Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Misty Battlefields, Myths Of Lesser People, And My Rosetta

If history repeats itself, and the unexpected always happens, how incapable must Man be of learning from experience.                                                               
                                                                                                                                            — George Bernard Shaw, Irish playwright

54th Massachusetts Colored Regiment re-enactors
 pose at a Civil War event I attended not long ago. The real
unit suffered heavy casualties in the war under the leadership
 of Col. Robert Gould Shaw of Boston. The 54th was
featured in the 1989 movie, "Glory." For more
information, go to PHOTOS page.
America's narrative — including the terrible chapter about the Civil War — has unfolded in an echo chamber of plots, characters and themes. The theme of racism, or the view that some among us are lesser people, has sounded throughout our nation's history since the first explorers landed on New World soil and continues today.

Columbus subjugated the natives; some natives joined whites — and some blacks — in slave ownership. The earliest settlers and the nation's  forefathers ensured that slavery survived, ignoring the irony that men who fought for their own freedom from England might own, buy and sell slaves.  

Thomas Jefferson, despite his eloquent defense of liberty and equality, possessed, exploited and allowed his slaves to face harsh punishments to ensure his elite, planter lifestyle. He didn’t free them when he died, as did George Washington.

"The Spirit of Freedom"memorial in Washington, D.C.,
 honors African Americans who fought for the
Union during the Civil War. The memorial stands
 near the African American Civil War Museum
In the Civil War, even with its relentless need for warm bodies, North and South, the cultivated myths of lesser people couldn't be set aside. At first, anyway. In 1862, black military units formed in Kansas, South Carolina and Louisiana for the Union cause. After the Emancipation Proclamation of 1863, when ending slavery became a goal of the war, the Union began recruiting African Americans into the United States Colored Troops, amid great controversy.

Though many Union leaders fought to keep African Americans out of the Federal military, ex-slaves and freed blacks joined the fighting ranks, sharpening the cutting edge for ending America's expensive and explosive institution of slavery.  The notion of treating all people as equal in America continued a circuitous and painful path.

The chart below chronicles the growth of African-American numbers in the U.S. military, beginning with the Revolutionary War. The percentage has

grown steadily throughout the nation's history. Four times the number of blacks fought for the British as for the Patriot cause. The British offered freedom to slaves if they abandoned their masters and helped suppress the push for American independence. Delivery on that promise proved spotty.

Through the centuries, the battlefield — whether land, sea or air — has provided African Americans a proving ground for manhood.  The rigors of war offered a time and place to exhibit the personal traits of courage, competence and cleverness that Americans traditionally honor as measures of worth.  Yet, even when great character was proven, the American ideal of equality often succumbed to the reality of seeing some people as less worthy. The mist of short-term memory and lack of historical literacy can obscure African Americans battlefield triumphs today.

Early in 1865, toward the end of the Civil War, the Confederate Congress approved a bill allowing slaves to become legitimate soldiers. Until then, African Americans had been hired out by their masters to fight or were impressed to work in support services for the rebel cause. That spring, the Confederacy moved to train and arm African American troops, but less than 50 men actually were recruited. *          

 Buffalo Soldiers of the 25th Infantry Regiment, U.S.
 Army, 1890. Photo, courtesy Wikipedia.
An estimated 200,000 African-American men fought in the Union army.  Up to 90,000 African Americans served the Confederacy in some capacity, usually in back-breaking tasks to support troops. Exact numbers remain controversial among scholars and lay historians alike. Misconceptions continue. 

 “Growing up in California, I was told many more blacks fought for the Confederacy instead of the Union,” Marvin Greer, a young re-enactor told me at a Civil War battle event recently. Greer, then a student at Morehouse College, said he began studying the war seriously after seeing the 1989 movie, “Glory.”

“I’ve been able to dispel some myths,” he said.

