Howling Grounds and Scorched Earth
Following Sherman’s March Through Georgia and South Carolina
by Lee Patton
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1. Shut-Out on the Road to Macon
The old guy in the booth told us the mountain was closed. “You can drive around all you want, but we’re down for the season.” So much for exploring Stone Mountain, just outside Atlanta, our first morning on the road. Still, as the 150th Anniversaries of the Civil War and the 50th Anniversaries of early 1960’s Civil Rights protests unfolded in tandem across the region, we were determined to explore the South. Right off, we faced closures, dress-code shut-outs, abandoned historical sites, thwarting October storms, and locals taunting us from pickups. I taunted myself: squeezed in a rented Ford, what ever made me think my boyfriend and I could discover the South like Spanish explorers?
Raised in Ohio, my boyfriend had ancestral connections to South Carolina and Mississippi, but except for a medical-school stint in Nashville, George had spent his life outside Dixie. An African-American raised in Ohio and longtime Denverite, George began with dark misgivings about the South in general. At first, he was reluctant to join the trip. But as he sought information about family roots in South Carolina, where his great-grandmother may have been one of the earliest African-American female preachers, George surrendered to curiosity. He even began searching ancestry sites. I had no personal connections to the South myself and had scarcely traveled there as an adult. Yet the South compelled us; as we would be reminded in Charleston, as Americans we “carried the South with us,” no matter how remote it might seem, no matter how burdensome or charming the vast region might be. We wanted to know what Southern identity meant to Southerners and what it might mean, carried within our Northern selves.
I approached the South as if it were a distinct, almost imaginary land. But in addition to college studies of William Faulkner, Carson McCullers, and Flannery O’Connor, my notions also sprang from childhood cartoons and stereotypes: shotgun shacks, Li’l Abner in patched overalls, moonshine, and rusty jalopies. Around the next corner, I expected to spot Cool Hand Luke lashed to a chain gang and a bloodhound leashed to a fat sheriff. Instead, George and I wandered Georgia’s tamed rural lanes through unsurprising swatches of woodland, pasture, and dinky churches with huge parking lots. We hankered for open country.
I hoped I had the mettle to make our first foray into the old Confederacy more than driving around inside the Ford’s tinted bubble. Back home in Denver, before our October trip to Georgia and South Carolina, George and I collected dubious send-offs. A geography buff I knew extolled the Low Country, Piedmont, and Appalachian uplands, but warned me about the region’s intolerant, backwards human landscape: “Be careful you don’t get mired in their good ol’ bullshit.” Two gay women at a party mocked our plans: “Oh yeah! A bi-racial gay couple, wandering around redneck country. Just be careful you don’t get shot!”
Now, in hiking shorts, George and I began our journey at the gates to Stone Mountain by giving up our plan to trek up the summit. Studying the brochure as we fled the place, I realized Stone Mountain sold itself as a commercial, Confederate version of Mt. Rushmore. The brochure proclaimed the mountain “sacred ground.” Its massive carving of Stonewall Jackson, Robert E. Lee and Jefferson Davis was the “largest bas-relief in the world.”
Twenty bucks to admire the carvings of three enemies of American unity and universal liberty? The details got worse and worse. In season, the park featured skyrides, scenic trains, golf-course resorts, “the world’s largest laser light show,” and something called the Yogi Bear 4-D adventure. Konfederate Kitsch. “I can’t stand pay-to-play motorized amusements.” I wagged the brochure at George in disgust. “Jesus.”
“You’re swearing again.” He laughed. “Don’t you like fun?”
“I hate fun!” I cried. Later I learned, via Wikipedia, historical facts about Stone Mountain that would curdle any amusement. When George Washington’s treaties with the mountain’s native, rightful owners failed, serial warfare began against the Creek Indians. The tribe lost the wars and their sacred mountain in 1821. A century later, the Ku Klux Klan got heavily involved and raised funds to build the Confederate monument. The racist terror group used Stone Mountain for annual rallies until 1981.
Leaving Stone Mountain unexplored gained valuable daylight to explore back roads between Atlanta’s exurbs and our next destination just southward, Macon. Happily lost on twists and turns of side roads that followed the Ocmulgee River toward Macon, George and I stopped at the courthouse square of Jackson, county seat of Butts County. As soon as we parked the car and popped onto Main Street, contemptuous laugher howled past. A trio of young guys hooted from a pickup, pointing at us as we left our rental car. Yowls receding, they sped away from the town square. I checked for a gun rack on the old pickup, thinking the gay women at that party had been right. With our first footsteps into the old Confederacy, I told George we were going to be forced at gunpoint into some ditch and left for dead.
“Because we look like two middle-aged homos?” George asked me as we crossed Main, watching the pickup retreat. “Well, we are.”
“Because our rental car has Atlanta plates? Because we’re city slickers, wearing shorts in October?”
“Because I’m black, you’re white?”
All of the above. As we waited to be dismembered, dragged to death hitched behind that pickup, it hit us. The tinted, touristic bubble had burst. Jackson felt authentic, the winner in a thousand casting calls for Small Southern Town-the old courthouse, the Confederate monument, complete with heroic bronze soldier overlooking the shabby, struggling businesses ringing the square. Day one, dead or alive, we’d already found the Deep South.
Wandering the square, we stopped to puzzle over a long list of rules. You couldn’t enter the courthouse with 1) electronic device, 2) handbag 3) briefcase 4) hat 5) sunglasses 6) shorts 7) baggy pants or 8) untucked shirttails. It was like an archaic middle school dress code, including a ban on male earrings. George was amused at the petty prudery of it all. In full ACLU dudgeon, I was horrified at the breach of civil liberties. In our hike-less hiking clothes, we couldn’t explore the 19th Century Butts County courthouse and were reduced to reading historical markers. As we studied them, the pickup shotgun trio made another pass, howling again.
