Tuesday, June 12, 2012

The War Between the States

John Henry [lt] and James Berry Whitehurst [rt]
Photo from the collection of Diane Whitehurst Collins
Also published in Chronicles of Pitt County, NC, Vol II.

Rain had fallen overnight and now a gentle April sun slanted through new green leaves and fell in bands of light along trim lawns and tidy gravel paths.

There were few visitors at the Petersburg Battle Site that morning.
Jim and I, with our two young children, were spending a few days with his father’s sister in Petersburg, VA and Uncle Roy Whitehurst had collected us for an outing.

“Don’t schools up north teach you anything about the War Between the States?”
His tobacco- -roughened voice was incredulous. “You’ve never read about the
Siege of Petersburg—about the Crater?”

We walked the paths, stopping at each interpretive display to press the button and listen while recorded voices recited history; voices dripping with the honeyed cadence of Southern speech
even as they imparted grim details.
Later, out of earshot of our Virginia family, Jim and I admitted that the textbook version of the Civil War, covered in a few chapters of US History 11 had barely scratched the surface.

I enjoyed my high school history classes. Offered as extra-curricular reading for the Civil War unit were Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin and Margaret Mitchell’s Gone with the Wind.

I try now to honestly recall my reaction to the first of those books. Its feverish melodrama may well have influenced my thinking about the injustices of slavery, yet it was a tiresome book, with too many piously indignant asides from the author, too many harrowing and sentimental scenes. I had no urge to reread it.

Gone with the Wind, by contrast, had everything that could appeal to a romantic 16 year old girl. I devoured the chapters, reading during the ride to and from school, keeping it open on my desk while I wallowed through homework of Latin declensions and the unfathomable intricacies of plane geometry. I smuggled the book and a flashlight under my bedcovers.

By 1990 when PBS first aired Ken Burns The Civil War, I had read any novel of the old south and the Civil War that I could borrow from the library. Jim and I had been to Gettysburg Battlefield and to Appomattox Courthouse. Jim’s work as a long-haul trucker had routed him through the cities of Atlanta, Richmond, Savannah, Vicksburg. He read biographies of Abraham Lincoln, worked his way through the
Time-Life series on the Civil War, memorizing the battle sites, gaining an acquaintance with the sequence of battles and their generals.

I was still lost in the human-interest side of the era: historical narratives [a loftier term for historical fiction] based on the lives of Mary Todd Lincoln or Varina Davis.  The diary of Mary Chestnut fired my imagination with her first-person accounts and impressions as the war dragged on.

We watched those first episodes of the Ken Burns documentary together before Jim had to leave on another trip. Alone then, I sat intent, absorbing the final installments, captivated by the images of damaged and speckled photographs, crossing the room to the piano to pick out the chords and tunes of the background music, haunted each night by the sheer horror of the depicted casualties and destruction.
Several years later Vermont Public Television scheduled a January fundraiser with a Sunday showing of the full documentary. There had been a blizzard of snow a few days earlier and the sun made blue shadows on the drifts that swept around our house. Jim was at home and we spent the day in front of the television, taking turns to hurry into the kitchen, to fetch in a
tray with tea, cheese, crackers and Campbells Tomato Soup.

The impact of the film absorbed this way, all of a piece, was staggering.

We borrowed the video cassettes a decade later when we lived in Wyoming, watched them again, learning some new fact each time, but still with no sense of a personal family heritage that included the Civil War
While in Wyoming I became involved in family research. I was learning rudimentary computer skills, and bought a subscription to ancestry.com.

Oddly, it was Jim’s paternal line I researched first.

It was a time-consuming process, hindered by the agonizing slowness of a dial-up internet connection. [I calculated that I could boil a kettle and steep a cup of tea while waiting for the next page of the
Pitt County, North Carolina  census to load!]

I had the great blessing of connecting with two of Jim's 3rd or 4th cousins whom we had never met. We continued for several years to share our findings. His cousin Diane’s meticulous and untiring research resulted in a 235 page book:
The Whitehurst Family of Princess Anne County, Virginia, and Pitt County, North Carolina.
She shared a grainy newspaper photo of James B. and John H. Whitehurst, twins, two wiry, white-bearded old men attending a CSA reunion.

James served with the 3rd Confederate Infantry of NC. John joined the NC Enlisted Company G, 13th Regiment.
James and John, g-g-uncles of Jim and Diane survived the war, came home to Pitt County, married and raised families.

