Tuesday, March 29, 2011

I Follow Lyndon And Learn of "Hary"

My Civil War odyssey began in earnest when I found war-era letters from my Confederate ancestors, four brothers and their father, Joseph Welborn. Joseph apparently opposed secession and the war. My mission was to follow the path of the brothers through the Civil War, starting with the middle son, Lyndon McGee Welborn.  Lyndon volunteered for the Confederate army in1861. 

My odyssey has taken me from Columbia, S.C., to
Wilkesboro, N.C. (A).  Now I travel east to
Warrenton, N.C. (B) to learn more of Lyndon.
I followed Lyndon first to Wilkesboro, N.C., where he signed on as a 21-year-old private.  My next stop was Warrenton, N.C., near the Virginia border.  While preparing for my trip to Warrenton, I learned more about Lyndon, and I found a reference to “Hary.”  I promised I’d post more about the mysterious "Hary" and other things I’ve discovered about Lyndon during my Civil War odyssey. 

Here is an excerpt from Private Lyndon Welborn’s first letter home after mustering with the 1st Regiment of North Carolina Troops.  In this letter to a younger brother, Robert, I discovered “Hary,” (Harry) apparently a member of Lyndon’s household. Lyndon seems to have warm feelings for Harry, whom he addresses in this letter, along with his brother, David.

Who was Harry?

Hints come from this portion of Lyndon's letter:

Warrenton NC
July 5,   61

            Dear brother, (Robert)

... I must bring my few lines to a close    I am wel and harty and wish you all the same     if any of you have any news let me no       tel David that i will write to him next     tell hary that i wil remember him and hope that (i) will see him again   tel him again look for me between now and chritmas     no more

      From your brother respectively
     Lyndon M. Welborn

For full letter, go to THE LETTERS page.

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

To learn about Harry, I researched the family papers my Great Aunt Kate had assembled. My findings knocked the wind out of me.  Harry was a slave on Lyndon’s family farm, a gift to Pa Joseph from his mother Jane McGee Welborn.  Jane willed Joseph “one negro boy named Harry,” whom records indicate was about 50 at the time, along with “one negro woman Luce and one child Sally.”  Jane also sold Joseph eight more slaves, including three children, for ten shillings each, “in consideration of the love and natural affection which I have and bear to my beloved son Joseph Welborn.”
            By 1861, Harry likely was in his late eighties.  I speculated that when Lyndon’s Ma died, Harry probably was too old to work the fields, and since Pa Joseph never remarried, maybe Harry helped care for widower Joseph’s 10 children.  When Ma died, Lyndon was barely seven years old. His brother David was four, and brother Robert was an infant. How would Ma have felt on her deathbed if she had known Lyndon, David, and Robert, as well as another son, William, would all go to war?
            One thing I know for sure, Harry didn’t see Lyndon walking across the farm’s cornfields, coming home by Christmas as 1861 drew to an end. Lyndon’s soldiering life was only beginning.  Years of hardship and horror awaited him. 
         ...When I learned my family had owned slaves, I couldn’t believe it, but wills among my family papers testified unequivocally to the fact.   
COMING SOON:  My visit to Warrenton.  See PREVIEWS page.             

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Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Behind the Curtain: Rape and Other Horrors

Throughout history, itself a story of war, wayward warriors have used rape as a weapon.  The ancient Greeks even looked the other way.  When it comes to the Civil War, historians – historically male – have generally assumed that rape was rare, compared to wars America has waged overseas. Does this assumption reflect facts or merely mirror 1860s sensibilities?  

William Gilmore Simms, the antebellum South’s literary luminary, wrote in 1865, “There are some horrors which the historian dare not pursue. They drop the curtain over crime which humanity bleeds to contemplate.” 

William G. Simms
Convoluted wording, indeed, but Simms wrote during the genteel Victorian era. It’s clear Simms was writing about the rapes and sexual “outrages” he witnessed during Union Gen. William T. Sherman’ occupation of Columbia, South Carolina’s capital.  Simms’ account was first published serially in his hastily assembled newspaper, the Columbia Phoenix, an amazing feat considering Sherman’s troops had burned three-fifths of the city, including its newspaper offices. (Controversy still rages about whether it was Sherman's men or others who burned much of the city.)

