The kick in the teeth came today while I was looking over the internet and all of the discussion regarding the church shooting in Charleston, SC, and, by the way, the number of idiots posting on the internet about this is astounding.
As you know, a little while back I wrote a piece on my journey of self discovery as it regards family history, slavery, and civil rights.
I knew that several of my ancestors had fought on the Confederate side in the Civil War and I was proud of the fact, just as I'm proud of the ones who fought in all the other wars and the ones who didn't serve in the military at all.
When you are judging what your ancestors did, to a certain extent you have to judge it in the climate and the circumstances of that time. It doesn't necessarily excuse "bad" behavior, but it may make their actions less reprehensible or make it more understandable that they did such things than the same actions (or omissions) would today.
I had always assumed that my ancestors fought on the side of the Confederacy because they lived in the South, they viewed the attitudes and actions of the North as offensive, and because, at one point, their homeland was "invaded" (for more information on that topic see the Red River Campaign of 1864).
The oral family history indicated we'd always been "dirt poor farmers" (my words) and I'd looked at census records when I started doing genealogical research (I am an absolute novice at this) and had never seen any indication that the farmers had slaves at all, just a bunch of children which I'm quite sure had been put to work in the fields at as early an age as possible.
However, I wondered if I had the whole story and so, on a whim, I decided to dig a little deeper and do some research on how to find out if someone owned slaves right before the Civil War. What I discovered was unsettling in a number of ways.
In 1860, the US census was a little different than some of the others, which listed slaves on the same pages as the other members of the household. This particular year, the slaves were listed on a separate document called a "slave schedule" which lists the slave owners by name and then the slaves they owned by gender and age.
I'm researching the maternal side of my family at this moment and so I chose one ancestor that I knew who was alive in 1860, had been in the Civil War (he died of Typhus or Typhoid in 1862), and who owned land. I looked up his name on the slave schedule.
In 1860 he owned two slaves, one 16 year old male and one 14 year old female.
Admittedly, I was a little shaken. I chose to look up another ancestor, one who isn't listed in the official records as having served in the war.
In 1860 he owned one slave, a 14 year old male.
I stopped my research at that point. I'll go back to it later, because ignoring history doesn't change it or make it go away.
To those claiming the right to fly the Confederate flag is a matter of heritage and that it wasn't about slavery, it may be time for you to go back and do a little digging in your family tree. I thought my ancestors were fighting for an "ideal" and now I have to acknowledge that at least a portion of those principles were that they wanted to own another human, in the limited research essentially three kids, to make it easier on themselves. Not something I particularly want to celebrate.
What's particularly troubling to me about this isn't that I was operating under erroneous facts, that happens to everyone occasionally, it's not really that my ancestors owned slaves because while that was wrong, there is really nothing I can do about that. What is really troubling is that there is a good chance that I may know the descendants of these slaves quite well.
This all plays into the real characters that influenced my first published book, The Bottle Tree, and I must say it has really, really had a deep and, I suspect, a lasting effect on me.
More on that at another time, when I've had the chance to reflect and consider.