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.