Friday, August 8, 2014

Appalachian Civil War Stories - The Civil War In My Family

One afternoon, my first grade son came running up the drive off the school bus, in a real hurry. He dropped his book bag on the couch and approached me in the kitchen, all out of breath, to ask a BIG question. "Momma, the kids at school say we're Yankees, because we moved here from West Virginia!!"   "Are we Yankees? I don't want to be a Yankee because they don't like em. I want to be a Rebel, so I can yell. But they won't let me because they said I was a Yankee! " He was quite upset, because the children had taunted him all day long calling him a Yankee. This was in the 1980s.  I don't think we had ever uttered the word Yankee to him, so this was all new to him.

I was not really stunned, but just still amazed that more than a hundred years after the Civil War, we seemed to be still fighting the Civil War all over again and of all places on a playground! I was busy trying to get the last of the garden canned and put up. I really did not want to tackle this subject at all!! But I knew this little boy needed an answer. So I had to sit down a 7 year old and explain a Civil War and what Yankees and Confederates were, more than a hundred years after the fact!!!

I had to explain to him how Yankee and Rebels referred to different sides of men who fought each other on American soil. I told him how it was an awful, ugly, terrible war in which hundreds of thousands of people died. That it destroyed people's lives and loved ones were killed. That it was over one side wanting to keep the right to have slaves and the other side wanting to free them.

And then I had to explain slavery! I had to explain how many black people were brought over in ships to be bought and sold much like we do cows and horses today. That they had to work on plantations and farms and industries and were not free but other people actually owned them. But that today it doesn't matter about the Yankee's and Rebels because the war is over. The Yankees won and the slaves were freed. I told him I wanted him to go back to school and tell them we were all Americans. We are not at war anymore.

He went back to school the next day...and what I had told him, I hoped would work. didn't work. I waited for him to get off the bus and this time he wasn't running fast, but walking really slow, as if he had been just so defeated.  He came in the house and  I asked him, "What's wrong son?"  He said, "They won't stop calling me a Yankee! They keep telling me, Yankee, go home."

I started to call the school and make a big stink about it. I wanted to take a stand to say stop these kids from doing this.  The Civil War doesn't matter any more. But my standing up for him and a seven year old standing up to this on his own, are two different things. Especially when that 7 years old has more of a Confederate pedigree than probably most of those kids.

So I pulled my 7 year old son on my lap and told him the story of how our families were originally from Virginia and through my side and his father's side of our families he was one of many generations to live in this county. So he WAS home....truly home. The families moved to West Virginia long after the Civil War. That he could tell those bullies he had many grandfathers, probably more than they had, that were Rebels.  He should tell them he himself was born in Virginia, not West Virginia.

I will never forget his face. It lit up like a really dark cloud went away. He said, "Really momma? Are you sure?" I said, "Yes it's true. But it ain't exactly something to be proud of. That war killed some of those same grandfathers. They died because of that war.  There ain't no glory in that, because it was war between our own people. In some of our families brothers fought against their own brothers. It was really BAD. I don't know why they want to fight it all over again, and hurt people, especially on a playground. That WAR is over, you hear me?!  I don't want you playing Yankees and rebels!"  I warned him that these things happened, but we do not bring it up and we do not hurt people with it. Remember how you felt being called a name. We are just Americans now. That was the end of it...that worked.

I was so proud of him when he came in another time and told me they were trying to pick on another child, calling them a Yankee and he said he took up for them and told the teacher.

There was a time I had to be set straight too. I knew my heritage. Remember when Southern rock became popular and old Charlie Daniels sang, "The South's gonna do it again."? People started flying the Confederate flag etc.  I bought a replica Civil War flag at a flea market and took it over to my dad. He had a couple of grandfathers that fought for the Confederacy. Thought he might like to fly it in honor of that heritage. Wow...... did I get a lesson and a surprise!

First thing, that two branches of the service, 3 war Veteran told me was, "That's not the flag of my country. That's not the flag I serve nor the flag I fought under. That's not the flag men and women are serving and dying under today." Then he asked me, "Why would I want to fly a flag of a defeated country and cause?"

I said. "To honor our grandfathers who fought under it, you know our heritage?" He said, " Baby girl, you don't need that to honor them. You know who they are and what they lived through and who you are...You take that flag home and put it up in a drawer someplace because I don't want it and I'm certainly not gonna fly it and you won't either! It's disrespectful to your country to fly that flag."
That was the end of that!

I don't know what it is about that war nor why some can't let it go. I once helped a Confederate reenactor find a Confederate ancestor. He had been participating with a group but really didn't know any of his ancestors that were Confederate.

I searched but most his direct ancestors were all men who fought for the Union. As a matter of fact, there was still a medal in West Virginia for a descendant to claim for their Union service in the Civil War. He was a direct descendant, I offered to help him with the paperwork to claim it. He informed me he absolutely didn't want it nor any part of it. Sort of shook my head but each to his own.

I finally found a great great uncle for him that fought in the Confederacy with Mosby's Raiders or Rangers. He was tickled to death.

I once went to a Confederate heritage group meeting. They had asked me to join. I thought it might be fun to dress up in Civil War type clothing and play an 1860's southern belle, though I know my female ancestors were no belles because most mountain folks really didn't have plantations!  But I always like to help others with research and I love recreating different time periods.

At the first of the meeting they gave a prayer and a salute. After the prayer when they saluted the Confederate flag, along with the American flag, with what looked like to me a salute you'd give daddy's words came back to me and I knew he would not approve of this group. Here was a man who spent 3 years in a foxhole in Europe fighting men who gave that same salute. He would have tanned my hide for joining such a group or ever giving that salute to a cause or a flag. Even dead my Dad would haunt me on that one!! I knew that was not the group for me nor how I wanted to honor my heritage.

This ugly current of a war that occurred over 150 years ago, seems to still be fought all over again today in conversations and events. Crazy talk of secession, and people arguing over flying the Confederate flag again.  I thought this would be a great time to write about my grandfathers in the Civil War, because it seems people have forgotten how bad that war truly was.

I already wrote about John D. Kitts. There is also James R. Burress, Jordan E. Bowling, John Wesley Perdue, John Bowling and Henry Hounshell. Along with all manner of Uncles and cousins.  I have found that when people learn their ancestors true stories of the Civil War, especially if they died... the argument of what it was over doesn't seem to matter. The war laid waste an entire generation.

The argument of it was just over states rights is really shallow. It was the states rights to continue the practice of slavery, that they wanted to keep. So it was still over the institution of slavery. I believe the institution of slavery would not have been abolished without that tragic, brutal war. But that was the only thing good that came out of it.

What I found in my families story was it was more one of survival in a WAR zone. My ancestors are from the counties on the border of Virginia and West Virginia. The county I live in was formed during the Civil War. Their stories, in many ways, show men caught between the powers that order war and the families that just tried to survive those orders, living where they were. Below are some links to actual photographs in the National Archives collection of the Civil War and 150th Anniversary of the Civil War collections.

I will start telling our Civil War stories with my great, great grandfather, Jordan Efferson Bowling.

150th Anniversary In Photos

Civil War North and South One of my favorite sites to visit.

Issuing rations. Andersonville Prison, Ga., August 17, 1864. Photographed by A. J. Riddle.

Burying the Dead at Fredericksburg, VA., after the Wilderness Campaign, May 1864 Photographed by Timothy H. O'Sullivan.

Ruins of the railroad at Richmond

Elmira Prison