Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Commemoration in the Time of Ordinary People

This is the time of ordinary people. We might lionize extraordinary people who accomplish amazing things, but we’ve added a new dimension. In this democratizing age of the Internet, reality shows and grassroots political movements, we want to identify with our heroes, even in war.

Notice how monuments since World War II feature groups of heroes, sharing the limelight as a team? Regular guys have been memorialized raising the American flag at Iwo Jima. The Vietnam wall in Washington honors all the war dead. Atlanta civil rights memorials depict a sea of marchers moving as one. We see fewer statues to a single person of history, like those along
like those along Monument Avenue in Richmond. (http://www.monumenthouse.com/richmond/monument).

My Confederate cousin, Lyndon McGee Welborn, by most measures was an ordinary guy. He grew up on a family farm in North Carolina, the eighth child among 10. At age 21, when his home state finally seceded, he volunteered to defend his homeland. That was on May 31, 1861. By war’s end, Lyndon was but one among more than 600,000 who had died, almost all ordinary people.

As the 150th anniversary of the Civil War rolls out, I want not only to commemorate the extraordinary people – both Union and Confederate - of those extraordinary times, but also to remember the ordinary man. I want to honor Lyndon, who started out as a private in the Confederate army and was promoted to corporal along the way, as one of those ordinary men. But was he really ordinary?

While doing research for my Civil War book, I’ve come to see Lyndon as extraordinary in his own way.
Lyndon stuck with his comrades-in-arms despite his own doubts and his Pa’s opposition to secession and war. (There was no “Solid South” screaming for disunion.) Lyndon didn’t desert when desertion became rampant among fed-up troops from his neck of the woods, although he had many chances to do so. And, as his letters reflect, he performed at his personal best - right or wrong - until he died in 1863 while defending Richmond, the Confederacy’s capital.


As promised, I’m posting Lyndon’s first war-era letter, dated July 5, 1861. Private Welborn penned the letter in Warrenton, N.C., soon after he had volunteered for the standing Confederate army in Wilkesboro, N.C. Lyndon’s First Regiment of North Carolina Troops then mustered in Warrenton, just below the Virginia border. Go to

Lyndon wrote to his youngest brother, Robert. Robert lived on the family farm (some might call it a plantation) in Randolph County in west central North Carolina. Lyndon’s father Joseph, a widower, owned the inherited farm in the Yadkin River Valley. Joseph’s wife, Parthena, died in 1847, soon after giving birth to Robert, her last child. (In 1864, Robert will be drafted at age 17 to fight for the Confederacy. The Confederacy also will draft two more of Lyndon’s brothers.)

In transcribing the letter, I have placed spaces between sentences and have inserted paragraphs for clarity. All words in parentheses are mine.

A glimpse of Lyndon's letter. View full letter here.
Warrenton NC
July 5, 61

Dear brother, (Robert)

i received your kind letter yesterday with much gladness i was going to write to you today if i had not got your leter this makes two i have gotten one a good while ago but i have not forgoten it

you want me to tell you if we had any fighting to do yet we have not and i hop(e) we wil not have any to do i would like to see you all

we have got four Company in this Redgiment we all marched up in town

yasterday and they give us a fine dinner we had beans and rosten ears (roasted corn) and everything that was good

Pa asked me one question i don’t think that i answered that was about our Company and oficers Stokes is Promoted to Colonelship and has escepted (accepted) J.B. Gordon is our capton they have trated me very kindly so far

we have met with clever folks every whare we have went yet and have seen the most prety girls yasterday the Court house was cramdfull of ladies our Colonel and all of our captons made speaches and the ladies on hering this they wept biterly

we promisted them that they nead not fear the enamy for we would stop them if they don’t stop we don’t want to fight if we can shun it but if we have it to (do) we will do what we can for them none of you need not fear the enamy becaus we wil drive them back

we have ninety eight privates in our company it is the best company i hav seen I hav many friends in this company and would hate to leave them if i left them they would hav thought hard of me

i did not like to join they regulars without leting you Pa know it but all of them beged me to stay and I did not want to leave them after i had started if I had not joined i think that Frederick would have joined and i could not stay at home by my self

I would be very well Satisfied if Pa was but I don't feel that i am doing wright whe(n) i am doing any(thing) against his will

Robert read the 20th Chapter of Deuteronomy
keep reading...