When the Civil War ended in 1865, federal soldiers went West to fight another version of lesser people in the American Indian Wars. This despite the fact the U.S. Senate passed the freedom-expanding Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution on April 8, 1864. The amendment outlawed slavery. Some soldiers, including George Armstrong Custer, saw the new battlefields as a place to prove their mettle and move up the military ranks.  General Custer made his legendary last stand fighting the Lakota (Sioux) at the Battle of Little Big Horn in Montana.  

I collected autographs of surviving 
Tuskegee Airmen, who were honored
at an air show in Camden, S.C. Find more 
about the WWII aces on PHOTOS page. 

The U.S. Army units assigned to round up American Indians on the western frontier and move them to reservations included the all-black "Buffalo Soldiers." These troops were members of the U.S. 10th Cavalry Regiment, formed in 1866 in Fort Leavenworth, Kan. The units' nickname possibly originated with American Indians, who likened the soldiers' hair to that of the buffalo. Other theories say black troops earned the moniker because they fought as ferociously as cornered bison.

The nickname stuck to all four regiments of the "Negro Cavalry."  Eighteen Buffalo Soldiers were awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor. The units remained active until 1951, participating in six more wars, including World War II.

It's worth noting here that American Indian tribes often subjugated prisoners of war into slavery. When the Civil War erupted, up to 7 percent of the Cherokee of North Carolina owned African-American slaves. Many Cherokees fought for the Confederacy. About 5 percent of Southern whites owned slaves at the time. 

Beyond "Glory," Hollywood also captured the trials and triumphs of blacks in the U.S. military in "Red Tails." The 2012 movie tells the story of the nearly 1,000 Tuskegee Airmen who participated in the great World War II "experiment" to allow "Negros" to fly airplanes in war. Before 1940, African Americans were barred from flying in the military. Civil rights groups pushed for a black squadron, which was based in Tuskegee, Ala.

In 1941, the airmen began training in hand-me-down airplanes at a remote airfield near the Tuskegee Institute, founded by famous Afrian-American educator Booker T. Washington. (More about my visit to Tuskegee on the PHOTOS page.)

A group of Tuskegee Airmen, 1943,
at their training field in Tuskegee,
Ala.  Photo courtesy Wikipedia.
"The program was designed for us to fail,"said LeRoy Bowman, 90, a Tuskegee Airman in an interview this year with a Columbia, S.C., newspaper. Bowman and other Airmen from the state that triggered the Civil War were being honored for their WWII service. "They had no intentions of us succeeding." (Bowman's autograph appears in the above photo at top of the right column.)

This representation of a slave boat
packed with bodies is part of the
African American History Memorial
on the lawn of the S.C. State House
in Columbia. The memorial was built in
2001 as part of a compromise to remove the
Confederate battle flag from atop the
capitol and fly it in front of the building.
But succeed they did. The Tuskegee Airmen flew at least 15 combat sorties and 170 bomber escort missions.  Airmen earned 96 Distinguished Flying Crosses, 14 Bronze Stars, one Silver Star, and eight Purple Hearts.  In 2006, President George Bush presented the Congressional Gold Medal Award to 300 surviving Tuskegee Airmen, including Bowman.  Sixty-six Tuskegee pilots died in action before the program was deactivated in 1946 at war's end.

Despite profound progress in race relations in the United States,
change in persistent perceptions remain, caught in the echo chambers of history. Read more in my next blog.

COMING SOON: Part 2 of "Misty Battlefields, Myths Of Lesser People, And My Rosetta."
Join me in exploring the historical disconnect of our American ideal of equality from our intractable myths of lesser people.  I'll introduce you to Rosetta, one of many African-American "maids" who worked from early morning to late evening in my childhood home in North Carolina.

From my book-in-progress, Dear Father I Am Sorry To Tell You, about the Civil War and its legacy:

Our maids usually were young to middle-aged, but one maid, Rosetta, was bent, wrinkled and gray haired when she came to work for us in the mid-1960s.  Rosetta would have been well past retirement age, if retirement had been a possibility.
            The neighborhood kids called Mr. and Mrs. Johnson, who lived across from us on Carr Street, “Mister Alsey” and Miz Faye.” We addressed Mr. and Mrs. Thomas, who lived a block up General Lee Avenue from us, as “Mister Tommy” and “Miz Julia.”  We called Rosetta simply “Rosa." I never knew her last name.

