A few summers ago, I received word that my dad had passed away. He had died in the afternoon, picking green apples outside his home in the Northeastern hills of Alabama. It was his favorite spot, overlooking the southern tips of the Appalachian chain, a high crest named Caney Head. I took the first plane to Atlanta and met my sister, where the next day we drove to the farm to put his last affairs in order.
Over the next few days, we met many of dad’s old buddies. His was a Master Mason (32nd degree Shriner) in the Scottish Rite, a war veteran, and after retirement a substitute teacher at the high school, so we had folks offering to help us in many ways.
Then there were his friends from the Sons of Confederate Veterans Camp 523 in Lineville. They came by the house late in the afternoon, and they seemed genuinely hurt and saddened to hear of his passing. He was one of the original members, and according to them had been instrumental in helping it survive some lean times. They told me how he had organized and maintained the Camp’s college scholarship drive, and always helped read and critique the essays that were submitted. He also acted as the unofficial Camp historian.
But I already knew this to be true. While there is always the wild tendency on both sides to attempt to distill the Civil War into neatly defined grand meta-narratives like slavery, secession, rum and molasses, all of which are valid, dad always knew it was really a complex, quilted narrative made up of millions of little stories. Although he read all the ‘big’ books on the subject, his focus was always unearthing the local stories that took place in Clay County, Alabama.
Tracing our family history, it seems our clan, like many in the south descended from what is called Scotch-Irish. My family came from along the coast of western Scotland. Dad found this fact significant relative to Southern history, especially the war years. It is estimated that over 200,000 Scotch-Irish migrated to the Americas between 1717 and 1775. “As a late arriving group, they found that land in the coastal areas of the British colonies was either already owned or too expensive, so they quickly left for the more mountainous interior where land could be obtained cheaply. Here they lived on the first frontier of America. Early frontier life was extremely challenging, but poverty and hardship were familiar to them. The term hillbilly has often been applied to their descendants in the mountains, carrying connotations of poverty, backwardness and violence; this word has its origins in Scotland and Ireland”- www.electricscotland.com.
This correlated with what most knew about Confederates from Clay County. Last records seem to indicate that in 1860, according to a slave schedule there were around 25 slave owners, and around 100 slaves. Most of Randolph (Clay) County was very poor, existing as subsistence or share croppers. Why would poor people, relatively removed from the practice of slavery by class and poverty, who were just trying to survive, take up arms against Union forces? Shiloh, Chancellorsville, Antietam, Cold Harbor and the Wilderness, how did they get these people fight like that?
For all the 620,000 that died, there were probably that many reasons. For dad, much of it reflected the life of the hill cultures. “They were plain ornery, many of them,” he would say. They had more in common with William Wallace than Bishop Berkley, that much is for sure. It was an unwinnable fight, the Confederacy’s fate was as sealed as Wallace’s, but once Union troops were sent south, it was still going to go down—there was going to be a fight. And there was going to be great loss.
Whether the Confederate memorials are symbols of Jim Crow or racist idolatry, I’m too dumb to make that call. I only know my dad, and some of the other folks in his camp; it seemed to be more reflective, some way of remembering and trying to put into perspective a great loss. A way of taking care, and expressing something that language is not equipped to deal with. After the war, only Union dead were sent home. The South was left to erect monuments.
My dad had made a pact with one of his friends in the camp, that whoever died first, the other would find a bag piper to play at the funeral. My sister and I were unaware of this, but then we got a phone call from dad’s friend, saying he had called all over Georgia and Alabama, but had finally located a piper just outside Atlanta, and he would be there to play for the funeral.
The day we buried him, it was a bright, sunny and hot Alabama afternoon. Bama football was ready to start, and it was the first time in my life he wouldn’t be there to yell ‘Roll Tide’! As we lowered him into the ground, into his beloved red clay, the piper played. There were condolences, hugs and tears, but I tried to remain as stoic and tough as I felt I was required to be.
As the procession quietly dispersed and made its way into the church for supper, I hung back and went up to our family plots where my mom, grandparents, my sister Amy, and now my dad lay resting. My sister and I had been so busy with the arrangements, I had not given myself the time to really grieve. I lay down on my side, and reached out and felt the soil, that rich, beautiful red dirt I played in as a child. As I touched it, I’m not sure whether the piper was clearing his pipes or what, but he played a few more bars. And then I allowed myself to weep.
I gathered myself, went inside and sat down next to my sister. I had a plate of mash, fried chicken, collard greens and my favorite, fried okra. As I chewed the okra, I could remember being a kid, sitting in grandma’s kitchen as she fried up lunch for us, and dad crumbling up corn bread and dropping it into a big glass of buttermilk.
“I don’t know how it is,” I said. “But Clay County makes the best fried okra in the world.”
“That’s right,” one of dad’s old friends said.
“Can I get some more?”
“You get as much as you want Waynie. You get as much as you want.”
With that, I filled my plate and ate fried okra until I couldn’t swallow another bite.