Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Abraham Lincoln: Man In The Middle

This past Monday, Americans celebrated Presidents Day. It’s a day set aside for combined tribute to our first president, George Washington, and our sixteenth president, Abraham Lincoln. It's been 150 years since Lincoln took office, right after seven states had left the Union, but mention Lincoln today, and emotions still roil.

At a Civil War battle reenactment not long ago in Tunnel Hill, Ga., I interviewed two re-enactors from Tennessee. In the course of our conversation, I asked them what they thought of President Abraham Lincoln. Here’s what one re-enactor, who that day wore a Union uniform but usually reenacted as a Confederate soldier, said.

From the book-in-progress, Dear Father I’m Sorry To Tell You:

“He killed over a half million Americans and he’s a hero?” he sputtered, referring to the Civil War death toll of about 620,000. “He gets a statue! If I had my way they’d put him on trial and hang him. Southern states had the right to secede and they wanted to do that peacefully. But Lincoln decided that could not be and invaded the South.”

Picture of President Lincoln in the
Compton's Pictured Encyclopedia
of my childhood home.
My mind flashed to the time I looked up Abraham Lincoln in the “KL” volume of the Compton’s Pictured Encyclopedia in my childhood library. A sepia picture of a bearded Lincoln stared at me with sadly human eyes. Across Abe’s forehead, in the measured script of my older sister, was penciled: “You make me sick !!!” She also had drawn horns on his head and a mustache on his upper lip. (Encyclopedia, 1956 edition, page pictured at right.)

My three siblings and I grew up around North Carolina battlefields and in the path of Sherman's March. Old emotions and long-held loyalties shaped our young views of the Confederacy, Yankees and Lincoln. We were Southerners, stubbornly separated from a more perfect union and proud of it. Now, as adults, we see things more like what's written in our history books - although young students now seem to know but the barest storyline of our nation.

History generally has heaped praise on the lawyer son of a Kentucky frontiersman. Here’s what Wikipedia currently has to say:

Abraham Lincoln (February 12, 1809 – April 15, 1865) served as the 16th President of the United States from March 1861 until his assassination in April 1865. He successfully led the country through its greatest constitutional, military and moral crisis—the American Civil War--by preserving the Union by force while ending slavery and promoting economic modernization.

Historians credit Lincoln with ending slavery in America because he issued the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863. This astute – and heartfelt I am convinced - political move galvanized the Union’s will to fight as the Civil War dragged on. (For more go to http://www.archives.gov/exhibits/featured_documents/emancipation_proclamation/.)

In 1861, seceding states feared and derided the new president from Illinois. Some Southern leaders saw him as a threat to the Southern way of life, to states' rights – and to the institution bound up in these reasons: slavery.

For proof, at least in the cradle of rebellion, read the Declaration of Causes included in the South Carolina Ordinance of Secession at http://www.sonofthesouth.net/leefoundation/secession_causes.htm.

See PHOTO page for more on President Lincoln.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Spring 1861: Change Marches Into Wilkesboro, N.C.

Only a year had passed since the Declaration of Independence shook the world in 1776 when Wilkes County, flung across the edge of North Carolina’s Blue Ridge Mountains, took shape. A fledgling government formed in the “Mulberry Hills” land that Moravians had acquired in 1752 from the Cherokee Nation. By 1801, Wilkesboro, the new county seat, boasted a courthouse at the center of a 50-acre public square. A sprinkling of public buildings, stocks and a brick jailhouse - soon to hold Confederate supplies and Union prisoners - opened for business.

My Civil War odyssey along the paths of my Confederate ancestors this week takes me to Wilkesboro. I began my online journey recently in my current hometown, Columbia, S.C.

Today, several buildings survive, including the old jail, where the murderer Tom Dula (later immortalized in song as Tom Dooley) served time; the 1849 St. Paul's Episcopal Church; and the Robert Cleveland House, circa 1770. The second generation of the Revolutionary War-era “Tory Tree” now stands in a grass circle surrounded by paved streets in what once was the public square. The 20-foot black oak sapling recalls the tree where captured military Tories (British loyalists) were hanged.

Go to PHOTO page for more on Wilkesboro.

