There has been a lot of talk about the rights and wrongs of various Civil War monuments in recent weeks. Most of the ones garnering attention were erected or have become artifacts and idols of what historians sometimes refer to as “The Religion of the Lost Cause.” The thing about this religion is that it has as one of its primary functions the sanitizing of the brutality inherent in the slave system of the South, the centrality that slavery had as an impetus for war, and even–oddly since it glorifies the suffering of the South on the one hand–the sanitization of the suffering endured during and after the war. Even as it lifts up the idea of the suffering south, the Lost Cause mythos has a tendency to knock off the rough edges, and make everything seem soft around the edges like the scenery of Gone with the Wind.
This is a reflection on a different sort of monument, the sort that highlight the rough edges and brutality of that suffering.
In 1996, when we buried my maternal grandma in the cemetery at North Fork Baptist Church in Big Pine, Madison County NC, I went looking through the grave stones. One stood out to me as having a deeper story:
How, I wondered, had Emeline been married to two different men? I thought it was likely that she had been widowed, but it still seemed noteworthy that she had married two men with the same family name. Later, as I was doing genealogy research, I learned a bit more of the history.
Christopher S. and Ephraim H. Buckner were both sons of Absalom Buckner, who was something of a patriarch of the Buckner family in the mountains. Born in 1800, it seems that he was the first Buckner to make his home and raise his family in this part of the mountains. He and his wife Elizabeth had eight children:
Joseph Hardy (1834-1864)
Christopher S. (1841-1864)
Ephraim H. (1846-unknown)
You might notice a common death year among several of the sons: 1864. Absalom–even though he was in his 60s by the time the war came–along with Joseph Hardy, Christopher S, and Noah enlisted in the Confederate Army. Joseph Hardy and Noah were captured at the Cumberland Gap and both died at Camp Douglas in Chicago Il. Their names are memorialized in another monument, marking a mass grave at Chicago’s Oak Wood Cemetery where the remains of the more than 4,000 Confederate soldiers who died at Camp Douglas–sometimes called the “North’s Andersonville,”–were removed to after the war.
Though I’ve not yet been able to visit Oak Wood Cemetery, I’m thankful for the ability to see the plaques up close. Because of that, as well as register of deaths from Camp Douglas available at Archive.org, I was able to confirm that Joseph Hardy Buckner and Noah Buckner rest here:
But this doesn’t explain what happened to Christopher. Unfortunately, this may not be an answerable question. His name isn’t on the death records at Camp Douglas, and there’s no death record anywhere that I have yet found. An old family bible simply has a note next to his name: “Never came home from war.” A few years after the war Emeline married his younger brother Ephraim.
I’ve always wondered what it must’ve been like for those words to be someone’s epitaph: never came home from war. What did his wife, mother, brother, and father think? I once read an article about another family that had lost a son in the war–the mother set a place at the table for him every night until she died.
Since Joseph Hardy and Noah didn’t have similar notations, I assume the place of their deaths were known, if not their final resting place (I’m not sure if anyone would’ve had the responsibility of letting the family know, especially once the bodies were moved after the war).
These monuments show a deeper truth of the war: the suffering and loss it brought. The most recent figures, released in 2012, revise the number of combined war dead upward to approximately 750,000, or the equivalent of about 7 million (a little over 2% of the population) today. But war dead tell only a partial story. The National Park service estimates that the Union sustained a total of 642,427 casualties have been divided accordingly:
- 110,100 killed in battle
- 224,580 diseases
- 275,174 wounded in action
- 30,192 prisoners of war
The Confederacy is estimated to have sustained 483,026 total casualties, including:
- 94,000 killed in battle
- 164,000 diseases
- 194,026 wounded in action
- 31,000 prisoners of war
That’s a whopping 1,125,453 total combined casualties of the war–when the total population is only estimated to have been about 25 Million–at about 4.5%.
All of this demonstrates the depth of the effect the war had to have had on local communities. one story that demonstrates this has stuck in my mind for years.
