What is a “true and complete” Southern perspective of the Civil War?

Posted on February 17, 2009 by

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If one says he/she is going to present a “Southern perspective” of the Civil War, do you cringe or roll your eyes and say something like, “oh no, here we go?” Is it possible to deliver a non-slanted “Southern perspective” of the war without tripping over all of the perspectives that actually make up THE Southern perspective of the Civil War?” Since I’ve already argued that “Southern perspective of the Civil War” it is not “Confederate perspective” alone, what is it? After all, look at all of the groups that made-up a Southern perspective of the Civil War. If one is going to presume to sell “Southern perspective,” then it needs to include all that it was… and consider all of the people who WERE in it; who actually lived it. You have Confederates, you have Southern Unionists (despite the ignorant claims that I have seen elsewhere that the numbers of Southern Unionists were rather small… don’t worry, some of us are dealing with this in our own way), you have slaves, you have free blacks, you have Native Americans (and no, not all those Native Americans who lived in the South sided with the Confederacy), you have… the people who didn’t care one way or the other who lived in the South in the midst of the war (think… Jimmy Stewart in the movie Shenandoah). I’m sure I could get into an even greater number of groups, but this is enough to make the point.

When someone today says that he/she wants to present “Southern perspective” of the Civil War, how often is it only perspective that presents a very narrow view, from the vantage point of a specific set (subset?) of Confederates, of what the Civil War actually meant/means to the full body of Southerners who made up the population of the South at the time of the war? Has anyone actually seen or heard a presentation of the broader meaning of the “Southern perspective” of the Civil War, effectively capturing the multiple dimensions that actually define it? Isn’t it rather bold and arrogant to make the claim that one can present a “Southern perspective” of the war, when the only thing they present is a “Confederate perspective?”

Oh, and wait a minute… what, exactly, is the “Confederate perspective” of the Civil War?

Isn’t the delivery of “Confederate perspective” actually limited to suggestion that one understands a subset (or maybe a subset of a subset) of people who were, at any one time, Confederates… in the South? What about those who may have been Confederates at the beginning and… decided it wasn’t all that it was cracked-up to be as the war progressed? Is their perspective not a part of the Confederate perspective? Isn’t most of what we see in presentations of a “Confederate perspective” of the war more reflective of the war from, probably a larger number of Southerners (as opposed to less as the war progressed) swept into the excitement of 1861? So, when we get a “Confederate perspective” of the war, aren’t we being dosed with a rather narrow perspective? 

When Southerners look back at the American Civil War, is their… nay… our… ability to look, I mean really look, at the people and events blurred by a rather imposing mythology of the Lost Cause? Even as a culture of Southerners looking back to grasp some meaning in what took place, how far have we gone astray from understanding the complexities of the war and the people who were in it? Let me make this modest offering for your consideration.

Before you move on to what I feature below, take a look at this link first (one of my earlier posts)… this is something from Jacob H. Coffman, a resident of Page County, Virginia… just a little something to consider before we get rolling.

 

 

O.K., after having read that, consider something else written by Jacob H. Coffman. This is the war as he saw it (and a glimpse at how his brothers who served in gray saw it) at the beginning…  

Yes, the third day of June, 1861 and I do remember that day. I’ll say I do although only ten years old, I well remember how the people from all over the country side went to Luray to see the soldiers off to war, some in wagons, some horseback, and many on foot. It was a sad day indeed, not only for the ones left but also for the ones who were leaving. Here I note a remark a young lady was heard to make as she had the last glimpse of her lover to whom she was engaged to be married; she said ‘The last one is gone now.’ She waited patiently until the ‘scrap’ was over when they were happily united in marriage…

The writer here mentions the name of Rev. Riptoe [Capt. Rippetoe of Co. H, 33rd Va. Infantry], I can see that man as yet when he preached at Graves Chapel and also at the Old Oakham Church that stood in Kite Town’ which was purchased by the late T.O. Graves in 1883 which I helped pull down.

And now back to the soldiers. It was in November that my brother, the said J.H. Coffman got his first furlough for ten days the day he came home was in the late afternoon I had been away gathering walnuts and seeing him coming, I went to meet him with a loud yell and I remember how he laughed and pressed me to him. He wore a long brown overcoat but his suit seemed to be the same one that he had worn away on that memorable day of June 3d. It only took a glance to see that ‘Father Time’ and camp life had been generous in the way of depreciation.

My other two brothers, George and Reuben both got their furloughs soon after the first battle of Manassas. I know how proud I felt while wearing their army caps while they stayed. They belonged to Co. H 33rd Va. Regiment while brother James H. Coffman was in Co. K, 10th Va Regiment.

It was my privilege to visit both of the aforesaid regiments while in winter quarters 8 miles south of Orange Court House, Va., in 1864 and one of the nights I was there I slept with Siram Kite, late of Madison County, who was a mess mate with James H. Coffman who was busy making candles and peddling ink in the camp.

