The re-writing of history

Posted July 1, 2015 at 1:57 pm

David CrossG.psd

By David Cross

In 1856-57 a large contingent of prominent families from Clinton County, Kentucky, migrated to the Red River country of northeast Texas, settling in and around the town of Paris, Texas.

Among the group were Rice Maxey and his son Sam Bell Maxey who had been recently defeated in a race for re-election as Clinton County Court Clerk; William Bramlette, whose brother Thomas Bramlette would be elected Governor of Kentucky in 1863; and Lemuel Hardin Williams, whose family farm had been the location where Clinton County was organized after its creation by the Legislature.

These families soon became prominent in Lamar County. Rice Maxey became Circuit Judge and Williams was elected a delegate to the 1861 Texas Convention regarding secession.

Williams was one of the “Seven Immortals” that publicly cast their votes against secession, as was another Lamar delegate, George Wright, who was from the Cumberland River region of Tennessee below Clinton County and was closely associated with the Clinton emigrants.

Secession was overwhelmingly approved by the Convention. Lem Williams returned to his Lamar County home and instead of joining the Union Army promptly volunteered for military service locally and raised a company of men to support the Confederacy.

Sam Bell Maxey, who also opposed secession, entered the Confederate Army and by mid-war was elevated to the rank of Brigadier General, being particularly active in the Trans-Mississippi theater. Others who had opposed secession followed suit.

Were these men traitors? This question is prompted by the current discussion regarding whether or not Davis’ statue should be removed from the Capitol Rotunda in Frankfort, including the recent the mis-characterization of Jefferson Davis as a “traitor” by a Courier-Journal columnist whom I both love and admire, but seem to disagree with on a semi-regular basis on certain issues.

On the question of Davis, we are in fact, “A House Divided”.

Nowhere in America was the Civil War as tumultuous, divisive, and dangerous as along the Kentucky border region where we reside.

My people are buried in the Irwin Cemetery, in the shadow of the Poplar Mountains in eastern Clinton County, on the edge of what was once called Stockton Valley, a cemetery founded by the father-in-law of Lem Williams.

In one row of graves we find the marker of Confederate guerrilla Champ Ferguson’s first wife; in the next row, the grave of Ruben Wood, one of Ferguson’s first victims in 1861. Ferguson was tried and hanged at Nashville after the war for the killing of Wood, and many others, after voluntarily surrendering to Federal authorities, believing he was to receive clemency.

Just down KY 1076 toward the Tennesse border lies the home place of Ferguson, and just a mile south is the community now called Maupin, but was formerly known as Elliots Cross Roads, named for the grandfather of Governor Thomas Elliot Bramlette.

Clinton County was a strong Union county; however, Overton County, Tennessee, then adjoining it to the southwest, was overwhelmingly pro-southern.

Jefferson Davis had a sterling public career including four years as Secretary of War, and as Senator from Mississippi strongly argued against secession. Volunteering for military service after he tearfully resigned from the Senate, he instead was persuaded to become President of the Confederate States of America, in part because many viewed him as the most qualified man for the position. He was, understandably, indicted for treason after the war. However, he became a leader of reconciliation despite being shackled for two years after his arrest.

In Clinton County, the post-war criminal dockets reveal numerous indictments against Ferguson’s band and other rebels for acts which they committed during the war. These were dealt with by Governor Bramlette in 1867 before he left office, when he issued a blanket pardon for all war crimes, stating that “War made many good people do bad things.” Bramlette, who remained a Democrat after the war, had been a Colonel in the Union Army as well as United States Attorney for Kentucky before his election as Governor.

Bramlette and others soon found that service in the army of the CSA was nearly a pre-requisite to holding political office in Kentucky. The “Bloody Shirt” of the Confederacy was waived by Democrats for thirty years or more in Kentucky.

This glorification of the “Lost Cause” led to Confederate monuments far out-numbering those for Union soldiers on courthouse squares in Kentucky– in fact, I know of only two such Union memorials, in the Republican counties of Butler and Lewis.

In effect, the leaders of the state that they say didn’t secede until after the war was over wrote history as they wished it to be written. However, the political alignment of the state for generations to come was based upon which side people were on during the War.

The native son Davis was much more popular than the native son Lincoln in the state. Abe “didn’t even scratch” in some counties, and barely did in Clinton.

Now the Confederate battle flag, the “Stars and Bars”, has been hijacked by white supremacists and madmen, when the people of my generation look at it simply as a symbol of southern pride, as evidenced by Charlie Daniels and Lynyrd Skynyrd since the 1970s.

And Jeff Davis, whose presence in the Capitol Rotunda in Frankfort is understandably questioned by some, stands there looking at his northern counterpart, Abraham Lincoln. Doesn’t that say as much about the divisions of the state as anything else?

It seems that the history of the Civil War (or The War for Southern Independence, as it was called in the south) is again being re-written, which occasionally needs to be done. However, to not look at the events of the past through a 150-year old lens is a mistake. The South lost the war, but had gallant men who fought and led its effort to establish a separate country. We remain thankful that such effort failed, but should accept that bravery on behalf of any cause is to be respected.

Jeff Davis and Lemuel Hardin Williams are to be respected, and recognized, as men who made difficult decisions in extremely difficult times.