Tag Archives: Civil War

History and Mythology

On my recent trip to north Georgia, I passed through the little town of Ringgold. I’d never given Ringgold much thought, but it turns out a lot happened there in 1863 and 1864. If you know a bit of American Civil War history, you might recall that after Confederate forces were forced to retreat south of Chattanooga, the Union army then set its sights on Atlanta. Ringgold was on the railroad line between the two cities, and as a result, was the scene of a small battle.

The town’s sturdy railroad depot played a part, as it was used by the Union army as a protective barrier when planning their attack. The battle then took place, with the Confederates holding on long enough to evacuate equipment and supplies. But the battle did nothing to stop the tide of the war, and of  Generals Grant, Hooker,  and Sherman’s trek to Atlanta.

General Hooker used the depot as his headquarters for the three or so days he was in Ringgold. When he and his men left, they attempted to blow up the structure, but while it was severely damaged, most of it remained standing. You can clearly see the repaired sections due to the difference in rocks used.

A few hundred yards away stands this house. It was the home of Ringgold merchant William Whitman and his family. The family stood at the windows and watched the battle. Afterwards it was commandeered by General Grant as his headquarters.

The Whitman House is still privately owned, but there is a historical marker in the yard. Erected in 1955, it’s not a reliable historical record. First of all, the house was built in 1857, not 1863 as seen on the marker. But what’s really interesting is the story about Mrs. Whitman and General Grant. She refused his money, he paid her a compliment, and his men cheered her. Or, as the marker reads, “Grant is said to have remarked…”

The problem with this story is there is no proof it ever happened. Much of what is known about the house’s history comes from an account written by the Whitman’s granddaughter many years later. She was not born until years after the Civil War. Written accounts of Union soldiers do not mention the exchange.

But there it is, big as life, on a bronze marker on the lawn of the house. How many Ringgold citizens learned the story as children? How many continue to believe this romanticized account of the proud Southern woman defying the great general?

I’ve met many Northerners who marvel at the long memory of the Confederate South. What they don’t realize is how there are daily reminders of the invasion of the South by the Union forces. Everyone who passes this house on her way to town sees a reminder of how a brave Southern woman defied the great Grant.

I was born in 1955. Jim Crow was still an active force in the South. Southerners were still  being educated in the mythology of the Lost Cause. Is there any wonder some Southerners cling to this mythology?

The way to the truth is education. Unfortunately the way to the mythology of the Lost Cause was also through education – bad education. Only we can set the record straight. This is not rewriting history; it is reclaiming the truth.

 

 

 

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Filed under Road Trip, Viewpoint, Vintage Travel

Education, Museums, and the Daughters of the Confederacy

One of the reasons I love travel to historic sites is that it gives me a chance to reconcile the past with current events and with my own thoughts about the past. Growing up in the South, one can’t help but to have been exposed to the ideas spread through the Jim Crow era. We are all still under the influence of what we learned in school and from our elders in the aftermath of The Lost Cause. Much of that education was greatly influenced by a group of privileged White women, the Daughters of the Confederacy (DOC).

Actually, my exposure to these ideas was probably much less than the average Southern Baby Boomer, being brought up in the Appalachians of North Carolina. The great majority of Whites living here in 1860 were not slave owners. That does not mean they thought slavery was wrong; it means they could not afford the high cost of enslaving people. When the call to arms went out in 1861, men from my region signed up to fight. I can’t say what they thought they were fighting for. The mythology says it was to “whip the Yankees’ asses”, and a big part of me believes this.

Anyway, as the war dragged on, enthusiasm for the war began to wane. Deserting soldiers from the mountains made their way home (Cold Mountain tells a fictional version) and were hidden by their families. Families that were barely making a living before the war were pushed to the brink of starvation without men to help with the farming and because of high taxes imposed by the Confederate and state governments. There were bands of raiders and life was perilous. The only positive was that the region saw very little actual warfare.

Unsurprisingly, the war left a bad taste in mountain people’s mouths. But over time, things began to change. Prosperity returned as the men who fought for the Confederacy were aging and dying. Across the South, even here in the mountains, there were grand reunions where the old guys were brought out to have group photos taken and for them to tell wild tales about the glory of battle.