For more, go to PREVIEWS page.


* In spring 1865,  free blacks of New Orleans formed a regiment of "Native Guards" for the Louisiana militia.
** U.S. Department of Defense, November 2012

SOURCES:  McPherson, James M. The American Heritage New History of The Civil War. Barnes and Noble, New York. 2005.  XXX, “XX,” Smithsonian magazine, November 2012. “American Experience,” PBS. Online at http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/americanexperience/features/general-article/alaska-WWII. Bernstein, R.B. “Thomas Jefferson.” Oxford University Press, 2003. U.S. Department of Defense.  Civil War Homepage online at http://www.civil-war.net/searchstates.asp?searchstates=Total; African American Civil War Memorial and Museum online at http://afroamcivilwar.org. Tindall, George and Shi, David, AMERICA, A Narrative History. Norton and Co., New York, 1996. Flanagan, Anne-Katherine. "They Had No Intentions Of Us Succeeding," The State newspaper, Columbia, S.C. Oct. 9, 2012.

Saturday, July 28, 2012

‘Lonely And Bereft' Soldier Burnishes Confederate Gold Legend

Robert Welborn Pickens’ 15 minutes of fame came at age 98, in November 1945. Pickens, who confided to relatives he was "lonely and bereft" after the death of his wife of 65 years, told a local newspaper that as an 18-year-old Confederate soldier in 1865, he had guarded a train car carrying wooden kegs filled with the now-legendary "Confederate Gold."

Col. Robert Welborn Pickens
at age 98. He claimed that as a
young soldier, he guarded the
legendary Confederate Gold.  
The legend goes that as Richmond fell to Union forces at the end of the Civil War, fleeing rebel soldiers smuggled the last of the Confederate treasury South. Tales of a huge sum of money — from $100,000 to millions of dollars — clandestinely traveled by rail to a secret place, where Confederate supporters buried it "until the South shall rise again." 

My ancestor’s story might have been over the rainbow, but tales of  Confederate gold smuggled out of Richmond as it fell have survived 150 years. One version of the story claims the treasury — much of it from France, which supported the Confederate cause — traveled to  western North Carolina, where it was buried in a remote area or was hidden in a mansion or a church. 

S.C. Map pinpoints location of
Anderson, where my ancestor
said the remains of the Confederate
treasury were hidden in a train car.
Confederate President Jeff Davis passed
through the state en route to Georgia.
Other stories allege the gold was transported to various places in Georgia and South Carolina. Another version of “The Legend Of Confederate Gold” purports political scoundrels or highway robbers made off with the booty.  Folklore also suggests rebel soldiers buried it near Charlotte, N.C., where Confederate States of America President Jeff Davis briefly stayed as he fled Richmond after Lee’s surrender. Some claim the treasury ended up in South Georgia, where Union forces captured Davis on May 10, 1865.

What happened to the treasury, if it in fact existed by spring 1865, still stokes tall tales and wild pursuit of the gold’s hiding place today. But according to Col. Robert Welborn Pickens of Upstate South Carolina, the Confederate gold indeed was real. He said he saw the kegs of gold himself in Anderson, S.C., near his rural home in Pickens County.

“Insofar as known, Col. Pickens is the only man alive who actually saw kegs of gold belonging to the Confederate Treasury,” the Anderson Daily Mail declared in an article dated Nov. 22, 1945. 

From research, I've learned that as a teen, Pickens enlisted in Co. G of the 2nd Battalion of the State Reserve of South Carolina in 1865. By then, the state relied on old men and boys to fight the enemy on its home soil as its most able soldiers fought in Virginia — or had already died in battle.

The article about the old Civil War
soldier from a 1945 edition of
The Anderson (S.C.) Daily Mail
Pickens also told of the Confederate gold in a 1947 letter to my Great Aunt Kate.  I uncovered this letter and several others from Pickens, as well as the newspaper article, while researching my book-in-progress about the Civil War and its legacy, Dear Father I Am Sorry To Tell You.  

