About That Confederate Ancestor of Yours

A constant refrain heard over the past week is that the Confederate battle flag is a revered symbol for the descendants of the men who fought under it between 1861 and 1865. If so, for how many descendants? The Sons of Confederate Veterans certainly embrace the spirit of this claim. According to Wikipedia membership in the Sons of Confederate Veterans numbered just over 29,000 in 2014 – an incredibly small number by any estimation. Certainly, one does not have to be a member of the SCV to claim a strong ancestral connection with an ancestor who fought. Perhaps there are many more outside of the SCV who identify the flag with a Confederate ancestor. Perhaps that number is far outstripped by descendants of Confederate soldiers who have never given their ancestor much thought at all.

But what exactly are we acknowledging when the Confederate flag is embraced by a descendant of a soldier who fought and to what extent ought the rest of us acknowledge this as a legitimate interpretation of the flag’s meaning? The embrace of the flag by descendants of Confederate soldiers usually comes with claims about the bravery and steadfastness of their ancestor as well as vague claims about the defense of home and family.

I don’t mean to belittle such beliefs, but there is a problem.

It is safe to say that the overwhelming number of Confederate descendants who claim a strong connection to that ancestor know very little, if anything, about his service and experience in the army beyond official military records. It is certainly not for a lack of trying. Those lucky enough to uncover a detailed personal account rightfully cherish them as family heirlooms. For most soldiers, however, we can say very little about their experience beyond official military records. Even with the vast store of Civil War soldiers’ letters and diaries, the window into their intellectual and emotional worlds is blocked owing to their inability or decision not to share their experiences in written form. Even in cases where a written record is available, they often fail to explore the kinds of experiences that historians and Civil War enthusiasts yearn to read.

Did an ancestor behave bravely on the battlefield? Did he believe in the cause? What did he believe about the institution of slavery? Did he finish the war and want nothing more than to keep his memories to himself? Did he have strong feelings about the flag under which he fought? We can find plenty of examples of Civil War soldiers reflecting on these and other questions through published primary accounts and archival collections (the latter often  difficult to access), but for the overwhelming number of men in Confederate ranks the record is silent. It may be possible to glean some understanding of what a soldier experienced from the vast body of research on Civil War soldiers now available, but that may be less than satisfactory for those seeking a personal connection.

I have no doubt that pro-flag advocates who are descended from Confederate soldiers are sincere in their strong identification with the flag as a reflection of their ancestor’s service. But we ought to remember that the war being remembered reflects their preferred memory and not that of their ancestor.

 

41 comments add yours

  1. Isn’t it time to remember the white Southerners who fought for THE UNION during
    the Civil War? Their memory is almost totally dishonored in the South. They
    have no monuments.

    Lincoln’s Loyalists: Union Soldiers from the Confederacy
    http://www.amazon.com/Lincolns-Loyalists-Union-Soldiers-Confederacy/dp/1555531245

    The South Vs. The South: How Anti-Confederate Southerners Shaped the Course of the
    Civil War
    http://www.amazon.com/The-South-Vs-Anti-Confederate-Southerners
    /dp/0195156293/

    Enemies of the Country: New Perspectives on Unionists in the Civil War South
    http://www.amazon.com/Enemies-Country-Perspectives-Unionists-Civil/dp/0820326607/

    The Free State of Jones: Mississippi’s Longest Civil War
    http://www.amazon.com/Free-State-Jones-Mississippis-Longest/dp/0807854670/

    The Long Shadow of the Civil War: Southern Dissent and Its Legacies
    http://www.amazon.com/Long-Shadow-Civil-War-Southern-ebook/dp/B003DQP7S8/

    • Their memory is almost totally dishonored in the South.

      Not so much dishonored as it is forgotten, which I guess you could say is just that.

      • I’ve heard more than a few stories told by archivists about having to break the news to someone trying to research their Civil War ancestor(s) in order to join the SCV that, while the ancestor(s) did, in fact, serve in the Civil War, they served in a US unit.

        • I had just that experience in my online US history survey class a couple of years ago. A third the way through the semester one of my online students contacted me for help with her husband’s genealogy. She had found an ancestor who enlisted in a Confederate regiment from eastern Tennessee, but but she couldn’t discover what battles he’d been in and there were no records of the regiment after 1862. We had an interesting email discussion back and forth about American history and genealogy that I thought was useful.

