Musings on Southern History and Genealogy

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

I.D.W. Cobb: North Alabama Partisan Ranger

My mother is linking to my blog, so I think I had better break the long silence and say something.

I am on the final march of my undergraduate career. I will graduate in thirty-one days, on May 9, 2009. Yesterday (since the cat has run squealing from the bag), I was presented with the Dr. John Rison Jones Award in Southern History, sponsored by the Huntsville-Madison County Historical Society. I am deeply honored. I am still learning about Dr. John Rison Jones, but by what I have read, I am most impressed and humbled. I was also given the Outstanding Classical Studies Award for my studies in Latin and Greek, and inducted into Sigma Tau Delta, the English honorary society. The trifecta of the studies to which I have devoted myself in school were all represented. It was a fitting and memorable day.

I am pretty swamped with work here at the end of school; it is the endgame, and all my deadlines are converging in one final assault. I have my final history project to complete, an art history essay to write, books to read, and a major presentation to prepare for, all by next week. I hope to write to you soon about these things. But since it is being announced everywhere but here, I wanted to take a moment to tell you about my presentation.

I.D.W. Cobb
Isaac Denton Winfield Cobb (1847-1933)
(Courtesy of Lou Lehman Sams)

On next Wednesday, April 15 at 6:30 p.m. at the Huntsville-Madison County Public Library Auditorium, I will give my first public lecture in Southern history, entitled "I.D.W. Cobb, North Alabama Partisan Ranger: Researching a Local Civil War Soldier."

I will present my research on Isaac Denton Winfield Cobb (1847-1933), a local Confederate veteran who took part in North Alabama's untold partisan ranger conflict behind Union lines, serving under Captain Milus E. "Bushwhacker" Johnston and Colonel Lemuel G. Mead.

Starting from scratch with the name of a man I'd never heard of, chosen from a list of local veterans provided by my professor Dr. John Kvach, I will illuminate the life of this forgotten soldier in records, photographs, and finally his own words.

I will also present a brief overview of my methods and sources, to encourage others to discover their own Civil War heritage.

This is the biographical paper of a Civil War veteran I've been working on since my Civil War class last semester, to which I've referred several times here, and I am very glad it has developed into this opportunity. I am very grateful to Dr. Kvach and to the archivists at the library, Susanna Leberman and Renee' Pruitt, for helping to set this up. I am looking forward to sharing about Cobb, rescuing a forgotten veteran from obscurity, and I want to invite all of you to come out and join me. I will post more about my research in the near future.

Friday, January 16, 2009

The Advocate Returns: More Thoughts on Shiloh

So I have returned. It's been about three months since I've written. The demands of school and life conspired to distract me. But I still have a lot to say.

Last semester, as you read, I took a course on the Civil War and Reconstruction. I enjoyed it thoroughly, and got a very firm foundation in that history. My term project was a biographical paper on a local Confederate veteran, and I hope to be able to share that with you soon. There has been a recent mystery about a photograph discovered of a Civil War-era cousin in my family, depicting him wearing what appears to be a military uniform; there is no tradition that this man served in the Civil War, and the photograph poses many questions. I am taking a course in Public History this semester, for my last ever undergraduate project, and you're bound to hear a lot about that. And I hope to soon post about the recent cuts in Alabama's state budget and their harmful impact for the Alabama Department of Archives and History and historic preservation in this state.

But tonight I wanted to share with you a few recent thoughts I've had on my visit to the Shiloh battlefield last fall. In Public History we have been reading Freeman Tilden's Interpreting Our Heritage, a brilliant guide for interpretation and presentation of history through historic sites and artifacts. Our class has a generally Southern focus, though less than half of the students in it categorize themselves as Southern historians.

The discussion in class tonight was about the interpretation of disturbing events in history, such as the Holocaust or the 9/11 attacks. Should the presentation of these events withhold any of their horrors? Is it necessary to subject a visitor to horrific scenes and images—mass graves filled with mangled bodies, or terror-stricken civilians leaping from the Twin Towers to their deaths—to impart their impact? Several students noted the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum's "room of shoes", in which thousands of shoes of Holocaust victims, taken from a Nazi death camp, are displayed. It captures a glimpse of the Holocaust's enormity without a graphic image of its death. Opinions of students who had visited the exhibit varied widely, from those who found the display as a mere document of fact, to those who found it genuinely moving and disturbing.

Written by the Hand of Fate
"Written by the Hand of Fate." Iowa State Memorial at Shiloh National Military Park.

