The Confederates in Our Attic

By  |  September 21, 2015
Painting of soldiers marching into battle, by Captain James Hope (1892). Wikimedia Commons Painting of soldiers marching into battle, by Captain James Hope (1892). Wikimedia Commons

When he stood at the bottom of the hill at Pickett’s Charge, one hundred fifty-two years ago this summer, Bennett Taylor had already been wounded twice. He’d been at war for three years. He was twenty-seven, a University of Virginia-trained lawyer, the oldest son in a family of twelve. He’d grown up at Lego, a farm on the outskirts of Charlottesville. His family’s properties were often mortgaged to the hilt, but he stood to inherit land, as well as a broken system that enslaved people. The slaves and the land were, indirectly, hand-me-downs from one of the county’s largest landowners: founding father Thomas Jefferson, Bennett’s great-great-grandfather. Bennett stood to inherit—quite literally—Jefferson’s thorniest legacy, the ugly business of slavery in his own generation.

Both men are my ancestors. Bennett is my grandfather’s grandfather, and Bennett’s grandfather was Thomas Jefferson Randolph, Thomas Jefferson’s oldest grandson. I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about Bennett, hearing about him from my own grandfather, my father, his siblings, his cousins. I don’t know in his own words what Bennett thought about slavery, or the coming war. In his letters home, he mostly wrote about cold weather, who had what flu, what classes he was and was not enjoying. His mother wrote him back, about how the family was faring one frostbitten winter, and the cost of filling the icehouse. When the Civil War came, Taylor did as white men of his station did: he enlisted. He became a Lieutenant Colonel in the Virginia 19th. In early letters home from the war, his cousin Raleigh Colston joked about people eating lobster at some of the camps. The regiment marched past Petersburg without conflict. The war seemed like a lark, something that might be done soon. But years passed and the war grew more gruesome: in 1862 he wrote “two men not three feet from me were literally torn in pieces, and the blood flew all over me and my mouth filled with dirt.” Taylor was destined to live through a decisive American moment—one that altered both him and the shape of the country forever.

On Fourth of July weekend, 1863, in the middle of Gettysburg, the call came to charge up the field at Pickett’s Charge. The 19th Virginia—itself part of General Pickett’s division—was at the frontlines. On a weekend during which an astounding 51,000 people were killed or wounded, Taylor fought in what has become known as the war’s most decisive battle. He was called to lead the Charlottesville men he had known all his life uphill, into cannon fire. Their bodies shattered around him. But Bennett Taylor did not die. Records list him as wounded. By the end of the battle, he was a prisoner. He was sent north by train. He got word to his family by writing a letter and passing it through the train window to someone who happened to remember him from time spent in Baltimore. The Union Army took him to Johnson’s Island, an officer’s prison on Lake Erie, and held him for two years. It was a cold, unhygienic, hunger-and-disease-inflamed place. About one hundred fifty years ago this spring, at the war’s end, Bennett came home.

Bennett survived, but he did not really recover. When he made it back to Charlottesville, his cousins commented immediately on the change in him. “Bennett is an altered person, temper unbearable selfish & inert,” wrote one cousin to another. He married his longtime fiancee but had trouble holding a job. He was no saint. His hands shook from drinking, and for a while he edited a virulently racist newspaper in Charlottesville. At one point he ran for a county post, which he was said to have won by the margin of his forty-nine “former servants,” a questionable euphemism for people formerly enslaved on Jefferson, Taylor, or Randolph plantations. In a time when family connections meant everything, he eventually moved his family to Radford, Virginia, perhaps to try to get a new start. Yet he had a rough go of it, even there. I’ve heard stories about how he would be found passed out at his desk in the middle of the day, how he was prone to sudden, violent rage. My grandfather described him as “bitter.” In the post-Civil War years, there were no words (and no treatments) for PTSD. When we think about the unfinished work of reconstruction, it’s worth remembering how ill-equipped some of the Civil War’s veterans were, in that era, to reconstruct even their most basic senses of self. Bennett’s illness, violence, and alcoholism left marks on my family: they shaped the lives of my great-grandfather, my grandfather and, in some ways, of my father, too.

