As the great-great-grandson of a most reluctant Mississippi Confederate soldier, I couldn’t agree more with the statement above, a comment left on a story I wrote last week on the ongoing construction of a Confederate war memorial on I-10 in Orange.
That comment section was lively and long, and many people echoed Overton’s sentiments. But the unreconstructed rebel line also came out in full force (indeed, “UnreconstructedRebel” was the screen name chosen by one of the most vocal of the pro-Confederate partisans). This contingent laid out an argument familiar to those who argue over such things: the Civil War (or “War of Northern Aggression,” as they often call it) wasn’t about slavery. Rather, the Old South was a place—a society, an ideal—worth fighting for.
But there is no denying the fact that the economy of the Old South was based on slavery. When those first shots were fired 154 years ago at Fort Sumter, the slave-owning elite dominated every aspect of Southern life: political, financial, and social. It was, to borrow a crass saying from the eighties, a matter of “he who dies with the most toys wins.” Just sub in “slaves” for “toys” in this case. And to those who claim that the war was about self-determination, or “states’ rights”? It was, at best, about white self-determination.
I understand that America has a complicated relationship with its past, and reading through those comments laid that bare. It forced me to confront my family’s own checkered legacy, one that includes Confederate ancestry on both sides. One that trickled down so far, I found myself enrolled at Franklin Road Academy, a Nashville private school that had Rebel flags on the football helmets, “Dixie” as the fight song, and a uniformed Confederate as the mascot. For the four formative years that I attended that school, my classmates and I were immersed in tales of the horseback derring-do of Nathan Bedford Forrest, the steadfastness of Stonewall Jackson, and the sad-eyed chivalry of Robert E. Lee.
But despite the cherry-picked history presented to me, it was always easy to find one of the hundreds of books published about the Civil War and be reminded that the Lost Cause was lost for good and just reasons.
In my case, though, I didn’t even need to go to the library. I could just read the dictated memoirs of James Avery Lomax, my great-great-grandfather, the man who brought our family to Texas in 1869.
James was a fairly typical white Southern man of his time. He was born in South Carolina in 1816 into a poor branch of an otherwise prospering family, some of whom married into the family of John C. Calhoun, perhaps the one man who did more than any other to bring on the Civil War. After the death of James’s father, Terrence, he and his brothers “left with little of this world’s goods” and spent their youth in the South Carolina cotton fields of other men, hired out by their mother for $25 a year. (When he was about eleven, James’s boss drank up all his wages.) He was a field hand until he was 22, then picked up the tanning trade and married his first wife, with whom he had five children before her death at age 31, in 1853.
By that time, the family had moved to central Mississippi, where James spent his first years as a slave overseer, saving enough at that odious occupation to buy a farm of his own. (Overseers were hated by slaves for obvious reasons. Planters, their employers, were condescending, referring to them as “white trash,” necessary evils.) The farm apparently didn’t do well, and he returned to tanning around the time he married Susan Frances Cooper, my great-great-grandmother. In the years leading up to the war, he “prospered as never before,” working as a foreman in the tanning trade. (Unlike James, Susan was literate and thus able to write rather than dictate a memoir of her own toward the end of her life.)
By 1858, James was finally able to purchase his first slave. That elderly man’s name has gone unrecorded, but not his price: $1,250 in gold. After the outbreak of the war, in 1861, James reunited that man with his wife, also unnamed in the record, for whom he paid $1,000 down. The balance of $500 for her price was payable “upon the ratification of the independence of the Confederacy,” a bill that James wryly noted, 25 years after the war ended, had not yet come due. (At war’s end, James also had on hand about $10,000 in Confederate currency, “a total loss,” he noted in his memoirs. A few of those stray paper notes passed down through his grandsons, Alan and John Jr., and eventually down along to me before they literally crumbled to dust. Gone with the wind, indeed.) James’s younger brother, Tillman, with whom he had picked cotton as a child, had married a wealthy young woman whose parents bought them a plantation in Mississippi, thus elevating Tillman, born just as poor and still just as unlettered as his older brother, into the 1 percent of antebellum Mississippi society.
During the Civil War, Tillman was handed the command of a company of Mississippi guardsmen, into which James was drafted when he was in his mid-forties. What happened next roiled Lomax family relations for decades to come and delivers a twist on that old cliché that the Civil War pitted brother against brother.
According to James, he received orders from Tillman’s superiors to return to his tanyard and cobble shoes for the troops. When James left Tillman’s company, ostensibly on these orders, Tillman entered his name on the rolls as a deserter, and that is how his war service has officially gone into history: James Avery Lomax, Confederate deserter, his widow and dependents forever ineligible for war pensions.
And I am proud of that legacy. I am also proud of some of his statements about the antebellum South.
Here is one, wherein he remembered why he decided to load up two wagons in 1869 and leave behind all he had worked for in Mississippi and head to the Texas frontier, where he risked exposing his family to Comanche attack, among other hardships:
The conditions of society, the opportunities for enterprising effort, suited me better [in Texas] than in the older states. I am a Southern man and love the South. But being too poor, when starting out in life, to own slaves, the slave owners were disposed to be exclusive to me socially, and regard me and my family as of an inferior class. So my sympathy with the South, in the war, did not make me a hot-headed partisan. My deliberate opinion was, and is, that slavery was a curse to the South.
On the other hand, he was also a slaveholder and an unrepentant racist:
An important consideration in leaving my old home was, first, to get away from the wreck of the war, and take my young family out of a state of society that can only be expressed by the word “chaos.” The ruling classes possessing all the culture and intelligence were financially ruined, and [Mississippi] was in the hands of unscrupulous carpet-baggers and ignorant negroes. I did not wish my family raised in contact with the negroes, either as slaves or as freed-men.
And so, in a form of nineteenth-century white flight, he moved as far west in Texas as was then reasonably safe, to Bosque County, between Waco and Fort Worth, a place where, he believed, “all were equal, and every one was a neighbor,” even if ten-year-old boys there then had to wear six-shooters at all times to protect themselves from potential Kiowa and Comanche attack.
And it was a wise decision. James had wanted to give his kids room to “expand,” and they did. My great-grandfather John Avery Lomax Sr. went on to UT and Harvard and later enjoyed world renown as a folklorist, song collector, author, and scholar. John Avery’s son Alan elevated all of those endeavors to still more renown, likely none of which would have been possible if James had held fast to that tanyard in worn-out Mississippi.
As I said, I am proud of my great-great-grandfather, particularly of how he rose from the cotton fields to become the father of a celebrated Harvard graduate. I respect his memory, his sacrifice, and his populism, and I hope to always honor that through my own work and legacy.
But I am decidely not proud of the society that produced him, the one that made him a racist and a man whose dislike of slavery probably came as much from sour grapes as it did from any nobler motive. I know enough to separate the two, and I encourage others to remember to do the same.
(AP Photo/Donna McWilliam)