One Civil War marker detailed Union troops invading Butts County during the 1864 March to the Sea, General Sherman’s arson scorching the earth between Atlanta and Savannah. Butts was only a few counties south of Atlanta and Jackson one of the first towns Sherman’s troops ravaged for supplies and “forage” while destroying mills, severing rail links, burning crops, and killing livestock.
We had lunch at a Mexican place off the square. When we asked about the strict courthouse rules, our chatty young Latino waiter became cautious. He wanted to know if we had local connections. After we made it clear that we were just strangers, and lost, he began to speak freely, mentioning the “backward” quality of towns around, including some we had just passed through: “Those little redneck burgs make Jackson look good, and Jackson isn’t so great.” He talked about Alabama’s recent immigration law and how it endangered natives as well as legal residents, casting every other fellow citizen as either spy or accomplice for even associating with undocumented people. He said Georgia had almost passed a similar law, and the close call made him feel alienated from his fellow Georgians. “It’s weird, how I’ve lived here all my life, and local whites still assume I don’t know about country music or where to get good grits. They’re astonished that I’m just a typical Southerner. It’s just not funny anymore. This town has a lot of darkness.”
The first entry in the 687 pages of Jackson’s official history described the town’s origin as “a place that was once howling grounds for two packs of wolves. The two packs, one from Yellow Water and one from Sandy Creek, made that area their nocturnal meeting area and made nights frightful to early settlers due to the hideous howling.” Unlike Rome’s origin story, though, Jackson’s wolves never nurtured anything. “In 1826, Indians were scalping and skylarking wherever they liked…in Butts County.” Nearby Indian Springs staged another broken treaty with the Creek Indians, robbing the tribe of their ancestral claim to most of Georgia. Four decades later, “Butts County men answered the call to war, becoming the ‘Jeff Davis Rifles’ on July 9, 1861. Next came the Butts Invincibles.
The Butts men turned out to be far from invincible. The brass-plate histories in the courthouse square made their disastrous loss explicit. “Patriotism” and “Love of Country” were ascribed to the young soldiers who took up arms against their birth nation. I howled in protest. George, absorbing the information, defended the right of the soldiers to fight for the “new country,” and implored me to understand “their point of view.” Meanwhile, the pickup trio made a third pass, though this time their jeering toned down. George waved at them. As if exhausted by their exertions of free-lance contempt, they simply waved back. After, he insisted their truck didn’t even have a rifle rack.
When we hit the back road to Macon, I pretended to empathize with the Confederate point of view to appease George, then gave up and declared that the entire Confederacy stunk. “The Lost Cause was contaminated from the start,” I told George, “by the weakness and premature nature of its intentions.” Think of a family house, I told him, only a few generations old. “It’s still being built and expanded, but half the children think it’s okay to betray their parents and abandon it. Abandon it, then attack it!” Wasn’t the Confederate secession from the young nation just an ill-formed whim, a bad idea that unleashed self-destruction?
The heat of my response surprised me. What inspired my impassioned “American House” metaphor? Since when was I, who avoided patriotism as much as amusement parks, the big defender of the Union’s unity? And now George, who went all Black Panther at the smallest challenge to the glory of Negritude (as when I once told him he had a “white-boy butt”) was suddenly taking the slave-masters’ side in the freakin’ Civil War!
Not even a full day had passed on our journey, and we were already gripped in the Civil War’s reach across the centuries. The sky closed over us, dark and roiling. As October leaves shredded horizontally across the windshield, I felt trapped in that spooky scene in To Kill A Mockingbird, when Scout heads home from a Halloween party, blind in her ham-hock costume to her attacker’s snatching hands.
The storm chased us the short distance to Macon in time to tour the Harriet Tubman African American Museum. An oddball collection of folk art squeezed into a squat, square one-and-a-half story-once a nightclub-the museum was marooned among parking lots and warehouses on downtown’s scruffy edge. Some rooms had emptied displays, giving the place an abandoned stage-set feel, and George and I were the only visitors. But the permanent exhibits had their charm: tributes to Harriet Tubman’s heroic role in the underground railroad; a fascinating room dedicated to black inventors and their gizmos; and a perpetual film spooling the tale of a local heroine who posed as a man to free her husband from slavery.
The few folks attached to the museum were moving boxes into those empty rooms and shutting down for the day. The place felt brave and dispiriting at once. Placards announced benefactors who’d funded this small, provisional memorial to a giant American heroine. Would African-American culture always have to struggle like this, underfunded-understaffed-dependent on the kindness of strangers?
Undaunted as Lewis and Clark, however, George and I were determined to explore Macon despite the pouring rain and falling dark. Armed with a damp map of Macon’s Historic Buildings, we prowled the hilltop north of downtown, dutifully locating antebellum Italianate and Queen Anne addresses. We ended the day standing in the rain before a hilltop mansion’s historical marker, which declared that Sherman’s earth-scorching had marched his forces and torches down the Ocmulgee in November 1864, halting across the river from the town. Only flood-stage waters prevented Sherman from setting fire to Macon. Though the city was spared from Union’s arson, making it the only place in Sherman’s path to feature so many intact antebellum neighborhoods, Macon suffered under long occupation. This mansion, the Woodruff House, had served as Union headquarters during the last months of the Civil War.
I tried to wrap my wet head around it: occupation. Right here. American military men occupied private American property, their incendiary trail still ablaze from Atlanta to Macon to forecast their ruthlessness. They’d kicked fellow American families out of their houses and turned parlors into war strategy centers. Finally, sympathy for the Confederate predicament slid into me like cold rain at nightfall.
* * * *
Morning brought bright blue skies and optimism about unmasking Southern identity. We would visit local historical societies; “I’ll seduce local history buffs with my Western charm,” I bragged, “then lure them into personal conversations.” George announced he would leave me alone with my genius idea while he strolled the antebellum neighborhood.
