Memories of the Civil War echo across generations
Descendants deal with legacies of their ancestors
Apr. 8, 2011
Two of every three Americans have an ancestor who lived through the Civil War. It helps explain why so many people — re-enactors, treasure hunters, genealogists, collectors, hobbyists, preservationists, tourists, battlefield rats — feel so connected to a war that began 150 years ago.
"It’s our war. All the blood fell on our soil," said Lloyd Garrison, 79, great-great-grandson of the abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison. He said the war even has a contagious, old-time glamour.
The great-great-grandson of the abolitionist’s ideological opponent, Confederate President Jefferson Davis, agrees.
"Americans are fascinated by the individuals who fought," said Bertram Hayes-Davis, 62. "They want to know more about what these people did, who they were and what they went through."
Today, descendants such as Garrison and Hayes-Davis underscore our link to a struggle that shaped the nation as much as the arrival of the Mayflower or the victory at Yorktown.
The Civil War ended slavery, strengthened the federal republic and allowed settlement of the West; it pioneered an industrial style of "total war," which included mass production of weapons and the systematic destruction of Southern agriculture; it killed about 620,000 combatants — nearly as many Americans as all the other wars the country has fought combined.
Like many other Americans, descendants of the war’s great figures have discovered and grown into their Civil War legacies. They raise issues that still divide us: Why was the war fought? What did it achieve? Was Davis a traitor? Was Union Gen. Ulysses S. Grant a drunk?
Over the next four years, the nation will observe the Civil War sesquicentennial with ceremonies, books, recordings, films, lectures, exhibitions, concerts and encampments. The war began with the Confederate attack on Fort Sumter, S.C., on April 12, 1861, and ended with Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee’s surrender at Appomattox, Va., on April 9, 1865, six days before the assassination of President Lincoln.
About 100 children of Union and Confederate veterans are still alive. Roughly 18 million Americans — one in 17 — have an ancestor who fought in Blue or Gray, according to Ancestry.com.
Among these, a few have the kind of forebears who stand on pedestals and hang over fireplaces. Although Abraham Lincoln’s last direct descendant died in 1985, other famous lines and names from the war live on.
Robert E. Lee V is athletic director and football coach at the Potomac School outside Washington. His father, Robert E. Lee IV, is a retired distillery executive whose accent hints at the city where he was raised: New York.
J.E.B. Stuart IV, a retired Army colonel and great-great-grandson of Lee’s cavalry general, lives in Richmond, Va., where his son J.E.B. V is an orthopedic surgeon.
Ulysses S. Grant V, the general’s last surviving great-grandson, died last month at 90. He is survived by his son, Ulysses S. Grant VI. VII has yet to appear, but J.E.B. Stuart VI is a sophomore in college. Robert E. Lee VI is in grade school.
Confederate Gen. Thomas "Stonewall" Jackson’s great-great-grandson, Henry Shaffner, 75, is a professional songwriter who married the daughter of a Lincoln buff and has lived for the past half-century in Philadelphia.
In some families, a famous Civil War connection isn’t to be exploited, touted or sometimes even mentioned. Shaffner said that growing up in Winston-Salem, N.C., "we were told, ‘Don’t rely on your ancestors.’ It was something you didn’t talk about much."
Pauline Johnson, 83, said she didn’t even learn she was the great-grandniece of Underground Railroad conductor Harriet Tubman until she was 25. Johnson said she’s mystified why her parents never told her about the Tubman connection; she learned from her aunt. She treasures her one tangible link to Tubman: a black dress with white lace sleeves and collar she found hanging in a closet in her parents’ house in Auburn, N.Y., after they died. It had a label with Tubman’s name on it.
Alice Mecoy, 51, wasn’t told she was John Brown’s great-great-granddaughter until she was 16; her parents were embarrassed by the anti-slavery zealot who in 1859 attacked the federal arsenal at Harpers Ferry in what is now West Virginia.
Name can add pressure
When Dred Scott Madison II was a boy, few outside his family realized the kid called "Scott" was descended from the man whose 1857 Supreme Court case strengthened slavery’s legal underpinnings and set the stage for the war. That anonymity is gone, said Madison, 52, an air-traffic controller who was embarrassed the other day when a college president in San Antonio fawned over him when they were introduced: "People see the name and go, ‘Wow!’ But it’s not as if I did something. I’m just part of the gene pool."
Madison tells his kids — including Dred Scott Madison III, 22 — "Don’t blow this up. You’ve done nothing yet. Earn your own accolades."
A famous family name, Lloyd Garrison said, "puts a little pressure on you to live up to the standard."
His son Sam, 45, says that when he thinks about how his ancestor fought slavery as early as the 1820s, "I’ve asked, ‘Would I have done the same thing?’ "
He said he tries to emulate Garrison’s spirit in small ways. When he and his wife decided to move out of New York City, they chose Maplewood, N.J., one of the region’s most diverse communities. As a real estate agent, he likes to help people buy a first home there, including African-American and same-sex couples who might not be welcome everywhere.
How do you pass on the legacy? "I don’t want to trumpet William Lloyd too much. I don’t want to overburden my grandchildren," said Lloyd Garrison, who has seven. "But it’s important for them to know that blood runs in their veins."
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