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Reimaginining the South

By Tracy Thompson
4/30/2008 • Civil War Times

What if you found out your ancestors fought on the ‘wrong’ side?

Thomas Thompson’s son William remembered exactly when he saw the Union soldiers: 10 a.m. on a sweltering July 13, 1864. They were with General Stoneman’s cavalry, and when one of them saw the two boys by the house he rode right over. Where’s the horse? he asked abruptly, and William, the elder, pointed toward the pasture.

The soldiers scattered. One man found a halter and headed for the horse; another corralled the cow. The others searched the barn and the house. When they left, they took virtually everything the family had: 240 dozen bundles of oats, 80 bushels of corn, 250 pounds of bacon and 280 pounds of flour, all the livestock. They were under orders, they said; no exceptions. Not even for Union men.

Wait a minute, I thought. Union men?

The ornate penmanship was hard to read, especially on microfiche. I double-checked the date: March 11, 1872. Place: Randolph County, Ala. Plaintiff: Thomas Thompson—my great-great-great-grandfather. And there were his words, dutifully recorded by that anonymous stenographer: “I always was, am now, and expect to be while I live, a Union man.”

I felt like I’d just been told by some “Antiques Road Show” expert that I’d been hanging my heirloom family painting upside down. My family, anti-Confederates?

Well. This could explain a lot.

I am a Southerner. I grew up south of Atlanta, within a stone’s throw of the farm that was raided that day in 1864. My family’s roots go so deep in Alabama, Georgia and Tennessee that, until my generation, “foreign travel” to most of us meant crossing the county line. We’re plain vanilla Scots-Irish—the predominant gene pool of the Caucasian Deep South—and in five generations, none of us has made the history books or the Forbes 100. We had no family legends about how Aunt Minnie hid the silver from those Yankee sons of bitches, in part because back then we didn’t own any silver—or land, for that matter: Thomas Thompson was a tenant farmer.

Southerners tend to have a more than passing interest in the Civil War, for good reason. We are the only Americans who have ever had a war fought on our own soil, and we are the only Americans whose civilian population was explicitly targeted by the invading army. These things leave scars. Southerners know what the Serbs and the Croats, the Palestinians and the Israelis, the Shiites and the Sunnis also know: in historical terms, 135 years is nothing.

But what, exactly, did “being a Southerner” mean to me? On my office wall, I keep a copy of a story from the satirical newspaper The Onion, with a picture of three beer-swilling rednecks on the front porch of a shack; they look like they have never bestirred themselves in their lives except maybe to take a piss. The headline reads: “South Postpones Rising Again for Yet Another Year.” I show it to fellow Southerners, and it cracks us up. But our laughter has an edge. There are the unflattering stereotypes; there’s the headline, which transforms collective memory of a tragic past into an object of fun. It’s complicated, being Southern.

Partly, this is because our identity is based largely on a fairy tale. Remember Sir Walter Scott? (I tried reading Ivanhoe once; it was like drinking congealed molasses.) Scott’s novels were insanely popular in the early 19th century, especially in the South. It was an insular, agrarian region left relatively untouched by the Industrial Revolution, yet under increasing attack for its dependence on slavery. White Southerners of that era must have felt as if their whole way of life was being threatened, which it was. In Sir Walter’s depiction of an aristocratic society from another time, the home of the “peculiar institution” found echoes of its defense of “the Southern way of life.” And the bravado in those tales, with their noble maidens and hot-headed cavaliers fighting duels to defend their honor, so utterly captured the Southern imagination that Mark Twain, writing in 1882, stopped just short of holding Sir Walter personally to blame for the Civil War.

“It was Sir Walter that made every gentleman in the South a Major or a Colonel, or a General or a Judge, before the war; and it was he, also, that made these gentlemen value these bogus decorations,” he groused in Life on the Mississippi—and if you think this observation completely out of date, ask yourself: how did Colonel Sanders get to be a colonel?

No white Southerner of my generation escaped exposure to this myth. I got the full dose in 1964, when I was nine, when my parents took us to see Gone With the Wind. It was playing at the Lowe’s Grand Theater, a gilt-edged movie palace on Atlanta’s Peachtree Street, and oh, Lawdy. The treacly passions of Scarlett and Rhett, the fabulous hoop skirts, the marble plantation halls, the whole lost-Eden aura—it was utter catnip to me, as it had been to a generation before me (white girls, that is; I don’t imagine it held many charms for African Americans). Even then, I think I smelled something phony, but it was just so pretty.