Macon’s historical society was housed in 19th Century poet Sidney Lanier’s family home. I arrived ready to probe historians’ views on Sherman’s attack on Macon and the occupation of the city. I knew the Union general had faked-out the Rebels, pretending Macon was his target when it was really Savannah. So, what damage did Sherman’s forces inflict? Meanwhile, I would find out if, as children or young adults, these historians had personal connections to the Civil Rights upheavals in Georgia, given it was the fiftieth anniversary of the Freedom Riders, who’d opened the struggle and stirred nationwide controversy in 1961. Here, now, in Macon, I would yank the ham-hock off my head and see the Real South before it killed me.
A guide met me at the door, welcoming, but a little startled that a random visitor had shown up out of nowhere. “Macon doesn’t see that many tourists.” He pointed to empty offices. “Today the whole Society’s out manning our fund raiser. I’m subbing today, I’m afraid.”
That was fine, I was sure, until the substitute guide immediately began his memorized spiel on Sidney Lanier’s life, loves, and furnishings. When the topic turned to Lanier’s deprivations and sacrifices during the Civil War, I saw my opening. I snuck in a question about when Lanier must have returned from war exile to Macon-on foot-angling for the date of his return to start a more general conversation about the city’s war experiences. “Oh, I’m not exactly sure,” the guide told me, “when the war ended.”
“April, 1865,” I offered, still hopeful.
“I’m sorry,” the guide said, “I should know that. I must learn it. You see, I don’t know much about the Civil War. I just moved here from Florida a short while ago.”
I rejoined George back in the glorious sunshine, cursing my timing and Florida history education. Meanwhile George was already an old Macon hand and led me to the Cannonball House. An unattributed posting disputed the high-waters-of-the-Ocmulgee-River-saving-Macon story. What actually prevented the city’s destruction were the brave Confederates, themselves “flooding” across the river to overwhelm Sherman’s men.
Spiteful, the Union fired cannonballs across the river, apparently just for the terroristic hell of it, at the “defenseless women and children.”
Yet at Cannonball House we were told that the cannon shot, landing “with a thud” in an interior hallway, was the only one known to be fired into Macon. Already, negotiating Union versus Confederate accounts was like enduring siblings’ competing versions of food fights.
Less than an hour later, George and I peered across the Ocmulgee River into central Macon, trying to fix our sights on Cannonball House. We stood atop the Great Temple Mound and regarded the flat, swampy horizon of the Macon Plateau. With a rocket launcher, we could’ve easily fired on sitting-duck Macon.
Great Temple Mound was the centerpiece of Ocmulgee National Monument. The green-velvet expanse of archeological sites on the east bank of the Ocmulgee dated back 17,000 years, a flabbergasting number for North American “Paleo-Indian” human settlement (especially for those whose hemispheric history starts in 1492). As late as 1540, Spanish explorer DeSoto found thriving palisades and villages, the last phase of the ancient Mississippian culture in Ocmulgee. A violent narrative scorched itself upon millennia of civilized occupation in 1864, when the site was the bivouac for Sherman’s forces. Exploring the paths around the Temple Mound, we never knew whether an earthwork was a mound-builder remnant or Civil War redoubt. Soldiers used the mounds for war preparations, even cutting a trench through the Grand Temple. The anthropological site lauded by naturalist William Bartram in 1770 as “the wonderful remains of the power and grandeur of ancients” became just another battleground in that nasty squabble over slavery that ripped apart the American house.
2. “I Don’t Know Which Damn Battle It Was:”
Savannah, Beaufort, and Charleston
More mounds heaped at the edge of central Savannah, hosting more historic tales of contested ground, Southern defiance and ultimate surrender. Tidiness betrayed the work of hands where a grassy hillock shared an upraised, earthen angularity with the Great Temple Mound in Ocmulgee. Puzzled and startled by the open-air display, George and I studied the Spring Hill Redoubt, a reconstruction of the Revolutionary War’s Battle of Savannah. The 232-year old battlefield seemed strangely spiffy, and no wonder: archeologists did not unearth evidence of the original until 2005, and the city created this park a year later.
I groaned inwardly. Too many layers of history had upended themselves, as if from quaking tectonic plates, in too few days-a brute, European-style pile-up of wars ancient and medieval and modern, blood gushing again and again into the same contested soil.
Here in Savannah, I absorbed the tale of this 1779 Revolutionary War battle, another layer of mounding Southern history I hadn’t much considered. Our just-born nation, fighting to cut its cord to Britain, suffered its second-bloodiest battle here. French, Haitian, Swedish, Irish, and Polish fighters joined the local colonists against the Brits, who volleyed grapeshot, chains, and nails at the international coalition. Hundreds of slaves worked twenty-hour days building trenches and redoubts to hold off the British, but by the second wave of attacks, those trenches were crammed with 800 coalition corpses. “So, the British forces held on to their colony,” I summarized from a laminated historical marker at the site, “and we retreated.”
“We?” George asked, his eyebrows raised. “Who was we?”
Okay, okay. The pronoun confusion wasn’t just about the 1779 mash-up of those foreign allies, or the still-undefined status of separate American colonies into a unified nation-state, but of course the “we” of that corps of slaves. The Coastal Heritage Society presented Battlefield Park as a memorial to those “who died for freedom” from “the clutches of the crown.” The Society clearly did not have any doubts about who “we” were.
As we left Battlefield Park, I kept company with my own doubts and re-doubts, even about my country’s sacrosanct origin story. The American colonies’ secession from Britain seemed remarkably like the Confederate succession from “us,” and just as ill-considered. Premature, hot-headed and blithe at once.
Savannah’s extensive historic neighborhoods stretch back the centuries intact, despite the port city being the very object of Sherman’s March to the Sea (which is merely our nickname for what Sherman himself called “The Savannah Campaign”). The earth scorched across the bulk of Georgia in two separate wings to meet at Savannah’s doorstep. To a city already weakened in years of Union blockade, its forts already bombed and seized, its fields flooded, Sherman issued a threat to burn and ravage the whole gorgeous caboodle: “…should I be forced to resort to assault, or the slower and surer process of starvation, I shall then feel justified in resorting to the harshest measures, and shall make little effort to restrain my army-burning to avenge the national wrong which they attach to Savannah and other large cities which have been so prominent in dragging our country into civil war.” Savannah remains the Savannah we treasure today only because it escaped direct fire eighty-two years after the Spring Hill battle, during the last autumn of the Civil War.
