Confederates in the Woodpile / by Erin Hollaway Palmer + Brian Palmer

We had visited Richmond's Hollywood Cemetery once before, to see the headstones of some of the Hobsons and the Mabens, the two white families related by marriage who at one time owned Brian's great-grandfather, Mat Palmer, and, we believe, his great-great-grandparents, Winnie and Lewis Palmer. This time, we followed Confederate Avenue to the towering granite pyramid pictured above—the Confederate Soldiers Monument, completed in 1869—which we had somehow, improbably, failed to notice on our last visit. The thing is huge—and, in my amateur architectural opinion, ugly and aggressive, even in the soft glow of late afternoon. A number of other people got out of their cars to take pictures and read the various plaques, and I wondered why they were there. Idle curiosity? Ancestor/hero worship? Civil War fandom? Did they know, I wanted to ask (but didn't—too chicken), what the Confederacy stood for, or were they firm in their belief that the Civil War was really, truly fought over states' rights, and that the southern cause was a noble one.

As an outsider in the South, I am perplexed by the persistence of that myth, and the self-delusion necessary to perpetuate it. Though it turns out I'm not as much of an outsider as I thought. Somehow, until fairly recently, it had escaped my attention that one branch of my family is rooted in Alabama (by way of Georgia, the Carolinas, and even Virginia, it seems). And on that branch are more than a few Confederates. The records I've found online are sketchy, but a certain Levi Holloway (born in Georgia circa 1834), whom I believe was my great-great-great-grandfather, shows up on the rolls of the Talladega Camp of Instruction, one of two conscript camps established in Alabama in April 1862. Whether he went on to serve in the Confederate army, I do not know. (I am almost certain that he is not Levi S. Holloway, who fought for the Confederacy in one of the Georgia regiments and is better documented.) 

"My" Levi, a carpenter by trade, and his wife, Martha (Millholland, according to one document I've found; also born in Georgia), had at least six children, one of whom, William, married a woman named Emaline Pope in September 1881. Those are my great-great-grandparents. One of Emaline's paternal uncles, Lewis Pope, fought in the Confederate army (Company I, North Carolina 56th Infantry Regiment), as did at least one of her cousins, Coleman C. Pope (Company K, Georgia 40th Infantry Regiment). A maternal uncle, James D. S. Gowens, also served (Company B, Alabama 31st Infantry Regiment) and was apparently taken prisoner when Vicksburg fell to the Union in the summer of 1863. One of Emaline and William's children, my great-grand-uncle Joseph William Holloway, married a woman named Daisy Belle Minton. At least two of her uncles, Reuben Gilbert Minton and Albert Augustus Minton, also served the South (both in Company I, Alabama 19th Infantry Regiment). 

Finding all of these Confederates in my attic does not make me any more sympathetic to their cause—far from it. But I can't deny being fascinated by the unexpected, not to say unwelcome connections. I wish I could ask my grandfather if he knew anything about them, but he is present in body only at this point. Somehow his origins had never been clear to me—and I'm not sure how interested I would have been even if I had known. Though I vaguely remember hearing that he was born somewhere in Alabama (Gadsden), I thought of him as a northeasterner. His mother, Lillie Stripling, died, most likely in childbirth, in 1932, when my grandpa was twelve. At the time, the family had left Alabama and was living in Middletown, Ohio, where my great-grandfather (whose name was either Homer Richard or Richard Homer Holloway) was employed as a machinist in a "building construction co.," according to the 1930 census. After Lillie's death, Homer took the kids to live with family in Pennsylvania, but there wasn't enough room at the inn for all of them; my grandfather, as the oldest boy, was sent to live with other relatives in New Jersey.

In my unexamined understanding, that was always where he was from—southern New Jersey, outside Philadelphia—as was my grandma, though they had been living in West Palm Beach, Florida, for decades by the time I came along. My dad was born in West Palm in 1947, and my grandparents divorced several years later. After that, Grandpa Jimmy wasn't around much, and he was never a strong presence in my life. To me, he was a nice man who held my hands and let me climb up his legs when I was little. He was a yacht captain—never his own yacht, mind you; he worked for a succession of wealthy businessmen, ferrying them to Key West or Cape Cod or Maine, attending to the endless maintenance that boats seem to require. He was obsessed with the weather, as captains must necessarily be.

