Musings on Southern History and Genealogy

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.