hundreds of brothels, saloons, gambling halls, speculators, criminals of all stripe and women of the night. The women trolled the grounds of the state capitol, modeled after an ancient Roman temple, offering their bodies.

Farm boys, some separated for the first time from parents, wives, sweethearts and ministers, dared to dance with the devil. They paid with sexually transmitted diseases, injuries sustained in fights and industrial-strength guilt.  Enemies attacked the soldiers before they ever entered a combat zone.

Hay Street, Fayetteville, N.C.'s
upscale main drag today
Virginia’s capital today (see PHOTOS page) stands among my favorite destinations, not only for its rich history from our nation’s earliest days, but for its fine old homes, its trendy eateries and shops in the Shockoe Bottom district along the James River, bustling universities, Civil War parks and landmarks, and Edgar Allen Poe’s neighborhood.

Fayetteville years ago revitalized its downtown and repaired its military-gone-wrong image. The red brick Rubik's cube that once housed the Fayetteville Observer is gone, replaced by the Airborne and Special Operations Museum . Honky-tonks and seedy hotels have given way to coffee emporiums and al fresco dining along a brick esplanade. Civil War sites have been revived 150 years after Union General Sherman left his mark.

When I visited Fayetteville recently to research the Civil War for my book (and visit my sister, who lives nearby), I marveled at how the city has erased vestiges of Hay Street's Vietnam War days while emphasizing its Civil War days at nearby parks and museums, just as Richmond has done.

But my memory of "Fayettenam" and my study of Virginia’s Sodom-of-Yore reminded me there are no new tricks on the mean streets of war. They span history, they endure, and there's always a ransom to be paid.

NOTE: The Virginia State Capitol Visitor Center is hosting an exhibition presented by the Library of Virginia titled "The Struggle to Decide: Virginia's Secession Crisis," from December 13, 2010 to October 29, 2011. For information, go to Virginia State Capitol.
SOURCES:  Virginia Historical Society; Confederate White House, Richmond, Virginia

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Brown Flour Soup, Sauerkraut And Humble Pie

A little recipe book I bought at some historic site has sat on my kitchen shelf for years.  Now that I’m researching the Civil War and my Confederate ancestors for a book, I decided it was time to cook an 1860s supper. I consulted the Blue & Grey Cookery: Authentic Recipes from The Civil War Years and determined a menu: brown flour soup, pork with sauerkraut, “rosten ears” of corn and blackberry mush. 

What I hadn’t planned to eat was humble pie*, but by the time I finished cooking a so-called "war supper," I had to consume it for dessert. My story goes like this:
Let’s start with the brown flour soup. This first course sounded like what a deprived soldier might have eaten.  I browned some flour in a melted  “piece of butter,” added water and an egg, then seasoned with salt and pepper. I offered a bowl to my husband Barry.

“It tastes like food, I guess,” he said hesitantly after sampling the oatmeal-like porridge. “Guess if you didn’t have anything else to eat …”

I dumped it down the In-Sink-Erator™.

Simply discarding unpalatable food was a luxury my ancestors couldn't afford. I've been blogging for six months now about four ancestral brothers from Randolph County, North Carolina, who fought for the Confederacy and their father, Joseph Welborn, who opposed secession. Among the war-era letters from them in my possession is one from David Lindsay Welborn.  David, the ninth child among ten children, wrote to Joseph soon after he was assigned to an ironclad gunship patrolling the James River near Richmond, Virginia, in 1864.
Dear Father
. . . i get a plenty to eate sutch as it is . . .

A portion of a letter
from David L. Welborn, 1864.
A descendant punched holes
in the letter to place it in a notebook.
On to the main dish: pork and sauerkraut. I had vetoed “hog maw,” which consisted of vegetables, sausage and seasonings stuffed into a pig’s stomach. I excused my lack of chutzpah and chose to serve pork tenderloin that I bought at Publix. I smothered the tenderloin with canned, “barrel cured” sauerkraut and popped it into the oven. Barry went to the deck and threw two ears of corn onto the gas-fired grill.

The Civil War cookbook stated that sauerkraut took center stage on soldiers’ menus because it staved off the troublesome disease, scurvy.  Authentic sauerkraut consisted of shredded and pounded cabbage, covered with salt and layered between damp cloths in an earthen crock. It took weeks to cure. I thought how lucky my ancestor Robert McFarland Welborn, drafted at seventeen into the North Carolina Junior Reserves, would have been to have sauerkraut with his pork maw.

17  August  1864

Dear Father
. . . we get one pint of corn meal and it not sifted and hardly ground    the grains is cracked    we often find whole grains    we get one bit of hard meat a day . . . i would like to be at home to eat beans and soft meat. . .
                                                                                                                    Your son R.M. Welborn
To end our Civil War meal, I whipped up blackberry mush. I chose this dish for sentimental reasons; blackberries grew wild in the backyard of my childhood home. The recipe called for boiling the berries in water then adding sugar and vanilla.  But gosh darnit, wouldn’t a Pillsbury pastry crust and vanilla ice cream make it just perfect?

