Daniel H. Lee
My maternal great-great grandfather finished the Civil War at Hart Island Prisoner of War camp, just off New York City in Long Island Sound.
Confederate Army Private John Edward Jackson was sick, wounded, and a long way from his home in Petersburg, Virginia. His father seems to have held slaves, but records list John as a clerk in civilian life.
Nevertheless, he and four brothers wrongly backed the Confederacy, fighting at Seven Pines, Gettysburg, the Wilderness, and elsewhere. All five were captured; two were killed. John was wounded and hospitalized, later captured, exchanged, and captured again.
As the new year begins after possibly the most fraught election since 1860, which led directly to the Civil War, we’re again talking of irreconcilable differences. Social media is full of speculative partitions into blue and red nations. Armed people are appearing on the streets of American cities.
Plowshares beaten into swords
My mother’s people were from Virginia, Maryland, North Carolina, Georgia, but she “married north,” as people down there still sometimes say in a half-joking tone meant to be about half that funny.
Dad was a Hoosier, and his family also included Civil War soldiers: My great-great grandfather on that side, John B. Hagerman, and his son, John H. Hagerman (I can’t help it that everyone’s named John here), both joined the Union Army.
This is surprising, as that whole side of the family are Quakers. But it wasn’t unusual to find Friends of that era agonizing over whether violence or countenancing violence was the worse sin. Witness the 1956 Gary Cooper film “Friendly Persuasion,” from a novel by Jessamyn West, an Indiana Quaker.
A study published by Indiana University Press in 1985 found about 1,200 Indiana Friends who set aside their pacifism to fight for the Union — about a quarter of Hoosier Quaker men of military age — even though they often were “disowned” by their Meetings for doing so.
“A Quaker troop of horse, with a Quaker captain,” exclaimed one Friends character in a 19th century novel set in the Revolutionary War. “Why, I think the cause that has made that sort of fightin’ men is a good one, and must succeed.”
It was as though America looked to pacifist Quakers beating their plowshares into swords as proof of the new country’s virtue. We still believe in American exceptionalism, of a sort. But as in 1860, contradictory visions of what that means leave us prone to conflict, lately in Charlottesville, Virginia; Portland; Washington, D.C.; and elsewhere.
Limping home, if they returned at all
It would be wise to remember how civil war develops, not flaring suddenly from nothing, but building to violence the way a forest crackling with years of fallen timber needs but a single lightning strike to burst into a devastating wildfire. As before the Civil War, our nation is bristling with fuel.
My Quaker relatives didn’t make it back from that conflagration. John B., age 49, died at the Battle of Nashville. His son John H. died at the Wilderness in Virginia a week before turning 18.
As for Mom’s Confederate great grandfather, after three years of war, a battlefield wound, two dead brothers, and two POW camp internments, he must have been in a terrible state. He was released in June 1865 after signing a loyalty oath.
Family history has it that he couldn’t make it home on his own. A Union-loyal Staten Island family named LaTourette apparently took him in and nursed him back to health. This is remarkable, considering that a local Staten Island monument lists a Cpl. David LaTourette, who was killed near Atlanta a year before John turned up struggling and ragged in his rebel uniform.
Despite that, somehow, the LaTourettes chose to help him. Afterwards, John named a newborn son for them out of gratitude, and one hopes from remorse: David Latourette Jackson.
But don’t mistake that for a happy ending.
A rocky recovery
Suffering from an anguish we’d call PTSD, John tumbled into erratic behavior and drink. About eight years after the war, he picked up a gun and committed suicide, a release sought by so many soldiers wracked with shame for having killed and guilt for having survived.
Eventually David, his son named for the LaTourettes, landed in Asheville, North Carolina, where he wrote a local newspaper column under the playful pseudonym Jay Walker. “Look Homeward, Angel” author Thomas Wolfe was a family friend. A daughter taught at Finch College in New York. Another sold private subscriptions to her reports from international travel-writing journeys. Their Confederate grandfather, John, had attended school only through 4th grade. Families sometimes reach even greater heights after a collapse. Nations can do the same, but at what price?
Today the house David built in Asheville’s historic Montford District is a beautiful A-list bed and breakfast called Abbington Green. A United States flag flies from the broad veranda most days, supplemented by red, white and blue banners on July 4th, the birthday of a nation re-unified, but once again fracturing in the angry wake of a watershed election.
In that long-ago winter just months away from Fort Sumter, Gen. Winfield Scott watched national fault lines give way and worried, “We are now in such a state that a dog-fight might cause the gutters of the capital to run with blood.”
We know how this ends. It’s time to get a leash on our anger while we can.
Daniel H. Lee is a writer in Indiana.
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