          I did the usual internet searches and found that the regiment had suffered so badly from desertion during the winter of ’61-62 that the Confederate army dissolved the unit. I then found some evidence that pointed to the ancestor possibly joining the Union army in late 1862. I emailed this fascinating discovery to the student, who never replied and promptly dropped the class.

          I no longer do genealogical research for students, and now just offer tips on the process.

    • I often wonder what William Martin “Dickie” Knight, member of the Knight Band of the Free State of Jones and lifelong defender of having supported the Union, would say to those descendants who now reverentially place Confederate flags on his grave.

      Vikki Bynum
      Renegade South

  2. Great post! I have been researching my family history since I was in high school…..which means I have been doing it for a long time, since before the advent of the Internet. Fortunately, several of my family lines were well documented before I started, and I have found that the documentation was very accurate. So far, I have found about three dozen Civil War veterans in my family, most of them Union. These include a 3rd GGF, 2 second GGFs and grand uncles and cousins of varying degrees of kinship. But they may have all been the strong silent types, or someone is not sharing, because I haven’t found any letters or diaries. And they were literate men by all accounts, including teachers, lawyers, prosperous farmers in their ranks, as well others who might not have been given as much formal education but could still read and write. In the absence of letters and diaries I have to do some research to be able to ascribe motives…and I am very careful not to jump to conclusions. The majority of those with Confederate ancestors always tell me their families never owned slaves and were defending hearth and home….which I take as code for “I don’t know anything about them…”

      • In my case, I have been able to reconstruct a few things from bits of family lore that turned out to true, confirmed from census records, wills, etc. Since so many of my families were originally from Virginia, I have slave holders in my family tree. And the preponderance of the evidence support my contention that my paternal great grandfather in Illinois had abolitionist sympathies. He knew the famous Lovejoy family from the same area made their surname my grandfather’s middle name. But you must be careful, grasshopper!

        • I am writing a book about the relationship between a camp servant/slave and his master/Confederate officer. Unfortunately, the evidence is incredibly lopsided and as you might imagine includes no written record from the slave. The challenges are many and there is much that I will not be able to understand. It comes with the territory.

          • I have to share my most cringe worthy ancestry moment….my mother was of the John Ford School of Family History..”.always print the legend”. She would shamelessly and incorrectly claim that General John Logan was her 2nd GGF..she knew better but loved the attention that claiming descent from a founder of Memorial Day would provide…until one day a new co-worker said he didn’t think that was correct as his 2nd GGF was General Logan …Ofcourse neither was correct but it only slowed them down momentarily..

            • I’m still holding out hope for a pirate or two, some kind of dirt on the family tree. Nothing much yet, sadly, although I suppose the slave-owning 3rd GGF could qualify. Better though was validating a family story about the Betts family splitting during the Revolution with the Loyalist side being kicked out the Canada (sneaking back in later as the joke went). What wasn’t known was that we are the direct descendants of those Betts Loyalists and none of their descendants in the direct line lived here after 1783 until my GGF immigrated in 1901. That was an amusing surprise, particularly given how many of us since then have served in the military. That tradition goes back far but until my grandfather was in the Canadian armed forces. I’m only speaking about the direct Betts line though, I have other family who were here during the time they were… away let’s say. Genealogy can really be fun sometimes… 😉

    • I started doing genealogical research about 3 years ago and have found out a lot myself. Thank goodness for the Internet because records are so much easier to obtain in many cases now! If I had to guess, by now anyone whose family has been here long enough probably has a good chance of having ancestors of some relation who fought on both sides of the War. I too seem to have mostly Union ancestors in the direct line at least, but I’m aware of some distant cousins who were Confederates. I suspect I have a couple in the direct line too, but those are on branches I haven’t done much research on yet so cannot say for sure. Just being from the South doesn’t automatically mean they were Confederates, which I discovered about one ancestors. One of my 2nd GGF’s was from Maryland, probably owned slaves yet fought for the Union. I say “probably” because I don’t have proof he did, but I do have records that his father owned slaves so it’s a good possibility. I too wish I had something more personal from him, as well as other ancestors, that would give me some better insight into what he was like and what he thought of the conflict. Was he conflicted about fighting for the Union since he probably owned slaves himself? I have no idea. Another 2nd GGF who also fought for the Union was the son of Irish immigrants who lived in Massachusetts. I know a lot more about his life because I’ve found many more records on him, so I think I understand him a little more. Yet again, without letters or diaries it’s still hard to get inside the man’s head and know what he thought about things. Given his activities in the Grand Army of the Republic after the War, I can make reasonable guesses but that’s all they are.