After supper I felt sated and smug, and then, guilty. I had utterly failed at preparing an authentic Civil War meal. 

December 1864    Ritchmond

Dear father

. . . it is harde times here and worse acoming   I fear we git a little bred and a little beaf twice a day    we ar  a bout half starved here. . . 

As I reread the letter from ancestor William Lane Welborn, written during the last gasps of a crumbling Confederacy, shame exacerbated my guilt. Here I was in our well-equipped kitchen with a brimming pantry and an delicacy-filled grocery store a mile away, yet I, fair and balanced purveyor of truth, feigned hardship to indulge a whim.

I owed my ancestors — and all the Civil War veterans who fought, whether in blue or gray — an apology. Pass the humble pie.

* Humble pie” has come to mean a figurative serving of humiliation, usually in the form of a forced submission, apology or retraction. The expression derives from umble pie, which was a pie filled with liver, heart and other offal from a cow, deer or boar. The popularity of umble pie among 15th and 16th-century commoners in Britain gave rise to the expression "eating humble pie.”

Monday, June 13, 2011

Fossils, Luddites And Rednecks: Denials About Slavery And War

Continued from last week:  Most modern Southerners, with the exception of fossils, Luddites and rednecks, find slavery so repulsive that we pretend the institution couldn’t possibly have been the cause of secession and the Civil War. Facts, however, tell a different story.

Background:  I visited Warrenton, N.C., where my ancestral cousin, Lyndon M. Welborn, trained for the Confederate army, to learn more about my family’s Civil War experience. In Warrenton and in later research, I uncovered information about why men fought for the Confederacy. Personal reasons varied, but slavery kept surfacing as a main cause.

From my book-in-progress, Dear Father I Am Sorry To Tell You (Copyright B.J. Welborn; all rights reserved.):

Richard Furman, 1755-1825, 
was a prominent minister and president
 of America's first Baptist convention. 
Furman University in Greenville, S.C.,
 took its name from him. 
            When South Carolina broke from the Union, delegates to the Secession Convention in Charleston attached a “Declaration of the Immediate Causes Which Induce and Justify the Secession of South Carolina from the Federal Union” to its 1860 Ordinance of Secession. Three other states also attached a list of reasons for secession to their ordinances: Georgia, Mississippi and Texas.
            South Carolina’s declaration stated that a reason to dissolve its compact with the Union was because non-slave holding states were violating a national agreement (the retooled Fugitive Slave Act of 1850) to return runaway slaves.   South Carolina secessionists alleged northern states were violating the Fourth Amendment to the
Constitution.  The Fourth Amendment stated “No person held to service or labor in one State, under the laws thereof, escaping into another, shall, in consequence of any law or regulation therein, be discharged from such service or labor, but shall be delivered up, on claim of the party to whom such service or labor may be due."
            South Carolina secessionists declared Northern states were “discharging from service” fugitive slaves; Northerners harbored runaways and helped them flee to freedom. South Carolina’s secession leaders, mostly members of the slave-owning planter class, pointed out that South Carolina slave owners had been paying taxes on their slave property, as required by the Union.  Moreover, South Carolina was exercising a Constitutional right by seceding.  South Carolina was a good Constitutional citizen. 
            Leading South Carolinians equated Lincoln with abolitionism.  They declared abolitionism a terrifying threat to Southerners.  Historian Walter Edgar, citing historic newspaper reports in his book South Carolina, A History, writes of the Reverend Richard Furman of Greenville, S.C. Reverend Furman told his congregation that Lincoln’s first election would mean “every negro in South Carolina and every other Southern State will be his own master; nay, more than that, will be the equal of every one of you.”  Furman warned that abolitionist preachers would be willing to marry “your daughters to black husbands.”
Warren County's second courthouse was
standing when North Carolina troops gathered
 there for a festive send-off in 1861. The first structure
burned down; this courthouse was built in the 1850s.
            Edgar also writes about S.C. Congressman John D. Ashmore, who echoed Furman’s sentiments by proclaiming that electing Lincoln as President “equals abolitionist victory equals Africanization.”
North Carolina did not elaborate its terse Ordinance of Secession.
North Carolina’s African-American population today totals twenty-two percent, many still living in the east, where flat sandy land had allowed profitable plantations, in contrast to the state’s mountainous west.  South Carolina today is more than thirty percent black.  The black population lives mainly in the eastern “Lowcountry,” where huge plantations once thrived.  North Carolina’s black population currently clusters in Warren County, now forty percent African-American, and in five surrounding counties with populations more than fifty percent black.
            “I guess many people living here now are descendants of the slaves who worked the big plantations around here?” I asked Hunter as we walked to the library. Richard E. Hunter, Jr,  Warren County's superior court clerk, reigned as keeper of Warrenton's historical flame.
            “That’s right,” he said. “The sandy soil around here made perfect growing conditions for tobacco.  And cotton.”  
Hunter was right about the library’s riches.  In a basement room dominated by a fine old conference table, I found shelves of musty books on North Carolina history.  I mined nuggets of information about Lyndon and his regiment, as well as Lyndon’s three brothers who fought in the Civil War.  I also found a long list of other ancestors who had fought, some who gave the last full measure for The Cause.  
            Millions of American families claim ancestors who fought in the Civil War, which took more American lives than all other wars in our nation’s history combined, ten percent of the nation’s population at the time.  Nearly 40 percent of Southerners claim ancestors who fought for the Confederacy.
The books in the basement didn’t reveal reasons my forebears became Confederate fighters, but I am sure that when war erupted, ordinary men who were not abolitionists joined Federal ranks to preserve the Union, and regular men indifferent to slavery joined Confederate ranks, aiming to safeguard their way of life.
Later, I would learn that Lyndon volunteered for the Confederate army, against his father’s wishes, because of a matter of the heart. (See Archives, March 15)  His brothers fought because the Confederacy drafted them. One brother, David, petitioned to avoid military service, but that action ended in devastating defeat. 