Col. Pickens  said Confederate guards had moved the gold-laden train car to a rail siding in Anderson, S.C. The town served as a major stop on the old Greenville and Columbia Railroad, part of an interstate rail network, on the night he watched over it. Of course, Pickens, father of five and widowed for 12 years, also claimed in his letter that his ancestry went back to “Noah Pickens,” the biblical figure whom God “picked” to build an ark and save the “Pickings” of the ancient world from flooding.

Pickens' headstone rests in a historic
cemetery near Easley, S.C. The stone
reads: R Welborn Pickens; Enlisted
Co. G. 2 Battllion, State Reserve
of S.C.; Last Confederate State
Veteran from Upper So. Carolina.
“According to sacred history,” the old soldier wrote, “all the great men of Bible time were ‘Pickings,’ picked out for great things. Little by little, people changed the name spelling to ‘Pickens.’" Col. Pickens told my Great Aunt Kate that friends put the “Colonel” before his name as a matter of tradition and respect. 

Pickens died on Feb. 19, 1948, at age 100, not long after his interview with the Daily Mail. In his newspaper interview, Pickens said he began plowing the fields of his Upstate farm at age 9 and plowed until age 91. In his letter that survives in my family papers he said old age and widowhood had left him “lonely and bereft.”  He enclosed in the letter a poem he wrote in memory of his late wife Kate. Titled “Lonely and Bereft,” Col. Pickens dedicated his paean “In Memory of my beloved wife with whome (sic) I lived sixty five years.”

Here’s the cover of the old Confederate soldier’s poem, in his own handwriting. For the complete poem, go to the LETTERS page. For more, go to PHOTOS page.
The cover of my ancestral cousin Robert Welborn Pickens' poem "Lonely and Bereft."
The old Confederate soldier penned the poem on notebook paper not long before he died in 1948.
You'll find Pickens' complete poem on the LETTERS page.

Reading the lonely and bereft soldier's poem, I wonder if Col. Pickens, his head in a cloud of nostalgia as he awaited death, hoped to become a legend himself. Maybe we all spin legends when life — and history — prove too hard to bear. 
SOURCES: Various internet sites, including http://www.amazon.com/Confederate-Gold-Treasure-Bill-Westhead/dp/0759668523/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1342125476&sr=1-1&keywords=Confederate+Gold; Cadia Barbee Welborn Papers, Southern Historical Collection, UNC at Chapel Hill; Edgar, Walter. “South Carolina: A History. University of South Carolina Press, 1998. Page 283. Find A Grave, thanks to Herb Parham III.

Monday, May 28, 2012

The War Between The States Of Mind: Romantics Vs. Realists

The Confederate battle flag flies near
my Columbia, S.C., home. Do Civil
War romanticists live here?
Why does the Civil War ignite emotional explosives 150 years later?  I've come up with an answer. In times of trouble, Americans historically divide into two ideological camps. On one side of the feud: the romantics. When it comes to the Civil War, they’re intoxicated by principles, crusading and heroism, or at least their version of it. You’ll find these romantics dressed in period clothing at battle re-enactments, some impersonating heroes whose glory has shrunk to paragraphs in textbooks.

I know this type well. My late father, a Revolutionary War re-enactor, was one. I loved his view of life.

On the other side: the realists, beguiled by pragmatism, compromise and anti-heroism, or at least their version of it.  I know this type, too.  I’m the quintessential realist.  My father and I carried on lively discussions about religion, history and politics around the dinner table. Dad humored me, despite his objections written plainly on his face. We ate dessert with more understanding and higher regard for each other’s views.
Romancing the war: Re-enactors
face off in the Civil War "battle" I
attended at Tunnel Hill, Ga.

Just as our forefathers clashed when they hammered out the Constitution, today’s ideological armies continue our War Between The States of Mind that the Constitution, the epitome of compromise, made possible.  I’m grateful my Dad compromised and granted his "hard-headed" daughter free agency on life's important matters. 

