Tuesday, March 15, 2011

One Soldier's Matter of the Heart

Last week I posted a letter from my ancestor, Elijah M. Welborn.  Elijah wrote the letter to his father, Joseph, who lived in nearby Randolph County, N.C.  Joseph, a farmer and widowed father of 10, apparently objected to secession and to his middle son Lyndon’s joining the Confederate army.  This excerpt from Elijah’s letter has stayed on my mind:

June 4th 1861

Dear Father
            …..if it was nessessary that Lyndon should go at all perhaps he has done the best for him self that he could have done
            So it is not worth your while to fret yourself about it a-tall for your children will do as they pleas any how
            I broke up his cortship      perhaps had I not done that he would not have vollenteered
no more but I remain you son
E.M Welborn (Elijah)

Young men volunteered to fight on both sides of the Civil War for such a variety of reasons that reducing their decisions to such simple phrases as “to preserve the Union,” “ to defend states’ rights,” “to end slavery,” and “ to keep slavery” seems ridiculous.  Warriors also took up arms for personal reasons: adventure, camaraderie, a square meal or a paycheck.  A reason for 21- year-old Lyndon McGee Welborn might have been romance gone wrong, or to use Victorian-sounding language, a matter of the heart.

Why did Elijah, a prosperous farmer and respected community leader 12 years older than Lyndon, break up his brother’s courtship?  I’ve been thinking about this a lot.  Matters of the heart echo family themes.

From my book-in-progress, Dear Father I Am Sorry To Tell You:

My ancestral cousin Lyndon McGee
          Welborn's hand-carved headstone stands
           in the historic Welborn-Bell cemetery
          in rural Randolph County, N.C.
In time, the warehouse became too crowded for the broken bicycle Dad was riding when a man drove his car onto the sidewalk and hit him.  The collision broke his arm.  Dad parked the pumpkin-colored bicycle against the back of the warehouse, where it kept company with a scrap pile, a two-toned Desoto with foot-high tail fins and a 1961 baby-blue Chrysler. In this winged chariot, Dad traveled the Southeast as a salesman for a Kansas City ladies coat and suit firm, a job that ended for him in heartache and another heart attack. Old oil stoves, an iron grain scale, and barrels of sorghum salvaged from his life as a wholesale grocer huddled under the warehouse eaves until after Dad died. 
The bicycle became Exhibit A in Dad’s series of life lessons to his children:  Damn fools are everywhere like that bastard who hit me on the sidewalk.
 He also warned:  Never go barefoot.  Park under a streetlight at night.  Exercise every day. Eat all kinds of foods but be moderate. Vote for the least-dangerous son-of-a-bitch.  Lock the doors and check ‘em twice.  Pick the ends off bananas. Don’t fall for no kook.
I asked Dad how I’d know a kook if I met one.
My Father,  Ed Welborn
“You’ll know,” he said. It became a running joke.
“Dad, tell me what you mean by kook. I could fall for one.”
“You’ll know.”             
I suspected Dad’s definition of kook included Yankees, along with the usual suspects:  Communists, “pointy-headed intellectuals,” drunks, bureaucrats, “Hollywood nuts,” atheists, “money monkeys,” liberals and journalists.  I failed to pry specifics from him.  I went about life a free agent, subject to signing on with a kook.
Years after my father died at 59, I married a Jersey boy.  He was smart, but as far as I could tell, he wasn’t a pointy-headed intellectual, and being a journalist, I figured he wasn’t a money monkey or Hollywood nut. 
Why did Elijah break up Lyndon’s courtship?  Did Lyndon fall for a kook? 

England’s Queen Victoria had ruled nearly 25 years when the American Civil War erupted. During Victoria’s 60-year reign, dubbed the Victorian era, fashion food, art, architecture, literature, population and politics underwent a decided shift toward excess and cultivated sensibility.

In America, Euro-worshipping, old-money elites - especially those in the more populated and wealthy New England states and cotton-growing Deep South states – defined the country’s Victoria era. The rich tried to out-do each other at every turn, and the middle class tried to emulate the lifestyles of the rich and famous, a lifestyle made possible for many in Confederate states by slaves.

As in England, young love in Victorian America was highly romanticized. The pain of courtship broken up by an older brother, possibly wiser or merely meddlesome, might have prompted my ancestral cousin to stumble into a life-altering decision.  

On a Virginia battlefield almost three years after he volunteered to fight for the Confederacy, Lyndon was killed in action defending Richmond, the Confederate capital. Pa Joseph brought his son home and buried him in the family cemetery near his mother, Parthena.  

When Joseph died in the spring of 1875 at age 84, he was buried next to Lyndon.


See PHOTOS page for Lyndon’s grave.  You can find Elijah’s full letter on THE LETTERS page. For conversation, go to COMMENT page.