I have not been to the Holocaust Museum, but I am sure that I would be in the latter camp. I thought back to Shiloh, how just being in that place, feeling the deathly spirit hanging over it like a blanket, disturbed me to my core. I have often wondered since then what it was I actually felt. Our professor noted that he had grown up nearby to the Antietam battlefield, and had spent countless hours on various other battlefields, but did not feel anything extraordinary merely from being there. While at Shiloh, I witnessed children frolicking on the battlefield excitedly, as if it were a park or playground. They could not feel the same oppressive air that I felt.

Did I feel something supernatural that day? Some lingering trace of the anguish and sorrow of that terrible event? And if so, why? Am I somehow, as one so attuned to the South and her history, more susceptible to such perceptions? Or was it something about the historical interpretation of the battlefield, as we are studying in my class, that moved me so? It is presented very much like a cemetery, a great memorial park, a funereal monument, and perhaps it is from this that I grasped such a feeling of despair. Or did my own mind, my own interpretation, create this feeling, from knowing what it was and knowing what had happened there? I found, after all, the appreciation for the war's horrors that I came hoping to find. But why did I need to be in the place, touching the history with my own hands, for the import of everything I had read and known to overwhelm my romantic notions and become real to me? Sometimes, it is indeed sites and objects that speak to us even more than facts. This, according to Tilden, is the essence of historical interpretation.

Unknown Dead of Shiloh
Unknown Dead of Shiloh.

Or I could be, as someone suggested in class today, just a "softie." But the fact remains that Shiloh changed me, and the Civil War will never be the same to me again. I cannot think of it without remembering the overwhelming horror and revulsion I felt at Shiloh. And I wouldn't want to. It will keep honest a historian so prone to romance.

Sunday, October 19, 2008


Death and Night Take the Victory
"Death and Night Take the Victory." From a Confederate monument on the battlefield. The figure on the right represents Death, who took away Confederate commander Gen. Albert Sidney Johnston on the first day of the battle. Night, on the left, takes away the crown of victory; in the following day, the Confederate army was defeated.

Last Saturday I took a trip to the Shiloh National Military Park in Hardin County, Tennessee, site of the Battle of Shiloh in 1862. It was the bloodiest two days in American history up until that time, and among the bloodiest of the Civil War. As the Confederate army retreated, over 3,000 Americans lay dead between the two sides, and over 16,000 wounded.

As a passionate Southerner, I have been steeped, for better or worse, in the romance of the Civil War and the Lost Cause, the glorification of its battles and heroes and dead. No matter now much I learn and understand of the horrors of the war, the wrongness of its causes — Lee, Jackson, Stuart, Johnston, all have seemed such larger-than-life figures, such Southern gods; their moments seem so epic, so romantic. Even on the verge of becoming a historian, I still have struggled with this enchantment.

I am taking a course this semester in the Civil War and Reconstruction. It is the first time, other than watching Ken Burns or reading The Killer Angels, that I have truly focused my mind on the historical Civil War (as opposed to the mythical one). And both of those works, while bringing home the war in an emotional way, tended to bolster my romantic perceptions. In studying Shiloh this term, I caught a distant sense of its senselessness, its brutality, its tragedy. My interest was piqued. It being so close to Huntsville (a mere three-hour drive), I decided I needed to go, to experience that for myself.

The Hornets' Nest
The Hornets' Nest, the bloodiest spot of the battle.

I am a person who gains a lot from physical connection. As a historian and a genealogist, it has always been very important to me to visit the graves of those whom I am studying. To be in the place where these people laid down their dust takes me beyond the page, makes them real and physical, brings them alive for me, in the same way that visiting a new place brings alive its dot on a map. Experiencing an abstract concept in a physical way brings to me a transcendent, almost spiritual connection. Oftentimes in the midst of writing papers I have visited the graves of my subjects and prayed for inspiration.

And in visiting Shiloh, I had hoped for the same kind of connection. Something to transcend both fact and romance, to make it real to me, to bring home the reality and the horror of the event. I wanted to feel it, to at last lay to rest this romantic infatuation. I got more than I could possibly have hoped.

Shiloh National Cemetery
Union graves at Shiloh National Cemetery. Fallen Confederates were laid in mass burial trenches.

From the very moment I drove onto the park, I felt an overwhelming sense of heaviness. Something grave and terrible had happened here, and I could feel it hanging over the battlefield like a black pall. I nearly shuddered as I felt it, and it did not go away. Throughout the park there are scattered monuments to various leaders, units, and turning points. And it gave the whole place the feeling of a vast cemetery. But it felt so much rawer, so much more immediate, so much more funereal, than any cemetery I had ever been to; it felt like being present for the funeral of 3,000. Driving slowly through the tour route felt so much like a funeral procession. A great well of sadness sprang up inside me. I encountered something deep and spiritual; I grasped it physically; I felt it. I felt what I came for. I felt the horror. And I'll never forget this feeling. It will affect me as a historian, as a Southerner, as a person, from now on.

