I have been asked from time to time why I research my family history. When I started this blog, I shared the story of what started my interest and journey into genealogy: summer vacations visiting relatives, side trips to a little family cemetery with my Gran, and a grade school research project. I was always the child who hung around adults listening to the fascinating old stories, taking them to memory. I once learned in a class on death and dying that one of several major fears a dying person may have is that of being forgotten, in other words, that they have not left a legacy in some way. I promised my grandfather on his deathbed that I would share the story of his life and values with my children and theirs. Our life stories are important. The lessons we learned, even the strength we found to overcome our greatest struggles, can inspire the next generation. It made me wonder about all the lost stories that didn’t make it, the ones that didn’t get passed on. Could I try to find slices of our ancestors’ lives to pass down that may inspire us in some way?
From time to time, I have laid my research down. Usually that was due to time constraints. Once, in my early twenties, it was due to finding a slave owner in my family history-something I thought I might eventually find having such strong Southern roots. I thought I was ready to see that. Thinking it and seeing it in black and white were two different things. I closed the book, walked out of the library, and left my research for years while I came to terms with the knowledge on my own. For a time, I didn’t think I’d ever pick it up again. I knew I eventually needed to get to a place where I wouldn’t be researching my ancestors and judging them at every turn for decisions they made. Each was a product of their own time and place, of the decisions of their ancestors before them, just as we are today in many ways.
We all make choices with the lives we live, each doing the best he can and living with the consequences. Thank heaven we are not the sum of one decision, each complex individuals, parents, husbands, wives, brothers, sisters, children. Who’s to say years from now someone may not stand in judgment of us for the decisions we make today? In hindsight, we can only hope to learn from each ancestor what to do or not do, trying to do a little better with each generation.
The Civil War is an especially difficult period of American history for me to study because as I research the migrations of my Northern ancestors, the goldmining of my Southern ancestors, even in the most difficult circumstances, nothing compares to the research I uncover (or can’t really uncover) where the family history of my African-American husband and children’s Mississippi slave ancestors are concerned. I root for the North because I root for my children’s ancestors and for ideals I’ve carried my whole life. (And while I hate to get off on this, I do understand the Civil War. I do understand that it was for state’s rights. My position is “state’s rights for what?” As Frederick Douglass stated in the midst of the war, “The American people and the Government at Washington may refuse to recognize it for a time but the inexorable logic of events will force it upon them in the end; that the war now being waged in this land is a war for and against slavery.”)
I can probably list hundreds of Confederate soldiers on my line. It made me want to find a Union soldier, even just one. I was overjoyed when I found a handful. But what about these Confederate soldiers? Most were privates, some may have been conscripted (drafted), not slaveholders, just defending home. Some even deserted. But even if they weren’t deserting non-slaveholding privates, could I honor that? That was the goal after all, to honor each of my ancestors.
My third great-grandfather, George Wadkins, was my first chance to honor a Confederate ancestor. As I have mentioned before, it became emotional to follow George from battle to battle. I felt like I got to know him. I wanted to warn him of his impending doom at the Battle of Antietam. And it was a difficult decision to post his company’s flag on this blog. I do not care for the Confederate flag. That may be an understatement. It is considered a symbol of hate to many, a reminder of suffering. I went back and forth in my decision to post it on George’s blog. In the end, the blog was about George’s life. It was about honoring him, his time on this earth. It symbolized North Carolina, a state he was willing to die for, such as the American flag symbolizes the freedoms and ideals an American military person is willing to defend today. I couldn’t completely honor my third great-grandfather without posting the flag he fought and died under.
My ideals may be those of a Yankee, but my heart is in North Carolina. I call it home. Truthfully, I have always felt more at home there than I do in Ohio where I’ve grown up and lived my whole life. I think this is because of my Gran. I feel a connection to the land, the mountains, the people. Perhaps it is because of this, because of George’s story, because of the letter the women of McDowell county wrote Governor Vance during the war about their dire circumstances, that I felt such a strong reaction during my recent visit to the 103rd Ohio Volunteer Infantry Museum. I recently found Union soldiers on my grandfather’s side who served with this regiment which has a museum nearby me. My visit was wonderful. An enthusiastic gentleman pointed out a newspaper on the wall, the last one printed in Vicksburg, Mississippi during the war due to the blockades taking place all over the South, supplies being cut off. The publisher was so desparate to get the edition out it was printed on the back of wallpaper, as you were able to see at the museum. Instead of feeling as elated as this gentleman by our Northern victory, however, I felt oddly sick to my stomach. While my people weren’t from Mississippi, I knew they were in the same dire straights in North Carolina, little food to eat, no supplies to make blankets, clothing, and shoes. “Those are my people starving,” I thought, “those are my people.” And that, in the end, is how I am able to honor all of my ancestors, despite my personal feelings on the choices they made. They are people I feel a connection to, people I love. They are my people.