Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Almost Innocently Stumbling Into War

(The Civil War) is the story of a crime of monstrous inhumanity, into which almost innocently men stumbled. ­– Robert Penn Warren

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

          Interesting in joining my Cyber Focus Group?  See information at end of blog.

If you tune out the cars, trucks and motorcycles that corrupt Warrenton’s tree-shaded Main Street today, and if you ignore the latte-serving coffee shops, gasoline stations and Wi-Fi hot spots that inhabit historic buildings, it seems little has changed in this picturesque municipality since the turbulent 1860s.
Present-day courthouse
in  Warrenton, N.C.
            Soon after the Civil War broke out, Warrenton, ten miles south of Virginia, became a hornet’s nest of activity.  At nearby Fort Edwards, North Carolina’s first Confederate troops organized before marching north to banish the enemy from their homeland.  In July 1861, my ancestral cousin Lyndon trained with his new regiment at a horse racetrack just outside of town.  Two weeks later, the regiment was ordered to Richmond. To find out more, I set out for Warrenton.   
I traveled I-85 through the Carolinas. Just below the Virginia border, I took Highway 158 east toward Warrenton.  The asphalt ribbon meandered through forests of skinny loblolly pines, family farms with American flags waving from porches, and trailers scattered like weeds on manicured lawns.  Abandoned tractors gawked from baking tobacco fields.  I steered the Odyssey past the 1890 Browns Baptist Church near Boney Lambford Road, a housing development named Sherwood Forest, and a sign warning that cows might cross the road ahead.  On the outskirts of town, the ubiquitous Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Highway took me to Warrenton’s historic business district.
            Tiny Warrenton’s eight hundred residents want the world to know their town’s big history. Warrenton’s official website offers a virtual tour of fine old homes, quaint shops and notable churches. Tasteful brochures promote a downtown walking tour and a driving tour of the county.
            Warren County took its name from a Massachusetts doctor killed during the American Revolution at the Battle of Bunker Hill.  The area today is economically depressed, but in 1861 Warren County reigned as the richest county in North Carolina. It even owned its own railroad, which of course Sherman’s men destroyed.
            I had no trouble finding a parking spot along Main Street. First stop: the Warren County Courthouse.  The charming, red brick building, built in 1906, dominates downtown from a grassy hill shaded by oaks and adorned with a monument to Confederate soldiers, “Our Heroes.”    The current courthouse replaced a courthouse built in the mid-1850s that burned down. The 1850s courthouse had replaced the town’s original frame courthouse, built in 1786.  A fire also destroyed that courthouse.
Monument to Confederate
war dead at courthouse
            At the clerk of court’s office at the end of a broad entrance hall, I asked a trio of ladies how I could learn of the town’s Civil War history. One woman ducked away and returned 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.
            I asked Hunter if he could tell me anything about events at the courthouse in 1861.  Hunter pointed to a framed photograph hanging on the back wall, one among many historic photos and documents. The 1850s courthouse in the photograph, Hunter explained, would have been standing when the state’s Civil War regiments gathered.   The photo showed a brick building with four massive Corinthian columns on a wide portico.  The two-story courthouse looked more like a temple built in ancient Greece than a courthouse erected in a 19th-century, rural Southern state. 
            “So that’s what my ancestor saw when he came into town?” I asked, thrilled at my discovery. 
            “More than likely,” Hunter confirmed.
            I stared at the photograph.  I imagined Lyndon’s regiment gathered at the courthouse, a summer-sweet breeze whispering in their ears and women’s wails stirring their souls, as their chest-thumping commanders nudged their flock along the path of righteousness.

NOTE:  I am posting this letter from my Confederate ancestor  Lyndon McGee Welborn again, since this is where it appears in the book. 

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 letter     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 hope we will not have any to do       i would like to see you all  
we have got four Company in this Regiment       we all marched up in town
yesterday and they give us a fine dinner        we had beans and rosten (roasted corn) ears and everything that was good   
            Pa asked me one question I don’t think that I answered      that was about our Company       oficer Stokes is Promoted to Colonelship and has escepted (accepted)     J.B. Gordon is our capton      they have treted me very kindly so far                  
            we have met with clever folks everywhere we have went yet and have seen the most pretty girls       Yesterday the Court house was cramdfull of ladies       our Colonel and all of our captons made speeches 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 will 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 the 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 when i am doing anything against his will   

Want To Join My Cyber Focus Group?