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

History and Genealogy, Part II: Sources

In my last post I wrote about how history and genealogy are not as separate as some academics would like to make them, that both proceed from the same impulses and answer the same questions that yearn within us: Where did we come from? How did we get here? Today I will continue that thought. In addition to having a common drive, history and genealogy also share many of the same skills, resources, and methods. And something in the unique character of the South, a deep, shared connection to family and soil, ties history and genealogy closely together.

As a historian, one of the first lessons one learns is that there is only a finite number of sources, and that in many places, in many times, for many topics, there just isn't much. One learns to utilize what sources are available. The historians I admire most are able to arrive at momentous, compelling conclusions from limited data. I read a book last year, in medieval history, far out of my usual field, called A Medieval Life: Cecilia Penifader of Brigstock, c. 1297-1344, by Judith Bennett. The historian was able to synthesize a complex, detailed biography of a medieval peasant woman who lived over seven hundred years ago and never wrote anything, drawing conclusions about her community, her society, even her personal life, from only the records of her in the manorial court. And what amazed me most about the book was how similar it was to the art of genealogy. A genealogist, in exactly the same way, seeks to draw together the stories of his ancestors, often from the very same types of documents: court records, marriage records, death records — whatever is available. It is a genealogist's dream to be able to write a biography so rich with detail, to have such a clear picture of an ancestor as Judith Bennett presents of Cecilia Penifader.

1850 Federal Census, Morgan County, Alabama, page 204B
The first page of the census I ever looked at as a genealogist, showing my third great-grandfather William Dutton in 1850, Morgan County, Alabama. The log home where he was living still stands.
(My first steps as a genealogist is a story I'll have to tell sometime.)
(1850 Federal Census, Morgan County, Alabama, page 204B)

In the study of prominent men, of politics and wars, there are speeches, essays, firsthand accounts — often a wealth of sources. But my interest in history gravitates towards the common man, to the yeoman farmers who made up the backbone of the South. Despite being the largest segment of the population, there is a paucity of documentation for them. Few of them wrote anything, and even fewer wrote anything that survives. They were simple men, simple women, who spent their lives eking their livelihoods from the soil. They had little time or place to write or make their marks on history; the chief thing they leave behind is family. They are my ancestors. And the way I approach the yeoman farmer historically and the way I approach him genealogically is the same. The sources we have are the sources we have, and both the disciplines of history and genealogy must rely on them. Here in the United States, the census is a chief tool for both the historian and the genealogist. Even studying a prominent figure, one of the first things I do is look for him or her on the census.

1860 Federal Census, Sangoman County, Illonois, page 140
Abraham Lincoln, the man who would soon be president, on the census in 1860, at home in Springfield, Illinois. Just as genealogical figures existed in the same plane as historical ones, both are present in the same records.
(1860 Federal Census, Sangoman County, Illinois, page 140)

In the cases of all, what writes history — what makes a historian able to write it — is the rare gem of a source over and above the norm; a rich will, or a diary, or letters. What makes Cecilia Penifader's biography is that her life was so well documented in the manorial court. What makes me able to write on a yeoman farmer, without dipping deeply into demographic, economic, statistical data, is the rare presence of extraordinary documentation. What makes so much writing on Abraham Lincoln is that he is one of the most documented men in history; he personally wrote hundreds of documents, and hundreds of people wrote to him and about him; but certainly he is the rarest of rare cases, and if we did not have this wealth of documentation, we would still be telling his story by whatever we could find.

A genealogist exploits the same sources as a historian — whatever sources are available, however many or few, prominent or obscure. The only difference usually is in the questions that are asked and the approaches taken. While a historian often seeks to draw conclusions about communities, societies, and trends, to generalize from the individual to the larger whole, a genealogist is content to tell a personal, individual story. But very often these approaches overlap, especially here in the South, and especially in studying these yeoman farmers. I am writing a history paper this semester, a biography of a yeoman farmer who served in the Confederate Army, that is in fact no different from any genealogical article I've ever written.

I am rambling, and I fear this is too long and not very interesting. I still have one more point I wanted to write on, this character in the South that merges genealogy and history. I will save that for next time. And I will finally give what I set out to give in the first place, an argument that genealogy can be just as academic as history.

Sunday, October 5, 2008

History and Genealogy

The subtitle of this blog is "Musings on Southern History and Genealogy". So often in the halls of academia, there is a tendency for historians to condescend to the discipline of genealogy as something less than academic. As a young student I was surprised by this, until gradually the view infected me, too. But now as I mature as a historian, I am coming to see that history and genealogy really are not that separate. They are sisters, born of the same impulses within us. They utilize many of the same skills, resources, and methods. Even their approaches and their foci are often the same, especially here in the South, where so much about people and events is defined by family traditions and connections to each other and to the land.