  3. Arkansans like to point to the Unionist element in the state as a way to explain away the past, claiming that they aren’t really part of the Deep South and were not dedicated Confederates. Ergo, they are more welcoming to African Americans and race hasn’t been a problem. There was a Unionist element, to be sure, but their casting of the story is not in the service of truth. The headquarters of the KKK is in Harrison, AR, and they clearly don’t know about (or choose to ignore) the Elaine massacre. Race relations here are still fraught with tension.

  4. Let’s not forget all those deserters either. It is amazing how no one had a confederate ancestor that deserted. It’s as bad as all those confederate ancestors who didn’t own slaves. I also love how none of the heritage crew want to claim that they had an ancestor in the family who fought for the North or was a Galvanized Yankee. Nope, they conveniently remove anything from the past that doesn’t fit their narrative.

    I am willing to bet that many would be surprised if they ran a DNA test and found out they had black ancestors somewhere. Remember the white supremacist who wanted to buy a town and make it white only? Then a test was conducted and he had black ancestors?

    Southern heritage is nothing more than selective and edited mythology passed off as history.

    • All good points. I took the DNA test myself through Ancestry and while I wouldn’t have minded at all if African or something else had shown up, I’m probably one of the whitest people I know. 99% European. Well, okay then. I was actually hoping there’d be a little Hispanic somewhere in there which could explain why I like the Spanish language and Latin cultures so much (not really I know), but nope. Guess those just came from my friendships with different folks and perhaps my love of history. Eh, guess since my kin were mostly poor blue collar types in places like Ireland and Canada they didn’t have much of a chance to meet folks from other places…

    • The only reason I’m here is that my gggf took a little bit of French Leave in the spring of 1863 to go home and put in a crop… He went back to the army in the fall of 1863 following Price’s announcement of amnesty after the Little Rock campaign, but the Army was no longer in the Little Rock area, and he was killed by federal pickets while trying to cross the lines near the old Confederate “Camp Texas”, near present-day Chicot Road in SWLR. On the other side of the family is a gg-uncle who was one of the “yellow rag boys” of 1861, was forcibly conscripted by the Confederates in early 1863, deserted/escaped, then joined up with the Union forces once they got to Pope County. Doesn’t bother me much that he was a Yankee, but it is a sore point with me that he was a cavalryman 😉

      Mr. Levin, your snarky little column is a cheap shot. The stories are out there if you want to look hard enough and work hard enough to find them.

      • Hi Tom. Thanks for the comment.

        Mr. Levin, your snarky little column is a cheap shot. The stories are out there if you want to look hard enough and work hard enough to find them.

        Of course they are out there. I said as much in the post. You may want to go back and re-read it.

      • Thanks, Tom. That’s a great story about your family and these are the kind of things I really enjoy in genealogy.

  5. Hi Kevin. I am not the descendant of a Confederate soldier, but an ancestor of mine was a first cousin of Stonewall Jackson, whose Civil War service is very well known (to put it mildly). I suspect that if I could talk to “Cousin Stonewall” as my mother calls him, we would agree on very little about the Civil War. But it seems to me that those who talk about “heritage” miss an important point. We have no control over who is in our family tree. But we do control how we treat our fellow human beings in the present and can judge for ourselves how other people treated their fellow human beings in the past. So while I choose to acknowledge my accidental kinship with a major Civil War figure that does not oblige me to embrace the cause he fought for or those people who identify with it in the present for whatever reason. We should learn from the past certainly, but we are under no obligation to be hostages to it.

    Best,

    Don

    • Hi Don,

      Great to hear from you and thanks for the comment.

      So while I choose to acknowledge my accidental kinship with a major Civil War figure that does not oblige me to embrace the cause he fought for or those people who identify with it in the present for whatever reason.

      Great point. The ancestral connection alone may be insufficient to give any descendant the right to speak on their behalf.

    • You’re exactly right. I recently read an article about how most Europeans alive today are related to Charlemagne. There is much to say about the man that is positive, but also some negative things as well (just ask the Saxons). Yet no one alive today is responsible for what he did, good or bad, just like none of the tens of millions of Asians related to Genghis Khan are as well. I’m always reminded that the further one goes back on the family tree the more distant they become to us. So while it’s interesting that I have some relation to Charlemagne, I’m not about to brag about being royalty.