George and I crossed Martin Luther King Boulevard into the center of town, looking forward to learning more about a paradigm-shifting episode in Savannah’s history, one that wasn’t about violence and threats of destruction. This little-celebrated event brought lasting change through the hard work of unity and non-violent resistance. The Savannah Boycott had ended in success in October 1961, exactly fifty years earlier.
I had targeted the city’s Civil Rights Museum as a key Savannah destination and looked forward to any special celebrations, exhibitions, and especially conversations about the Boycott’s 50th anniversary and what it meant to Savannah’s residents today. So I was a little disconcerted that the staff member at the city visitor’s center didn’t seem quite sure where the museum was.
George and I easily found it, though, only a few blocks south of Battlefield Park, right across from a freeway off-ramp, in a neighborhood on the edge of Savannah’s historic district. Occupying a former bank that served African-Americans during segregation, the small museum was big and bold in its approach to hands-on history. With displays of Savannah’s African-American past going back to slavery days, it concentrated most of its space to the Savannah Boycott of the early 1960’s. A lunch counter was faithfully reproduced in its entirety, with an audio feed that scolded the visitor for even trying to get service. A first-rate film unreeled personal narratives of many living legends of the city’s civil rights struggles, some of whom rose to prominence in the national movement. Together, their narrative history wove together the whole tale of how Savannah’s black community mobilized early in the South’s commercial boycott movement and soon became among the most successful. The boycott successfully drove segregated businesses into bankruptcy and quickly “enlightened” white Savannah about black political and economic prowess. Like the student lunch-counter actions in Greensboro, North Carolina, the Savannah movement had many young leaders, but also engaged a broad spectrum of the black population, including many working folks. A postman, Wesley Wallace Law, emerged as the boycott’s leading figure.
Savannah’s progress didn’t come easily, starting only a month after Greensboro, followed by nineteen months of nonviolent, disciplined community action and self-deprivation. Yet in October 19, 1961, the movement’s major demands were met. Public transit jobs opened to blacks. Public facilities such as parks, pools, and eateries all desegregated. Soon after, Martin Luther King, Jr. anointed Savannah “the most desegregated city south of the Mason-Dixon line,” but despite that early and lasting success, Savannah’s pioneering civil rights victories are seldom recognized and often forgotten in the roll-call of the struggle. Even the King Institute’s own website, touting Greensboro and Nashville in its wrap-up of the early sit-in and boycotts, fails to mention Savannah.
In the museum dedicated to that victory, I was determined to learn more, especially from locals with personal connections to the struggle. As usual, again, George and I had the museum to ourselves. After our tour, when I asked a friendly young staffer for any information about 50th anniversary events, she asked me, “What anniversary?” An older staffer hurried off to show some new visitors the cool “1960-segregated-diner” reconstruction, telling me, “Man, if there are any anniversary events, I’d sure like to know!”
Old Savannah’s mass-tourist mob scene intensified down on the riverfront, full of bustle, buskers, and festive evening lights. Competing with working, industrial freighters, cruise ships emptied more visitors onto the quay, adding to the party-time mix. Under the Sheraton Hotel, sculptor Dorothy Radley Spradley’s memorial to the black family, depicted a father, mother, and two children and bore an inscription by Maya Angelou:
“We were stolen, sold and bought together from the African Continent. We got on the slave ship together. We lay back to belly in the holds of the slave ships in each others excrement and urine together, sometimes died together, and our lifeless bodies thrown overboard together. Today, we are standing up together, with faith and even some joy….
George and I wandered away from yelling tipplers and back to the river, where, as if on cue, an extended African-American family emerged from a dockside excursion boat in the throes of reunion festivities. The clash of Angelou’s agonized yet understated expression of black experience amid the riverside merriment addled my brain, and I found myself staring at the water. My earlier misgivings haunted me; I felt myself a disconnected Westerner with no hope of penetrating the real South. Other Savannah visitors seamlessly joined the good time atmosphere around the bars and craft markets. Why wasn’t I just as content to line up for the next Haunted House Scare or Paula Deen’s next serving of Authentic Southern Cookin’? Why was I so bugged that the Civil Rights Museum was empty during the crowded high season? That the city wasn’t celebrating the Boycott anniversary? We built National Monuments around any bloody battleground but didn’t commemorate nonviolent change. Even where human rights won unqualified victory, we forgot to remember its golden jubilee. Across the river, a convention center business reception was underway, spotlights revealing people in evening clothes wandering with goblets on the opposite shore.
George said he wouldn’t mind leaving Savannah soon. Though the city made me ache to discover ever more of it, I didn’t protest.
* * * *
The next afternoon, an hour north of Savannah in Beaufort, South Carolina, I sat on a bench in the harbor park beside George, staring at another Atlantic estuary. Little did I know that we would finally meet folks who would start opening the South to us like a sliced green tomato.
I asked George why he hadn’t wanted to linger longer in Savannah.
“I guess the old divide rankled me too much. Even though the city has a black majority, I didn’t see many African Americans living in the older central parts of the area we walked through. I kept thinking that black people helped build the city and its plazas. But I didn’t see many blacks owning those properties.”
Just across the street, a guided tour of the town’s oldest historic home was underway, led by a returned Beaufort native, Ann, funny, engaged, passionate, and charmingly self-deprecating. She herself had connections to Beaufort’s Civil War history, her great-grandfather being the owner of a steamer that a slave pilot famously commandeered. In 1862 Robert Smalls appropriated the ship Planter, loaded with rebel armaments, his own family and twelve other slaves, and guided his precious cargo into Union hands in Charleston. Representing her ancestors, Ann had attended the 2004 christening of the Army vessel Robert Smalls, the first ever dedicated to an African American.
