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.

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

The Drums of War: A Book, A Beating, A Trial, A Terrorist

Harriet Beecher Stowe
wrote "Uncle Tom's Cabin."
Beat! beat! drums! — blow! bugles! blow!  Through the windows — through the doors —  burst like a ruthless force. So wrote poet Walt Whitman as the Civil War consumed America.  In the years leading up to war, four people beat the drums of war so loudly the entire nation listened: abolitionist best-selling author Harriet Beecher Stowe;  Congressman Preston Brooks of South Carolina; Dred Scott, a slave who sued for his freedom; and America’s first home-grown terrorist, John Brown.

This quartet, by word or deed, hit regular folks in the gut, reduced complex issues to understandable terms, and helped galvanize opposing factions beyond reason and debate.   

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

S.C. Congressman Preston
Brooks let his cane do the talking.
            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, though often disguised as “a way of life,” or “states' rights.”  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."
            Slavery tormented Lincoln’s nation; the North's fiery abolitionist movement and the South’s violent counter tactics swept the country toward war.  Key events inflamed regional rage.
Dred Scott sued to win his
freedom in a non-slave state.
            In 1852, author Harriet Beecher Stowe completed “Uncle Tom’s Cabin,” a blockbuster novel that recounted the horrors of slavery. When President Lincoln met Stowe in 1862, he supposedly said, “So you are the little woman who wrote the book that started this great war!”
            In 1856, South Carolina Congressman Preston Brooks viciously beat Massachusetts Senator Charles Sumner to unconsciousness with Sumner’s own walking cane on the floor of the U.S. Senate.  Brooks held that Sumner, leader of anti-slavery forces in Massachusetts, was beneath a gentlemanly challenge to a duel.  Three days earlier, Sumner had made a fiery anti-slavery speech that offended pro-slavery southerners and Brooks’ family personally.
            The badly injured Sumner, a Puritan descendant who favored equal civil rights for black Americans, couldn’t return to the Senate for three years.  A battle between icons of two polar-opposite states ended a history of words-only fighting at the Capitol. The North lionized Sumner; the South worshiped Brooks. 
John Brown raided the federal
arsenal at Harper's Ferry.
            In 1857, the Supreme Court ruled that slave Dred Scott - and thus all slaves - had no right to U.S. citizenship. The ruling said Scott could not sue in Federal Court where he had sought remedy, and he must remain a slave even in a non-slave state.  In 1859, John Brown and a group of men raided the federal arsenal at Harper’s Ferry, Virginia.  His radical plan to steal weapons and lead a slave uprising solidified northern abolitionists, who praised his terrorist tactics, comparing him to Jesus.  What a slap in the face of Bible-belt Southerners.
            A book, a beating, a trial and a terrorist thumped the drums of war.  Eventually, everyone heard.

Wrote Whitman:  So strong you thump. O terrible drums – so loud you bugles blow.