The old Tory Oak (photo, right, taken at a 1915 Confederate Veterans Reunion) still whispered tales of Revolutionary heroism when my Confederate ancestor, Lyndon McGee Welborn, gathered in the public square.

It was May 31, 1861, right after North Carolina became the tenth southern state to leave the Union. Lyndon came to the town along the Yadkin River with other mountain men from Wilkes and surrounding counties. They were answering a call that would change their lives, their homeland and America forever.

From my book-in-progress, “Dear Father I’m Sorry To Tell You:” (Copyright B.J. Welborn. Book excerpt cannot be reproduced or reposted in any way without the written permission of B.J. Welborn.)

In spring 1861, on sacred soil of the great Cherokee Nation, in the fabled land of Daniel Boone, where the world’s first-known Siamese twins Chang and Eng Bunker retired to bucolic peace and married mountain-girl sisters, an important gathering took place shortly after spring crops had been planted.

One of western North Carolina’s most prominent citizens, Montford Sidney Stokes Jr., had organized a rally in Wilkesboro, county seat of Wilkes County. Stokes called the rally to attract recruits to the forming Confederate army.

Stokes, son of a Revolutionary War POW, was a former U.S. senator and North Carolina governor. Stokes’ longtime friend, James Byron Gordon, a large landowner regarded as Wilkes County’s most successful businessman, joined Stokes' endeavor.

Troops from Southern states that had joined the Confederacy before North Carolina finally had come around already were converging in the South’s big cities, preparing for battle. Equally enthusiastic Northern troops poured into Washington. Hundreds of North Carolina men bucked the Southern tide and signed up with the Union. This was not an unexpected development in the long, narrow state where internal political battles between the wealthy, plantation-elite in the East and the independent farmers of the West had raged since Colonial days.

Now, as North Carolina began to break its Union shackles, the state's East-West split intensified, as did the Old North State's battle for young warriors.

Stokes, born on his family plantation, Mourne Rouge, fifty years before the Wilkesboro rally, was a graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis. In the war with Mexico, he had distinguished himself as an able, courageous and popular officer of the N.C. Volunteers. When the Mexican-American War ended, his men presented Stokes with a gold-and-silver sword in a show of their admiration.

(Courthouse building today, above left, houses Wilkes Heritage Museum.)

A tall, athletic man, self-consciousness about his size, Stokes was an outgoing and prosperous farmer, courteous to everyone, including his slaves. The people of Wilkes County, flung across the rolling eastern slope of the Blue Ridge Mountains, regarded Stokes as the consummate Southern Gentleman.

Gordon, a thirty-nine year old merchant of Scottish stock, had a nose for politics, an eye for possibilities and a mouth cursed by a stutter. He had vigorously represented his Wilkes County brethren in the state legislature in Raleigh. His grateful constituents considered Gordon a gallant genius and a courtly wizard of mercantile, and they awarded him their trust and respect, something mountain people meted out reluctantly.

Irish, German and especially English emigrants, intoxicated with freedom, land and dreams, first settled Wilkes County. The settlers of English descent came largely from other colonies. These Englishmen included the Wellborne family of Virginia, whose members rose to political and commercial influence and had intertwined with the Stokes family through marriage.

The Wilkes County settlers staked land claims, toiled their hilly farms, and fought indigenous Indians until the Red Man virtually fled the valley. In 1777, soon after the cannons of the Revolutionary War roared, a county government formally took shape. The county took its name to honor an infamous English politician of the era, John Wilkes, member of the British Parliament and son of a wealthy whiskey distiller.

Whether an irony or a consequence, America would later dub Wilkes County the “Moonshine Capital of the World” for its illegal white lightning brewed in clandestine stills. (Heritage Museum display below.)

In England, John Wilkes had criticized his country's controlling Tory party and championed American independence. As a journalist, he fought for the right of voters to directly elect representatives to the House of Commons and for printers to publish verbatim accounts of Parliamentary debates, a courageous public call for freedom of the press.

Wilkes, despite his reputation as the ugliest man in England, exuded personal charm and political charisma and excelled at snappy repartee. He boasted it "took only half an hour to talk away my face.” Eventually Wilkes’s radical and sometimes violent tendencies subsided with age. His popularity waned. He lost his seat in Parliament and retired. He died in 1797.

