The Confederates in My Attic

Saturday afternoon on my screened porch in Chapel Hill: You might think I’d hear birdsong and insects as the sticky summer weather lingers in early September. Instead, I hear sirens and helicopters. Once again white supremacist groups from neighboring counties are coming to stand guard at the confederate stump that once held the statue on our campus known as “Silent Sam.” The last time they visited, we walked up to take a look.  Draped in the stars and bars, the group carried well-printed signs about monuments and heritage preservation that told little about their lives or motivations.  We stayed for a bit and then headed home shaken and wondering how this conflict would resolve.

As our campus has been grappling with our confederate past, I have been learning about the confederates in my own family attic. Their stories are complex and in some ways mysterious. Although I’ve known they existed for along time, only recently have I learned some of the details of their stories.

My father is fast approaching 98. He grew up living with his paternal grandfather, a confederate veteran who lost his arm in a civil war battle near Helena, Arkansas. My injured great grandfather John was saved by his brother who dragged him behind a church then left to continue the fight. Union soldiers then captured John, completed the amputation of his arm, and paroled him to a nearby plantation for the remainder of the war. Family lore has it that after his arm healed, those same Union soldiers allowed John to fish the rivers of his childhood and sell those fish to Union troops. The money he earned bought the Missouri farm I roamed during my childhood summer visits. Because John lost his arm, he had to re-learn to write with the opposite hand, was elected county tax assessor, and became a peacemaker in his divided community of northern and southern sympathizers. Think Missouri compromise if you want to know why these two groups were living in such close proximity.

He is not the only confederate in my attic. His father before him, one Coleman Chapman, joined the confederate army to flee the Jay Hawks of Kansas. Great, great, grandfather Coleman was a minister and wheelwright, moving west from Tennessee to make wagon-wheels for the gold rush. He married Annie, the daughter of a slave-holding family. As my father tells it, even though Coleman and Annie did not enslave people themselves, they were not allowed to settle in certain states because of Annie’s family’s actions. They believed they were unfairly persecuted as “southern people,” and my father points out that to his knowledge no one on the Chapman side ever enslaved someone. He is wrong. This summer I found a will in which an ancestor in the 1700’s in South Carolina willed a young girl as a piece of property to one of his descendants. Probably the tip of the iceberg. When I read that will, I felt as if I had been punched in the stomach. Nothing compared to what that young girl must have endured.

Then there is the Union soldier in my attic known as Uncle Lem. As my father tells it the divided state of Missouri was populated by what were essentially gangs – much like those described in the novel Cold Mountain. Young men had to join for basic safety and Lem, like Coleman who joined a confederate aligned group to escape the Jayhawks, joined up with a Union aligned militia. He was sent west to a Union garrison in what would become Montana where he was likely involved in “subduing” native populations. He came back to the same Missouri community as his confederate brothers, ran the local store, and made sure my dad had lunch every day through the Great Depression.

To my father, each of these people is a hero in their own way. They are brothers who saved one another’s lives. They are men who persevered after losing a limb so that they could feed their families and contribute to their community. Among these civil war veterans are individuals as real to him as he is to me, who created safety and sustenance for him through bleak days. When I tell him about the confederate statue coming down, he dislikes the idea, believes it dishonors people, long dead, but that he loves still. I try not to talk about it too much.

But I  think about these long gone ancestors as our campus struggles to find a path forward. Should they be honored, and if so, for what? History is a harsh judge; the simple version might make all of them villains. Even Uncle Lem, supposedly on the historically right side, was involved or at least a witness to crimes against native populations. Villain? Victim? Victor? Vanquished?

What I honor in their stories is not what they did or did not do during the civil war. For each of them, their choices may have been as much about survival as conviction. What I honor in these passed down stories are their choices after this conflict, particularly Great Grandfather John. Blessed are the peacemakers and he became one settling Hatfield and McCoy type feuds between northern and southern sympathizers and knitting his town back together through his church and government service. Peacemaking is something to which I can aspire, admire, and honor. Does any confederate statue do that?

As I’ve written previously on this blog, to read the speech that was given at the statue’s dedication in 1913 erases all doubt about the immoral ideals it celebrates. https://exhibits.lib.unc.edu/files/original/c1160e4341b86794b7e842cb042fb414.pdf Its presence is an insult to my colleagues of color and taints the good work done daily at UNC. In the easy version of the story, we’d leave the statue in his undisclosed location and erect something that honors our common work, work that bridges divides, finds solutions to vexing problems, celebrates knowledge, and promotes creation of life-changing art and scholarship. But this story is not easy. Like my own confederate history, there is a lot we don’t know or have not acknowledged. For our campus, this moment is a reckoning, a time to face the difficult realities that echo through our buildings, bubble up on our quadrangles, and that have remained hidden for far too long. Once we, as a community, stand together and face the truth that enslaved people were housed in the basement of South Building, that our beautiful campus was built with slave labor, that it was 1966 before we had an African- American faculty member, https://museum.unc.edu/exhibits/show/integration/roberta-and-blyden-jackson, and all the rest of our yet unspoken history, then we will have peace. I like to think, although it may be wishful thinking, that Great Grandfather John, the peacemaker, the one who befriended his Union captors, the one who brought North and South back together in his community, would agree.

Acknowledgement: Title adapted from the Tony Horowitz book, “Confederates in the Attic.”

5 comments

  1. Painful, evocative accounts so thoughtfully held, revealed and reflected upon. I guess relations can both tether and anchor our ideals. And healing and peacemaking can break against justice and rights. You educate us all as you insist upon clarity, inclusion and sense. Thank you for doing so.

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  2. Thanks for your blog. I think we can agree the monument could mean different things to different people. Other than those that heard Carrs speech at the dedication, ( I would think ) saw Silent Sam just as the plaques on the monument describe- a memorial to honor the students from Carolina that fought and died during the war.

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