When I’m asked to attend events commemorating the Civil War, I always wonder if I’m the only person there who qualifies for a legacy group like the United Daughters of the Confederacy who is too conflicted to participate.
Yes, I’m proud of my ancestor who was twice captured by Union soldiers. He was a Camp Surgeon who followed the men in his Mississippi hometown into the nearby battlefields.
But why is his contribution different from the ancestors of my best friend who were constructing buildings and manufacturing much of the equipment needed to run the plantation? Granted, it’s difficult for black Texans to trace their ancestors to that era since enslaved people didn’t have birth certificates and weren’t allowed to marry. They’re forced to sort through property records rather than vital statistics.
From my Confederate ancestor’s personal journals, he enlisted to provide medical treatment for his patients during the battles that were taking place virtually in their neighborhood. After the war, he wrote that he didn’t agree with slavery, but he felt ill-equipped to end it. He admitted to hiding and assisting runaways.
He was captured and held on a barge in the middle of the Mississippi River, but escaped and returned to his patients and his unit. After he was captured a second time, he was taken to a northern prison camp, but he was eventually paroled for providing medical treatment to his Yankee captors during an epidemic.
My great (x4) grandfather’s patients are long gone. I’m sure their descendants include some who have magnificent accomplishments, and some that didn’t live up to their potential.
Contributions made by best friend’s ancestors during the 19th century are still all around us. Where is the celebration for those who endured the last days of slavery and the difficult transition to freedom during Reconstruction?
Why not celebrate Tempe Whitehead? Ms. Whitehead never learned to read or write. She lived on a large Gonzales County cotton plantation owned by Rev. Hebron, according to an oral history her daughter gave to WPA writers during the 1930s. Ms. Whitehead was a midwife who assisted most of her neighbors’ with childbirth. Her daughter doesn’t remember her mother ever getting paid for her work.
When there wasn’t an expectant mother about to give birth, Maggie Whitehead Matthews said her mother was out picking her required 400 pounds of cotton.
I guess the Confederate Monument is, in part, a tribute to James Cape, another biography featured in the WPA’s Slave Narratives.
Cape’s parents were taken from Africa directly into slavery onto a plantation in Southeast Texas. Cape’s duties on the plantation were mostly tending horses, until one day the master Bob Houston came to him and said Capes was going into the Confederate Army so Dr. Carrol could stay home.
Cape didn’t care for his military experience much and he was glad to arrive in Gonzales County at the end of the war. He cared for horses as a hired man until greener pastures called in Missouri. Cape was disappointed to learn that he had fallen in with a bad lot of white folks there — one of the fellas was named Jesse James — so he headed back to Texas.
When we look back at the Confederacy, we need to remember who provided the labor to run the farms and protect the women, the children and the elderly from Indians and criminals who were left behind when the soldiers marched off to war.
When you visit some of the fabulous homes and public buildings from the 19th century, remember those bricks and timbers were hauled into place by enslaved people who would be beaten if they learned how to read blueprints. Remember the people who cooked the meals, did the laundry and grew the crops — not because it was their chosen career or something for which they had an aptitude. They did it under threat of death.
We should not forget the lives our Confederate ancestors lived, but we must remember the complete picture and not some romantic idea that slave owners were probably nice to their people. History just doesn’t support that.
I encourage families whose ancestors survived the harsher aspect of plantation life to help me and others record your family histories to help complete the picture so that future generations don’t fall into deception.