Verdier House was cramped, plain and unimposing. Stripped of the usual dolled-up period furniture and carpets, it was among the most authentic and intimate of historic house museums. Built around 1800 by a trader in indigo and cotton, the house became the headquarters for the adjutant general during the Union occupation of Beaufort in 1861. That detail jolted me as I again considered the extremity and length of Union occupation in conquered towns. With Beaufort’s plantation owners an early and ardent voice for secession, the town was evacuated early in the war and sent into chaos for the duration, most homes preserved, but prey to looting and arson. Though Beaufort claimed to have been the wealthiest community in the entire U.S. before the Civil War, many residents were never able to reclaim their wealth. After the war, many could not even retrieve their homes, seized for delinquent taxes while the owners fled to safety. Ownership itself was difficult to verify since local property records had been sent for safekeeping to Columbia, only to be burned when Sherman sacked South Carolina’s capital.
Ann directed us to the house’s small basement display of Beaufort Civil War history. One poster reproduced a Harper’s Weekly cartoon of slaves “celebrating the fall of Confederate Beaufort” by lazing about the master’s living room, pounding his piano and smoking his pipe. Apparently it was hilarious for North and South alike, a surreal upside-down world, the darkies imitating their owners’ leisure. Somehow, it never seemed ridiculous when their white masters enjoyed this luxury. It wasn’t funny when a fat white guy smoked his pipe in a plush chair while stolen humans were whipped into submission in the shacks behind the big house. Even to the sophisticated nationwide readership of Harper’s Weekly, A Journal of Civilization, comfort and culture were only funny when the slaves dared taste what their labors had created and earned.
As Ann and I shared our regional backgrounds and our young careers as teachers, we confessed to frustration with our own education. Whether South or North, we were fed shallow, biased approaches to the Civil War and especially Reconstruction. “I think I learned more from Gone With the Wind than my history classes,” I told her. “Almost nothing of Reconstruction’s punishing conflicts, these prolonged occupations during the war, property seizures, tax delinquency Catch-22’s. All the attacks on civilians, all the human costs to ordinary people.”
“And we learned very little about how deliberate Jim Crow segregation was, establishing horrors for generations. It seemed like they wanted to sugar it over.” Ann explained she didn’t learn until adulthood how early progress after the War reversed into degradation and race hatred by the 1890’s, that black opportunity was systematically stripped away. “Our schools made sure we Southern kids got the impression that segregation had always been the way of the world, not a post-Civil-War social strategy of white supremacy.”
Near our hotel, at Fryed Green Tomatoes Café, another engaging local narrator, Rachel, regaled us about Beaufort’s underrated charms and the town’s many movie-star turns for Hollywood. I told her that Beaufort resident Pat Conroy had inspired my interest in the area, especially his memoir The Water Is Wide. I’d been fascinated by his portrayal of Gullah culture, a free black community so long isolated on the Sea Islands around Beaufort that they spoke Sea Islands Creole, English infused with influences from Caribbean and West African languages.
As a white kid raised on one of the Sea Islands, St. Helena-settled by the Spanish in 1520 with claims to be the oldest European settlement in the United States–Rachel had a keen sense of the area’s diversity and history. She took us deep into a local tale about a for-certain ghost light every teenager in town has seen. Local kids would head into the dark, marshy countryside of St. Helena Island for drinking and making-out, then invariably spot the ghost light. “It’s like a big, hovering spotlight or giant lantern, getting closer and closer,” she told us. “Everybody grows up trading around their versions of the story.” Most agreed that the ghost was a soldier. Some thought he was mortally wounded in the Revolutionary War era. “Or maybe it was the War of 1812. Most think he was a local boy, beheaded by the Yankees in the Civil War. Me personally, I don’t know which damn battle it was, let alone which war. Some even say it was a Yankee soldier. But you grow up just knowing that ghost is real and still wandering around, carrying that light, trying to find what he’s lost.”
Fascinated, George and I crossed over to the Sea Islands in the late afternoon. Chased by the short October sun, we had just enough time to glimpse the fresh damage on the Atlantic beach at Hunting Island, fallen trees jumbled everywhere on the high tide line. Freshly toppled in the same massive storm that howled us into Macon, branches and trunks formed a barrier between forest and sand. Around the few patches of woodland on higher ground, marshes sprawled along finger-like waterways dividing each island. During slavery’s heyday, these inundated lowlands had been ideal for rice and indigo, which required the massive effort of forced labor to tend and harvest them. Here, as around Beaufort itself, the marshes had long returned to their placid yet forbidding natural state, a kind of re-encroachment into every uninhabited patch of ground, a ghostly wild seepage reclaiming five centuries of tenuous settlement.
The Low Country’s brief episode of rice and indigo plantations had been unsustainable, morally and practically. Secession was launched to prolong their profits, but the crops vanished with the end of slavery. Beaufort’s storied antebellum life of gracious living for a white elite lasted only a few decades, a mere shimmering stain on history’s timeline, but Gullah culture on the Sea Islands has proved resilient to this day. Penn School, established to educate St. Helena Island’s freed slaves, evolved into Penn Center, the landmark cultural institution where Martin Luther King, Jr. retreated to write his “I Have a Dream” speech. We arrived at the center with the fall of dark, a meeting ending, cars retreating. Down at the crossroads, a Gullah-inspired eatery was already closed for the evening.
Having fought off efforts to develop Hilton Head style resorts and gated retirement communities, St. Helena Island succeeded in preserving its rural character. But that very success produced a tidy, scattered, isolated community inaccessible to pesky outsiders like me. In conspiracy with the darkness and closures, Gullah culture would have to remain beyond reach for now, despite its tantalizing presence all around us. There we were, in the full smother of night, stuck on a country lane between storied Penn Center and closed restaurant, stranded on the very road where Rachel’s soldier-ghost still haunted, seeking, headless, lost.
