“What Does History Tell Us?”

I was honored to give this talk back in 2008. This year the mayor of Fredericksburg spoke on the anniversary of the battle. It’s an incredibly thoughtful presentation, which includes this passage about her family’s connection to the town and its history.

My great-great grandfather was a master tailor named Walter Mills.  He lived with his family in a row house on Sophia Street and ran by all accounts a solid, reputable business. He lived an unremarkable life largely devoid of public notice….until the secession crisis of 1861.  Abraham Lincoln’s inauguration, the firing on Fort Sumter, and the federal government’s call for 3,500 Virginians to put down the southern rebellion quickly turned most white Fredericksburgers into enthusiastic secessionists, committed Confederates.  Indeed, it was Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania’s great hope to be able to report a unanimous vote for secession in the referendum of May 23, 1861.

For reasons not entirely clear today, Walter Mills, the master tailor and my ancestor, defied those who would intimidate him and bucked the prevailing tide like few others.  At that time, a vote was cast by declaring it by voice at the courthouse on Princess Anne Street, in front of a listening audience.  When his time came, Walter Mills stepped forward and declared “No” on the question of secession.

His declaration stirred the crowd.  A local businessman jumped up and proclaimed that the next person to vote against secession should be hung.

The final vote on secession in Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania was 1,321 for and 2 against.  Walter Mills was one of the two.

The irony of the story of Walter Mills is deep:  at the time, you can imagine that he was ostracized and abused by his community—surely an object of uncharitable comment, if not physical threat.

But today, we see his decision as an act of courage and, perhaps, wisdom. If Walter Mills voted against secession because he thought the path of secession would fail to protect the South’s interests and would lead to ruin, he was right.

The passion-whipped unanimity for secession advocated by 99.85% of this community’s men proved to be a destructive path indeed.

If we stop to listen to a story like that, what do we hear?

Another of my ancestors was a prominent banker in town at the time of the Civil War. Like Walter Mills, Arthur Goodwin is remembered as a good and noble man, an important and well-respected member of this community—a legacy my family has worked hard to sustain.

One day in 1859 or 1860, Arthur Goodwin gathered with others on the corner of Charles and William Street, where the auction block sits.  That day, this man, my relative, purchased a family of slaves:  Juda, and her children Albert, Douglass, Tom, and Maria.  He owned them until war brought an end to slavery in Fredericksburg.

There is great irony in this piece of my family history as well: while my grandfather Mills was jeered for his vote against secession, my ancestor Goodwin’s purchase of a slave family on the corner of Charles and William Streets likely elicited no notice at all.  It was an act typical of the age, one that few if any people interpreted as a negative reflection on Arthur Goodwin or his family.

Today, we see things differently.  That slavery existed in this nation and town is hard to fathom—such monstrous injustice seems inimical to all that we are as a nation. That my family was an active participant in the institution of slavery is harder still.  As a nation, we cannot deny our past. As a family, we cannot simply wish away a connection to slavery, much as we might want to.

My ancestor Arthur Goodwin was by all accounts an upstanding member of the community, a good and faithful man.  Does his appearance on the corner of Charles and William Streets in 1859 to purchase a family of slaves change that?

Or does the fact that a good and noble man bought slaves tell us more about the time in which he lived and the country we once were?

Stop … and listen.  What does history tell us?

I appreciate the extent to which the mayor steers clear of the all-too-popular move of interpreting what the Civil War was about through the eyes of an ancestor that is believed needs vindication. It’s enough just to try to understand one’s ancestors without getting wrapped up in a sense of personal responsibility for what they did or didn’t do.

2 comments… add one
  • Jack Dec 15, 2014

    “…without getting wrapped up in a sense of personal responsibility…”
    You say that but then denigrate their memory.

    • Kevin Levin Dec 15, 2014

      You sound incredibly silly. Show me where I “denigrate” the memory of anyone.

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