Posted by: wrmcnutt | May 18, 2010

Plantation Men -or- Why Do You People Still CARE?

On April 9th of this year, a buddy of mine posted a simple statement to his Facebook Status – “On this day, 1825, Gen. Robert E. Lee Surrendered the Army of Northern Virginia, at Appomattox, Virginia.”

In reply, another of my buddies posted, “I have no sympathy for the plantation men.”

And I took this askance.  And not in an intellectual way, but down in my bones. And I wasn’t sure why.

So let’s just start out by saying something up front:  decent men to not own other men, nor do they tolerate it if it’s within their power to do something about it.  I’ll make no apologies for slavery, or any of its attendant ills. Slavery is wrong.  It was wrong at the time, and it remains wrong to this day.

So why, then, my “sympathy for the plantation men,” or at least my mild disgruntlement at a declaration of a lack of such sympathy?

Well, for starters, they are mine.  And therefore, I must own them.*  In my grandmother’s time, and in some ways, in my mother’s time, it was the custom of Southern Folk to find a Confederate General in their family tree.  I don’t have one of those.   But meet Captain Garland “Doc” Owen, Company H, 4th GA Regiment State Troops, 1st Division.  Captain Owen was defeated in the Battle of Griswoldville, which set the state for G. Wm T. Sherman’s now legendary “March to the Sea.” (More on him in a moment.)  And also my great-great-grandfather.  I don’t know if Garland owned any slaves, but among Thomas, Richard, William, John, another William, Riley, and Joseph, who are all my great-great-grandfathers, and their fathers, and there are sixteen of them, somebody whose genetic code I’m passing on surely owned someone.  And that’s just from the Georgia side of the family. So I have the taint, I should own up to where it comes from.

The second issue is a rather primal matter:  the matter of “dirt.”  And the concept of “mine.”  In conjunction, you come up with a concept that I think it fundamental to understanding my own sympathy for the Plantation Men.  “My dirt.”  When then land you think of as “yours” is occupied by foreign troops, it sucks.  No matter how moral their cause, no matter how necessary the change, the suck remains.  It’s resented, and it burns deep.

And then there’s the matter of “personal.”  People who’ve followed me for any distance know that while I am Southern to be bone, I did spend three years up among the Yankees.  And one of the things that struck me, even as a small child, was how detached the War Between the States was taught in grammar school.  It was taught in the same dusty, dry tone that the Revolutionary War, the Spanish American War, and the War of 1812 were taught:  something that happened to other people, long ago and far from here.  My teacher spoke of “Confederate States” and “Union States.”  Of “Rebel Troops” and “Federal Troops.”  Down South it was different.  The terms were more elemental.  “Us,” and “Them.”  I remember in Kindergarten I used the term “Civil War.”  I was very crisply informed that “We say ‘War Between the States.'”  That’s right, my Kindergarten teacher was teaching states rights.

But the thing that really makes the difference, at least to me, was the story my mother’s mother told.  I’d been warned as a small boy that you did not say the word “Sherman” in Granny’s house.  When I got older, I asked her why.  This is what she said.

Her grandmother and family actually returned to the family property after General William T. Sherman marched through Georgia on his way to Savannah.  They literally dug through the ashes of the buildings with borrowed shovels and bare hands, looking for anything of value or of use they could bring away after the land had been burned to the ground.  There was absolutely no hope of paying the newly-raised taxes on the land, and the family went on to sharecrop for a generation.  My grandmother’s mother apparently married a man with a trade to get out of sharecropping successfully.  But Clara was able to look me in the eye and talk about seeing her grandmother’s face as she talked about rooting around in the ashes of the house she had grown up in, burned to the ground by an invading army.  She was mostly calm, but you could see the reflected pain in the corners of her eyes, and the smoldering anger in the set of her mouth.

That kind of bitterness is learned at your mother’s knee, and gets into your bones.  I think it may get into your DNA.  While I’m Southern To the Bone, I’m at a far enough distance now that I can make tongue-in-cheek jokes about the difference between Yankees and Damn Yankees, or being fifteen before I knew that “damnyankee” was actually two words.  I can kid my Yankee friends about the “Great War of Northern Aggression.” But neither my mother nor my grandmother ever got into that headspace.

But for myself, well, that’s why I can maintain some sympathy for the Plantation Men.

*The irony of this turn of phrase is not lost on me.

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  1. I still have a little doll sized tea set in a wooden box that my grandmother told me the story of. When great-granny-nanny (no I don’t know her real name or where she is on my real family tree, that was her name when I was a child and it still is to me) was a little girl the soldiers came (no explanation of which soldiers just THE soldiers) and made everyone leave the house in the middle of the night to go sleep in the barn. the soldiers slept in the house and when morning came they looted and destroyed everything they couldn’t take along with them. then they made everyone stand outside and watch as they burned the house to the ground. Great-granny-nanny stood there shivering in her thin night dress and watched as the soldiers left.
    then one soldier came back and pulled this box out of his pocket
    (at this point my grandmother handed me the box with the tea set in it) and he handed it to great-granny-nanny.
    then he put his hand on her little head and looked up into great granny-nanny’s mothers eyes and said “I have a little girl with hair just that color back home”
    then he turned and walked away.
    So now DeeDee (grandmother called me that) you hold in your hands the only things that our family still has from that day – your great-granny-nanny’s dollie tea set.
    you keep it safe.

    Do you know I never so much as dared to even THINK of playing with that set. I was only six or seven when she gave it to me and I can tell you right where it is in my home right this minute.


    • The next time I’m down there, I want to see it.

      • sure.
        When can you guys come down again by the way? Any chance of August 29th being possible? Ginny has a second birthday party that weekend and I know Solvi would love what we are going to do……
        and of course we would love to see you sooner than that if possible. The guest room is always available.

  2. Being a third/fourth generation immigrant , I have no dog in the fight between North and South. Except that I was born a GRITS (Girls Raised in the South). I have nothing from my Irish and English ancestors, don’t even know many of their names. You all have a history that I envy, even if it does bring painful memories with it.

    • You say “ya’ll.” That puts your dog in the fight when you leave the South. I’ve noticed that because I speak with a little bit of a drawl, I get treated like I’m less intelligent when I’m in Washington DC and San Francisco.

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