The person staring out at you from in this old photograph, actually a copy of a tintype, is that of a distant ancestor, my great, great grandfather if I have counted correctly, taken in 1862. Born and raised in northwestern North Carolina, where my family originates from, he joined the Confederate Army and served as what we would now call a ‘grunt’ in The Army of Northern Virginia until captured at the Battle of Spotsylvania Court House. There he was captured and made prisoner, sent first to a Union POW camp at Point Lookout Maryland, then transferred to another Union prison camp in Elmira, NY, dubbed ‘Helmira by its inmates, many of whom died from calculated neglect- including him.
I had known a bit about him, but did not know about the photograph. Had questioned whether it is actually of him since the hat looks like a prop and the firearm, because of its uniqueness, ( a Civil War buff could shed more light on this) I strongly suspected was not his. But I am told the original, which a relative out in California has, is signed by him. This tells me a couple of things. One he was literate and two; he wasn’t as poor as family lore had me believe since he had money to spend on this.
It is interesting to me how some physical traits have been passed down through the generations. He has the same square face my father had and many of my relatives also have.
There are also copies of letters written by him from the field to his wife in North Carolina. Dates are sporadic, but they span from 1862 to January 1, 1865 while in the Elmira prison of war camp, just 30 days before he died and just 3 months before the Confederate surrender on April 9th.
The letters speak of a deep, aching loneliness from being away from home and family, a man of string religious fervor, of deprivation, constant hunger, of men walking barefoot in winter, and short, sparse reports of being in battle. And while he was literate, the document now makes for hard reading as spelling was not a skill he had.
How does it feel to have, as the title of a book goes, ‘A Confederate in The Attic’? Mixed. I have never thought about hanging out a Stars and Bars flag out and shouting ‘The South Shall Rise Again’, or re-tuning my car’s horn so that it plays ‘Dixie’. But in the same breath, when I do see the Confederate flag on a car or outside a home, I smugly wonder ‘Are they really?’
Nor am I ashamed. He fought and died for what he believed in, even though it was the wrong thing. And you can’t judge family for how they were shaped by the times they lived in. To put in another way, from the lines of an old Bruce Springsteen song, “..Man turns his back on his family, he ain’t no good.”.
Finally there is respect. You have to remember fighting in this war was still done Napoleonic style: lines of men walking should-to-shoulder to the enemy lines shouldering extremely heavy rifles and then at close range, firing volleys of very large bullets, larger than those used in firearms today. These bullets if they did not kill you outright, could create horrible wounds, leaving you at the mercies of field doctors who did not fully understand, through no fault of their own, severe trauma and how to treat it (ironically though, it was the Civil War which started the study of severe trauma and methods of treatment). To suffer deprivation and mortal danger bespeaks of a core of inner courage and perseverance, no matter if the solider wore blue or gray.