Wednesday, March 18, 2015

The Stoneman Gazette: Not just whistling Dixie

My Civil War kin include John Griffin
and his father Jackson Griffin, who
both died in Virginia fighting for the
South. John was buried in Virginia,
but he and his father have gravestones
at Little River Baptist Church in the

Level Land community of Abbeville
County, S.C. Just like my forefathers,
the Confederacy was born and buried
in Abbeville. For the birth story, see
this story by my friend Terry Dickson.
We'll write the obit May 2.
     I mentioned George Stoneman in an online discussion, and my friend Terry Harmon posted a revelation that the Yankee general was his seventh cousin, five times removed. 
     To which another good Southerner replied, "I don't believe I would go around telling too many folks about being related to Stoneman."
     It's been 150 years, and Stoneman's name is still a cussword to many of my neighbors here in the Blue Ridge Mountains. 
     Being unfamiliar with Stoneman (and unrelated to him, as far as I know), I googled him a few months ago to learn more about the man behind the historical markers that you can find all over western North Carolina. I expected him to be our little version of Sherman, and I wanted to walk the earth he scorched and maybe tell a couple of stories. I figured a dead Yankee could be good material for my other blog.
     I never expected him to become a blog of his own.  
     The first curiosity I found was that he was in the obscure original version of a popular song from my youth, The Night They Drove Old Dixie DownAs I explored the history books and 150-year-old newspapers, I discovered connections with Tom Dooley and Doc WatsonMark Twain and George Custer, a 109-year-old ex-slave and slave-owning Siamese twins, Caesar's Head and Yosemite, the first ballgame played on Tobacco Road, the first shot fired at Fort Sumter, the last Confederate left standing, and a mother lode of Madeira wine hidden in my hometown. Not to mention a 3D photograph from 1862
     I found a trail of terror that runs from my home in Boone, N.C. (where I caught Stoneman stealing Mrs. Sarah Councill's last pot of butter) to my roots in Anderson, S.C. (where some of his renegade soldiers took our beloved town doctor and his wife and strung them up by their thumbs). Stoneman's Raid didn't spill a lot of blood, but he left plenty boiling. 
     I was surprised to see how insecure Stoneman was, and how much his raid was about settling grudges and salvaging his reputation. And I cringed when I realized what riding horses for thousands of miles can do to a man.
     We'll unfold all those stories over the coming weeks.
     As a son of the South, I was predisposed to hate Stoneman. My family tree includes at least three Confederate soldiers, two of whom died in Virginia. Back when people had favorite albums, mine was White Mansions, which tells the story of "the War of Northern Aggression" through Southern voices.
     At the same time, I'm not here to continue fighting the Civil War. I'm not defending the rebel flag or the Lost Cause. I believe in forgiveness, which goes both ways.
     In other words, I'm not just whistling Dixie.
     Stoneman had few friends. I don't particularly like him, either, but I have enjoyed trying to get to know him. He is a fascinating character that I can't dismiss as a curse word or a historical footnote. And the stories of people caught up in Stoneman's Raidslaves and masters, soldiers and prisoners, arsonists and firemen, marching bands and fighting preachersare enough material for a daily newspaper. We'll present eyewitness serials written by Emma Rankin in Marion and Emmala Reed in Anderson. And before we're done, we'll find Yankees reconciled with Jefferson Davis' daughter
     Those are just some of the stories that compelled me to launch The Stoneman Gazette, marking the 150th anniversary of Stoneman's Raid. Lord willing, we'll have a fresh tale or two on this blog every day from from March 21, the day Stoneman marched out of Knoxville; to May 13, the day his cavalry learned that the manhunt for Jeff Davis was over.
     We'll spare you the heavy military tactics and gruesome battlefield scenes. There was not much of that during Stoneman's Raid, anyway. Some of the soldiers were excellent correspondents, and we will hear from them on both sides. If I catch them exaggerating, as old soldiers often do, I'll let you know. 
     We'll also spare you the footnotes. I'm a journalist, not a historian or a scholar. I've tried to be conscientious about double-checking sources, but on a subject as contentious as the Civil War, the sources often disagree. If you see something in these pages that needs to be corrected or supplemented, let me know. That's one of the beauties of a blog—the ink never dries. Feel free to comment, but please keep it civil.
     It's hard to break news on the Civil War anymore, although I've found a few stories in recently digitized newspapers or long-forgotten books that may shed some new light. (Find these under the SCOOP! tab on our masthead.) More often, I've plundered the published work of some good historians (see the acknowledgments in the sidebar) and tried to put old news in a fresh perspective. 
     Gen. Sherman said that war is hell, and Gen. Stoneman came close enough to smell the brimstone. He was foremost a soldier bound by orders, and he accomplished his mission with vengeance, daring, cunning, and restraint. Down in Georgia, Sherman set a searing example of how to wage "total war," by making folks on the home front suffer as much as their sons on the battlefield. In that context, we can be thankful that Stoneman was no Sherman. His troops torched dozens of railroad bridges but rarely burned houses. Awful as it was, Stoneman's Raid could have been worse.
     It is possible that Stoneman's Raid forced Robert E. Lee's hand and shortened the Civil War. It is also possible that the war might have ended just as quickly without him, which would mean that all his destruction was in vain.
    Newspapering is different when you know how the story will end. I hope you enjoy reading The Stoneman Gazette as much as I am reporting and writing.

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