* * * *
Packing Charleston’s expansive visitor center, tourists signed up for pirate tours, ghost haunts, dungeon walks, and plantation garden tickets. But George and me? We picked up a freebie map and strolled toward the Old Slave Mart. About our speed.
Charleston proved to be unsettling-an unhinged, continual ying-yang. Its well-preserved historic beauty and progressive present melded with a past of stark evil. The majority of stolen Africans shipped to America arrived via Charleston harbor. Longtime mayor Joe Riley speculated that 80 percent of African-Americans could connect an ancestor to Charleston.
The Old Slave Mart was sponsored by the city as part of Mayor Joe Riley’s ongoing development of Charleston’s visitor infrastructure. The small, dramatic museum was housed in the last existing building actually used as slave auction “gallery” after public slave sales were banned in 1856. The ground floor seemed no larger than a pet shop. Its first section was the showroom. The word gave me gooseflesh, dehumanizing the merchandise sold here 150 years before, as if human beings were mere machines, Jeeps or Toyotas. (The structure actually served as an auto dealership in the 1920’s.)
The recreated voice of a slave narrative from the WPA project boomed around that first squeezed showroom. Blunt and vivid, the former slave’s memories detailed the auction’s degradations. Around a corner, sound effects intruded-traders’ voices, horse hooves clomping-as we read panel after panel supplying uncompromising facts about the slave business, the efforts of slaves to display themselves as more healthy, or more worthless, to avoid cruel owners, gain bearable positions, and keep their families intact. We were spared a visit to the barracoon, where slaves were shackled before auctions, and the “dead room,” both long razed for a rear parking lot. Absorbed and appalled, George and I explored the slave mart realizing that we’d actually joined a ghost tour after all. Slavery seemed a haint that couldn’t be ignored in pretty, preening Charleston, rattling its chains across the centuries.
The relentless procession of facts overwhelmed us, such as the small number of Carolinians actually involved in owning and trading most slaves-3 percent owned 95 percent. Three lousy percent. It royally pissed me off to consider the tiny number of slave masters’ horrific global and national consequences. Four years of fratricidal war to preserve such a rare prerogative?
After our tour, we circled back to the gift/book shop. George stepped out for fresh air (and reprieve, I think) while I perused a Gullah dictionary. A young African-American woman behind the counter wanted to know if she could help me, and I said I’d love to know how to get closer to the Gullah dialect. She took umbrage. “Start with that children’s book, then,” she said, pointing, “because you will be like a child when it comes to learning Gullah.”
I caught her tone and attitude, familiar to me from my halting forays among Bay Area black radicals when I was a student. Ah, I was again the Blundering White Dude, trespassing where he wasn’t welcome, another whitey bound to misunderstand. With no idea that I was interested linguistically, the clerk pivoted toward bad faith. Maybe she thought I was going to break out in ridicule, pronouncing deese’s and dat’s.
But after we chatted about the cultural biases we all so easily slip into, country folk versus city slickers, South versus North, she pivoted back and warmly shared with me a detailed picture of Gullah in her own background-she grew up just outside the city-and her family’s relationships, her girlhood adventures with her country relatives on the Sea Islands and those who lived in and around Charleston itself. Her relatives, she recounted with pride, had once hosted a white linguist while he studied the Sea Islands Creole.
She couldn’t know the extent of it, but I was blundering through my own misconceptions. Misreading from The Water Is Wide, I’d formed an idea that Gullah culture existed on one or two isolated Sea Islands just outside Beaufort. The moment the clerk began her family stories, which revealed the reach of the culture in and around Charleston, I realized Gullah was much more widespread and more infused across Low Country life than I realized. What I’d been looking for in the wide, empty expanses of St. Helena Island was embodied right here in front of me. “If I figure you out in time,” she was saying, “I might just invite you for dinner at my granny’s, someday. If she’s up for it.”
It wasn’t exactly a firm invitation, but I appreciated it. That was exactly the kind of entrée into Southern life I was hoping for. But we lost the thread of it when George came back into the museum foyer and stood at my side as the clerk shared a few common Gullah sayings with him. She seemed amused and bemused by George, this tall, self-possessed Northern black man, and recounted some of our conversation about Gullah culture for his benefit. She implored George to understand that Gullah was virtually the lodestone of all Black English. She teased out a few phrases from him, innocuous and commonplace phrases, and assured him that wherever he went and whatever he said, Sea Islands Creole was the wellspring of his vocabulary and outlook. He carried the South with him everywhere, whether he knew it or not.
“That’s why we’re here,” I told George after we left the museum, “to discover your roots. Right, Gullah Guy?” As we hustled across the cobblestones, dark clouds massed over the afternoon’s bright blue. We were determined to squeeze as much as we could in to the day’s remains, despite the oncoming storm, and walk to the southern tip of Charleston, the storied Battery neighborhood.
George was taken aback by the clerk’s aggressive expectation that he embrace his hidden-but-ever-present Southern cultural identity. Still, he reminded me there were doors upon doors unopened behind her attitudes, pain and struggle that made her so ready to expect injury from a white guy looking at a Gullah dictionary in a gift shop. George explained what was on his mind as he’d strolled, alone, the block around the Old Slave Mart. “Since Savannah, maybe I’m hyper-vigilant about the ways that African Americans do and don’t get included in the city’s history, their contributions acknowledged or ignored. Just as with Savannah, I’m not seeing many African-Americans in the historic heart of Charleston. Thank goodness for that young woman at the museum, for her Sea Island stories and Gullah vocabulary. She’s providing some color around here, and fiercely protective of her people.”
Following a sidewalk across from the wide harbor, we crossed the threshold of Charleston’s yin and yang, from the slave market towards its opposite as we walked south. The luxurious results of forced labor, antebellum homes became palatial, fenced behind wrought iron, facing the harbor’s marine horizons. The dark clouds finally unloaded and a massive squall hit the city’s Battery, Atlantic winds whipping the palmettos.
