Confederate graves at Arlington National Cemetery. Image source.
The following post consists of an excerpt from the introduction of my latest book, The Battle of Waynesboro. I post it in in hopes of explaining how some Southerners connect to their heritage and in remembrance of Memorial Day.
The lines are fallen unto me in pleasant places; yea, I have a goodly heritage. –Psalms 16:6
Sitting in my basement office typing the manuscript to this book, I am surrounded by mementos that constantly remind me of my hometown of Waynesboro, Virginia. Among them is an old photograph of Confederate veteran and former mayor of Waynesboro Colonel Charles H. Withrow. And there’s the bridle bit that belonged to Withrow’s horse, “Bird,” hanging on the wall. There’s also a portrait of my great-grandfather, “Mr. Charlie” McGann, who cared for the Colonel’s horse in the early part of the twentieth century. There’s the antique, wood-framed barber’s mirror that used to adorn a barbershop in Waynesboro’s African American community on Port Republic Road. Just up the road from that barbershop was the elementary school that I attended after desegregation in the 1960s—the Rosenwald School. These items, along with many others, are old friends that summon up misty-sweet memories.
I grew up in a Waynesboro neighborhood known as Wayne Hills, just a few blocks west of Port Republic Road. In early March 1865, that area would have witnessed Confederate artillery shells sailing overhead as Confederate artillerist Henry Robinson Berkeley fired his cannon at Sheridan’s advancing army from the high ground near Port Republic Road. Just a bike ride across town lived my paternal grandparents. As a young boy, I visited my grandparents often and spent many restless summer nights lying in a bed in a second-story bedroom of their home. I recall the air often being still and humid, and I would move my pillow to the bottom of the bed, getting closer to the open window in the hopes of catching a breeze of relief. The summer sounds—crickets and cicadas and the occasional barking of a dog—filled the night air. Charles Lockridge McGann started building the home in 1909 on the corner of what was Locust Avenue and Fourth (now Fourteenth) Street. Downstairs, hanging on an archway that joined a hallway to the dining room, was my great-great grandfather’s Civil War musket.
The sounds I would hear on those summer nights were much more serene than the ones that filled the air in March 1865. The McGann home sat squarely in the middle of ground that had hosted the Battle of Waynesboro—the last Civil War battle fought in the Shenandoah Valley on March 2, 1865. The home was built in an area that would later become known as the “Tree Streets”—designated a historic district and listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 2002; it is a 120-acre area of stately, late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century homes and structures. During the American colonial and Victorian periods, it was common practice to name streets running north to south after American species of trees. As the old battlefield reverted to farmland after the war, it became part of an apple orchard and was then developed into a quintessential southern residential neighborhood with Victorian-style homes lining the streets of Oak, Cherry, Locust, Pine, Maple, Walnut and Chestnut Avenues. Included in part of the Tree Street historic district is Wayne Avenue, named in honor of the town’s namesake: Revolutionary War general “Mad Anthony” Wayne.
From that bedroom in my grandparents’ home, hands folded under my chin on my pillow, I could look out the second-story window up the hill one block away toward Pine Avenue and what had been the Confederate line—the very line where my great-great-grandfather’s unit, the 51st Virginia Infantry, had dug trenches in what would prove to be a futile attempt to repel Union general Philip Sheridan’s numerically superior army.
And there were other memories: stories and objects that would sometimes sweep a young boy’s imagination into the time warp that William Faulkner described in Intruder in the Dust:
For every Southern boy fourteen years old, not once but whenever he wants it, there is the instant when it’s still not yet two o’clock on that July afternoon in 1863, the brigades are in position behind the rail fence, the guns are laid and ready in the woods and the furled flags are already loosened to break out and Pickett himself with his long oiled ringlets and his hat in one hand probably and his sword in the other looking up the hill waiting for Longstreet to give the word and it’s all in the balance, it hasn’t happened yet, it hasn’t even begun yet, it not only hasn’t begun yet but there is still time for it not to begin against that position and those circumstances which made more men than Garnett and Kemper and Armistead and Wilcox look grave yet it’s going to begin, we all know that, we have come too far with too much at stake and that moment doesn’t need even a fourteen-year-old boy to think This time. Maybe this time with all this much to lose and all this much to gain: Pennsylvania, Maryland, the world, the golden dome of Washington itself to crown with desperate and unbelievable victory the desperate gamble, the cast made two years ago.
In writing those words, Faulkner seemed to be manifesting what Ernest Hemingway described as the task of writing: “There is nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at a typewriter and bleed.” And when one writes about wars and battles, one must bleed—at least metaphorically. For wars and battles are about much more than glory and gain, more than conquerors and conquered, more than troop movements and maneuvers—wars and battles are about bleeding, about the loss of life, about what was won and what might have been won, what might have been prevented, what might have been saved or lost. It is impossible to read the letters, diaries and accounts of battles without, at least to some degree, entering into what the writer of those accounts was feeling and describing. To do less would be a disservice to all those who bled and died in those battles.
