Henry Adams (1838 – 1918), Harvard graduate and pedigreed Boston Brahmin, was a great-grandson of John Adams, the 2nd President, and a grandson of John Quincy Adams, the 6th President. American Studies majors are not permitted to receive their college diploma until they have read The Education of Henry Adams, his autobiography. The CliffsNotes version of Education is that Henry Adams was educated and culturally formed to be an inheritor of what an Adams was rightly due – a role among America’s good and great. To his chagrin, he never got the shot. The bustling, industrious, make-a-buck train of railroad barons, oil magnates and engineers roared towards the end of the 19th century and left elegant, moral Henry standing on the platform, his world invalidated.
A recent media image made me think of Henry Adams and the idea that treasured beliefs may be trashed by events. That image was the Confederate battle flag waving in a portico of the Capitol as rioters crushed against the out-manned Capitol Police and poured into the Rotunda on January 6. My ancestors wore Confederate grey. They fought and died behind that flag. Wherever during my “army brat” childhood my family lived, I pinned to my bedroom wall the iconic photo of Robert E. Lee framed in a doorway at Appomattox, in his Confederate uniform. “Marse Robert,” as his troops called him, stood for integrity, courage, loyalty, and chivalry. I knew that the Battle of Bull Run was properly called the Battle of First Manassas. I had read Lee’s Lieutenants. I knew that Stonewall Jackson, as he lay dying, had said “Let us cross over the river and rest under the shade of the trees.” I knew, as one of my ancestors said, “one Confederate could whip five Yankees.” I was marinated in the Lost Cause.
Cultural clues reinforced my bond to the south in my childhood. The US Army was chockablock with southerners. Army brats played “Civil War,” no one volunteering be a Yankee. When my army post Boy Scout troop marched, we sang “Dixie.” There followed “99 Bottles of Beer on the Wall” and then “Mountain Dew” (“My Uncle Bill owns a still on the hill . . .”) No one saw a thing amiss with ten-to-twelve-year-old boys singing about liquor. My father’s family in Nashville were unregenerate southerners. Minnie Pearl of Grand Ole Opry was my aunt’s next-door neighbor. At age ten, I was shocked to see up close that Minnie had all her teeth. When my father was a cadet at West Point, he was given the privilege of escorting Mrs. Calvin Coolidge, meeting her at the Thayer Hotel. He wrote to his mother afterwards, “Mrs. Coolidge was a very nice lady.” His mother reposted, “There are no ladies north of the Mason-Dixon line.” There was fear about my father’s going north to school and meeting Yankee women, but the US Military Academy trumped everything. In the hierarchy of acceptable professions in the south, not much tops being an officer in the military.
My Life’s Editor is a Yankee, by way of Cleveland, Ohio. Her first and only encounter with my Nashville relations was at the celebration of my father’s retirement. My Uncle Johnnie’s eyes lit up at the sight of My Life’s Editor. Like my father, Uncle Johnnie appreciated an attractive woman. Sidling up, oozing southern charm, he addressed her as “you sweet tomato.” Her glare could have frozen a Bessemer furnace.
Along the secondary roads of the south in the 1950s, interspersed between Burma Shave signs, there were “Impeach Earl Warren” signs. Further down the road there would likely be an al fresco roadside stand selling quaint tourist goods like dish towels decorated with a fat, bearded confederate, wielding crossed swords and the legend: “Forget, Hell!”
In my youth and early adulthood, I mentally walled off my cherished noble south from slavery and racism. Search the preceding paragraphs for the terms “Black,” “African-American,” or “slave” and you will not be rewarded. I never met a Black officer in my childhood. They were soldiers or non-commissioned officers. On one occasion, when my family visited relatives in Nashville, my father sought out an elderly Black gentleman named Chad, who had been his aunt’s driver. My father brought him a bottle of Jack Daniels.
Over time, two silos developed in my mind. One silo contained the south of my childhood, full of Marse Robert’s virtues. In the other, the south was morphing into something much less attractive. My “Henry Adam’s moment” is seared into my mind. In the seventh grade I wrote an essay on Lincoln as the Great Emancipator. I took it to my father and stood proudly aside as he read it. His explosion of wrath sucked the air out of the room. “Goddamnit! Who is teaching our kids? What are they teaching them?” Lincoln was no hero to him. Slavery was insignificant against his resentment at the grievous wound the south had suffered. I realized my concept of the noble, glorious south and its legacy of rebellion, slavery, and racism could not coexist. Statues honoring Confederates speak to the problem. Can a sculptor conjure up a memorial celebrating solely Marse Robert’s virtues, separating out his roles as slaveholder and insurrectionist? It would be like unscrambling an egg. Does another country in the world celebrate the rebels and insurrectionists who sought to dismember the country?
The image of the Confederate battle flag being waved by a scruffy hooligan at the Capitol stirred up my childhood beliefs. Some guy from Michigan had stolen my symbol, Marse Robert’s flag. The flag waver put the best values it stood for in my youth to the lie. My vision of my southern heritage is tattered like an old battle flag. “Dixie” needs a revision: “Old times there are best forgotten.”
The Old Road Peddler