Defenseless, without rain jackets or umbrellas, we took refuge on the porch of the Edmondston-Alston House Museum. Waiting out the storm, we joined the day’s last house tour. Our guide was a maternal blonde who remained enchanted and excited by the house’s material comforts and original décor. But for all her love of the finer details, I was nonplussed by her failure to scratch the posh surface. It felt disconcerting, immediately after the slave market, to wander lavish rooms, exhorted to note every silver pattern and gilded frame. Our guide’s brief mention of a slave stairwell and slave quarters in a back wing only highlighted how whiplashed labor made this self-celebratory antebellum household function and flourish. We learned so little about the family’s contributions and careers, our guide’s narrative concentrating on the things they left behind. I studied portraits in the dining room only to feel the dullness and stupidity of the aristrocracy’s blithe lives of ease. A graceful, beautiful little society built on a soul-killing system, to which a tiny minority–The Three Percent–clung more vociferously than anywhere in the South.
When I noted dynastic bullshit like the Alston family “Coat of Arms” and learned that the upstairs piazza hosted General Beauregard’s view of the 1861 bombardment of Fort Sumter, I recalled that Charleston’s Sons of Confederate Veterans had thrown a Secession Ball on December 20, 2010 to celebrate the 150th anniversary of South Carolina’s withdrawal from the Union. Described in invitations as a “joyous night of music, dancing, food and drink,” 300 white Charlestonians reveled in period dress while a multiracial crowd of more than 100 protested outside, including Mayor Riley. NAACP officials compared it to Japanese-Americans celebrating Pearl Harbor or German-Americans celebrating the Holocaust. When Mayor Riley declared, “the cause of this disastrous secession was…to protect the inhumane and immoral institution of slavery,” Secession Ball revelers shouted down their mayor as a liar. Each celebrant had paid a hundred bucks, after all, to celebrate the courage of their ancestors in defending their Southern heritage.
My head again spun from yin to yang as our guide led us through the master’s study. She pointed out an island, Shutes’ Folly, in Charleston harbor, exulting in how the tiny islet was visible from the study’s window. She speculated that the architect deliberately framed the “charming view.” The guide did not mention how a fort on that island, Pinckney’s Castle, imprisoned 304 African children in 1858, and no wonder. The incident is little recorded or acknowledged, and I had to resort to a contemporary report in the Dec. 1, 1858 Anti-Slavery Reporter to confirm the story. U.S. federal forces seized an illegal slave trader, the Echo, a half-century after the Atlantic slave trade was abolished in 1807, packed with stolen African children. “Dying at the rate of ten a day,” the children were held there as authorities in Charleston decided whether to sell them on local slave markets or return them to West Africa, where they’d been purchased for “fifty cents to one dollar” per child. The Anti-Slavery Reporter left the matter unresolved, “there to remain till it should be determined how to dispose of them.” The journalist noted that the nearly worthless individual children would bring profits of $178,000 as a cargo, concluding “such gains are too tempting to be resisted by those who make haste to be rich.”
* * * *
We had Shute’s Folly, now a castle-less sand spit, in our sights again as we cruised to Fort Sumter the next morning. The fort occupied a man-made reef where the Atlantic met the harbor. Whitecaps whipped low rocks, flags whipping straight north. The reconstructed, walled fortress occupied every inch of its Atlantic reef. Fort Sumter felt unreal, just as sail-away ephemeral as Charleston itself, barely tethered to land. It seemed vulnerable to the open Atlantic and attack from any direction on multiple shores. I hustled onto the gangplank, half-believing the island fortress might roil away on a current before I reached the dock.
A young ranger, Jim, a native Charlestonian, herded the boatload of us near the original wall remnants and, as the opening shot of his narrative, asked, “Who fired the Civil War’s first shot?”
Out of a crowd of visitors from all around the U.S. North and South, a middle-aged man yelled, “We did!”
Jim stressed the length of the siege and the ruination of the original fort, which was not yet finished when the Confederates fired on the site on April 12, 1861. Despite everlasting Southern claims that the Civil War was about preserving states’ rights and not about preserving slavery, the war began exactly where the mass of captured Africans were shipped to our shores, here on the lip of Charleston harbor’s open mouth.
Schoolbook versions seemed to begin and end with that first shot, but the long drama of Sumter enacted the entire Civil War in microcosm. The longest siege in the global history of warfare since ancient times, the Confederates took the federal fort shortly after that famous first shot and held on to it. But in 1863, the Union focused on recapturing Sumter, forcing the Confederates to endure two years of siege. Accounts focus on the soldiers’ deprivations, the supply lines tenuous or cut altogether, the constant bombardment and rebuilding. The Park Service site is a replica; the old fort was long gone, a near-complete ruin, destroyed and rebuilt and destroyed again continuously during the siege. Its ramparts became no more than heaped rubble. So who actually did all that heaping?
The onsite museum was unflinching in its answer, stressing slaves’ role in restoring the fort’s battlements again and again. We learned that 500 slaves were the real heroes of Confederate-occupied Sumter, risking their necks and breaking their backs to sandbag and rebuild those improvised walls. Unpaid forced laborers toiled, hopelessly as Sisyphus, in the service of their own further enslavement. That’s Historic Charleston for ya.
The young ranger and I stood high on the replica ramparts, overlooking the neighborhood just across the water where he went to high school. I asked Jim how the War was presented in his schooling. “As a battle for state’s rights,” he said, without hesitation. “And only that.”
His forthright answer sounded tinged with regret and wonder. I confessed that my Northern education stressed the ending-slavery narrative and mostly overlooked the excesses of Union destructiveness and occupation. Every day, Jim dealt with that inevitable answer to his opening question—”We did.”-and none of us really know who we are, a hundred-fifty years after that War Between the States, that War Against Northern Aggression, that Civil War. We can’t yet even agree on a name for it; we have to come to national parks to get a balanced view of the war’s origins and motives. In our nationwide curriculum, Civil War history seems spun with bias instead of threaded by facts and counter-facts.
