Dear One of My Third Great-Grandfathers,
You’re quiet, I’ll give you that. It’s deafening. The words that they plaster onto your memory, in your defense they say, are all I hear. I still remember the first time I saw you. It’s those memories that impact you so deeply, that are so formative, they direct your path for eternity. They cut you off, they grab you by the shoulders twisting you around whether you like it or not. This moment, when I first saw you, my breath caught.
The memory of this moment formed a visceral imprint on my life. When I remember it, I can see the way the light poured in and over us. I can smell it, I can taste it. I can feel my pulse pounding beneath my young skin.
I was given a family history project at school. No worries there. I am privileged and blessed enough that the archival system seems to care about my ancestors, about you, and to be related to your descendants who have built a foundation of paperwork and pictures for me to easily fill in the family tree. That is a privilege. Part of the family pictures kept and protected was a copy of a daguerreotype. A copy of your portrait.
There you were. In your butternut gray uniform, because you had been told to fight for South Carolina and The South. That was the first time I questioned my morality, looking down at your daguerreotype copy.
I was seven and wondered if I was condemned to evil because I am descended from you. Blood of my blood. I think sometimes I even have your eyes.
You fought for evil. You are not the only one. You are not the only one in my family, but you’re the first one of the family that I saw. You’re the dictionary picture, putting definition to the word-vomit answers I would get when I would ask, “So. The Civil War. What was our part in it?”
Other family members of mine (those you’re related to, and those you’re related to only through me) who also fought for The Evil have left their own words. They have left their pride. They have left their ego and their blind, passive-aggressive, short-sighted prejudice in the documents that have been kept and protected.
And where are you? I know where you were. From the references I read, you saw more than any other of my fighting family members.
Is that it?
A daguerreotype, a picture from later in life, and a small snippet of something you wrote to your wife?
Well, that just makes me want to scream.
In case that wasn’t obvious. I know no subtlety. Just ask the people who know me.
Do we have that in common? If I were to ask those who knew you, who you are, would I see a masculine portrait of myself unfurl? Just- FOR HEAVEN’S SAKE SCREAM SOMETHING!
Because what they’re telling me…for your defense, they say…do you agree?
I have to know if you agree. I need to know if you want to see these monuments topple to the ground you fought for. Were you present when they went up? Did you help? You were a master mason after all. Were the monuments your idea, or did your voice contribute to their creation? Or did you curse their existence every time you’d pass them, since they were reminders of victories lost, and the men lost to them.
At parades for the people, did you ever have to wrap a tight smile across that portrait face I saw, when you were approached, your hand was shook by those who would die for a monument to dodge the battlefield you refused to dodge for yourself?
Tell me how many of those monument men’s names you knew.
Tell me how many times on a field somewhere you found yourself spontaneously fall into prayer because you knew in your bones that you were about to become one of them. That your infant son’s memories of you would only be a name carved in a monument. Did you want that? Did you just want it to end? Even if it meant your separation from him? And my grandmother, your wife? What of her who was left behind for duty’s sake? Did you only want your name, your son’s memories to be held in the stories your wife would tell him?
Did you ever tell him your stories from your lips? What only your eyes saw, what only your ears could hear? Or did you surrender, cause he could never understand.
I’ll admit, that my civilian brain cannot understand the realities of military service.
I cannot understand what you saw.
My humanity can imagine why you would never want to see or hear that war again, even in memory.
The historian in me sees how others speak for you.
The historian in me wishes you’d left tomes and volumes pouring forth every detail experienced by you.
What would they tell that is different?
You still fought for evil.
Blood of my blood, that’s not a lie and it never will be.
You did as you were told, even if you never owned.
Were you ashamed?
Were you happy?
Would you do it all again?
Even if they didn’t tell you to, would you enlist as soon as was possible?
Did your wife want you to go?
Did she need your protection?
Of all those who served and spoke, it’s you I want to hear from.
Describe to me the feeling of finding life continuing.
Describe to me the absolute knowing that you were able to walk off that field, marching home over hundreds and thousands of bodies.
Describe to me the screams going silent and the sulfuric smoke rising.
And what made you special? What made your life worth more than another soldier?
What survives beyond you?
You’ve given your power to those who never knew you.
Because silence is now acquiescence.
Do not be silent. Do not do as you are told.
Be loud. Ask them: Why they are Proud?
Copyright Off The Porch History 2021