Englishmen who settled across the Atlantic hailed Wilkes as a hero who suffered for freedom, something worshiped in the states. South Carolina’s assembly voted to help pay off Wilkes’s political debts. American parents named their children after him. One baby boy with the surname Booth would grow up to become a matinee idol and President Lincoln's assassin.

Many Revolutionary War heroes, protagonists in their own tales of valor, had once called Wilkes County home. In 1861, it was amid legacies of patriotism that Sidney Stokes and J.B. Gordon addressed the mountain boys who restlessly gathered in Wilkesboro’s public square, including 21-year-old Lyndon McGee Welborn. Lyndon had traveled from rural Wilkes County, where he worked near or on a farm owned by his oldest brother Elijah. He had come to Wilkes County with a younger brother, Frederick, from his father's Yadkin Valley farm where he was born.

Stokes and Gordon called for warriors willing to lay down their lives for the Confederate cause. They couldn't have known that both of them, as well as almost every one of the more than one hundred men gathered in the town square, including Lyndon, were destined to die in battle before war’s end.

But on that fine May day in Wilkesboro, cursing and liquor flowed as freely as speechifying and bravado. Recorded one rally participant, “at least 1/2-dozen fights broke out.”

QUESTION: WAS THE CIVIL WAR INEVITABLE? Robert Penn Warren said in his book "The Legacy of the Civil War," (highly recommended) that the Civil War was America's first big test of the virtues embodied in the U.S. Constitution. He wrote that the Founding Fathers' "vision had not been finally submitted to the test of history. There was little awareness of the cost of having a history.....(The vision) became a reality, and we became a nation, only with the Civil War." Go to COMMENT page to answer.

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Columbia Today: Symbol Of Southern House Divided

My travels begin anew. I’m taking off from my current hometown, Columbia, capital of South Carolina, cradle of the rebellion 150 years ago. When I moved here after 16 years in Massachusetts, culture shock nearly electrocuted me. Sure, I’m Southern born and bred, but in 1999 the Bay State and the Palmetto State occupied opposite ends of America’s cultural and political spectrum. It took some getting used to. It still does.

In the decade since I set up house in South Carolina, things have changed, even regarding the Civil War. As evidence, I offer Columbia itself. During the Civil War anniversary, people in The Capital City have been strangely silent about “The War Between the States.”

Some organizations are celebrating like it’s 1961, when the Civil War 100th anniversary took place, but most officials and groups remain quiet. The Sons of Confederate Veterans recently held a historically themed “Secession Ball” in Charleston. News reports centered on the controversy surrounding the event; that's been the lion's share of anniversary events commentary.

When it comes to the Civil War, South Carolina, like the South, apparently is a house divided. Columbia symbolizes this modern schism.

Consider this:
· The S.C. State House grounds, 18 acres dominating Columbia’s downtown, epitomize the crosscurrents of change. At the building’s north entrance, the 30-foot Confederate Monument, erected in 1879, and adjacent Confederate flag on a 20-foot pole dominate the scene.

The state legislature decreed the flag should fly atop the State House dome in the early sixties, during the Civil War Centennial, as the Civil Rights movement unfolded. It flew there until 2000, when protracted protests swelled. (Photo top right.) In a compromise, the flag now flies at the monument.

Protests continue, especially on the annual Martin Luther King Jr. Day in January. (South Carolina was the last state to make the day a paid state holiday.) On the annual Confederate Memorial Day in May, re-enactors guard the monument. (Photo at right.)

· Another aspect of the compromise about the flag was agreement to build a privately funded African American History Monument (photo right) near the State House visitor entrance. Twelve bronze panels depict powerful scenes of S.C. history. A replica of a slave boat and rubbing stones from regions of Africa where S.C.-bound slaves were captured provide moving commentary. The state dedicated the monument in 2001.

This 25-foot curved wall now stands amid statues of state leaders who variously championed the Confederacy, status quo during the Civil Rights movement, and roadblocks to social, cultural and political change.

Go to PHOTO page for more on Columbia, S.C., Symbol of A Fading Confederacy. The photos include the Confederate Printing Plant, now a Publix supermarket at Gervais and Huger streets, and the historic First Baptist Church, where leaders met in 1860 to debate the S.C. Order of Secession, later adopted in Charleston.

