16 January 2007

A Shot in the Dark

My students never quite trust me when I teach the US Civil War. I suppose I deserve their distrust. I have two dark secrets that I feel compelled to disclose every year.

Before I reveal those secrets to you here, a little background is necessary. I teach in the Deep South, a region with strong feelings but often little knowledge about history. I have lived in Cobb County, one of Atlanta's many suburban counties, for the past thirty-two years of my life. Like much of the Atlanta area, it is a county that has undergone a rapid change as its rural heritage has been replaced by a typical suburban mix of homes, shopping centers, and Starbucks. These days, it actually makes the papers when an old family farm finally gives way to the never-ending need for neighborhoods that only recall their heritage in names like Brook Field, Morgan Farm, and others too many to mention.

But it is not only the county's rural heritage that has been under assault. The entire Atlanta region has seen its southern heritage watered down by an influx of hordes of Yankees. Sherman came in the 1860's. Lockheed came in the 1940's. IBM and many other companies came in the 1970's. I am not sure which has been more destructive of the local southern culture. It is not uncommon to go to a pro-sports event in Atlanta and see the hometown fans matched or exceeded in numbers by fans from places like New York or Chicago. Nearly every Civil War battlefield is now under a parking lot, apartment complex, or Starbucks.

The transition has not been without its tensions. I well remember my own high school history class debating the Civil War:
Yank transplant: "Who won the war?"
Local Rebel: "Who won most of the battles?"
Yank transplant: "Lee owned slaves!"Local Rebel: "Grant was a drunk!"
Yank transplant: "Who won the war?"
Local Rebel: "Who won most of the battles?"
You get the idea. I don't remember it going any deeper than that. I don't recall joining the debate. I didn't know which side to join. My soul was deeply conflicted by the fact that one of my dark secrets is that I was born in Poughkeepsie, New York. My dad worked for IBM and was transferred to Atlanta when I was five. Our neighborhood, named Bunker Hill in honor of the Bicentennial and, perhaps, to make us Yanks feel more welcome, was filled with Yankee transplants.

I was conflicted as soon as I began attending elementary school. I had been in the habit of calling my parents simply, "Mom" and "Dad." I soon picked up the habit of referring to them as, "Maya-me" and "Daya-de" until my dad told me quite vehemently to stop talking like that.

My students are always shocked to discover that I was born in the North. Some of them doubt that a place named “Poughkeepsie” actually exists. In a desperate attempt to reestablish my southern credentials, I explain that I was only born there by a fluke of timing. My mom is from Arkansas and my dad is from North Carolina. They reply, “Yeah…NORTH Carolina!” or “Arkansas? Isn’t that where Clinton is from? She’s a New York Yank!” Okay, I might be exaggerating, but my students’ conception of who their teacher is has been shaken. I continue to explain my true heritage by telling them that my great, great, great, great, great, great, great, great grandfather came to Virginia in 1636. I tell them that I love sweet tea and will eat anything fried. In fact, my mother, at her wit’s end in her struggle to get me to eat vegetables, battered-up every vegetable fit to fry and dropped it in boiling oil. I ate fried okra, squash, zucchini, not to mention the fried chicken hearts and gizzards I got for a treat. I don’t volunteer that I find grits repulsive. It is all to no avail. I cannot now be trusted to teach the Civil War with any measure of objectivity.

It is usually at this point that I drop my second bombshell secret. My great, great grandfather may have been the one that killed Stonewall Jackson. As you may or may not know, Jackson was reconnoitering the battlefield at Chancellorsville at the end of a day that many say was his finest hour, when a group of North Carolina infantry challenged him in the half-light. Thinking Jackson and his staff was a force of Union cavalry, the North Carolina infantry opened fire. Jackson was hit once in his right hand and twice in his left arm (whatever you say about their judgment, at least the North Carolinians were good shots). His left arm would be amputated, but he would die from complications due to pneumonia on May 10, 1863, reportedly saying, “Let us cross over the river and rest under the shade of the trees.” Lee was devastated by the news and remarked, “I have lost my right arm.” Indeed, when Lee needed Jackson later that year at Gettysburg, Jackson was not there, and Lee failed when he might have had his greatest victory. Lincoln would have never given his famous address, the Confederacy would have won the war, and all of American history would have been drastically different. I might be exaggerating again but who can tell?

According to a clipping from 1899 saved by my father’s family, “Mr. W.I. […], of near Bethel, an old Confederate, was in town Wednesday and told us a little about the part he took in the volley that killed Stonewall Jackson. He was in the brigade to guard the road with orders to let no one pass. Having just driven Hooker into his defenses at Chancellorsville, Gen. Jackson was very anxious to follow up the fruits of the battle and reconnoitering at night, and refusing to halt as demanded, was fired into by his own men and mortally wounded, on the night of May 2nd 1863, dying the 10th. Mr. […] was in the Brigade and fired at Jackson. Who hit him can not be known.”

I have replaced the last name of Mr. William Ivey with ellipsis to protect my family. He was my great, great grandfather. My students think he was Yankee spy.

I don’t know if revealing my secret Poughkeepsie-born, Stonewall Jackson-killing past makes it anymore difficult for my students to accept my criticisms of the South or not, but I hope they know I love the South and would like to see all that is good about the South preserved.



The Tour Marm said...


I'm originally from New York City, but my father's family is from Westmoreland County, Virginia.

When I was in my mid twenties, I moved to Alexandria, VA (not now considered true Virginia by my kin because of all the Yankees that have moved there).

I like to describe myself as having Northern savvy and Southern sensibilities.

My brother graduated from VMI and with our strong Lee family connections and the legacy of Stonewall Jackson at VMI, he is firmly pro-southern. He presumed that I was pro-north in the debate concerning the 'Wahr of Northern Aggression'. He is mistaken. (He'd be appalled that I could correspond with a descendent of the one who might have killed Gen. Jackson. However, he would excuse me because of my low place of birth!)

It might surprise you that New York was very much a pro-southern city! There is a current exhibition at the New York Historical Society that offers an educational program detailing this as well as the institution of Slavery in New York. (In fact, I have a school from the Los Angeles area participating in this program in April.)

Conversely, not every Southerner supported the Confederacy.

The notion that if one is from the north or south, one is predisposed to think in a prescribed way, is poppycock.

The causes of the War Between the States is not as cut and dried as most have been given to understand; it is far more complex. All sides, should be fairly presented to students in order to form an accurate picture.

And that includes 'come-here's' from Poughkeepsie!

Keep up the good work!

By the way, have you visited the Jackson Shrine in Woodford or his home and grave in Lexington?

Educational Tour Marm

Splitcat Chintzibobs said...

Educational Tour Marm,

Thanks for stopping by. I am, sadly, not well travelled. I have been to Richmond, Norfolk, and Williamsburg, but not to the great battlefields of Northern Virgnia nor to DC. I am not sure that I would be admitted to the Jackson Shrine or his home now that I have gone public like this. I have, of course, been to our local shrine to Lee, Jackson, and Jeff Davis: Stone Mountain, but the operators of the park try to play down the nature of the park. I hope one day to stand at the spot where my great, great, grandfather must have stood on the fateful night.

I agree with you about the complexity of the war. What is really suprising is the depth of feeling that the war still evokes. Americans are generally quite forgiving people, but two wars still haunt us: Vietnam and the Civil War.