Yet authors and historians and writers are advised to separate their own emotions and feelings from their work. But is that really possible? It is even advisable? Of course writers should, as much as possible, restrain their biases when presenting history. But what is writing without emotion? What is storytelling without sharing the passion of the event? Stale facts and recounting of numbers killed and wounded do not tell the story adequately. While connections to subjects and events can be a stumbling block when attempting to write objectively about those same topics, they can also serve as motivations—even giving keen insight and unique perspective attainable no other way. It certainly motivates me. And it is no coincidence that the biographers of the South’s two greatest Civil War generals were themselves southerners.
The definitive biography of Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson was authored by historian James I. Robertson Jr., who has said that he developed a keen interest in Civil War studies when he first became aware that his great-grandfather had been a Confederate soldier and cook for Robert E. Lee. And Robert E. Lee’s most noted biographer, Douglas Southall Freeman, penned his massive four-volume biography of Lee due to a personal attachment to the War Between the States and after being “profoundly moved” by something he had witnessed. Freeman biographer David Johnson gives some of the details of what Freeman experienced when, as a seventeenyear-old young man, he observed a reenactment of the Battle of the Crater:
Douglas stood with his Confederate veteran father and watched the pageant of history unfold in front of him. Back at the hotel, he saw the veterans from a closer vantage point. They were “feeble, crippled, some of them blind, many of them poor.” He was profoundly moved by the events of the day…All these emotions, shaped and colored by his heritage as a son of the South and Walker Freeman, had evoked self-examination and prompted action. Now, he made to himself a solemn commitment, one that he knew would outlast the zeal of youthful novelties. “If someone doesn’t write the story of these men,” Douglas Southall Freeman resolved, “it will be lost forever.” “I’m going to do it.” ~ David Johnson
Some historians have even grieved over the fact that they lack such a connection as Robertson and Freeman:
Any historian who argues that the Confederate people demonstrated robust devotion to their slave-based republic, possessed feelings of national community, and sacrificed more than any other segment of white society in United States history runs the risk of being labeled a neo-Confederate. As a native of Los Angeles who grew up on a farm in southern Colorado, I can claim complete freedom from any pro-Confederate special pleading during my formative years. Moreover, not a single ancestor fought in the war, a fact I lamented as a boy reading books by Bruce Catton and Douglas Southall Freeman and wanting desperately to have some direct connection to the events that fascinated me. ~ Gary Gallagher
Both Robertson and Freeman have been criticized by other Civil War scholars and historians for being “too close” to their subjects. That is a fair observation and one, I believe, neither man would have totally denied. But knowing these historians’ “closeness” to their subjects and the widely acclaimed quality of their scholarship, did this closeness really detract from their work—or did it actually enhance it? Gary Gallagher, in his introduction to the 1998 edition of Freeman’s The South to Posterity, seems to echo that sentiment in quoting Bruce Catton: “[It] would be foolish to pretend that Dr. Freeman’s history was at all times completely objective. It was scholarly and it was fair, but it was never detached or passionless. It would be poorer history if it were those things.”
It is my opinion that readers should be much more skeptical of historians and writers who refuse to acknowledge their biases and connections to the topics they write about, as well as of those writers who, though admitting their biases, make no attempt to bridle them.
The Battle of Waynesboro, along with the rich heritage and history of the whole Shenandoah Valley, is part of me, and I want readers to know this. As historian Jeffrey Wert has astutely observed, the Shenandoah Valley has an almost spiritual connection with its residents, particularly those who are native to its soil: “In the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia, roots went deep into the rich soil…The Valley seeped into bones, touched souls.”
So, as you read The Battle of Waynesboro, know that the author was born on and grew up on the very ground that hosted the conflict. Know that all six of my children were born on that battlefield. Know that I have never lived more than ten miles from that ground. Know that two of my great-great grandfathers served in the 51st Virginia Infantry, which fought in that battle. Know that my family and I have owned some of that battleground. Know that I have held swords, bullets, grapeshot and a musket from that battle. Know that my body has been nourished from food grown from that ground. Know that I reverence that ground, that connection and that heritage. Know that this ground has seeped into my bones and touched my soul. Know that all this simultaneously burdens and rewards me with certain biases and perspectives. Know also that while I have attempted to bridle my biases, I am, at the same time, thankful to God for the heritage that birthed them. And finally, know that I have sat at my keyboard and bled a little.
Richard G. Williams Jr. Huckleberry Hollow, Virginia July 2014