Simms explained that most of the “horrors” against women had taken place away from Columbia. He wrote that Union soldiers and Sherman’s hangers-on might have threatened white women, but they actually targeted black women in rural areas.  In the city, Simms’ on-the-ground reporting, however, revealed what we can only call a gang rape:

The poor negroes were terribly victimized by their brutal assailants, many of them . . . being left in a condition little short of death.  Regiments, successive relays (emphasis by Simms), subjected scores of these poor women to the torture of their embraces, and – but we dare not farther pursue the subject – it is one of such loathing and horror. 

…Two cases are described where young negresses were brutally forced by the wretches and afterwards murdered – one of them being thrust, when half dead, head down, into a mud puddle, and there held until she was suffocated. 

This Harper's Weekly image during the Civil War
depicts women as angels of mercy.  It's said
no war was as much a woman's war as the
American Civil War. 
Did Simms witness an anomaly in Columbia, where Sherman’s soldiers’ pent-up anger against the cradle of rebellion triggered especially heinous aggression, or did Civil War soldiers commonly wield weaponized sex?  Facts are hard to come by. In the Victorian 1860s, sexual crimes against women were kept behind a curtain of silence to protect reputations of the delicate sex. Family males would exact punishment. Even in today’s sexually explicit society, experts estimate that more than 60 percent of rapes go unreported.

Still, we can find a few documented incidences of sexual crime in the Civil War.  Most occurred during Sherman’s March to the Sea, when angry white Southerners wanted to point out Union “depredations.” Here are some examples:

In North Carolina:
               - A Union soldier "ravished" a black woman in Raleigh during Sherman’s occupation, documents show. 
             - Pvt. James Preble of the 12th NY Cavalry was court-martialed in Kinston for the rape of Letitia Craft near Whitehall.
             - A Union soldier was tried and hanged for the rape of a 58-year-old woman in Wayne County.  Reports indicate army “stragglers ravished” women between Kinston and Goldsboro.

In Georgia: Near Milledgeville, two Union soldiers raped Kate Nichols, wife of a Confederate captain.  Women diarists wrote that Nichols went insane and spent the rest of her life in an asylum.  The rapists, possibly a pair among the horde of ravaging “bummers” following Sherman’s troops, were not captured.

In New Orleans: When the Union took New Orleans in 1862, Major Gen. Benjamin Butler ordered his men to treat the taunting Southern white women as if they were prostitutes. We might guess the results of Butler’s order.

Fear of rape surely chilled the hearts of white women in the South, where most Civil War battles erupted, but the scant documentation available indicates African-American women, usually slaves or freed slaves, suffered most.  The pages of history remain largely blank on this subject.
Today, at least one female historian is attacking the blind eye cast toward sexual violence during the Civil War. In the academic journal Daedalus, Crystal N. Feimster asserts, “hundreds, perhaps thousands of women suffered rape” during the war. For details, go to http://www.hup.harvard.edu/catalog.php?isbn=9780674035621.
If we fail to acknowledge the sex crimes Americans commit during war, then rape and other sexual crimes – even in our own military ranks – can continue behind the curtain without proper scrutiny, punishment and binding of psychological wounds.

A U.S. Department of Defense report in 2008 stated that nearly 3,000 female soldiers were sexually harassed, assaulted or raped by their American comrades during the War in Iraq, in some cases by their commanding officers. Americans should find this unacceptable, especially the men who serve or have served our country honorably.

At minimum, we should be talking publicly and loudly about the price women pay in war, now and in the past. 

RESOURCESSimms, William Gilmore. A City Laid Waste, The Capture, Sack and Destruction of the City of Columbia, 1865.  Barrett, John G. Sherman’s March Through the Carolinas. UNC Press, 1956. Catton, Bruce and McPherson, James. M. American Heritage New History of The Civil War. Barnes and Noble, 2005. Benedict, Helen. The Lonely Soldier: The Private War of Women Serving in Iraq. Beacon Press, 2010.  