I’ll have more on Columbia later, as the April anniversary of the firing on Fort Sumter approaches.


QUESTION: Do you think the Civil War embarrasses Southerners?
Please go to COMMENT page to respond.
Shirt from MLK Day 2000
Here's food for thought in an excerpt from my book-in-progress:
My newfound blood ties to the Civil War and my recent move from Massachusetts to South Carolina provided a catalyst. I needed answers to questions that had long dogged me, and now, as Robert Penn Warren put it, invaded my personal present.

I returned south at the dawn of the millennium from the Bay State, where I moved with my husband early in our marriage. We lived there sixteen years. In Massachusetts, I constantly was reminded of my Southerness, my otherness. No more than two days ever passed that a perfect stranger, hearing my accent, didn't ask where I was from, as if the way I talked invited scrutiny and suspicion.

To my friends in Massachusetts, polar opposite state from South Carolina, the proper side won the Civil War, which was waged because of the South's treason and slavery. They saw Sherman as a hero. I gradually accepted much of their point of view; it had been stealthily advancing on me long before I left North Carolina. Still, I felt like a traitor.

But coming to the cradle of the rebellion, I felt separate from the culture and isolated from neighbors with southern accents that now actually sounded strange to me. I longed for something beyond the knee-jerk answers I'd heard growing up to long-standing questions: Did the average Confederate fight to defend slavery or to preserve agrarian virtues and the most stable way of life? Was Sherman’s March a noble cause, necessary to end the war, or did Sherman inflict gratuitous pain on civilians and spiritually divide America forever?

And now, this question: Wouldn't it be best for the country if we just put the Civil War behind us or at least quit glorifying it?

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Feb. 1, 1861: Texas Secession Advances Disunion

Feb. 1, 1861: A young nation shudders as disunion advances. On this date, Texas sided with the six Southern states that already had seceded from the Union. South Carolina first pounded the drums of war in late December 1860. As President Lincoln's election became clear, the state adopted an ordinance "to dissolve the union between the State of South Carolina and other States united with her under the compact entitled 'The Constitution of the United States of America.' "

Texas, the "Lone Star State," had joined the United States in 1845, not even 16 years before walking away from it in 1861. The nation itself had celebrated almost 85 birthdays, if we use the signing of the Declaration of Independence in 1776 as the benchmark.

The last four states of the 11-state Confederacy wouldn't leave the Union until after Confederate troops fired on federally held Fort Sumter in Charleston (S.C.) Harbor on April 12 and 13, 1861. North Carolina, where the ancestors I am following for my book (tentatively titled “Dear Father I’m Sorry To Tell You”), threw in with the rebellion only after it was sandwiched by Confederate states. North Carolina would have occupied the heart of "enemy" territory if it had remained part of the United States.

A terrible inner civil war raged in North Carolina, especially in the Randolph County area where my ancestors lived. The South itself was a house divided about secession and war, but nowhere more than in the Tar Heel State. More on that later.

Here’s a chart showing the timeline of secession. I’ve noted in the right column when my Confederate ancestor Lyndon McGee Welborn volunteered for the standing Confederate army against the wishes of his father, an anti-secessionist. Lyndon's action initially fractured my family, echoing the phrase often used in describing the Civil War, "brother against brother."

Date of Secession
Civil War Events
South Carolina
Dec. 29, 1860
Jan. 9, 1861
Jan. 10, 1861
Jan. 11, 1861
Jan. 19, 1861
Jan. 26, 1861
Feb. 1, 1861
Feb. 9, 1861: Confederacy Forms
April 12-13: Firing on Ft. Sumter
April 17, 1861
May 6, 1861
North Carolina
May 20, 1861
May 31, 1861: Lyndon Welborn volunteers for Confederate army
June 8, 1861
July 21, 1861: First Battle of Bull Run/Manassas

Following Tennessee’s secession, the war plunged violently ahead in July. The First Battle of
Bull Run (also called First Battle of Manassas for its geographical location near Manassas Junction, Virginia) shocked both the Union and the Confederacy. It became clear that no one was going to back down; both sides prepared to fight, and fight they would for years to come.

This week I hope to be on the road. I’m following the path Lyndon Welborn and three of his Confederate brothers traveled 150 years ago as disunion tore at the nation, individual states and families.