From my book-in-progress, Dear Father I Am Sorry To Tell You, about the Civil War and its legacy:

My father, Ed, 2nd from left, and
    his "Revolutionary" comrades, 1972.
Photo, The Dunn (N.C.) Dispatch
In time, our backyard warehouse became too crowded for Dad's broken, boyhood bicycle.  Dad parked it outside, where it kept company with a woodpile, 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 ladies coat and suit firm out of Kansas City. That job ended in heartache and another heart attack. Old oil stoves, an iron grain scale, thirty years worth of magazines and barrels of sorghum salvaged from his life as a wholesale grocer huddled under the warehouse eaves until after my father died. 
The pumpkin-colored bicycle became Exhibit A in Dad’s series of life lessons:  Damn fools are everywhere. You’re not safe even on the sidewalk. Never go barefoot. Park under a streetlight. Exercise. Eat every kind of food, in moderation. 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.
Experiencing "war."
“You’ll know,” he said. I would laugh.
“Tell me what you mean by a kook or I might 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 age fifty-nine, I married a Jersey boy.  He was real smart, but as far as I could tell, he wasn’t a pointy-headed intellectual, and being a journalist, he for sure wasn’t a money monkey, or Hollywood nut. 

The standoff between romantics, who by nature assume their own infallibility, and realists, whose views must evolve to keep their sanity, goes way back in my family, as I suspect it does in most tribes.  When North Carolina joined the Confederacy in 1861, my ancestral cousin, Lyndon Magee Welborn, a young romantic, quickly signed up to fight, despite his father Joseph’s realistic objections to secession and war.  And, more proof of his romantic nature, Lyndon apparently volunteered after big brother Elijah broke up his courtship. (See March 2011 blog in Archives.)

Why did Elijah break up Lyndon’s courtship?  Did Lyndon fall for a kook? 

As proof that the still Civil War rends our nation into either the romantic or realists camps, check out these contemporary labels for the war:
Spectators at Tunnel Hill

The Unpleasantness: How romantic can a Charleston tour guide get?
War of Northern Aggression: How romantic can neo-Confederates get?
War of Southern Rebellion: Pro-Union writers’ realism on steroids
War For Southern Independence/War of Secession: Romantic conformation theorizing that states’ rights rule. Forever.
War For The Union: Uber abolitionists’ romantic excuse to fight 
America’s Second Revolution: Eternal fave of historians in the realism camp

And consider the two most common names:

The reality of the American Civil War.
Photo, Library of Congress.
War Between The States: Fashionable in the post-war South,  the name romantically justifies the war’s causes and consequences to fit a historical comfort zone.  Although the curmudgeon writer in me thinks it should be The War Among The States, since 36 states battled, I get it. A line in the sand split Americans into two economic, cultural and to some extent religious sides. The states sank into unresolved hostilities rooted in Colonial America. This dangerous “you’re-either-for-us-or-against-us” mentality dogs America to this day. 

Scene at a Civil War hospital.
Photo, Library of Congress.
The Civil War: The oldest, most common name used by Abe Lincoln, Generals Grant and Lee, Jefferson Davis, academics, mass media, reference books and the National Park Service. Since the dictionary defines civil war as “a war between opposing groups of citizens of the same country" this moniker seems the most realistic and least caustic.

I’m convinced any label but “Civil War” reflects a revisionist view of history that often manifests as crusading intolerance and refusal to politically compromise. But there is no purity of mind.  My father could rattle off Civil War facts, but what he loved was the heroism of the warrior who beat the odds and stood up for principle. His mindset reflected the romance of the underdog American patriot and later the Confederate. It's an American thing. I get it.

War's harsh reality marched into
Charleston, S.C., cradle of the rebellion,
150 years ago. Photo, Library of Congress.
When my father died, his fellow Revolutionary soldiers gave him a military funeral complete with drums, bugle and presentation of the colors to my mother. On that clear October day, I remember thinking, “Dad would have loved this.” A romantic end for a true romantic.

