Tuesday, March 1, 2011
I am getting to that time of life where it feels appropriate to look back – way back – and finally start reading those old family archives my father left behind. And doing so, a little each night, I am truly sorry I did not do so while he was alive. What talks we could have had! But one story at least I will share with you dear readers, for now. You might find it thought-provoking, as I have.
My father had two powerhouse grandfathers, patriarchs who survived long lives deeply entangled with some of the most dramatic historical events of their times. One of them, his mother’s father, was named David Crockett Stuart (holding my father in the photo at left) – himself descended several generations before from a dramatic character we know less about, a Scotch-Irish man who came as a youth to serve in the British army in the Revolutionary War as a drummer boy and decided to stay in America when the defeated troops were being reloaded on transports back to Europe – or so the story goes.
I am a little cautious about those oral stories now. Davy Crockett, for example, I had always heard was a sharpshooter from Alabama for all four years of the Civil War. I was always faintly horrified by this distant man – what would the soul of a man be like after spending four years sneaking up on unsuspecting young men shaving or doing their laundry and shooting them from ambush? Sounded much more like serial murder than noble service. I was also dismayed by the news that his direct commanding officer was Nathan Bedford Forrest, infamous founder of the KKK after the war. Bad enough for my own ancestor to spend years defending states’ right to have slaves. Also, since he enlisted at 18 in the Alabama outback, I assumed he was barely educated.
What a shock to read his memoir of the war then and discover a wonderful natural narrative writer at work. He wrote detailed accounts of running battles and capture, coming home, enduring innumerable deaths of friends and family members, and going out again to stand with the last embattled few in a lost war. He did indeed enlist at 18 but he came, I discovered, from a mountain family who disdained slave holders as immoral men who were probably bound for hell. And he actually wrote a line or two to put forth his own observation that owning slaves seemed to corrupt otherwise good men. Interesting indeed – and mystifying - for the man actually did spend all four years, from the first week of the war, fighting ferociously to defend their interests. For himself, he offers only an offhanded, and almost tongue in cheek explanation for his enlistment – that a firebrand preacher came to their hamlet a few days after the start and proclaimed in a brimstone speech that if they didn’t all sign up immediately, the Yankees would start arriving almost at once to rape their sisters and mothers. Clearly not something the mature man took seriously. But why then?
I was also fascinated to discover that he had not, after all, been a sharp shooter. He was a rebel cavalryman from start to finish, who loved his horse as a best friend and was overjoyed to meet up with it again near the end of the war after being captured and incarcerated in Chicago. He barely lived through that experience, becoming so emaciated from dysentery that he could no longer walk without aid on the day the opportunity to be exchanged in an amnesty came. So he hoarded the bread he received that week and offered it to a newer, stronger prisoner for the right to hold onto the man’s shoulders to get into the train south, knowing he would die if he did not. (Odd indeed to take in the thought that if he had not been strong enough to hold onto the man’s shoulder’s and walk, I would not be here to write this.)
He did much later name one of his sons Forrest, presumably after his commanding officer, yet his descriptions of Nathan Bedford Forrest depict an officer with an absolutely over the top level of aggressiveness, a powerful leader who charged into every battle, to be sure, but at great cost to his men. He ran his cavalry day after day, month after month, until they staggered with exhaustion. He also left my great grandfather behind to be captured when one of his injudicious decisions left them cut off. He did not finish the war under this commander, nor take any part in his activities after the war, thank God.
Instead he converted – tentatively - to Mormonism and headed northwest to join the wave of settlers populating Idaho after the battles with the plains indians. But that is a story I will expore in another blog.