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.

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Did “Southerners” Lose The Civil War?

In 1860, slaves numbered 3,520,011 in the 11 Southern states soon to comprise the Confederate States of America.  To paraphrase Sojourner Truth, the celebrated freed slave from New York who asked crowds “Ain’t I a woman?”  I ask,  “Weren’t slaves Southerners?”

Yes they were Southerners, and they didn’t lose the war. They, and about 434,000 other slaves in non-Confederate states, won their freedom.

So for accuracy when talking about who lost the Civil War, we should say “white Southerners lost the war.”  Then we must add that even all white Southerners didn’t lose the war. Many white Southerners – including some of my ancestors in western North Carolina - opposed secession and fighting, though some were persecuted for their stands.*  In a way, they, too, won the Civil War.

Now, to really complicate the question, “Did Southerners lose the Civil War?” note that not all the states below the Mason-Dixon Line that traditionally divides the North and South joined the Confederacy. (See Mason-Dixon Line history at geography.about.com/od/politicalgeography/a/masondixon.htm.) This includes Maryland and West Virginia.

My, the stereotypes, misunderstandings and prejudice we stir up when using such labels as “Southern” and “Yankee,“ or today, “Liberal” and “Conservative.”  

The chart below clarifies who won and lost the Civil War.  Numbers come from the 1860 U.S. Census. Full compilation at http://www2.census.gov/prod2/decennial/documents/1860a-02.pdf

                                        From 1860 Federal Census
Confederate States
In Order of Secession
  Number Slaves            
       Percentage Total Pop
South Carolina
Firing on Ft.        Sumter
North Carolina

Note that the states seceding first from the Union generally had the largest percentages of slave population. In South Carolina, which led the exodus, most of the population (57 percent) lived in slavery. (Slaves comprised almost 39 percent of the Confederate states' total population of 9,103,373.) The Civil War’s end triggered a migration of African Americans from Confederate states to Northern states, a trend reversed only in recent decades, according to census data.

Who lost the Civil War?  The Confederacy, white Southerners and free blacks who backed the Confederacy, and slave owners.

Who won?  African-American Southerners under President Lincoln’s 1863 Emancipation Proclamation.


This portion of a war-era letter written by my western North Carolina ancestor indicates the anger some Southerners had about joining the Confederacy.   The letter comes from my book-in-progress, Dear Father I’m Sorry To Tell You.  I have added all words in parentheses for clarification.

Wilkesboro (N.C.)
June 4th 1861

Dear Father
            (we) Are all well and have got out our Corn all most twice      our wheat is good so far       there has ben bontaful (bountiful) chances of rain       fell last night, yesterday and to day heare       we have had a cold spring up to last few days which has brought out things very multch…..

…..So the Matter is the world is filed with evry thing when their is no war
when there is some somewhere else         if we have to sacerfisede (sacrifice) evry thing to gratify the ambitious lying politician the time is come to perform that act     

  if prasperity health Soul & body must be sacerfisede this is the time…..
                                                                         no more but I  will remain your son,
                                                                         E.M. (Elijah) Welborn

For full letter, go to THE LETTERS page. For more on Sojourner Truth, see PHOTOS PAGE page. 

* SOURCES:  Auman, William T. “Neighbor Against Neighbor.” North Carolina Historical Review, January 1984. Williams, David. "Bitterly Divided: The South’s Inner Civil War.”  New Press, March 2010.

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Smell of the Cannon, Roar of the Crowd

Twenty-first century Civil War battles attract enthusiastic crowds across America. For some, reenactments are a big deal. Consider these estimates:

·    50,000 Civil War re-enactors currently in U.S.
·      50,000 spectators at last Battle of Gettysburg reenactment
·      $25,000 to stage a typical three-day battle event
·      $2,500 for an authentic Civil War-era outfit (One small brass button, $9.95.)
·      $700 for a realistic musket
·      $35,000 for one Civil War cannon replica.