Growing up white and Southern meant not just tolerating that kind of cognitive dissonance, but cultivating it. Only in the South, I maintain, would you find a monument dedicated to a fort that has “the proud distinction of being the last Confederate fort captured by the Union” (emphasis mine). This would be Fort Tyler, near West Point, Ga., which fell into Union hands during mop-up operations four months after Sherman reached Savannah. Can you imagine the monuments the South would have built if it had won?

I was not good at tolerating cognitive dissonance. If you grow up being told, “The war was about States’ Rights, not slavery,” you can either erase the existence of several million black people from your mind or you can quietly go a little batty. I couldn’t do the first and I didn’t want to do the second; rejecting the party line altogether was the only option left, but nice Southern girls do not readily embrace heresy. What to do? Then there was the fact that my family had no stories. I have never met a native Southerner who did not know something about his family’s war history—what regiment great-great-grandpappy was in, or how great-aunt Ethel brained a Yankee with an iron poker. The authenticity of these stories wasn’t the issue; it was just that there were always stories. Except for my family, which had none.

Little did I know.

About 10 years ago, a third cousin, Corley Thompson, told me he was working on a history of the Thompson family. I thought, You’d be better off writing a history of toenail clippings—but when my copy arrived, I opened it eagerly. After making sure my husband’s and daughters’ names were spelled right (they were), I got around to the first chapter. It began with the birth of our common ancestor, Thomas Thompson, in 1829, on a farm in the area of Georgia where Henry, Fayette and Clayton counties now meet. Thomas’ father, Flanders Thompson Jr., was born in South Carolina in 1800, and had fought in the Indian Wars; his grandfather, Flanders Thompson Sr., had fought in the Revolutionary War in the Virginia Continental Line (which wintered at Valley Forge). In 1848, when he was 19, Thomas Thompson married Mary Samantha Abercrombie, who would become a noted midwife.

Corley got his information about our ancestor’s experiences in the Civil War from the files of something I’d never heard of: the Southern Claims Commission, organized after the war to hear claims for damages suffered by Southerners who could prove their loyalty to the Union. Thomas Thompson told the SCC that he enlisted in the Confederate Army in 1861 “only in the face of threats from local secessionists.” He was sent to Manassas sometime in the fall of 1861, after the first battle there. By January 1862, without seeing combat, he got a medical discharge and returned to Georgia. Whatever his ailment was, it was not enough to keep the conscript office away. In all, he told the SCC, he was drafted four times, deserting each time. At one point, he and seven other men attempted to cross the lines and join the Union Army. Instead, they were hunted down by dogs and taken to Charleston, S.C., to face a court-martial. They won release after authorities determined that they had deserted from the state militia, and didn’t fall under Army jurisdiction. After that, he fled to a cousin’s home in Randolph County, Ala., which was home to a number of Union loyalists.

My cousin took this dramatic testimony with a grain of salt. His theory was that our ancestor was taking liberties with the facts to wheedle some money out of the government. Somehow, to me, that didn’t make sense. If this was a scam, it was an incredibly elaborate one (240 dozen bundles of oats, 80 bushels of corn…), pursued at a time when the federal government was hardly scattering largesse across the South. Surely a hard-working farmer had better things to do. Abolitionist sentiment? No evidence of that. Pacifist? Unlikely: a Georgia tenant farmer, son and grandson of veterans? And pacifism didn’t explain why he had tried to defect, assuming he hadn’t lied about that part.

Pro-Union sentiment? That didn’t fit with anything I’d read up to then about the Civil War, which depicted pro-Union Southerners as either border state residents or mountain folk who saw no reason to fight for rich slave-owners. But Georgia is the Deep South by anybody’s definition, and the area just south of Atlanta was a Piedmont region of small farms—not plantation country, but home to plenty of slaves. As for class resentment, that was easily trumped by racism. As long as there were slaves, poor farmers and rich planters alike belonged to the same arbitrary aristocracy of skin color.

So maybe he’d just been a coward. That, at least, would explain why we had no heroic family legends. But the more I thought about it, the more things just didn’t add up. Why had Thomas Thompson so adamantly refused to fight?

