Monday, May 28, 2012

Decoration Day

"I guess we all died a little in that damn war" The Outlaw Josey Wales

Confederate Monument, Morganton, NC

What we know as Memorial Day began as a day to decorate the graves of the dead from the American Civil War. Former Confederates, dealing with overwhelming numbers of war dead and a profound sense of loss (after all, they DID lose the war, no matter what you learned growing up), may or may not have begun the practice, and certainly they had no monopoly on grief. No matter which community or "side" started it, the practice of decorating soldiers' graves quickly caught on. Shortly after the war, leadership of the Union veterans' organization, the Grand Army of the Republic, declared a formal day for placing decorations on the graves of the dead. On May 30, 1868, flowers were laid on both Confederate and Union graves at Arlington, and a national tradition of remembrance began. You can read more here: Memorial Day History.

My Civil War ancestor, Joseph A. Denton of Burke County, NC, a private who served in Lee's Army of Northern Virginia, suffered much loss as a result of that war, though he survived it. He enlisted, along with several kinsmen, in September 1862, I suspect to avoid the Confederate draft. He had a wife and kids, and apparently he was in no rush to volunteer, but the war came to him, and so he did his duty. He left behind a wife pregnant with the child destined to become my great-grandmother.

Some of Joseph's kinsmen did not come home, and I, as do many descendants of Confederate soldiers, struggle with how to honor them. I do not believe in the larger cause for which they fought: the Confederate States of America. I believe that "country", never recognized from without as legitimate, was established almost exclusively to protect the interests of its elite slaveholders and a white citizenry terrified at the prospect of abolition of slavery, let alone black equality. I deeply resent the high cost of secession, a cost borne by men like Joseph A. Denton and their families for generations. I celebrate the destruction of that abominable institution of slavery, but I mourn all that was lost in that brutal war.

Joseph survived the massive battles of Chancellorsville and Gettysburg, he survived the Wilderness, Spotsylvania, and more. But in late May 1864, his luck ran out. Along the North Anna River, just up Route 1 from Richmond today, Lee had once again dug in, inviting Grant to attack. Joseph's unit received orders to advance, but there was a mix-up, and other units apparently did not get these orders. A large mass of men moved forward, unsupported, and were quickly cut off and forced to surrender. That was the end of war and the beginning of captivity for him.

16th NC Battle Flag, posted by Michael C. Hardy on his blog

Joseph was a prisoner of war for the next ten months, spending most of that time at Point Lookout, Maryland, on the Chesapeake Bay. This camp had been built after Gettysburg to accommodate the huge number of Confederate prisoners taken during that battle. Designed to hold up to ten thousand men, the camp held perhaps as many as twenty thousand at peak. The men were crammed into an open stockade that allowed limited access to the bay, so they could catch fish, crabs, etc., on occasion, with which to supplement their diet. A gunboat sat offshore, daring them to try to escape. The camp commander for a time took great pride in saving money by reselling the foodstuffs and supplies the government sent him and buying the cheapest food and supplies he could find, returning the savings to the treasury. It was the largest and certainly one of the worst run Union POW camps during the war, with some fifty thousand prisoners passing through its gates by war's end.

Point Lookout Military Hospital (lower left) and POW Camp (upper right), 1863

Malnutrition and disease led to a high death rate that, if not on the scale of the notorious Confederate camp at Andersonville, should not be forgotten (see the official numbers from the marker below...numbers that are contested to this day). The sign below marks the official death toll, but some argue that it was three or four times higher. In any event, men who were once stout, rugged farmers quickly became scarecrows, filthy with vermin and ravaged by sickness and exposure. Rats swarmed over the camp, as did mosquitoes. Men actually captured many rats, eating some, keeping others as pets for "rat races" and such. Joseph had a pet rat. He also had a tiny food cache in which he kept scraps of bread for "hard times." One day he reached into his cache for a few crumbs, and the rat was there, eating it. The rat bit him, so he killed it, then dutifully cleaned it for the cooking pot. Such was life at a Civil War prisoner-of-war camp.

By the spring of 1865, with the war winding down, prisoners were a burden on the military. Most were so weakened that they were deemed non-threatening, and so a system of parole was established, available to those who would "swallow the oath" as they said: take an oath of loyalty to the United States. Now, as they journeyed back to their homes, they would become a further burden to the dying Confederacy and of absolutely no short-term use as combatants or, for that matter, workers, farmers, or much of anything. They would require months upon months of convalescence, if they survived that long. My great-great-grandfather was just such a parolee.

Prisoners at Point Lookout taking the oath of allegiance

My grandmother told me these stories...stories her mother, born during the war, had learned from a family embittered and scarred by it. She said when he got back to the farmstead in Enola, he wouldn't let anyone near him. The family drew bath water for him, outside, and he stripped off all his clothing. He burned everything, and then bathed, trying in vain to wash away the horrors of war. He did not succeed. He was never the same. Today we would call it PTSD and try to treat it, but one simply does not just wash away or talk away or medicate away the realities of war. It is, as a famous Ohioan noted, "cruelty, and you cannot refine it." How long, dear friends, will this lesson continue to go unlearned?

Today I remember my great-great-grandfather, Joseph A. Denton, private, Company E. 16th Regiment, North Carolina Troops, CSA. Sleep the sleep of the dead and rest in knew it not in life.

Representative image of an NC soldier:
Emanuel Rudasil, Company M, 16th NC


The Carriage House said...

Nicely said, Michael. You finely walked the fine line.

NCmountainwoman said...

Both my parents grew up in Burke County and I had chills seeing the monument in Morganton on the old Court House Square. Many of my relatives are listed on its base. My grandmother told us so many stories about how many relatives were killed during the war. She even knew about injuries and prison stays of many of them.

Perhaps the worst story was about my (many times great-) grandfather, Thomas Carlton who owned a lot of land and a lot of slaves. He stated at the beginning of the war that he would give up his sons before he would give up his slaves. All three sons were killed in the war, leaving him with only his daughter who became my (many time great-) grandmother. Obviously he gave up his slaves as well.

There have been heated discussion on the subject but I believe that the CSA monuments to honor the war dead have a rightful place in history and should be preserved.

Tess Kincaid said...

We are who we were. Beautiful post.

Bruce Taylor, a.k.a. Catalyst said...

Well done, Michael. Still, after all this time, it is a sensitive topic but you did your ancestor proud.

Linda said...

It is good to be alive now rather than back in their day when life was so very harsh. I love the detailed memories that your relatives were able to pass along to you. I know it is your life's work and no wonder, but you are so brilliant at describing historical perspectives. This is so real and gut wrenching. Thank you for sharing, Michael.

Jo said...

Poignant, informative, and eloquent. Thank you for this post, Michael.