So that is what I associate him with—boats, water, weather. He had a very distinctive voice that I can't describe, and he spoke slowly, though with no trace of a southern drawl (I don't remember whether he said "warsh" for wash, like my grandma did; he might have been too old by the time he was sent to New Jersey to pick up that particular regionalism). It never occurred to me to ask him about his parents, Homer and Lillie. But in the time it's taken me to write this blog post, I've finally figured out where Lillie came from, thanks to a clue in an email my dad sent me over the summer, which I had intended to follow up on but forgot about. Lillie was born in Tennessee, according to the 1920 and 1930 census reports, but her parents were from Georgia. That was as far as I had been able to get. Now, though, if I've connected the dots correctly, I know their names: John Henry Stripling and Jane Cordelia Brooks, married on Christmas Day 1884. And I know their parents' names: Henry Marcus Stripling (born in Georgia in 1829) and Sarah Jane Norman (b. 1835, South Carolina); William Brooks (b. ca. 1800, also in South Carolina) and Margaret Elizabeth Hesterly, his much younger wife (b. 1837, Georgia). In the Civil War, Margaret's brother, John A. Hesterly, fought in the same infantry regiment—Cobb's Legion, raised in Georgia—as Henry Stripling and at least one of his brothers. John was mortally wounded during the battle of Crampton's Gap, in Maryland, and died not long thereafter in a Union field hospital.

From what I've been able to gather so far, these were not especially prosperous people. In their movements south and west—from the Carolinas and possibly Virginia to Georgia to Alabama and later to Arkansas, Missouri, Oklahoma—they conform to the pattern of fortune-seeking southern migrants in the late 18th century through the Civil War. Levi Holloway (triple-great-grandfather) was a carpenter; Abel Pope (another triple-great), a farmer whose total estate, in 1870, was worth $600. Both, apparently, could read and write. Henry Stripling and William Brooks, also farmers, could not. Henry's estate was worth $300 in 1870; William's was worth $500 (for reference, a neighboring farmer had property valued at $2,200). I've not yet found any evidence of slaveowning—though that would certainly be an interesting twist, wouldn't it? 

Neither Georgia nor Alabama was on my mind when we began this project. Not specifically, at least—and certainly not with respect to my own family. Virginians, white and black, are often keen to point out that "things" weren't as bad here as they were "down there." Be that as it may, the Deep South pre–Civil Rights is in my own mind the anti-civilization—a breeding ground of white racism and brutality, injustice and impunity. Much of Douglas A. Blackmon's devastating book Slavery by Another Name: The Re-Enslavement of Black Americans from the Civil War to World War II centers not just on Alabama and Georgia but on counties not far from my ancestors' homes. Tallapoosa County—where from the 1880s into the 1900s the powerful landowner John Pace held African Americans in involuntary servitude on his various farms—is due south of Cherokee and Etowah Counties, where many of my relations are buried (and where, presumably, many still live). Dadeville, Alabama, Tallapoosa's county seat, is just over 100 miles from Gadsden, where my grandpa was born in 1920. Anniston, Alabama, where the bus bearing Freedom Riders was fire-bombed 41 years later by a vicious white mob, is 30 miles away.

I'm not really sure what any of this means yet. My empathy fails me when it comes to white Southerners of the Jim Crow era (not to mention the many decades that preceded it). I have flooded myself in recent years with images, verbal and visual, of white violence, white contempt, white cruelty, white pettiness, white fear, white rage—and I don't feel any closer to understanding the insanity of racism or the injustice of it. And yet it's hardly fair to make blanket assumptions about people I know next to nothing about, who lived in another time and place. The rioters in Anniston were white, but so was Janie Forsyth McKinney, who came to the aid of the bus-bomb victims. She describes the scene in the film Freedom Riders: "The door burst open and people just spilled out into the yard. They were practically tripping over each other because they were so sick and needed to get some air. It was horrible, it was like a scene from hell. It was—it was the worst suffering I'd ever heard. Yeah, I heard, 'Water, please get me water, oh God, I need water.' I walked right out into the middle of that crowd. I picked me out one person. I washed her face. I held her. I gave her water to drink, and soon as I thought she was gonna be ok I got up and picked out somebody else." Janie was 12 years old in 1961. —EHP