Jim hurried with me to the afternoon’s return voyage, breathless with explanations. I was breathless, too, trying out counter-explanations as if I were rehearsing for a debate that would never end, wishing like I could float, Chagall-like, above the whole scene, ethereal, released from this strange, eternal controversy. Fort Sumter felt immaterial, woven of a gauzy, unanswered question. Why does this old, settled conflict feel so raw, so vital, still contested at its very origin?
3. A Confederacy of the Mind
Heading out of Charleston, taking a few wrong turns on back roads north to Columbia, George and I passed through a region that was even poorer than the state average, and South Carolina as a whole ranked forty-second in median income. St. Matthews existed on barely two-thirds of that humbling statistic. Forlorn and discarded-looking, the town was a blur of country highways emptying into long-gone businesses and abandoned gas stations. Poor as it was, Calhoun County was not as desperate as its neighbors, ranked “critical” in poverty rates. Out of town, we found a surreal, white-tufted landscape cut into the dense pine and beech forests. Here the white fields would be intense and bright; there they’d fade, the tufts just emerging. “Cotton!” George called out. “It’s cotton. I don’t think I’ve ever seen it growing before.”
I hadn’t either. The fields, in several stages of growth, had a vivid, fantastic quality, especially against the dark, lurking borders of forest. Soon we passed small, nameless settlements lining the obscure road, just as run-down as those poor neighborhoods in Macon and the north end of Charleston, the faces just as African-American. But instead of those urban zones’ emptied disquiet, these crossroads villages hopped with agrarian busyness. Men hoisted bales onto awaiting trucks and warehouses teemed with movement. Women in storefront snack bars stirred steaming pots while kids criss-crossed dirt turnouts on bikes. There were no stressed-out, hunched humanoids staring at tiny screens; around us, people moved with exuberant steps and emphatic gestures. This cotton country had an eternal, yet improvisational feel, as if the fields had been here for centuries, unchanged, while the crooked wood-slat shacks might disappear tomorrow without a trace.
When we reached the heart of Columbia, George and I encountered two more open-hearted Southerners. It was breezy, cold and damp, but near the Capitol steps a hardy encampment of Occupy Columbia protestors strategized on laptops. We engaged two young guys in conversation, African-Americans just out of high school dead serious in their challenge of the nation’s growing income disparity.
We had seen Occupy encampments in Atlanta and Savannah, part of that fall’s inchoate but transformative nationwide movement to target Wall Street’s role in the ongoing financial crisis. Columbia’s Occupiers were showing their mettle on this dreary October noon. The boys patiently explained the urgent need for change, “from the people upward.”
George noted the mix of people at the encampment, white, black, older, younger. “This might finally be the conversation we’ve needed for so long, to engage who we really want to be as a nation.” The Occupy movement was criticized for its lack of negotiable demands, though, and, George suggested that prior social movements had used them effectively, corralling college presidents in their offices with long lists of action points, or as with Civil Rights activists, demanding immediate changes in public access and opportunities.
The boys listened respectfully to George and probed his ideas as if specific demands were new concepts. Or maybe as “ancient models,” I joked later, “from a black-and-white newsreel they’ve never seen.”
We were blown away by the boys’ articulate sincerity. “If they’re typical of Columbia’s high school graduates, this town must have one hell of a school system,” I said, watching the encampment organize, preparing a new action. Were we witnessing a new layer of the South’s mounding of history? Atop the sesquicentennial of the Civil War and the fiftieth anniversary of the Freedom Riders and lunch-counter protests, these occupiers added new soil. Although these young African-American Southerners expressed the most progressive ideals we’d heard so far, the Confederate flag still waved over their small encampment on the State House grounds. High on its pole, beside a statue of a rebel fallen to the Lost Cause, the Confederate Battle Flag flew right where the State House steps faced Main Street.
That flag marked the epicenter of the capital city. I remembered the national controversy, in 2000, when, after a long and damaging boycott of South Carolina tourism sponsored by the NAACP, the rebel flag was removed from the top of the State House dome to its place on the grounds. Even this small compromise, moving the flag a few hundred yards, was hard-fought. The conflict continued into the 2010’s without resolution and underscored the tenacious passion of some white South Carolinians for their slaveholding heritage. State Representative Chris Hart repeatedly introduced a resolution to remove the battle flag, only to have each proposal shot down. Along with another African-American Representative, Leon Howard, Hart stressed the flag’s damage to the state’s image and the city’s business prospects. Howard believed the taxpayers deserved better than more of South Carolina’s “confederacy of the mind.
1 Avett, Marshall. “The History of the City of Jackson.” City of Jackson, Georgia. N.p., 2009. Web. 19 Mar. 2012.
2 Cox, Dale. “The Cannonball House – Macon, Georgia.” The Cannonball House – Macon, Georgia. N.p., 2010. Web. 19 Mar. 2012.
3 Tudor, Christine, Docent
4 Sherman, William T. “CHAPTER XXI. THE MARCH TO THE SEA FROM ATLANTA TO SAVANNAH. NOVEMBER AND DECEMBER, 1864.” Memoirs of General W.T. Sherman. N.p.: Project Gutenberg EBook Tes, 2006. N. pag. Print.
5 “1963 (July-December).” Veterans of the Civil Rights Movement. N.p., n.d. Web. 19 Mar. 2012.
6 “Secession Ball Sparks Controversy.” NPR. NPR, 27 Dec. 2010. Web. 10 Aug. 2014.
7 “South Carolina Secession Ball Opens Civil War Wounds.” AOL.com. AOL, 21 Dec. 2010. Web. 10 Aug. 2014.
8 “The Victims of the Slaver.” Echo Anti-Slavery Reporter (1851): 277-79. Web. 19 Mar. 2012.
9 Brunner, Borgna. “South Carolina’s Confederate Flag Comes Down.” Information Please Database, 30 June 2000. Web. 10 Aug. 2014.