OK, it's a very special cannon. The smooth-bore, six-pounder cast from solid brass, weighing 860 pounds and sporting a historic insignia of the Palmetto State, travels from Civil War event to Civil War event from east to west coasts.

The cannon belongs to Glenn F. McConnell, president pro tempore of the South Carolina Senate and one of the state’s most powerful leaders. This month, the cannon rolled into Columbia for the annual reenactment of Sherman’s firing on the city in 1865. McConnell, of Charleston, “commanded” the dozen or so re-enactors for a small group of spectators who applauded as the cannon spewed sulfuric smoke.

Standing among horses, cannon, muskets, women in period garb, modern-day police and EMTs, I chatted with McConnell, famous for his crusade to guard such prized relics of Civil War history as the Confederate submarine H. L. Hunley. Go to http://www.history.navy.mil/branches/org12-3.htm.

S.C. Senate President
Pro Tempore Glenn
“I think we bring history alive for people,” McConnell said when asked why he works so hard on reenactments. “People experience the sights and sounds similar to what our ancestors experienced and see the world through their eyes."

McConnell was clear that he sees Southern soldiers as fighting for “the principle of self-determination. They believed that anything they joined freely, they could leave freely.” That is, the union.

With the 150th anniversary of the Civil War, battle reenactments from the Carolinas to California will likely draw sizable crowds. But what’s the real effect of witnessing make-believe soldiers shoot at each other, ooze Halloween blood and succumb to dramatized death?

War reenactments have been around for most of recorded history. Ancient warriors returned home and recreated key parts of battles to publicize their victories. Civil War veterans reenacted battles even before the war ended to honor fallen comrades and to tell about the war, a reason that endures. Civil War education needs special attention now as classroom history lessons sometimes fall short.

Authentic cannon replicas
blast away at Civil War event.
My history-buff father saw the benefits of hands-on education and hauled his family to war reenactments. Dad became an American Revolution re-enactor late in life. The younger boys designated him camp cook. They told me at his funeral – with full Revolutionary hero honors, that he sometimes burned their eggs.

"Goddammit to hell,” they told me he said. “I Shermanized ‘em.”

While researching my latest book (hopefully to become one of the 60,000 about the Civil War), I’ve attended several reenactments, both educational and entertaining. Children chat with soldiers around campfires, buy Civil War comic books from the sutler, whoop it up when the cannons' fire makes them cover their ears and their pant legs flap.

They aim their toy muskets, beat their spiffy drums, and wear pint-sized Confederate and Union caps as girls play war-era tunes on maple fifes. The frolicking scene stands far removed Union Gen. Sherman’s description of war: “There is many a boy here today who looks on war as all glory, but, boys, it is all hell.” The happy chaos around Saturday afternoon reenactments reminds me of the 1965 Broadway musical that inspired this blog's title ("The Roar of the Greasepaint - The Smell of the Crowd").

But what are these kids learning? I wonder about unintended consequences: adulation of soldiers who fight for “your” side, right or wrong; devotion to the military as the only truly patriotic career choice and; as a logical extension, acceptance of the inevitability of war.

WHAT DO YOU THINK? Go to COMMENTS page (top button) or the Civil War Odyssey Facebook page to post. Here’s food for thought, regarding a recent reenactment I attended in Georgia:

From my book-in-progress, Dear Father I am Sorry To Tell You:
           As drums rolled and the ranks mustered at the battle area, women summoned children to their sides and spectators jockeyed for front-row positions. I was reminded how, back in 1860, picnickers crowded the rooftops of mansions overlooking Charleston Harbor. They excitedly gathered to witness their boys fire on Fort Sumter, before the wearying war vanquished innocence and optimism.

“I’d wish you luck,” I called out to (the Union re-enactors I had interviewed) as they headed to the battle area, “but I guess you don’t need it since the Confederates fell back here.”

“It’s the Confederates’ turn to win,” one shouted back. “We trade off.”
To battle they marched, soldiers with no self-doubts, no worry of wounds, no fear of death.