Maybe when all is said and done, it’s not what happened in the Civil War but how you feel about what happened.  But if we're to learn from history, we must replace conflict and contrariness with consideration and compromise. 

So says the realist, in a most romantic way. 

SOURCES:  Isaacson, Walter, Benjamin Franklin: An American Life. Simon & Schuster, 2003. "Naming The American Civil War," Wikipedia. Barry, John M., "God, Government and Roger Williams' Big Idea." Smithsonian magazine. January 2012.

* Unless otherwise noted, all photos were taken by B.J. Welborn and are copyrighted.

Saturday, April 7, 2012

A Prison Of A Different Kind: Robert's Story Continued

Reality becomes a prison for those who can’t get out of it.
         — Joyce Cary, Anglo-Irish novelist

A monument at Andersonville National
Historic Site in rural Georgia depicts
the suffering Civil War POWs faced.
Photo, Eastern National Park and
Monument Association.
Gruesome statistics only hint at the shocking suffering and hellish deaths prisoners of war endured during the American Civil War. Nearly 30,000 men among the 194,000 imprisoned Federals and 26,000 soldiers of the 215,000 captured Confederates died by war’s end.  It's estimated that 56,000 men perished in prison camps, usually hastily built and open to the elements.

At Camp Douglas in Chicago, nearly 18 Confederate warriors succumbed to hunger, deprivation and disease each day. In rural Georgia’s infamous Andersonville Prison, about 100 Union soldiers died daily by 1864, nearly 13,000 total. Prison conditions North and South were equally horrendous, as documented in letters, dairies and photos. 

I can understand a soldier’s preference for heroic death on the battlefield over the possibility of tormented death in prison.  

My ancestor, Robert McFarland Welborn, bewildered, wistful and sick, gave an interesting if somewhat mundane glimpse of life at a Confederate prison in northeastern North Carolina in a letter to his father. Robert,  recently drafted at age 17 into the N.C. Junior Reserves, wrote from Camp Weldon, where his unit was stationed, in the summer of 1864:

Aug the 5th 1864
My Dear Father

I take the opportunity this morning to write you a few lines to let you know that I am well and harty and i hope thes few lines will find you well      
            They have got two of our boys in the guard house here and have had them ther a month    

            there was a yankee broke out of the guard house and the guard shot two balls through him and killed him dead on the spot

            there was two boys got into a dispute and they got to fighting and one of them stabed the other in the shulder but did not hurt him overly bad    
This period photo
captures the horrors
of Civil War prisoners
at Andersonville
prison camp. Photo,
Library of Congress.
The routine — and common —  opening line of Robert’s report on everyday soldiering life belies his true circumstances at Camp Weldon, where he had little to eat and suffered an illness that soon would hospitalize him. But Robert continues his business-as-usual tone in describing the violence and death in the prison yard.  Had Robert already experienced so much of war’s hardness that he had become hardened?  Or were these musings the simple observations of an overwhelmed farm boy.  Or both?

More of Robert’s letter, hand-written on a notepad, lacking punctuation and full of misspellings:

we are formed into a regment      Armistead* is our colonel      Broadfoot is lieu col       Lineberry captain … and if the war lasts and they  don’t get us kilt you may have my hat           

One side of the letter my ancestral
      cousin, Robert McFarland Welborn, 17,
     wrote to his father Joseph in 1864.
   For full letter, go to LETTERS page.

the doctor says he will send me  to camp holms (Holmes in Raleigh, N.C.) befor long  to be examined again      he says I am not any count in service and i think he is about haf right

i am going to try to get off every day but i think it will be a hard chore        if i get to go to Camp Holms i think i will get off or signed to light duty but i do not want to go to hospital duty for it is as hard as regular ….. but they get to sleep in the house and get better rations than what we get

i was at the election yesterday and at Weldon got word was that  Govner Vance** got most of the vote that was given

i bring my letter to a close      write as soon and tell me the news and tell me how corn looking  and whether you got your (illegible word) out or not     

             tell all the boys….. that was 17 when I left home (they) had better come       Oh if they knowed when they was best off

             no more at present but another day

                                                                                                     your son R M Welborn

Between the pedestrian lines of everyday news, Robert lamented the sorry reality of his soldiering life, a life he apparently dreamed of escaping ("I'm going to try to get off") but couldn’t, at least then.  While researching my Civil War book-in-progress, Dear Father I Am Sorry To Tell You, I'v uncovered three military documents that hint Robert’s situation in fact did later change.