Micajah B. Richardson (1825-1914)
Micajah B. Richardson (1825-1914) of Elmore County, Alabama, my third great-grandfather.
(Photograph circa 1900?)

Genealogy, certainly, is much more accessible than the tall, musty tower of academic history. I as a historian hope someday to open the doors, to let in the fresh air, to invite the public to my love for the past. But I was a genealogist long before I was a historian. As a sixteen-year-old high school student, it was my fascination with my own family and its traditions that compelled me into the past. That fascination bled over into wondering about other families, other places, the lives and times of people of times past and the events they lived through. Genealogy was my gateway into history.

Anyone can begin a study of their genealogy, even a teenager with nothing but his curiosity; and with so many resources now on the Internet, it's easier than ever. With so many people looking into the past, there is so much opportunity for these genealogists to be compelled into history, too.

My interest in genealogy arose from a yearning within me to understand where I came from, to understand the path that brought my family to the present and brought me into the world. Genealogy seeks to answer these questions by studying the forces of family: intermarriage, the birth of children, death, and migration. It is personal and intimate, looking at our own ancestors, to whom we feel a deep and primal connection. It tells personal stories, stories of the ones in the past closest to us, our own families.

Gov. Benjamin Fitzpatrick  (1802-1869)
Gov. Benjamin Fitzpatrick (1802-1869) of Elmore County, Alabama was governor of Alabama from 1842 to 1846 and U.S. senator from 1848 to 1861. He was a neighbor to my ancestor Micajah Richardson (above). Our ancestors lived within the plane of history, often alongside seemingly untouchable historical figures. History and genealogy indeed often interact and overlap.
(Daguerreotype dating between 1844 and 1860, produced by Mathew Brady's studio.
Courtesy of Library of Congress.)

History seeks to answer these same questions. Where did we come from? What events and forces shaped our past and our present? Historians examine, in large, the forces of society: politics, economy, culture, ideas, religion, and many others. I as a historian have broadened my horizons, and come to see that my own family is part of a larger whole, and that by studying the forces of history upon that whole, I am satisfying the same yearning; by understanding that whole, I can better understand the milieu in which my ancestors lived and the course that arrived finally at me. History tells stories, too: from the stories of individual people, to those of episodes, localities, and communities, to the broad, sweeping epics of periods and nations. Southern history for me is only one step back; I still feel a deep and personal connection with the South and with Southerners, and it still answers these burning questions for me. Many of my brethren find passions for times and places far departed, for ancient Rome or medieval Europe. Though fascinating, that has never been my cup of tea; I prefer my own back yard; but by understanding the forces that shaped even the ancient past, other historians seek to understand what brought our world and its peoples and societies to their present, and to satisfy that same deep yearning and curiosity.

This has gone on longer than I had planned. And I still have two big points I wanted to cover! I will save these for another time. Next I will talk about the skills, resources, methods, and approaches that the disciplines of history and genealogy have in common. I will argue that genealogy can be academic, too, and that history has no place to condescend. In the South more than other places, history and genealogy often overlap.

Saturday, October 4, 2008

The Southern Advocate

Welcome to The Southern Advocate, a blog for my musings on Southern history and genealogy. Here I plan to write on a variety of topics stemming from both my academic studies in Southern history and my personal passion for local and family history. I have a great love for the characters, events, and relics of the Southern past, and I hope to share them with you. I will post brief historical and genealogical sketches, book reviews, accounts of my adventures in research, musings on the craft and heart of history and genealogy, and more, all with a Southern flavor.

I am a student of Southern history, on the verge of graduating with my undergraduate and planning to pursue graduate studies. I have deep roots in the South, and a passion for the history, beauty, and culture of my region.

The original Southern Advocate, and the source of my title and banner, was a newspaper published here in Huntsville, Alabama between 1825 and 1881. For most of its run, it was published by William B. Figures, a figure I hope to write on, and in the 1850s it was a voice of moderation against secession fever in the escalation to the Civil War. I have been fascinated by this paper and have loved reading it at the Alabama Department of Archives and History; it gives an alternate voice to the one of the extremists and secessionists that is still so dominant in history even today, drowning out every other voice. I have a passion for uncovering these forgotten, unknown voices in history. I, too, consider myself a moderate voice. And I consider myself truly a Southern Advocate — an advocate for Southern history and culture. I believe that even today, the South is a unique and distinct region, with a rich history that is valuable and fascinating in its own right, and a culture that continues, despite the forces of homogenization, to hold the South's glory and charm and its independent spirit.