Saturday, June 13, 2009

Too Thin to Plow, Too Thick to Drink

I spent some time in the state of Mississippi recently attending a family wedding. The happy event was in Natchez, a town full of antebellum mansions that escaped destruction during the Civil War because it was (to its current embarrassment) a hot-bed of Union sympathizers. Also, the crippling taxes of the Reconstruction era targeted agricultural production, while Natchez was primarily the second home for plantation owners. It had long been a place to party rather than to grow cotton.

I always enjoy touring historic houses and went to several. The docents tend to be local people with great enthusiasm and knowledge about the history of their part of the world (and in the South, they also tend to be great story tellers). In Natchez, as is typical in the South, history means the Civil War. During one tour someone asked a question about the American war of independence, and the docent said she didn't know anything about that, adding, "Around here we don't learn about the Revolutionary War in school. It isn't part of our history."

I have one Southern parent so I've grown up with a lot of exposure to Southern ways, and I've always noticed how steeped the South still is in the Civil War, but I never heard it put as blatantly as that before.

Growing up, it took me a while to understand how strange it is that the South is obsessed by an event that ended 144 years ago. My great-grandfather (universally known as Pappy), who died when I was 17 and who I was lucky to know very well, was born only ten years after the end of the War, so it is not surprising that he talked about it. But my entire family history is dominated by stories of the War. I know a great deal about what my ancestors did in the Civil War but virtually nothing about their activities in more recent conflicts.

I grew up hearing about Uncle Hoot's ex-slave helping Uncle Hoot walk home, injured, from a battlefield in Alabama, and their arrival two years after the end of the War when everyone thought Hoot long dead. There was also Uncle John who refused to wear blue jeans (Union colors) for twenty years after the end of the War, who then declared in 1885, "We fought that war for the wrong reasons" and finally put away his grey flannels. We still make pilgrimages to see the obelisk erected on his own gravesite by my great-great-grandfather, who had printed on its sides:
Robert Bruce Bowe
Born in
Petersburg, VA
Feb 29, 1833
Raised in
Hanover Co.
Moved to Miss.
Feb. 1, 1860
Oct. 11, 1907

Co. A 7th Tenn. Cavalry CSA
July 1861 - Apr. 1865
We rode from Vicksburg to Nashville,
from Atlanta to Corinth,
to Fort Pillow and to Belmont, Mo.
Many a day and night
nothing to eat, our bed the cold sod,
the Stars and Bars and dear Mal were
the idols of my heart.

My aim through life was to do
unto others as would have them do
unto me, though some times had to fight
old Nick with fire.

I have no Flag or Country since 1865,
an Alien in the land that my fore Fathers
defended in war since 1624.
Providence taking the side with the strong and
against the weak and just
has caused me to live in doubt
the last Forty years
and fear I will die so.

Growing up, many times I heard the story that my ancestors never acceded to the Union, with the conclusion left unsaid: that the authorities may think we're Americans, but in our hearts we still belong to Dixie.

I used to think that Civil War nostalgia was all about recalling a time when we were wealthy. People I knew in the South grew up poor, but their ancestors had lost immense wealth during and after the War. I was (and am) horrified by the slave-owning history in my own family and thought of the Civil War as primarily a way to preserve that barbaric practice.

But maybe I just wasn't Southern enough to get it. The South was and is a culture unto itself, and the Yankees really were oppressors. I used to think that Pappy's Uncle John finally came to his senses when he went back to wearing denim coveralls, but now I wonder if his original reaction wasn't the right one.

(The title of this post is an old joke about the Mississippi River.)


Louise said...

Very interesting.. I think that Robt Bruce Bowe was my grandfather. The date of his death is about right. My dad, Edward Carmack Bowe, was born in 04 or 05 (I think 05) and the story was that his dad died when he was very little. You know how these family histories get confused. I'm not particularly interested in geneaology, but it interesting to see that I may have a bunch of relatives I don't know. I'm 70, and live in northern California. My dad died in 1973 and it's been my impression that the yankee side of the family (my sister and I) were of little interest to them..

Bruce E Bowe
Santa Rosa California

(I'm on my wife's computer so the address is hers)

Anonymous said...

Dear Bruce

Edward Carmack Bowe was the grandson of Robert Bruce Bowe. Edward's father was Richmond Bruce Bowe, son of Robert. There is a picture of the whole family abt. 1895 on the internet. Google "Robert Bruce Bowe" family and you should be able to find it. Distantly related to the Bowes, Jean

Anonymous said...

Picture of Robert Bruce Bowe and Malvina McCargo Bowe and their children and grandchildren ca. 1895.