Copy of Robert M.
Welborn's application
for pension in 1918. For more
on Robert, see previous blogs.
Document 1: Robert’s handwritten resignation, dated May 18, 1864; Document 2, dated July 13, 1864, confirming Robert was “transferred to hospital;” and, Document 3, dated Aug. 10, 1864, alleging Robert had “deserted.” 

Desertion usually meant being absent without leave for more than 30 days. I don’t know if Robert actually deserted the Confederate ranks, as did thousands toward war’s end, when defeat seemed inevitable and families at home suffered enormously.  Deserters especially spiked among men from the area of North Carolina that Robert called home, the substantially pro-Union, anti-secession Randolph County, N.C. (See previous blogs.)

Haphazard record-keeping could explain the change from “Absent, transferred to hospital,” to “Deserted Camp Weldon Aug. 10th”.  What I know for sure is that on July 18, 1918, more than 50 years later, North Carolina granted Robert his request for a soldier’s pension.

Robert stated in his pension application that he is the owner of a house and lot assessed at  $500.00 but that he can’t make a living or support himself as there is not sufficient land for farming.    

I’m left wondering if the boy soldier, who personified the ordinary guy caught in the extraordinary human disaster of the Civil War, ever really escaped his prison.

Col. Frank S. Armistead, a West Pointer and brother of Gen. Lewis A. Armistead, who died at Gettysburg; Lt. Co. Charles W. Broadfoot; and, Capt. W.S. Lineberry

** Zebulon Vance, a Confederate colonel, was reelected as North Carolina’s 43rd governor in 1864.

SOURCES: The American Heritage New History of the Civil War, Barnes and Noble, New York. 1996. Jorgensen, Kathryn.  “Historian Persists In Efforts To Correct Record, Honor Deceased”, Civil War News. December 2010. Online at http://www.civilwarnews.com/archive/articles/2010/dec/correctrecord-121002.html; Cadia Barbee Welborn Papers, Southern Historical Collection, UNC at Chapel Hill; Bollinger, J. Mark, and Landrum, Brneda G., “The Story of Andersonville Prison and American Prisoners of War,” Andersonville National Historic Site. 1987. Marin, Rick, “The Infamous Stockade,” Newsweek. March 4, 1996. North Carolina State Archives.

Saturday, February 4, 2012

Unraveling The Story Of A Soldier With An Attitude, And Young

Following a convoluted paper trail, I’ve learned more about one ancestral Confederate cousin than I know about most of my living blood relatives. From various Civil War military documents I know, among other things, that Private Robert McFarland Welborn:

- Stood 5 feet 10 inches and had dark hair and blue eyes;
- Mustered into the 1st Regiment, Co. F, of the N.C. Junior Reserves on May 30, 1864;
One side of the original letter that my ancestor, Robert
McFarland Welborn, wrote to his father Joseph
in late summer 1864 from Halifax County, N.C. A
family member punched the holes in the letter, written
in pencil on a folded sheet of paper. For entire letter,
go to LETTERS page. 
- Had passed his 17th birthday by just 25 days when the Confederacy drafted him;  
- Left his father’s Randolph County farm in May 1864 for duty at Camp Holmes near Raleigh;
- Served in east-central N.C.’s Camp Weldon, home of Wayside Hospital #9 and a prison.

And from a letter home, I know Robert:

- Suffered an illness in the summer of 1864 that sidelined him from service;
- Had attitude.

