About a week ago, I had the opportunity to attend the annual Lincoln Birthday event (sponsored by the Lincoln Society of Virginia) held at the Lincoln family cemetery near Broadway in Rockingham County, Virginia (the Lincoln family resided in this county since the 1760s, and Thomas Herring Lincoln, President Abraham Lincoln’s father, was born here in 1778). The sponsoring group is a rarity in that it is the only such group south of the Mason-Dixon Line, in its organizational name, to honor the 16th President. Well-versed in Lincoln family history (and a driving force in the creation of the society), Dr. Phillip C. Stone, President of Bridgewater College, was the speaker at the event.
Dr. Stone’s presentation was engaging and quite interesting (in the midst of a rather surreal environment created around us in the cemetery by a gentle snow/sleet fall). However, it seems almost impossible for him to speak of Lincoln in Virginia without airing some of the controversy that is associated with the former president and his ties (familial and wartime) to the Commonwealth. Don’t get me wrong, Dr. Stone said nothing controversial, but mentioned the resistance he encountered in creating the society. I cannot recall his exact words, but I am left with the question – why is it necessary to hate (learned animosity) Lincoln in order to honor a Confederate ancestor? Does hating Lincoln make a Southerner a better Southerner, especially in the name of a Confederate ancestor, whose reasons for fighting remain muddled and unspecified? Dr. Stone has ancestors who served in the ranks of the Confederate army, and, for that matter, so do I.
However, having had ancestors in gray, can one say with certainty that those same ancestors hated Lincoln? This is part of my point about the memory of the Civil War. Most of us cannot say with any certainty what our ancestors, especially so far in the past, thought about much of anything. Therefore, why do some find it necessary to “generate memory” just so they can say they are “sympathetic” with the plight of their ancestors? Despite the wealth of historical information available to us, and our ability (and sometimes curse) to look back on historic events with hindsight, there are those who remain unsatisfied with simply admiring the respective plights faced by ancestors. Rather, they find it necessary to refight (at least culturally) a war that closed with the surrender of organized Confederate military forces in the field nearly 145 years ago.
I have to say, from my own experience, that I have struggled to piece together a history of my family in the Civil War. Though I have eight direct ancestors who served in the Confederate army, I have yet to see one artifact, and have heard less than a handful of stories (it seems ironic that my only Civil War ancestral photo is that of a collateral ancestor – a third great granduncle – who served in the Union army, and a copy of that having been obtained only recently). According to military and pension records, I know that three of those direct ancestors stayed to the close of the war, while the service or reasons behind service for the others is up to debate (especially those in the militia and who “enlisted” late in the war). It is nothing to be ashamed of, but rather invokes an even greater curiosity in the war and the complexities behind it. For that matter, I also know of ancestors in Virginia who I have, over time, proven to have Southern Unionists leanings. Then, among other portions of the family that resided in western Maryland (Clear Spring) and Kentucky (Breckinridge County) at the time of the war, I have found uncles and cousins who wore blue! Altogether, I find that this creates quite a colorful picture! Then, to those who hold the “Hell no, I didn’t surrender” mentality, I suppose my blood is “tainted,” which scarily brings to mind the philosophies held by others in history who made wars based on the perpetuation of pure heritage.
As we approach the Sesquicentennial of the Civil War, we should take time to reflect on all that was the Civil War. We should appreciate all that our ancestors endured and the absolute turbulence of the times back then. Yet we should also keep in mind that we have generated 150 years of history between then and now and that this stretch of history leaves us with a proud record of accomplishment as a reunified people. Therefore, not only should we reflect on the war, but also upon ourselves as a people with a more extensive history – one that encompasses more than just four years.