An Ancestor’s Voice from Two Foreign Countries

In this case, those countries would be the past and the Confederacy. My great-great-grandfather, Charles M. Calhoun (1838 – 1921), self-published a book, Liberty Dethroned,  in 1903. A quick scan of WorldCat informs me that copies may be found in a few academic libraries here in South Carolina (although not Mondoville’s), and AbeBooks lists it for a bit over $400 in fair condition. As it happens, the ensuing decades have left me with a couple of copies, one in middling-to-poor shape and one in fair condition.

Although the books sat on my family’s shelves for decades, I’d never done more than glance at it until yesterday, when I read a little more deeply, making it through the first half. Much of the opening third is a history of the city and county of Greenwood, SC, where my dad was born, along with what appear to be Calhoun’s boyhood reminiscences. Organization does not appear to have been one of his strengths; at times, I found myself imagining:

Old Man

But there have also been moments that horrified me. Specifically, in the course of mentioning a near-drowning episode from his youth (“After the first strangulation, I experienced no bad feeling or pain”), he adds:

Some years prior to this, a [no longer acceptable term for African-Americans] was burned at the stake for the usual crime, on the right of the road leading to Cambridge, on the farm now owned by Mr. Tharp. (31)

Elsewhere, he describes games from his school days. In particular, he talks about a “hare-and-hounds” race, where two boys would get a head start, and the rest of the boys would pursue them cross-country. This sport was called “Runaway [no longer acceptable term for African-Americans].” (19) At another point he mentions a woman who “outlived her mother many years, retaining much of her [nlatfA-As] property until Mr. Lincoln, by one stroke of the pen, landed her in the poor house, where she died a few years ago.” (13) Somehow, my sympathies did not lie with the woman.

A bit later, Calhoun discusses the Civil War. He served in “Butler’s Brigade” and saw considerable combat. In one aside, he tells the story of a black cook with the unit who came under bombardment and “was seriously wounded in this engagement, so much so that we had to send him home. His skin was not punctured and no bones fractured, but his feelings were hurt and his heart seemed broken. He was completely demoralized.” (134)

In a section on the origins of the war, Calhoun displays little use for the “States’ Rights” motivation argued in later years.

[…I]t was slavery and that alone that was the commencement and the first cause bringing about the war between the States of this American union. (86)

He argues that the northern states (who profited from the slave trade and from the raw materials acquired through slave labor) were complicit in the enterprise as well, and had little reason to assert moral high ground, but attempted to cloak themselves in righteousness. For Calhoun and his fellows, the issue was simply that the squeamish North essentially wanted to expropriate Southern property, or at least to make it harder for the South while continuing to profit.

So I’m about halfway through the book, and still have to read his account of Reconstruction (from which, he informs us, his title is derived) and what he would have seen as the “redemption” of the South. I suspect those will be equally horrendous.

But at the same time, I find myself wondering about my ancestor. He made it to the Harding administration, after all, and lived long enough to see the franchise extended to women. And really, I don’t know that he was especially remarkable for his time and place. He entered the Confederate Army as a Private, and exited at the same rank. His father was a doctor, but he seems to have had the typical education of his era. He is articulate enough, occasionally reaching for the oratorical manner of his age, but could have used a proofreader, and perhaps an editor as well. He doesn’t seem terribly unusual, and probably wasn’t, as far as the sons of a declining branch of the Southern Aristocracy went — remember that within three generations, my dad would live in the East Nashville projects. He was apparently (as the phrase goes) a well respected man.

Even his racism seems strangely passive in many regards; he mentions a boys’ club initiation ritual where the boys were deceived into thinking that a black man had kissed them while they were blindfolded, but adds that any candidate who saw this as provocation to fight was excluded from the club. (I’m back home now, and the book is in my office, so I can’t give the page number at the moment.) His term for blacks, while offensive to many people today, was by the standards of his day, accurate and relatively genteel. And his mention of the black cook I cited earlier seems to indicate some concern and sympathy.

But.

Of course, but.

He was a defender — both rhetorically and when the time came, militarily — of our nation’s version of Original Sin (and remember, he openly acknowledges that slavery was the cause of the war). He saw other human beings as property in a very matter-of-fact kind of way, like land or other chattel. And while I haven’t read the rest of the book, I have no reason to suspect that he will have been Reconstructed by its conclusion.

It reminds me, then, how recent the notion of human equality lauded in the Declaration of Independence really is, and how long it sometimes takes to catch on. At the same time, I bear no guilt for what he did. Neither I nor even my father were born during his life; my grandmother was a toddler when he died. His sins are not mine, which is good — I certainly have enough of my own as it stands.

But I have to admit to a small satisfaction as I read. I teach at a school whose demographics pretty closely mirror those of the state of South Carolina, which means that about a quarter of our students are African-American. Genetics and local history being what they are, it probably approaches certainty that some of the ancestors of my students were enslaved by some of my ancestors. Now I devote some of my life to giving those students — like all my students — the tools they need to improve their lives.

Am I paying a debt? No — even if it exists (another question altogether), it isn’t mine to pay. But like my great-great-grandfather, I see myself as a pretty ordinary guy for my time and place. I just happen to be in a time and place that has learned some things that his didn’t see. And maybe that gives me a chance to do some good, and I’m thankful if I can.

About profmondo

Dad, husband, mostly free individual, medievalist, writer, and drummer. "Gladly wolde he lerne and gladly teche."
This entry was posted in Culture, Education, Family, Literature. Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to An Ancestor’s Voice from Two Foreign Countries

  1. Jeff S. says:

    What a candid and thoughtful post.

    When I observe all the righteous posturing on social media, I increasingly want to respond: Something about which you feel profoundly, unshakably right will, a century from now, be seen as a profound evil—and it’s unlikely you or any of us can ever foresee which of your opinions that will be.

    Last year I did some reading to remedy my ignorance of Reconstruction and came away frustrated by how little most Americans know or understand about that period. There are hugely useful lessons to be found, mostly notably how one particular political party (and the electorate) could win a war but then get too bored, distracted, and war-weary to secure a just and lasting peace.

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