As I write my creative nonfiction book about the Civil War legacy, tentatively titled Dear Father I’m Sorry To Tell You, I’m looking for people to participate in a cyber focus group.  The online participants will read excerpts, and possibly whole chapters, from the book-in-progress.

After I select the focus group, I’ll post questions to get feedback about such issues as the book’s organization, narrative/plot and characters. Responses will help me rework passages and plot and craft the remainder of the book.  And, I'll give credit where credit is due on my Facebook page.

If you’re interested in joining the group, please visit my Facebook page and complete the short Cyber Focus questionnaire for consideration. You’ll find it by visiting!/CivilWarOdyssey?sk=app_201143516562748  or by clicking on the “Cyber Focus Group” button on my Facebook page.

I’m excited about this new adventure.  I hope many of the 1,279 visitors that have checked out Civil War Odyssey with Author B.J. Welborn will join the conversation. I will select and notify the cyber focus group participants in the next few months.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

It’s The Perfect Time To Debate Civil War’s Cause

Is it just “stirring the pot” to discuss the cause of the Civil War during its 150th anniversary or does debating lead to a better understanding of history?  
Depiction of Fort Sumter
in Charleston Harbor, S.C. 
The chair of the South Carolina Civil War Sesquicentennial Advisory Board argues that we in South Carolina should not be debating the cause beyond what’s necessary for “genuine discussion.”  Instead, writes Dr. Eric Emerson in The State newspaper in Columbia, S.C., we should “concentrate on those tangible links to the past that not only capture our attention, but also fire our imaginations (letters, visit to a slave cabin, or look at a battle flag and artifacts) that generate interest, curiosity and education.” 

I couldn’t disagree more. Although I applaud the idea that we should use the sesquicentennial to connect to history by participating in the many wonderful events at hand and encourage “enlightened debate,” Dr. Emerson threw cold water on my enthusiasm by saying  “At the center of the debate are the two competing claims for the war’s primary cause: slavery and states’ rights.”

Let me address Dr. Emerson’s last statement first:  Really?  We can only choose between slavery and states’ rights as the war’s cause?  Setting aside the fact that these choices essentially are one and the same (since states’ rights meant the preservation of slavery), what about preserving the Union?  That cause deserves at least passing comment. 

Even here in South Carolina, many saw the U.S. Constitution as more than a gentleman’s agreement that could be freely joined and freely abandoned.

As for Dr. Emerson’s assertion that “the next four years should not be a referendum on the war’s causes…because if South Carolinians come to the end of the sesquicentennial with only an understanding of why the war began, then the commemoration has been a failure.”  Really?

I counter that if the Civil War commemoration helps us understand why the war began and the state’s role in a war that cost 620,000 American lives and decades of hardship in the South, the sesquicentennial will have been a great success. Then we might get past our genteel Southern fear of controversy to examine, debate and reflect about America’s complex history.   

We must seize the moment to scrutinize the Civil War legacy that paved the way for our state’s current “plantation politics” that continue to protect the “haves” and ignore the “have-nots,” as if they don’t count or remain three-fifths a person, as slaves were enumerated in the census of 1860.  We must note that African Americans, mostly descendants of slaves, comprise nearly one-third of the state’s population; that nearly 13 percent of the people in the state live in poverty; and that only 55 percent of its youth graduate from high school on time.  These statistics place South Carolina at the bottom of the barrel nationally when it comes to quality of life for many of its people.
Although debating the Civil War’s causes – and there are many beyond slavery and states’ rights – seems enigmatic, effacing, even embarrassing to many of us, that’s no reason to ignore it or squash sometimes heated discussion about it. The war’s 150th anniversary presents the perfect time to study the Civil War’s true history, realize its sad legacy, heal our current wounds, and have South Carolina take its place in a more perfect Union.

Find Dr. Emerson’s guest column in The State at EMERSON.
Do you think we should examine the cause of the Civil War during the war's sesquicentennial?  Go to COMMENT to post your reply. 

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

The Long Shadow of Fort Sumter

didn't visit Fort Sumter until I was an adult, but I'd heard stories of the little-fort-that-could most of my life from my Dad, a Civil War buff.  In 1961, the Civil War Centennial year, Dad apparently sneaked time from his job as a traveling salesman to attend commemoration events in Charleston, S.C., where this week a chock-full calendar of 150th anniversary activities has attracted thousands of visitors and the attention of the world.  

