What Do We Really Know About Our Ancestors?

I have admitted more than once that I don’t have any direct ties to the Civil War generation and no doubt it shapes, to a certain extent, the way I approach this particular period in American history.  In contrast I am struck by the level of intimacy that so many claim when talking or writing about an ancestor that fought in the Civil War.  Of course, living and teaching here in Virginia and blogging mainly about the history and memory of the American South influences the kinds of stories that I come across.  At times I don the hat of a historian and ask follow-up questions about evidence, but more often than not I listen to the story as an expression of how the individual in question chooses to engage and remember the past.  Often times I find that the stories reflect a set of cultural values or work to comfort the individual storyteller and family members.

Recently, I viewed two episodes of the NBC Show, “Who Do You Think You Are,” which follows celebrities as they research their pasts.  It’s essentially a rip-off of Henry Louis Gates’s successful PBS series.  The two episodes followed Matthew Broderick and Spike Lee and both related directly to the Civil War and slavery.  I will leave it to you to watch if interested, but what struck me in both shows was that when push comes to shove we know very little about our ancestors.  Most of us do not have family records on hand such as letters or other legal documents.  Websites like Ancestry.com have clearly grown in popularity, but I suspect that the number of users is relatively small.

But if that doesn’t make the point I’ll go even further and suggest that most of us don’t even really know our own family members that are currently living.  How many of us really know the histories of our parents and grandparents?  I am talking about something that gets us beyond the basic narrative outline.  Barring a family member’s early death we could get at some of these questions if we were truly interested.  A couple of years ago my grandmother gave me a collection of letters written between her and my grandfather from the 1940s that you can see in the above photograph.  My grandfather’s auxiliary hats are included along with some wonderful vintage birthday and Mother’s Day cards.  It’s an incredible collection, but I do feel just a little uncomfortable about prying into my grandmother’s personal life.  Many of these letters were written while the two of them were separated by the war and a few of them date to their courtship.  I’ve talked with my grandmother on occasion about the Great Depression and other events, but I still admit to knowing relatively little about her life.

This is a roundabout way of getting to my main point, which is that most of you with ancestors who fought in the Civil War don’t know a damn thing about them.  You don’t know what they thought about slavery, secession, Lee, Jackson, Lincoln, Sherman, emancipation, defeat, victory or anything else for that matter.  Without an opportunity to talk directly with them or the benefit of some written document your claim to know why they fought is about as valid as your claim to know why any random individual fought.  You just happened to be lucky enough to fall within the same family tree.  Your tendency to be offended by a claim about Civil War soldiers or anyone else from that time tells us everything about how you remember the past and nothing about how your ancestor might respond.

The other thing that stood out in the two programs was the difficulty that both men experienced when confronted with a past that they had not anticipated or even understood as possible.  How many of our own claims about our ancestors would go up in flames when confronted with some solid historical evidence?  Would we be surprised?  Is it possible that we might have no idea of how to assess or make sense of their lives?  Perhaps the lesson here is that if we are going to “bear witness” to the lives of our ancestors we should first be willing to take a few steps in their direction.