Now the few lines I have written may not be of much interest but I was so elated to read the article [another article featured in an earlier edition of the local paper] that it seemed I just had to write a few words about it.

 

At the opening of the Civil War, Jacob H. Coffman saw several brothers enlist in local units, seemingly without hesitation. Can’t you detect a certain amount of excitement in his words? Isn’t this what we often get when we receive “Confederate perspective of the war” via modern Confederate remembrance? How often does this fail to present an understanding of life among Confederates after 1861, or even 1862? Nonetheless, let’s look at Jacob H. Coffman’s brothers…     

Cumberland George Coffman and Reuben Yancey Coffman enlisted in the “Page Grays” (later designated as Co. H, 33rd Va. Infantry of the Stonewall Brigade) in June 1861. Cumberland was captured at Gettysburg and exchanged in time to make it back to the ranks by November 1863.

James Harvey Coffman enlisted in the “Page Volunteers” (later designated as Co. K, 10th Va. Inf.) on June 2, 1861, was detailed as a drover.

“Good Confederates,” right?

Again, there is, I believe, a strong indication that they started the war with a passion for “cause.” However, there is evidence that enthusiasm waned as the war progressed. In 1862 and 1863, the brothers were often absent without leave (and no, you can’t say the only reason for this was because of the planting and harvesting times). By February 4, 1864, the brothers in gray family had reached their tolerance level (ever hear of “conditional Unionists? How about the concept of “conditional Confederates?”) and they began deserting… as a family.

In yet another letter, Jacob H. Coffman explains what took place when the brothers deserted.

 

An Experience In ‘Dixie’

I think it was in the winter of 1863 that two of my brothers [Cumberland George Coffman and Reuben Yancey Coffman] who belonged to Co. H, 33rd Va. volunteers with five others deserted the Southern Army to make their way north I only know one of the other five who was Calvin Cave. I remember that they came home a few days before leaving for the north, and the ‘conscript officers,’ as we called them were ??ing them up and the two brothers were in the barn about 400 yards from the house when they noticed two men ride up to the house and stop and that was all the tip they needed to flee. They had made ready for an emergency of this kind by taking off two boards on the back side of the barn and only a few leaps and they were in the woods. They had set the day, or night rather, when they would go with the other five companions, as well as I remember. It was only the next night after they left the barn that I went with my father after dark to take clothing and food to a pre-arranged place in the woods not far from the David Judy place near Stanley. The place was a thick patch of ivy where they were. It was understood that we should whistle like the partridge, which we did, but very low, and they answered thus. Getting the clothing and provisions we had for them, they struck out for a place in or near Printztown where they were to meet, which they did this completing all arrangements for the final move. They kept to the Blue Ridge as near as possible walking by night and resting by day. I think they said they were seven days getting to Hagerstown but once there were safe.

Down the Valley in ‘64

Now, it had been previously arranged for my father to leave on April 10th, 1864, with the brothers’ two wives and children (each of them having two) for Martinsburg and he stated on time, I going with them, April 10th fell on Sunday and there had been much rain and getting a late start we got no farther than the White House that day and Monday morning we could not cross the river which we had to do by ferryboat. We stayed until next day when we were taken over. We had a fine horse but he was blind and did not belong to us. The wagon was of the old bowl type and tent with not a spring to it.

The first night after leaving the White House we stopped with a family one mile below Mt. Jackson.

The next day we looked for trouble as we had to make some excuse to get through the Southern pickets located near Woodstock. Well, they called on us to ‘Halt’ and wanted to know our destination. We told them we were only visiting friends in Strasburg. They told us to go on but our real trouble came on arriving in Strasburg. Getting there just at dark we got permission to stay over night at a place just at the edge of town, where we found shelter for the horse, also and we thought we had such a nice stopping place.

Hot Reception at Strasburg

We felt sure we had permission from the lady of the house, but soon other feet were heard to patter on the floor and fire seemed almost to fly from her snapply eyes as she said to her daughter, ‘Who in the h—l is all this crowd, you have here;’ The daughter tried to explain matters but she said, ‘Not a d—n bit will they stay here.’ So, we had to pack up and move on. We found a place a mile ahead where we stayed over night but the people were not a bit kind to us, seeing we were refugees.

Crossing into the Yankee Lines

Our next point of interest to make was Winchester, some 15 or 18 miles north. Getting an early start we made for Winchester. We could not travel fast on account of the women and children and there was but little room in the wagon, it being taken up with boxes of provisions and baggage, horse-feed, &c. The horse was not trained to work with line and there wax in the gang three boys of us all near the same age, about thirteen years, who would alternate in riding the horse and driving but with all our disadvantages we were all happy singing war songs, as we went down the Valley pike, one of which I remember was ‘Maryland, My Maryland.’

