Where did I leave off? Oh, the lingering questions I had regarding the story of Billie Demint.
First off, why would men from either side kill a young boy like this? Maybe I am being naive here, but soldiers, even the irregular kind, don’t do anything without seeing something to gain. A “killing” would have some justification, even if thin. If it were simply for supplies, wouldn’t they have just taken the cows? Mrs. Lester provides some additional information that may indicate a justification – Billie’s father might have been a Unionist. As with much of this story, nothing is certain, but the circumstantial evidence is there. Or, Billie’s father might have had a substantial amount of money on hand from a recent sale of land.
Second, even though this was a small incident, why was it not reported at all in the official reports or in period newspapers? Even if the perpetrators of the crime were not the “reporting” kind, one would think the opposite side (Federals) might mention the act. Wouldn’t Northern newspapers have run the story for propaganda at least? Sadly the only thing I can come up with even to this day is the incident was not out of the ordinary. I’m inclined to believe Mrs. Lester is correct and Billie was actually 17 at the time. The war had gone on long enough that the death of a man, even at that young age, was simply commonplace.
Lastly, and perhaps more in line with the subject of this blog, why is it the local lore spun this as an example of “Yankee” brutality? Is this a case of shuffled Civil War memories, much like those improperly placed gravestones Robert writes about?
Oddly, this last question intersects with a thread left from my personal family research. My parents uncovered a relation to one John Neitzart of the 29th Missouri Infantry. Even though he was a German immigrant – who served in a unit that marched through Georgia and the Carolinas with Uncle Billy – my Grandmother explained that, “I think once you finish your research you’ll find that ‘Federal’ really means he fought for the South.” Far be it from me to correct my Grandmother, but I have to ask the question – why would it be more advantageous for me to obscure a Federal ancestor, and perhaps falsely claim a Confederate one?
This is where I have to pull back from my “historian” mode looking for facts, and start thinking through how I was taught to “see” the world. I mentioned above, briefly, the settlement pattern in Southeast Missouri and Northeast Arkansas. The shift from low density subsistence farming to high density cash crop farming may have something to do with this. The “land” that opened up in the early 1900s, which attracted a small boom in population, was largely sold through St. Louis based land speculators. And for several generations, a sharcropping system was in place. The powers that owned the rail lines, gins, and markets maintained control over the system. Thankfully, I grew up about a generation removed from that. Still some of the cultural baggage, if you will, passed down included a strong dis-trust and dis-like for the “big money outsiders,” typically cast as Northerners or Midwestern “Yankees”. There is a tradition of opposition to the “big money” in the region. The Southern Tenant Farmer’s Union sprang up in Poinsett County, Arkansas, a short way over the state line. While we might discuss the socialist and communist leanings of that movement, I submit it struck a cord with the locals. It was a revolt of sorts against the hated “big money outsiders.” And by the way it was one of the first racially integrated unions in the country. Think on that for a moment.
A “rebellion” of sorts against the “Yankee” oppressor, even setting aside any racial issues for the moment? Perhaps some of this attraction, or affiliation, with the Confederacy from my relations was due in part to a sense of “agrarianism” against the backdrop of encroaching “industrialization”? Maybe there is another component to the “Confederatism” and Civil War Memories. Perhaps we identify with the “Lost Cause” as an extended metaphor in relation to the marginalization of the individual within a modernizing society? But that would imply there is more to this “heritage” thing than just the “Stars-and-Bars” and “Dixie.” If you will, perhaps a good measure of populism into the mix.
Just a bit down the road with my personal cultural baggage I guess. Regardless, while I cannot claim any personal links to Billie Demint (and thus not call it my own personal Civil War heritage), there is a connection geographically speaking. The grave site for Billie is on State Highway WW, north of Campbell, Missouri. If driving to the site from town, you pass a small cemetery on the right. In that cemetery is the grave of John Swain, my Great-Great-Grandfather. John was born in Pittsylvania County, Virginia, and later moved to Dunklin County, Missouri. While too young to serve in the Civil War, his brother was among those who surrendered at Appomattox. You see, Grandma didn’t have to look very far for a Confederate ancestry after all.