How My Family Was Affected ByThe US Civil War: War and Collapse in American History – Chapter 1

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Published on The Doomstead Diner on January 14, 2017

 

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Like a lot of southern poor people, I grew up without knowing too much about my family history. We are a long generation family anyway, and when I was born I only had one grandparent left alive. He passed away when I was 12, and although I knew him fairly well, he never regaled me with any stories. He was, as my mother would have said, an old coot. A widower who raised five kids as a single dad on a subsistence farm. Never held a job other than farming. And oh, yeah. He was a cripple who limped badly and walked with a cane, the result of a venomous snake bite he got as a boy.

 What I knew, I got from my Mom and Dad, who were kids who grew up during the Great Depression. Then their lives were forever altered by World War II which was the defining event of their entire lifetime. They were good country people who came up the hard way, and then lived in a relatively affluent post-war era that made the rest of their lives seem pretty easy. They lived their lives a day at a time, and never dwelled on the past. All I ever got was a few bits and pieces.

I never even cared that much about my family history until I was much older, and by then there was nobody left to ask. About twenty-five years ago I went to the State Library here in Austin, and found that my Dad's family first paid taxes on land around where I grew up in 1856. I wondered then if I had any Confederates in my attic, so to speak, but a quick search showed no evidence of any Civil War pensions paid to anyone with my last name, which is not a common one. I guessed that maybe my family lived so deep in the backwoods on the frontier that the war passed them by.

I know better now. Eventually I learned that the Civil War touched not only both sides of my family, but the families of everyone in the entire country who was alive at that time. No one was unaffected, and most had their lives deeply changed by that bloody conflict. But that's skipping ahead. At that point, I put my inquires aside and conducted no further research. I had hit a dead end. End of story.

https://i.pinimg.com/originals/94/62/70/94627080e01ff1a6a9b45b9dd8bcd9e1.jpg Fast forward to two years ago. For Christmas, one of my grown daughters gave me a DNA test. You know, "23andme". It took me a few months, but eventually I did the swab and sent it off….and after several more months I got the report. I had always figured I was a mutt. I knew from my prior research I was a fifth generation Texan whose ancestors were pioneer farmers. I was surprised to find that genetically I'm about as Anglo as you can get. As Anglo as most people who are born in the UK. 75% British DNA, 10% French/German, and the rest mostly unspecified Northern European. More Neanderthal variants than 94% of the people who have catalogued their DNA on the 23andme site. 1% Finn. Maybe a Viking in the woodpile? No Native American at all. No southern European. No African. No Asian. Hard for me to believe, really. I knew I was a white guy, but I never figured I was THAT white. So much for the Great Melting Pot. Live and learn.

 When you do the 23and me thing, you can put your DNA report online publicly and maybe make touch with some relatives you didn't know you had. I was eventually contacted by a distant cousin I'd never met, who was connected to me through one of my mother's great aunts. Super nice guy who was trying to find family photos and piece together his own family history. We talked a bit, and I found out he'd just retired…from practicing dentistry in Houston, for about 40 years. Go figure.

But I digress. This story really begins with a free family tree app that some 23andme affiliate offers on the site. A freebie. I didn't know much, but I knew my grandparents and some of my great grandparents names. I filled in boxes. I soon discovered that in very recent years that the internet has burgeoned with a variety of formerly difficult-to-find records, particularly cemetery records. Thanks to a lot of dedicated local folks who put their community cemetery records onto national databases. Voila! One name led to another. I began to figure things out.

One thing my Mom had told me as a kid was that her family came from South Carolina, and that they had a plantation before the Civil War Right! I thought she was tripping. It wasn't that I didn't believe she was sincere, but Mom was one of those sweet southern women who are not quite as connected to reality as the rest of us. Sort of like Zelda Fitzgerald, but from a far less affluent family.

But in my search, I found that my Mom's grandfather, who is buried in East Texas, was indeed from South Carolina. One day I decided to look to see if there were any records of South Carolina plantations once owned by her family of origin. Her maiden name was not a common one either. It took me only minutes. Not only was there once such a place, it still existed, in Kershaw, SC. I found it on a site that catalogues antebellum historical properties and landmarks. It was still owned by some distant cousins. I managed to find an e-mall address for them and shot them a short note. They got back to me. Coincidentally, I had already planned a visit to SC to visit some other friends. Would it be possible for me to visit? Yes?
 
 A few months later I found myself standing on the front porch of a house built by one of my long dead cousins in the 1870's. For a few seconds I felt extremely nervous and wondered if I should have even come. But the door was opened and my wife and I were invited in and treated to all the southern hospitality that folks in that part of the world are known for.

It was the second house built on the property, the original log plantation house having been disassembled and used to repair barns in the mid 20th century. My cousin, who is in his early eighties, helped tear it down when he was a boy. I met his wife, his son (the last heir) and another cousin who used to run the local historical society up there. They served us a fine southern lunch, which could have been Sunday dinner. I will never forget their kindness and generosity. The house was full of historical photos of my distant relatives, two of which had served in the state legislature. As my cousins laughingly pointed out, I look a great deal like them.

My youngest cousin, the son, will inherit what is left of the original farm. There's about a thousand acres left….of the original twenty thousand. I had read that there was a family cemetery, and I wondered if it might be the final resting place of my great-great grandfather? As it turned out, the answer to that was no. But his older brother, the patriarch, is buried there, along with several other family members whose markers have not endured. We walked down a path in the woods through a big grove of tall oak trees to the family plot. Nearby is a slave cemetery, which has also been fenced and preserved, although no markers remain there either. We also visited the cemetery at a very old local church where many other relatives are interred. The headstones there remain, but acid rain has mostly obliterated the names. Ashes to ashes. Dust to dust. All forgotten in 150 years time.

http://www.jakehannam.com/web/pictures/susanna_hoffmann_tombstone.jpg

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