My father, Ed Welborn, placed this commemorative
envelope in my hands in 1961, during the Civil War
Centennial.  The postmark bears the words "First Day of
Issue."  The envelope is signed by Ernest F. "Fritz"  Hollings,
 then the 106th governor of
South Carolina, and postmaster  Roland F. Wooten.
Hollings later represented South Carolina in the U.S. Senate. 
Fifty years ago, the war's centennial celebration unfolded against the turbulent backdrop of the Civil Rights movement. Commemoration events reflected the times; they were largely white only and had a decidedly pro-Confederate feel. This time, things clearly are different.  (For more about the anniversary of the firing on Fort Sumter, go to

On a Friday evening back in '61, Dad returned to our small North Carolina town, surrounded by Civil War battlefields, smack in the path of Union General Sherman's march, and dotted with Confederate graves.  (He usually left home on Monday mornings and returned from his sales travels on Fridays.)  Into my little-girl hands, he placed a gray envelope he had purchased in Charleston.  Dad bought the first day cover for my stamp collection, but I tucked the envelope away, discovering its hiding place only recently as I began research for my latest book.

I still remember Dad's stories of the Confederate forces that began shelling the Union-held Fort Sumter at 4:30 a.m. on April 12, 1861. For 34 hours, rebels hurled more than 3,000 artillery and mortar shells at the diminutive garrison.  Union troops surrendered the fort on April 14; Confederate troops held it throughout the war. During the Union siege that began on April 7, 1863, the little fort endured another 44,000 projectiles, about 7 million pounds of ordnance.  (For more, go to Fort Sumter Numbers.) Fort Sumter became a symbol of the Confederate defiance and Union resolve that stretched the Civil War to four grueling years.
The history-altering events that exploded at Fort Sumter 150 years ago cast a long shadow, still fueling debate, uncovering truths, and teaching lessons.  At best, we should commemorate the Civil War anniversary not as just part of our history, but as a sobering reminder of its high cost.  

As I do so, I'm also going to remember my father and the first day cover that never made it to my stamp album.   
From my book-in-progress, Dear Father I Am Sorry To Tell You:

Many nights I’d find Dad studying his Civil War books at the fold-down desk-and-shelf unit he had never finished in his and Mamma’s bedroom. He sat in a folding chair, cigar smoke swirling around his horned rim glasses and settling into his dark, Brylcreemed hair.  With a big magnifying glass, he examined the books’ battlefield maps, charts and tables. I dared not disturb him.
As a young man, being the oldest child, Dad quit college to help support his mother, brothers and sisters after his father, my grandfather George Grant Welborn, fell mysteriously ill.  But Dad’s love of books and his curiosity about nearly everything didn’t fade. He thought his kids should learn about the Civil War, so he took us for picnics at nearby Averasboro and Bentonville battlegrounds, where Confederates fought Sherman’s troops. 
After our picnic lunch, we’d roam the hallowed grounds looking for spent Minié balls and belt buckles and gaze reverently at fallen heroes’ graves.  I bowed my head at the tombstones as instructed, but I didn’t understand Dad’s interest in war’s suffering and death.  I didn’t get his fascination for Saturday afternoon wrestling on the television, either. 

For more on my Fort Sumter visit, go to  PHOTOS page. 
RESOURCES: Washington, Wayne. “S.C. To Mark Start of Momentous, Tragic War," The State. Dec. 19, 2011. 

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

On The Charleston Waterfront, Up Close and Personal

What if I had been at Charleston Harbor in the wee hours of January 9, 1861?  I asked this question of myself, inspired by the on-the-scene reporting of antebellum literary luminary William Gilmore Simms during General Sherman’s sacking of Columbia (March 29 blog).

Maj. Peter F.
In early 1861, a corps of Cadets from The Citadel fired 17 shots at a non-military merchant steamer, Star of the West, chugging toward federally held Fort Sumter. The steamer's mission was to deliver supplies and men to the fort,  a symbol of the Union. South Carolina’s Gov. Francis Pickens had been warned about the covert mission.  Naturally this displeased the leader of the first state to secede from the Union back in December. 