Coming soonThe Story of David. See PREVIEWS page.

Monday, June 6, 2011

Slavery As A Cause Of War: Facts Shatter Romantic Notions

Continued from June 1: (Go to Archives at right of page to read last week’s blog.)

Background: To learn more about my ancestor, Lyndon McGee Welborn, who volunteered for the Confederate army right after North Carolina seceded, I visited Warrenton, N.C. In this picturesque town just below the Virginia border, Lyndon’s First Regiment of North Carolina Troops prepared for war. I talked with the Honorable Richard E. Hunter, Jr., Warren County’s superior court clerk and keeper of Warrenton’s historical flame.  Hunter, spry and white-haired, invited me into his office.

From my book-in-progress, Dear Father I Am Sorry To Tell You (Copyright B.J. Welborn; all rights reserved.):

Cherry Hill, built in 1858, was one
of Warren County's largest
antebellum plantations. Go to
County Clerk Hunter suggested I might find information about my ancestors at the Warren Public Library, which huddled beside the courthouse like a meek nephew bearing a strong family resemblance.  Hunter said the library housed rare Civil War records. He volunteered to escort me. As we walked across the grassy rise, I asked why Warren County served as a launching point for North Carolina’s first regiments.
            “The state’s largest tobacco plantations were here at the time,” Hunter answered.  “We had some very wealthy people here in Warren County.”  
             I understood:  Elite planters and slave-owning tobacco magnates called Warrenton home. In 1861, local planter Weldon Edwards served as president of the North Carolina Secession Convention.
            The idea of huge, slave-driven plantations in my home state surprised me.  Although nearly a third of North Carolina’s population was enslaved at the outbreak of the Civil War, most slave owners were farmers working mid-sized farms, as was my ancestor, Joseph Welborn, Lyndon’s father. They usually owned ten or fewer slaves. The state didn’t have the concentration of immense plantations that characterized Deep South states, including South Carolina.
Defending slavery wasn’t a top priority in moderately pro-Union North Carolina, and you’d be hard-pressed today to find a North Carolinian who admits his ancestors fought to defend slavery.  Most swear their families never owned slaves, but how would they know?  Not everyone had a relatives who revered the Daughters of the American Revolution and researched family history, as I did. 
Warren County, N.C., at the Virginia
border, now has about 21,000 residents.
            According to the 1860 U.S. Census, the last census to list slaves, Warren County had about ten and a half thousand slaves, more than twice the number of white residents in the county, a South Carolina-like statistic. In the mid-19th century, South Carolina had more slaves within its borders than free whites.  Eight plantations in the state had more than five hundred slaves each; several had thousands. Seven plantations in Warren County listed more than one hundred slaves but only by a few digits. 
            By 1860, slaves made up one-eighth of the U.S. population, and slavery existed almost entirely as a Southern phenomenon.  In 1783, Massachusetts became the first state to outlaw slavery with a judicial decision clarifying the state’s constitution.  By 1804, all northern states had abolished slavery, though almost all of them had slave populations during the nation’s early years.  
The biggest book I could find about the Civil War, a compendium edited by Pulitzer Prize winner James McPherson, claims that slavery was the issue that polarized 19th-century America and brought about civil war.  The book asserts slavery poisoned any chance to address regional differences through a democratic process. Compromises between Northern free-soilers and Southern slave holders about slavery’s being permitted in new states acquired by the Louisiana Purchase and the war with Mexico poured gasoline onto hot coals.           
“The antagonism between the sections came finally and tragically to express itself through the slavery issue,” the big Civil War book intoned.           
             I once thought statements like that were nonsense. Most modern Southerners, with the exception of fossils, Luddites and red necks, find slavery so repulsive that we pretend the institution couldn’t possibly have been a cause of secession and war. Facts, however, tell a different story.
Continued Next Week.