Four brothers of John Henry and James Berry Whitehurst were casualties of the war:

Richard served in the NC Enlisted, Company C Infantry. He was captured at Winchester, VA and died in a prison camp at Lookout Point, MD.

Benjamin who joined Company G, 8th Infantry Regiment, NC was hospitalized in Goldsboro, NC at the time of his death, whether from wounds or disease is not known.

Joseph, NC Enlisted, Company G, 13th Regiment was captured and died in a Richmond, VA prison.

William Ashley. NC Enlisted, Company 3,  died in Richmond of typhoid fever.

Their father, John C. Whitehurst, though not a soldier, died at home in the second year of the war; he was in his early 60's.

My own great, great grandfather, Almeron Davis was nearing 40, a farmer in the Adirondack town of Hague, NY when he enlisted in the 5th New York Cavalry, Company H.

His pension application describes a tall, fair-haired man of ruddy complexion and states that he was suffering from “advanced tuberculosis” when accepted into the service.

He saw action in several skirmishes before being taken prisoner in Chantilly, VA. He was later exchanged and discharged as medically unfit for service. His request for pension was, like so many others, denied.
[I have seen one on-line record which listed him among those who died in prison, which may have been a cause for denial of his pension!]

His grandson, my Grampa Mac, was born the year after the death of Almeron Davis in 1885
[G-G-grandfather Davis was enumerated with his wife in the census for 1870 and 1880 and was buried in the old cemetery in Hague, NY.]

Perhaps I read too much into grandfather Davis’ choice of the cavalry for his enlistment.
My Grampa Mac was known life-long as a man who had a “way with horses.” I like to think it was a gift passed down from the man who returned from his admittedly short service in the war to endure years of ill health and infirmity before his death in his early 60’s.

As we watched the Civil War documentary yet again in March, 2011, I was stunned to think that 150 years have passed since that terrible conflict.  
[Our adopted state, Kentucky, was a border state, so there is a mixed heritage of
sympathies cherished here.]
I’ve pondered the impact of the war on the small upstate New York county that has been home to my mother’s kin from the late 1700’s to the present.

I think about the losses of life and the huge change in economics in the south where most of Jim’s family went from being among the landed gentry to post-war renters or owners of small rural properties.

Whatever the allegiance of our respective families, few of that era emerged from the war years unscathed.

It was a war that should never have been.

A slightly different version of this article was published  in a March, 2011 edition of the local on-line journal, Columbia Magazine.


  1. I would love to have seen the documentary ....I was amazed to find that my husbands maternal ggrandfather fought for the North and lost an arm in the first year of the war ...i find the background to these times fascinating ...as I do to things that happened in Scotland and why so many scots hate the English.One programme made me quite ashamed to have any English blood running through my veins.

  2. What a fascinating post, I remember seeing Ken Burns documentary a good many years ago and it was very harrowing indeed. I often wonder whether my husband's family had some connection with the American Civil War as one of his gt-gt uncles born in 1864 was named Thomas Stonewall Prosser and it's not a name you would normally expect an Englishman to have. In those days few ordinary Englishmen would have known much about what was going on in America.

  3. This is a period I have never studied so it was a fascinating read. It is true that past civil wars have a lot of bearing on present time, Scotland as Angie says is an example, talking about breaking away from the union, and of course there is a lot of resentment in Ireland for past atrocities by the English, although we may be generations on.

  4. We share another lifelong interest then. I saw GWTW when I was about 17 and was fascinated by the War between the States ever since, although I cannot claim to have held onto a great deal of knowledge as other interests claimed me over the years. I still like to watch documentaries about it though.

    I was a Rebel sympathist, by the way . . .

  5. Very interesting post I also loved the Civil War series and have been to the battle sites you mentioned.

  6. My great-grandfather fought in the war (he married late in life so that's why it's only a few generations removed) and he told my father stories of it, so I grew up hearing these stories. My great-great- grandfather was killed in the 2nd battle of Bull Run, which forever changed our families fortunes. They both served in a New York regiment, so perhaps they served with your relatives. Have you ever watched A House Divided about the life of Abraham and Mary Todd Lincoln? I'm fascinated by Lincoln, a very complex human being.

  7. I've always been fascinated by the Civil War, can remember reading all of Bruce Catton's books. In my family research I've found a few who fought, all for the South, they were great believers in lost causes.