My search for answers got put on the back burner. For the next few years I was busy working on a book, keeping track of two little girls and making frequent trips from my home in Maryland to Georgia, where my mother was dying of heart disease. In the summer of 2005, with my book finally off to the publisher, I started a project that had been on my list for years: finding my mother’s father.

Everyone called my mother Ruth. Few people knew that this was her middle name, or that her first name was Enley. She was named for the father she had always longed to know, but who had disappeared shortly after her birth. Thanks to the Internet, a search that might have taken her years took me only weeks. I’ll never know for certain, but I found a man who had the right name, was born at the right time and place, had also died of a heart ailment and who (to me, anyway) looked like my mother. A few months before she died, I was able to put his picture into her hands. It was the first time she had seen his face.

When my mother died, her aching need to find the missing pieces of her past somehow got passed on to me. Part of my grief was the realization of how much of my life had gone with her—the dates of certain events, her chowchow recipe, the names of distant relatives. My father had died in 1981. The house where I had grown up was gone. The grove of century-old red oak trees that had towered over that house had been bulldozed to create an industrial park. Life had taken me out of the South, and I would probably never return. And yet: I always was, am now, and expect to be while I live, a Southerner. I wanted my daughters to know who and where they came from.

One day about that time, I found a new book on Loyalty and Loss: Alabama’s Unionists in the Civil War and Reconstruction, by Margaret Storey. A look inside revealed a bunch of tables with titles such as “Distribution of Wealth Among Allowed SCC Claimants, White, Hill Country Subregion, Ala., 1860.” I put off buying it, fearful of spending $43 on an academic tome that would bore me cross-eyed, but finally I caved in. It was fascinating.

Storey, an assistant professor of history at DePaul University in Chicago, is a friendly woman with a ready laugh, as I discovered when I called her. We quickly established our regional connections, as Southerners do: She’s from Chattanooga, where my cousins live, and finished her doctoral thesis at Emory University, my alma mater. Her thesis, drawn from her study of more than 400 Alabama families whose cases were heard in the 1870s by the SCC, was a striking addition to the conventional wisdom. She did not take issue with existing explanations, but to her there was another rationale for Union loyalty among Southerners that was equally important: patriotism. Her research revealed a picture of pro-Union Southerners as people who felt loyalty to a nation and a Constitution their fathers had fought for in the War of 1812 and which their grandfathers had fought for in the American Revolution. As one claimant put it, “I loved my government, and I was not in favor of no other one.”

Many of the people spoke of their pride in their families’ military traditions (the South has sent more sons and daughters into the military per capita than any other part of the country). Theirs was a deeply conservative ideology, Storey maintained, rooted in concepts of honor, filial obedience and personal integrity—values that were not unique to the South, certainly, but especially prized in an agrarian society where family roots ran deep, and where a person’s politics was considered inseparable from his personal morality. As one Mississippi woman put it in a letter: “If [a man] will cecede from the government that has always sustained his Rights he would cecede from his family.”

Unionist sentiment was not uncommon in the South before the war, but after the war began anyone who was still a Unionist became a pariah. Unionist men of draft age often spent months hiding from the local conscript office, especially after the Confederacy instituted a draft in April 1862; others were drafted and deserted. Others fought for the Union. Their families endured harassment, ostracism, arson, death threats and, after the war, Ku Klux Klan raids.

It was that dogged adherence to an unpopular viewpoint in the face of withering opposition that Storey found the most amazing. “It was not a rational thing to do,” she said when we spoke. “Their interests were not served by their choices at all. Something far more intangible and profound was at work….I think that these folks were really brave people, and that sometimes you have to be a little crazy to be that brave.” Here, at last, was an explanation that might make sense. The SCC records were at the National Archives in Washington, D.C., only about 20 miles from my home; it was time for me to read the file myself.

It consisted of Thomas Thompson’s statement as well as testimony from two of his sons—William, by then 22, and James, 20, as well as two neighbors. At times, a vivid sentence leaped from the page in a way that made me feel I’d been there—like this, from James’ testimony: “The soldiers said nothing, just asked where the horse and the cow were. They went to the pasture and put a halter on the horse and led him off.”