Near daybreak, cadets from the Southern military academy fired the first hostile shots leading up to the Civil War. Maj. Peter Fayssoux Stevens commanded the unit of the Citadel, located at the tip of the Charleston peninsula.  Stevens, 30, graduated first in his class from the Citadel in 1849. Smart, religious and respected, Stevens went on to become the academy’s superintendent and later first bishop of the Reformed Episcopal Church.  

In my interview scenario, I approach Major Stevens, organizing his young men on the Charleston waterfront with the demeanor of an aristocrat and of a top-drawer military leader.

 “Major Stevens, sir, why are you doing this?”  I asked.

“I am a soldier," he answered. "I follow orders. Governor Pickens ordered it. He was duly elected by the people.  The governor expects me to carry out the will of the people.”

Historic Map of Charleston Harbor. Fort Sumter sits
mid-harbor.  Citadel cadets fired from Sullivan's
Island just north of the fort.
“But, sir, the majority of the people of South Carolina – 57 percent – are slaves. They can’t vote,” I pointed out  “And women, sir… they make up about half of the free population in the state.  They can’t vote either.“ 

“Yes, ma’am, but leaders of our state voted unanimously to walk away from the Union, which we freely joined," Stevens said. "What we can freely join we can freely leave." 

“When you speak of the political leaders of the state, you mean representatives in  the Secession Convention in 1860?” I asked. 

Stevens managed a nod of agreement then barked directions to his cadets.

“But, sir," I ventured, "one hundred percent of the 171 delegates voting at that convention were white males… and  90 percent of them owned slaves.  Even in South Carolina, most people didn’t own slaves, so how…..?

"It’s called democracy,” Stevens said, obviously wishing I would leave Sullivan’s Island, where the cadets had set up base.  “Besides, ma’am, this country is so big and states are so different, did anyone really think one government could run the whole thing?” he snapped.  “As for the Constitution, it preserves our sovereign rights as a state. That includes our right to walk away from the Union.”

“A gentleman’s agreement?” I wondered aloud.

Stevens couldn’t let that remark slide.

“War is inevitable,” he said above the clamor. “Blame it on our Founding Fathers. Our democracy preserves states’ rights – and slavery."

I scribbled the word “democracy,” in my notebook.  Stevens had a point.  The Constitutional  Convention of 1787 compromised with Southern leaders to ensure economic security, accommodated by slavery, to get the Constitution signed.  The founding document allowed slaves to be counted as three-fifths of a person for the purpose of representation.
More to Stevens' point, representative democracy allows Americans to hand over to their political leaders their hard-won, “by-the-people” privileges, to the point that most don’t even vote.  In the hotly contested presidential election of 2008, only 57 percent of eligible voters cast a ballot, but that marked a record high.  

The first promise of sunlight shot across the black-violet sky.  The Star of the West bobbed on distant waves.

“Sorry, ma’am,” Major Stevens said in an imperious yet courtly manner. “You must hasten to depart.”  The Citadel men scurried about the battery, giddiness mingling with the sobering reality that their actions might provide a flashpoint for war.  They readied the cannons. The Star of the West eased into range.

“Commence firing!” Major Stevens yelled.

First Classman George Edward Haynseworth pulled the lanyard on Gun Number 1. Cannons exploded again and again for ten minutes from Morris Island. Ear-splitting ordnance swished toward the bow of the merchant steamer. Although avoiding a direct hit, the Star of the West’s supplies never reached Fort Sumter.  The ship turned back.

Within days, the handful of Union troops who had fled Charleston to Fort Sumter, reduced nearly to rubble, ceremoniously left it. Fort Sumter stayed in Confederate hands throughout the war, an inspiring symbol of defiance.   

Some historians consider the cadets' surreptitious actions under the command of Major P. F. Stevens the first shots of the American Civil War. Confederate bombardment of Fort Sumter followed in April 1861, escalating the standoff that would devastate the South, threaten to collapse a country not yet 75 years old, and claim the lives of about 620,000 Americans. 

It was the will of the people. 

RESOURCES:  U.S Census of 1860; Bordewich, Fergus M. “The Civil War Begins,” Smithsonian, 2011. “ Major Peter F. Stevens, SCM (1859-1861), The CITADEL online. Citadel cadets participate in Civil War reenactments and living history events through the Citadel Living History Society. For information go to Citadel Living History Society.

NOTE: Because of a storm-related electrical outage on Tuesday, this blog was posted a day late.