And that’s where the Daughters come in. All those Confederate monuments scattered across the South were largely the work of the DOC. It was their mission to memorialize the heroes of the Confederacy, but more than that, they were able to change the way people in the South viewed the conflict. And in many states they were able to have history textbooks written that supported their view of the war and The Lost Cause.  For several generations the ideas put forth during the Jim Crow era by organizations like the DOC have continued to be spread. People tend to believe what they were taught as children, and these ideas are passed on to the next generation.

I’d really never given the  DOC much thought until a worker at a small museum we visited on our trip east somehow got on the topic of Confederate monuments. He told us that most people were wrong in thinking the KKK was responsible for all the monuments because they were the work of the Daughter of the Confederacy. This seemed to somehow justify the monuments, as how could a bunch of privileged White middle-aged women a hundred years ago have had anything but honorable intent.

His words really stuck with me, and I spent the rest of the trip looking more closely at how the Confederacy was represented in museums.  The photo above shows an apron made by a Mrs. Dewey early in the war. The eleven stars represent the eleven states that had joined the Confederacy at the time the apron was made. According to the exhibit notes, Mrs. Dewey wore the apron at tea parties at her home in New Bern to show her support for the Confederacy.

Down the street in New Bern is the historic district that is administered by the Tryon Palace. This is the Jones House, which was used as a prison by the occupying Union troops after the city was taken in 1862.

The building was closed, but a display outside told a bit of the story of the most famous prisoner held here, Emeline Pigott. I didn’t know the story of Miss Pigott, but evidently she is quite well-known in the New Bern and Morehead City area, as we encountered her story in both towns.

This is a display in a history museum in Morehead City, near where Miss Pigott lived. They have a recreated dress and hoop skirt, showing how Pigott was supposed to have smuggled supplies to the Confederate soldiers hiding in the area. She was eventually captured and imprisoned in the Jones House.

The carriage in the photo is said to be the one she rode in when returning home  after being released from prison. According to a leaflet given out at the museum, she was released after threatening to expose the crimes of some influential New Bern men. The leaflet reads like a silent film melodrama, with Miss Pigott turning to spying after her lover was killed by the Yankees at Gettysburg. She had incriminating papers on her when arrested which she sneakily tore into bits and ingested.

In order to get a full picture of how the Civil War is presented in museums in the South, you would have to visit many more than the half dozen or so we saw during this trip. Above is part of Fort Macon State Park, which guarded the entrance to the ports of Morehead City and Beaufort. Normally there is an excellent display of artifacts (including Confederate) in the fort, but the artifacts were damaged due to high water from Hurricane Florence last year. It’s a shame, because Fort Macon does a really good job of interpreting the fort’s participation in the conflict without romanticising it.

I know it must be difficult for small historical societies to fully interpret the history of a region considering the lack of funds and the fact that displays have to be built around the artifacts in the collection. Often the story of a place is as much legend as it is historical fact. As in the case of Emeline Pigott, sometimes it is difficult to determine what is truth and what is legend. Still, it seems a bit odd that two historical organizations put so much emphasis on the story of a Confederate smuggler and spy.

As much as I want to see the stories of women included in our museums, I was left feeling disheartened that of the two women I encountered, one was known for her tea parties, and the other was the old female spy cliché. The objects associated with them seemed more like relics than artifacts.

The Morehead City chapter of the Daughters of the Confederacy was named in Miss Pigott’s honor. In 1926, several years after her death, the chapter erected a Confederate monument in the county seat of Beaufort.  All the while the DOC was busy pushing their version of the Civil War and The Lost Cause.

In a more positive note, a new museum opens tomorrow, May 4, 2019, in Richmond, Virginia. The American Civil War Museum has a very interesting backstory, and so to learn more I suggest you listen to an episode of the podcast Backstory which explains how an old Confederacy museum based on relics has become a modern museum that attempts to tell the story of the Civil War from multiple perspectives.

 

 

 

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Filed under Museums, North Carolina, Uncategorized