Of course Robert had attitude. He was the youngest of widower Joseph Welborn’s 10 children and was only five months old when his mother Parthena died. I think it's possible, under the controversial "birth order" theory that youngest siblings learn exceptional competition skills to get attention and resources, Robert probably was a scrapper.

Here's what teenager Robert wrote to his father from Camp Weldon:

Aug the 5th 1864
My Dear Father

. . . if the war lasts and they don’t get us kilt you may have my hat       if we ever go into battle with them it will not last long       i heard several of the boys say they would kill (them) as quick as they wuld a sheep-killing dog and I would not stand back much . . .

Robert’s bring-it-on attitude likely made up for many losses. In 1863, his older brother, Lyndon — the protagonist of my book-in-progress, Dear Father I Am Sorry To Tell You   died in battle while defending Richmond, the Confederate capital. Then the Confederacy drafted two other reluctant brothers, even as father Joseph objected to secession and the war.
North Carolina map shows location
of the town of Weldon in Halifax County,
 home to a Confederate fort, a prison
 and a hospital during the Civil War.

Robert probably realized that by late 1864, the Confederacy was running out of steam and just about everything else it would take to win. Federal forces were scoring key victories in the Western Theater, things were souring in the Eastern Theater, and Sherman was about to tighten a noose around the South after taking Atlanta.

But just how much could Robert see of the war’s big picture from his outpost in a Halifax County, N.C., near the border with Virginia, where battles raged?  Was his youthful bravado an effort to survive by believing something was possible despite evidence to the contrary? Seems to me that sentiment fortified Confederate fighters right up to the end.

In his book, Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, Dr. Stephen Covey asserts that to be successful, a person must begin something with the final outcome in mind. We must visualize what we can’t yet see, then follow our mental vision with physical creation. With an optimistic outlook, a person maximizes his ability to get through adversity.

So it was with Confederate warriors still hanging in the fight to the end, I imagine. So it was with Robert, despite illness, debt, hunger and homesickness. More from his letter, written in pencil on a folded sheet of paper, full misspellings and lacking punctuation:

 View today of the Civil War cemetery
near the site of Camp Weldon in
northeastern North Carolina. Photo,
N.C. Division United Daughters
of the Confederacy, Chapter 22.
. . . i have got my resicnation (resignation) and I do not hav any thing to do        our doctor relived (relieved) me from duty    i have not done any duty sinse I resinad (resigned)

the doctor says he will send me to camp holms (Camp Holmes in Raleigh, N.C.) befor long to be examined again      he says i am not any count in service and i think he is about haf right

we get one pint of corn meal and it is not sifted and hardly ground      the grains is cracked       we often find whole grains      we git some kind of a houn (hound*) meat a day     i am in debt $17 and know hopes of drawing any money to pay it  

             i would like to be at home to eat beans and rosten ears (roasted ears of corn)      i am going to try to get off every day but i think it will be a hard chore
                                                                                         your son R M Welborn

Despite personal hardship and the Confederacy's long-shot chance of victory, it seems Robert still imagined giving the Yanks a whoopen'.  Maybe a spoonful of optimism helped him survive the war.

Robert applied for a soldier's pension in July 1918 and died seven years later on Aug. 16, 1925, at age 76. He was buried in the family cemetery in Randolph County, N.C., near his father Joseph and his fallen older brother, Lyndon.


* NOTE: I take Robert's reference to "houn meat" to mean the meat of deer or other animals tracked down by bloodhounds as food for the soldiers. The Confederacy also used bloodhounds to help guard prisoners.  If you can enlighten me about Robert's reference to "houn meat," please go to the COMMENTS page and post a message.

SOURCES:  North Carolina State Archives; Weymouth T. Jordan, Jr. and Louis H. Manarin,"North Carolina Troops, 1861-1865, A Roster," 1985; U.S. Census;  Cadia Barbee Welborn Papers, Southern Historical Collection, UNC at Chapel Hill; Welborn family genealogical documents

COMING SOON:  Private Robert McFarland Welborn's account of an incident at Camp Weldon prison. See PREVIEWS page.