      Remember the recent controversy in the news with Ben Affleck and the show “Finding Your Roots”? He was embarrassed about a 3rd GGF who owned slaves. I was completely baffled by this. Um… that’s 1 or 2 out THIRTY-TWO great great great grandparents! That’s what I mean by each generation we go back on the tree they become more distant to us. It’s not just the changes in culture or lack of official and personal records, but the numbers double each generation. So his 4th GGF would be one of 64 grandparents, 5th GGF one of 128, and so on. So 1 or 2 owned slaves. Ok. What about the rest of them and why the focus on just the 1 or 2? The same applies I think even to those obsessed with their Confederate ancestors. Were ALL of them Confederates or just a couple? If the latter, why the focus on just them?

      We all have something in our family tree that may be surprising or perhaps embarrassing to some extent but it isn’t a reflection on who we are today. As a LOTR fan I have toss in a quote from Gandalf here: “All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given to us.”

  6. OK, i am sure the “heritage crowd” considers me a “damnedyankee”, but the fact is, I have more *known* Confederate ancestors than Yankees. My great-great-grandfather Epperson was in the 2nd Virginia Cavalry in 1862. Apparently that was all he did. He was 35 when the war broke out, so he may just have been too old to keep up. All I know about his service is what we got from the Archives, long ago. More recently, I learned that my grandmother on Dad’s side was in the UDC, and I was able to get information from them about the basis for that claim, which centers on a couple of men named Wygal, about which I know essentially nothing (but I am working on fixing that). My lone Yankee ancestor is my great-grandfather on Mom’s side, and we know more about him.

    My point is that I consider myself a fairly serious historian of the Civil War period, and I know very little about my Confederate ancestors beyond the units they served in. I’d like to know more, but I don’t think any additional knowledge would change my view of the Confederate cause.

  7. I have several confederates in my family tree. My great-great-grandfather served at Vicksburg, iuka, Tupelo, and Cormith just to name a few. I know a little about him from various records. I have the military service records for three uncles, several letters from a cousin, and the last will & testament of my 3-great grandfather. He owned several slaves, and I even know the name of one of his slaves-Lewis. I also have a unionist in the tree from Tennessee and a connection to Newt Knight by marrage. It’s a nice collection.

    I think most of this connection some people have to the confederacy is a mix of wanting to belong to something (connect) and a need or desire to feel unique. There’s very little history involved with the diehards. It’s all emotional and that is the crux of the problem we are having today.

    I don’t feel any shame over my confederate ancestors, but I’d say pride is too stings of a word too. I simply find them fascinating and I’m curious to learn more. I certainly don’t identify as confederate.

    • *strong of a word.

      Poor eyesight and iPhones are a lethal combination.

  8. In my younger days I used to trot out the fact that my great-great-grandfather Mahaffey didn’t own slaves as proof that the war wasn’t about slavery. (“He didn’t own slaves, so why would he fight in a war to preserve slavery?”) But over time I’ve come to realize that the fact he wasn’t a slave-holder proves nothing about his views on race or slavery — it only proves that he was too dirt poor to have afforded any slaves. It is entirely possible that he held an unfulfilled life-long ambition to be a slaveholder. As the man was illiterate, I have no way of knowing what his views on the institution were. He did not live in an area that was a known hotbed of Unionism and he was a Baptist. so he wasn’t a member of any religious sect that opposed slavery. (He did go AWOL briefly during the war, but that appears to have been simply because his unit was passing near his home and not because he was making a protest against the war.) Given this evidence, the best that I — and others whose Confederate ancestors were similarly poor and illiterate — can assume is that our ancestors were average men of their time and place, which means that they would have also been guilty of the racism that was the common sin of their time and place.

    • I might be able to help you out a bit. If he was Baptist, then it’s likely he was being taught that black people bear the ‘Mark of Cain’ from the pulpit and that they were cursed by God to be slaves. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Curse_of_Ham
      I’m a Southern Baptist so had to deal with the fact that my denomination was created solely because the leadership and voting members did not want to give up white superiority as a doctrine until well within my lifetime. If you can find out if he changed churches and whether the one he went to was part of the Southern Baptist Convention, that could be a huge clue.
      You also might look closer at which churches were closer in areas he lived in, if he registered any births in the church records, named any of his children names that match community leaders and what their opinions were, if available, and work from the side instead of head on. Like gathers like. So, if some of the local churches were SBC, but not all, ambiguous. However, if the churches/people he was affiliating with were racists, it’s a strong indicator he felt the same.
      Good luck.