I came across one story during my college career that highlights the brutality and deep woundedness of many communities following the war. It struck me then because it concerns the very county my ancestors above were from, Madison County NC. Madison county went by the nickname “bloody Madison” for a while after the war, a name it unfortunately earned. In his book “Victims: A True Story of the Civil War” Phillip Shaw Paludan retells this story (I first read it in Welman’s The Kingdom of Madison, but the testimony of the mother concerned was enough to bring it up in this newer book in a Google book search):
This personal sense of righteousness spanned the Civil War era and frequently overwhelmed whatever regular due process might have required. During the war a group of soldiers moved into Shelton Laurel and surrounded Nance “Granny” Franklin’s home. The widowed mother of four sons, she had to watch as the troops opened fire and killed three of her boys. She tried to stop the killings but only succeeded in just missing death herself when a bullet clipped off a lock of her hair. The soldiers left, but revenge lurked awaiting its chance.
After the war it came. A few miles away from Shelton Laurel, men were trying to rebuild Mars Hill College, and masons and carpenters from the region came to help. One day one of the bricklayers got to telling war stories to some students. He told of being in on the Franklin killings and recalled something sort of amusing: “Usually I can knock a squirrel out of a tree at seventy-five yards, but I took aim at that woman, almost close enough to touch her, and all I did was shoot off a piece of her hair.”
One of the students took this story with him when he went back home that weekend to Shelton Laurel. He told it to James Norton, who was Nance Franklin’s brother, and Norton offered the student a five-dollar gold piece if he would point out the bricklayer. The student identified the unsuspecting veteran, who retold his story. When he finished, Norton announced, “That was my sister you shot the hair off of, and one of her boys you murdered was named James after me.” He pulled a revolver from under his coat, shot the bricklayer in the stomach, and ran away. He was soon arrested, and trial was held in the neighboring county.
Nance Franklin rode through the mountains to testify on behalf of her brother. her descendants remember the testimony vividly, and the jury and spectators at the time were moved, too. Especially memorable was her answer when the judge asked, “Madam, you tell us that you sent your young sons out to fight and kill and be killed. Did you bring them up for that sort of thing?”
“I brought them up as Christians,” she answered. “I told them always be good boys, tell the truth, and be honest. But I told them something else. If you’ve got to die, die like a damned dog with your teeth in a throat.” The jury decided that the victim deserved killing. James Norton went free (Paludan, 21-22).
The Home Guard had killed her sons, her brother killed a veteran of the Home Guard after the war. Blood paid for blood. And so it went after the war to such an extent that it shaped the politics of the county for decades after. My mother can remember when people carried guns with them to vote because tensions were so thick. The short hand I was once told is that, generally, the old Republican families in the mountains had been Unionist, while the old Democratic families had been Confederates. And yet, it can’t be that simple. My mother’s family were Republicans from a long way back, but there were four men in one family who fought for the South and three didn’t make it back home.
Two of those men are my direct ancestors. My great grandfather Elbert was the grandson of Christopher S. Buckner, who never came home from the war, and his wife Julina, was the granddaughter of Joseph Hardy Buckner, who died at Camp Douglas.
At any rate, when I think about monuments that speak some truth about the Civil War, I think about that monument at Camp Douglas, with those names inscribed on it, and that grave stone, with the names of two husbands: one who never came home, and one who picked up and raised his brother’s children as well as his own.
To those monuments, we would be well served to add monuments to the experience of the Black Americans who endured slavery and nonetheless made this nation their home–out of necessity yes, and with great burdens–but to the benefit and enrichment of us all. As I read recently, we Southerners are a big mixed up family, with white and black cousins and neighbors afraid to see themselves in each other because of a shared history that too often has divided and continues to divide us. It’s time to put up some new monuments that help to highlight those truths, and that help to bring us together rather than glorifying the things that separate us. As Michael Twitty writes:
“I dare to believe all Southerners are a family. We are not merely Native, European, and African. We are Middle Eastern and South Asian and East Asian and Latin American, now. We are a dysfunctional family but we are a family. We are unwilling inheritors of a story with many sins that bears the fruit of the possibility of ten times the redemption” (The Cooking Gene, xvii).