 

As we’ve watched Confederate flags come down across the country, as cities have begun to have new and healthy debates about the place of their Confederate monuments, I’ve spent time thinking about Bennett. I’ve been meditating on the difference between why it feels useful to remember him, and what it means to memorialize the Confederacy publicly. On a personal scale, Bennett’s story reminds me of the gory toll of the war, of our country’s proximity to slavery, of our deep origins in that system of racist violence. Remembering Bennett also helps me decode family legend, to humanize an actor whose life was caught in the wrong crossfire of great, unfinished American work. It is sobering to remember how brutal that war was, how violently it impacted everyone who lived through it. We don’t want to forget the stakes of what it took to end slavery. We remember the war to remember the deep struggle we still face to make a better and freer and more perfect union.

In the one photo I have of Bennett, he is about forty. He looks like my father, vaguely—they have the same eyebrows—but he is also gaunt and harrowed-looking, a vaguely sorrowful figure. I claim him as family. I know his story shapes mine. But I am clear: the desire to remember his life and time—to humanize him as an ancestor and an actor in history—is different than a need to valorize his beliefs. I am also clear: Bennett’s politics inspire no nostalgic pride in me. Six generations later, people in my family talk about Bennett to imagine the strangeness of living through sea change. I know that I would not be here today if Bennett Taylor had not lived. I also cannot imagine a version of history in which he did not feel compelled to fight for the Confederacy. I see in him the trauma of fighting and losing a war, then losing his health, his mind. I can have compassion on his suffering, even while knowing that there is nothing about Bennett’s lost cause that inspires me.

I also know that my own knowledge of history is uneven. I muse on these intimate details of Bennett’s life, but I still do not know much about the families my family enslaved. That absence of knowledge—and the lack of good records to correct it—are themselves one enormous part of slavery’s violence. Bennett Taylor would have inherited a small plantation on land that is now a Comfort Inn by the 64 freeway. He was one part of a racist system that created and maintained inequality and injustice. He was caught up in a war in which he, and everyone involved, suffered greatly. The racism he inherited was corrosive—not only to those it victimized, but ultimately to him as well, just as the racism that flares now continues to be corrosive to this country. Bennett lived with his pain; he passed that pain on to others. I think probably there was a part of him that was always un-reconciled, Confederate to the end.

But, for all of this, I would rather know Bennett’s story than forget him, rather remember than not know. But I do not learn this history to repatriate it. I acknowledge Bennett’s pain and loss as one thread in my own family story, but I do not privilege that pain above any other. If anything, Bennett’s legacy is one small refraction of how violence can echo in a body, in a family, in time. Faulkner was accurate when he said, “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” Bennett lived through a violent chapter of our history, but that violence pales in comparison to the ongoing violence done by slavery, by racism. If remembering Bennett offers me anything, it is a way to notice how the past’s unfinished work continues. In thinking of Bennett’s life, I am reminded of the ongoing work of reconstructing ourselves.

I have Confederate ancestors, but no allegiance to the Confederate flag. If the flag comes down off of all federal courthouses this year, if it disappears from Dukes of Hazzard and Google ads for paraphernalia, that is to the good. But in the middle of changing our landscape, we must also stage a real and thoughtful conversation about what it means to remember our collective journey as a nation, about which pasts we need to remember, and to what ends we remember them now. When I think about Bennett, I don’t think about monuments or flags. Instead, I reinvest in my own responsibility to move his brokenness forward. My family—Bennett’s family—held slaves from the 1670s until the end of the Civil War. I inherit that legacy, and I feel my responsibility to it. In this year of the 150th anniversary of the end of the war, it is time to recommit ourselves to the work of freeing this country from this most painful of legacies. I think of the descendants of those “former servants.” I think of the work we, as a nation, have ahead of us. With anyone who is willing, I would like to sit down and begin a conversation about reconciliation and amends. I’d like to take up, again, the work of reconstruction, to imagine how to rebuild the country we will share for the next one hundred and fifty years together.

Tess Taylor is the author of The Forage House  (Red Hen Press, 2013). She has received fellowships from Amherst College, the American Antiquarian Society, the Headlands Center for the Arts, and the MacDowell Colony. She also served as the 2010–2011 Amy Clampitt Fellow in Lenox, Massachusetts. Taylor is on the board of the National Book Critics Circle and is a professor of English and Creative Writing at Whittier College. She lives in El Cerrito, California.