Vivid, all right, but was it true? One way to get a feel for a story’s believability is to check the details. If the little pieces fit, chances are the big ones fit too. In his testimony, James had mentioned “Stoneman’s men” and a “little skirmish” fought a few days earlier near Campbellton, less than 10 miles away. I decided to check that out.

“Stoneman,” of course, was Union cavalry General George Stoneman (mentioned in the song “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down”), who served under Sherman in the Georgia campaign. But then I ran into an apparent inconsistency. I assumed the raid had happened after Atlanta fell, as Sherman’s army fanned out south of the city. But on July 13, Sherman was still north of Atlanta, on the other side of the Chattahoochee River from my ancestor’s farm and at least 25 miles away. Was the date wrong? And if so, what else was?

Unexpectedly, Uncle Billy came to my rescue. Sherman’s memoirs are brilliantly written and vividly detailed; thanks to them, for instance, we know that it rained 19 days in north Georgia that June, then turned “intensely hot.” Sherman’s notes on the Atlanta campaign included a note on July 5 that he had sent Stoneman down to the Chattahoochee on his right to create a diversion by pretending to be looking for a place to cross the river. Then, on July 13, Sherman wrote, “Stoneman had been sent down to Campbellton, with orders to cross over and threaten the railroad below Atlanta” (italics mine).

Thomas Thompson’s testimony, meanwhile, fit the pattern of the cases Storey found: “Every time I was home, I was threatened more or less. In 1864, one Lt. Benfield and three others told my wife that if they ever got hold of me, they would hang or shoot me, because they believed I was going to the Yankees….My feelings were for the Union entirely, and my language for the Union too.”

Yet Thompson’s claim before the SCC was denied. The grounds: his brief time in the Confederate Army in late 1861—a service, the judge wrote, “which was in no way compulsory.” This was technically true, since there was no draft before April 1862.

Perhaps my ancestor thought a perfunctory appearance and a medical discharge (bogus ones weren’t hard to get) would keep the draft board away. The denial of his claim on a technicality also fit Storey’s findings. After the war, she wrote, a reconciliation-minded President Andrew Johnson quickly pardoned many Confederates and appointed them to state offices, where they were happy to use their power against the Unionists they despised.

Not long ago, my husband and I took our daughters to Harpers Ferry. We were looking at some exhibits when I became aware of a feeling—rather, the absence of a feeling. Before, I’d seen Civil War history with a kind of double vision: I’d felt loyalty to the region, distaste for the Dixie swagger that seemed to accompany any identification with it. Now, I realized, that double vision was gone; learning about my family’s history had helped me ditch a lot of baggage. Now I simply felt affection for the region I call home, a bond made all the more poignant because of the tragedy that region has borne.

When I told Storey this, she laughed. “With my students now, I try to inculcate that kind of double vision in them. I ask them, ‘If you’re so willing to say the North was right, would you have fought then? How many things do you feel strongly about now that you’re willing to sacrifice something for?’ They tend to regard their history of the Civil War as a kind of inherited virtue.”

I could understand that. It’s easy to say that Thomas Thompson and his fellow Unionists were right, that our nation was better off undivided. I took some pride in that, until I realized the ridiculousness of taking credit for somebody else’s actions. Courage, though, you can admire, and I admired his. Imagine facing winter with five kids to feed and an empty barn, surrounded by neighbors who despise you. Was he principled, or just crazy? How could he have known he was right?

Storey has thought about that, and her answer is: He didn’t. Nobody can. “If history teaches anything, it’s that people do not understand fully what they’re experiencing as they are experiencing it,” she said. The best we can do is “to understand the way human beings live with contradiction, and attempt to organize themselves so that they can be sane in the face of what is essentially a pretty divisive human nature.”

That, I think, is what he did: He stayed sane. Corley’s book has one picture of Thomas Thompson, a late-19th-century photograph of him and his wife. People in pictures of that era usually look grim, but Mary Samantha looks downright weather-beaten. Clearly, she had known hard times. Her husband, however, looks good-natured. If I didn’t know better, I’d say there’s actually a hint of a smile there. He looks like a man who, when he went to bed at night, had no trouble getting to sleep.

To find out how to search Southern Claims Commission records, see “Resources,” P. 71, of the June 2008 edition of Civil War Times.

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