  9. My niece sprung for the DNA test and my sister apparently got a printout of what her part of that end of the makeup would be. It would appear my mother either lied or was lied to, because she proudly told us that we had Native American on both sides, and she did indeed have the facial bone structure and coloring. As it turns out, it would appear most of our ancestors hopped onto the boat from the UK and Ireland and that was that, so even the French part of her tale was because she grew up speaking it in Quebec. My sister and niece seem to think I’m the genealogy person to turn to because I did some of it when I was researching Kate Hewitt but mostly I just flew by the seat of my pants and got lucky. My sister was the one to turn up the NBF connection and as it turned out, the comments my mom made about my father’s side being a bunch of backwoods hillbillies (fairly true) that didn’t keep records, was not so true. Her side has been harder to trace. It helps, I guess, to have a Mayflower ancestor. (in my dad’s case, the same one as Ashley Judd, think she’ll invite me for a family BBQ?) Oddly enough, that side of the family went from Massachusetts to the same part of CT that Kate Hewitt’s ancestors turned up in, only my father’s family went to TN and her family went to upstate NY. The town in Ontario, Canada, where I got my collie, up the Lake Huron shore, has a Civil War monument–to a doctor–for the Confederate side. Go figure.

    I am supposed to go back to Michigan once I’m healed up from this knee replacement, if I can avoid one on the other side for a few more years, and we are all going to go to the genealogy library in Lansing, which was one of the top ten in the US. That would be my sister, my niece, and my cousin, whose husband is related to States Rights Gist. I am beginning to think it shouldn’t be called a Family Tree, but “You Can’t Make This Stuff Up or You Are Better Than Your Worst Ancestor.” I think.

  10. Recently I was in a discussion on another site when I was attacked for being a Yankee by a man whose surname was my great grandmother’s maiden name. He was also from the same area of Missouri as my family, all Union supporters and veterans. I shared our mutual history and that was the last I heard from him. I would have enjoyed hearing about his branch of the family, which had fought for the Confederacy, but he didn’t want to go that route. Definitely a missed opportunity.

    • Where in Missouri, if you don’t mind me asking? My Dad’s side was in Butler and Wayne counties near MO-AR border. They fought both in guerrilla bands and in organized CSA units, though I forget the numbers. One died in Alton Prison in Illinois. My book talks about the KS-MO border, so I am actually more familiar with those counties, though I would like to do more family history research someday.

  11. Mr Levin, I just have to ask….besides “it died,” is there any single positive comment you can say about the Confederate states?

      • I agree with Kevin. While many sincere people fought bravely for the Confederacy, it was conceived as a slaveholders’ republic with the purpose of keeping millions of other human beings in miserable bondage. Many hundreds of thousands died or were traumatized physically and mentally to stop it from happening. How can anyone say anything good about that?

        • I recently started reading Chandra Manning’s “What This Cruel War Was Over: Soldiers, Slavery, and the Civil War” and this does seem to be the central issue. She uses letters, diaries and regimental newspapers from soldiers both North and South. Quite an interesting read so far…

    • I would say that they had a few interesting constitutional changes that might be worth a look, although I don’t know how workable they would be today. Obviously not the ones concerning slavery. I’m thinking about the presidential line-item veto and clauses dealing with spending by the Confederate government. Beyond that I can’t think of anything else.

      • The line item veto did exist recently. It was created by Congress in 1996 with the Line Item Veto Act of 1996. In 1998 the US Supreme Court ruled in Clinton v. City of New York with a 6-3 decision that it was unconstitutional. They said it violated the Presentment Clause of the Constitution (Art. I, Sec. 7, clauses 2 and 3).

  12. What a timely discussion for me and not just because I live in South Carolina. I do have an ancestor who wrote letters and one was saved but he only mentions the war in passing, his horses are dead so he is driving the brigade “medicine wagon”. He does not expect leave unless “I will get hit”. Most of the letter details his concern for his farm. He gives his wife advice about selling a horse and getting some work out of the hired help. They must get up, he says, and they must do a day’s work for wages. Can you tell if he’s Union or Confederate?
    I was introduced to genealogy by a relative who actively desired Confederate ancestors and we found them like I knew we would. In the last scene in the movie Glory, that’s my family manning Battery Wagoner. I understand they were people of their time and that is irrelevant to taking that flag down. Then is not now, that makes for bad history and bad genealogy. We had so many chances and it took us 54 years. Will it take us 54 years to take the next right step?
    Yesterday I found the 1890 census of Union Veterans and Widows for Nantahala, NC and found 3 relatives, 2 direct and a twin brother, enlisted in the 3rd and 10th TN. We’ve had the most message traffic on the family llst in several years.

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