We knew there was another obstacle we would have to meet some time that day – that was the northern picket line, although we felt sure they would vie us a royal welcome, which they did. It was near sundown when we were looking down on Winchester, our objective point. Just outside town we met an old man in an open buggy. Father asked him whom he could send us to that would give us shelter for the night, and he told us where to go and we should tell them that Mr. Gining sent us there. He said, ‘Now can you remember the name?’ I said ‘Yes, we will just think of Jinny,’ and father scolded me for it. The people’s name was Longacker. We had lodging and nice treatment. It was here we got our tips for Martinsburg.

We were told on reaching Martinsburg where to go and ask for a man by the name of Tabler. But I must not get ahead of my story for it is 20 miles or so from Winchester to Martinsburg, and we did not make it in one day, making about half the distance and stopping all night at a farm house near the poke. Their name was Kiter. We boys helped them to churn next morning for buttermilk, and I think yet it was about the best contract I ever made for I had nothing to lose and now for the last lap.

We Make Martinsburg

We arrived in Martinsburg O.K. and found the Mr. Tabler, who sent us to a vacant farm house not far out of the town. Just as we got out of the town and turned to the let we crossed a dry bridge over the B. & O. R.R. and a little further we crossed a much swollen stream called the ‘Opequon’ pronounced I think ‘Opkon.’ Again turning to the left and keeping close to the stream, for say a ¼ mile, we came to a fine house in a thick cluster of cedar trees. Here we soon had the fires going in the old time fire-places. This was a fine place, good farm, large barn and all necessary out-buildings. I think the farm was owned either by Mr. Tabler or Longacker. They wanted my father to stay there and work the farm which he would have done if he had had the rest of the family there [remember, there was still the family farm and other family members back in Page County].

Now comes the most important part our trip which was to go back to town and look for the two Coffman brothers, the sole object of the journey, but they were not on hand and it began to rain hard and it was important that we find them soon as the bottom of our ‘grub’ box was in sight and I do not think there was 50 cents in the bunch from start to finish. I know I had not a nickel for I went to a store and offered to trade the storekeeper a very common steel watch chain for an orange but the smile he put up indicated there was no deal. I had not seen an orange during the war.

In regard to meeting the two brothers we began to think there had been some misunderstanding, until just at this time, we met Mr. Calvin Cave, one of the seven that went North with them. I think he gave the information and the fare for them to go on to Hagerstown which they did and met their husbands there and from there they went to Chester County, Pa. where they had been working on the farm. Some time after the war their wives put up a howl, ‘Carry me back to old Virginia.’

It was here on the street of Martinsburg under an umbrella that the afore-said Calvin H. Cave gave my father a message to take to this fiancé then Miss Julia Lucas, daughter of the late Levi Lucas. I well remember the day father delivered the message. She after the war became the wife of Mr. Cave and had quite a family of much respected children, nearly all still living.

Homeward Bound

And now for the home run. We had gotten only a half mile or so out of town when several men on horses came galloping up and took our horse and bridle and began to talk rough to us like Joseph did to his brothers in Egypt. They accused us of running the blockade and smuggling goods through the lines, but searching the wagon and finding only horse feed. They allowed us to pass on. We made the trip home in much less time than we did going. While we had provided food for the trip, a place of shelter for the sights ahead was a game of chance. However, we found no trouble to securing a suitable place. Both the Union and Confederate pickets allowed us to go through unmolested and so all went well until we got to Alma 3 ½ miles of home when the monkey wrench was thrown in the machinery, as the night before a picket line had been placed all along the New Market and Gordonsville pike, in stations only a few hundred yards apart. We were stopped as soon as we got in Alma and questioned. They said they would have to hold us so we considered ourselves fast.

Trouble 2 Miles from Home

Old Mr. Rodgers was living there at the time, so father asked him to speak a word for him. The picket then asked Rodgers if he knew us. He said he did and that my father was a peaceable man and after pausing a few minutes he told us to go. This was about sundown and to our agreeable surprise we found not a picket on the pike. All had been called in a few hours before. Getting home we had supper, and the horse cared for we took blankets and went and camped in the woods that night as we thought it safer. Next morning we returned the horse to the owner, the late Samuel Varner, and the wagon to its owner, the late Jacob Brubaker.

 

O.K., first, how many things in this presentation (all three “memories” of Jacob H. Coffman) do you find that challenge your understanding of what the Confederate soldier was… the nature of “cause,” the passion for “cause,” and then the disillusionment with “cause?” Nonetheless, is this not… a part of the Confederate perspective and even a part of the Southern perspective? Why is it that some people are “selling” us, no, actually force-feeding us with only a portion of the multi-dimensional meaning behind “Confederate perspective” and even less of that which defines “Southern perspective?” Sure, what I present here is only part of Confederate and Southern perspective of the war, but how many perspectives actually fall under either classification of memory? Call it shuffled, selective, reinvented, forgetful, sanitized, whitewashed, or purified memory, it only serves to blur our ability to effectively look at and understand the past and the people who lived in it.

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