I looked up Chapter 20 of Deuteronomy in the Bible’s Old Testament. Chances are Lyndon’s colonels and captains quoted this passage in their courthouse speeches, and for good reason. The verse reads: “When you go forth to war against your enemies, and see horses and chariots and an army larger than your own, you shall not be afraid of them, for the Lord your God is with you.”

Men fighting for both the Union and the Confederacy cited the Bible and claimed God was on their side. So much so that President Lincoln declared, “In great contests, each party claims to act in accordance with the will of God. Both may be, and one must be wrong. God cannot be for and against the same thing at the same time.” (Sept. 30, 1862) I suspect the Bible comforted Lyndon and many fellow warriors.

Soon I’ll post more on what I’ve discovered from Lyndon’s letter. I’ll tell about Hary (Harry), as well as brothers Elijah, Frederick and David – all mentioned in the letter - and what happened to Lyndon’s regiment.

As I post excerpts from my book, tentatively titled “Dear Father I Am Sorry To Tell You,” you’ll learn that Lyndon and his family were caught in a violent inner civil war that raged in parts of North Carolina. Many people throughout the South opposed secession and often were persecuted for their stand. The war’s 150th anniversary provides an opportunity to explore this often overlooked turmoil and offers a new way to commemorate the Civil War.

We Southerners are in transition, again redefining ourselves and trying to take our places in a more perfect union. What was right and what was wrong 150 years ago lay in a gray area and that’s still true today. Now is the time to rediscover long-buried facts; now is the time for reflection and choices.

In 1861 Lyndon made his choice. By the time he died in battle, he had done exactly what he said he’d do. He kept his word. In today’s world, maybe that makes him an extraordinary man.

COMING SOON: More letters from my Confederate ancestors

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

It’s Personal: A Displaced Southerner Contemplates The War

As the 150th anniversary of the firing on Fort Sumter approaches, interest in the Civil War is reaching fever pitch. Some want to commemorate it; some want to celebrate it; some just want to forget it. But most Americans, especially we Southerners, can’t overlook what novelist Robert Penn Warren called “the single great event of our history.” The Civil War imbues our DNA.

As one who had dozens of ancestors fight for the Confederacy – and some for the Union - I can’t forget about it. I grew up in the path of Sherman’s March, breakfasted on the sour grapes of defeat, distrusted Yankees and government, hated General Sherman, witnessed the Civil Rights era in a fog, and lived much of my life in Massachusetts, where I re-examined history through a new lens. I have much to say.


That’s why I’m embarking on a Civil War Odyssey of a personal kind. Not long ago, I found a treasure trove of war-era letters written by my ancestors. They were mainly from four North Carolina brothers, all Confederate soldiers, to each other and to their father, who opposed secession. The Civil War bug bit me.

I’m using the letters as a launching point for my Civil War Odyssey, which I invite you to join. I am visiting the places where my ancestors wrote their letters- including a training camp, an ironclad, and a hospital – and other Civil War sites that will help document their experiences. As I travel, conduct interviews and continue research, I’ll blog weekly.


This journey developed as part of a book I’m writing. The book proposal for my third history/travel book now lies in the hands of my literary agent. I’ve tentatively titled the creative nonfiction work Dear Father I Am Sorry To Tell You, taken from a letter by my ancestral cousin, Lyndon Welborn. In Lyndon’s first letter, written just after North Carolina seceded, he tells his upset Pa that he has volunteered for the First Regiment of North Carolina Troops.

Dear Father weaves one narrative from three stories: my memoir-like journey to come to terms with the Civil War; the war-era experiences of my ancestors; and, General Sherman’s March through the South. I follow Sherman’s brutal push and its well-known outcome to dramatically underscore the futility of the Welborn brothers’ sacrifices.


An important part of my odyssey is to explore and reflect on controversial issues historians often sweep under the rug: rapes by soldiers; suffering on the home front; misplaced notions of honor; the violent inner civil war in the South; and, shadowy stories about Sherman’s March to the Sea.

I’ll take an edgy, road less-traveled journey that should prove informative, provocative and worthwhile as we history buffs grapple with our horrifying and hypnotic past. My unfolding book, Dear Father, will offer a roadmap for the journey.

Check this blog each Tuesday and travel with me in my red Honda Odyssey to the places where the war exploded 150 years ago and where, today, we contemplate the single great event of our history in our minds and in our hearts. Welcome aboard.