Honoring of war dead looks different south of the Mason-Dixon Line

Art Chance
Art Chance


I didn’t grow up honoring Memorial Day on the last Monday of May.

In the South of the 1950s and 1960s, Memorial Day was April 26 in most states; that was the day that Johnson surrendered the Army of The Tennessee to Sherman.

I remember people turning their backs to “Battle Hymn of The Republic” because we knew whose vineyards those Yankees SOBs were bragging about trampling.

I have plenty to remember about America’s wars. My fifth great-grandfather, Pleasant Crump, died in British service in the French and Indian War, leaving a widow and two young sons from whence cometh I.

My ancestral lands in Georgia came from a Captain John Durden who served with Virginia Militia troops in the Southern campaign under Greene in the Revolution. His forebears had come to Virginia in 1640 and he made his way to Georgia in the Creek Cession Lottery of 1795; I’ve never figured out whether he got land in the lottery or on headright for Revolutionary War service, but anyway; he got a good chunk of Georgia.

Family stories have my first Chance ancestors named LaChance, which simply means “luck” in French, who came as adventurers or mercenaries during The Revolution.   The odds are pretty good that they were outlaws, bastards, or both.  Despite a lot of pretentious claims, that RS is really hard to document unless your ancestor was formally enlisted in either the Continental Army or a colonial militia.

Most of the men who fought in The Revolution in The South were just common men who grabbed their gun and answered the call of local leaders, so there is little or no record of their service. My gg/grandfather John M. Chance made it through The War with the 51stGeorgia Infantry but left Georgia in the 1890s one step ahead of the sheriff, who wanted to talk to him about a man who’d been killed in a dispute over just who owned some cattle.

My grandfather suffered through winters in a wood-heated house due to lung injuries from gas in WWI and ultimately met an early death due to pneumonia.  My father was draft-exempt in WWII because of a disability but spent his war building Liberty Ships for the US.

I only know some of my family; the Durdens were old family in the South and pretty well off. The Riners, my mother’s side, were old hill country, North Carolina and South. They had a family clan community in Eastern Emanuel County, Georgia that they got in the Creek Cession Lottery.

The Rowells, Curls, and Chances I know much less about; there is little record of common rural Southerners other than memories and surviving memorabilia.   If you want to wade through Census records be prepared to work out all the different permutations of spelling your family’s names that semi-literate Census workers could come up with.

All of my lineal male ancestors served in the Provisional Army of the Confederate States, Army of Northern Virginia, some were captured, some died of disease, some died of wounds, some survived to return to shattered lives.   Ten members of the Riner clan “volunteered” for service on March 4, 1862.

On April 12, 1865, the day the ANV surrendered, three were still alive; one a paroled POW, one on “French leave” as he had heeded the family’s entreaties and come home to take care of the place after Sherman’s visit in late November 1864, and one who after the ANV’s debacle at Saylor’s Creek on April 6, 1865 decided to “study war no more” and deserted to the Yankees to get a meal.

They all lived peacefully in the South in the first half of the 19th Century. They lived the lives of subsistence farmers; they didn’t have much, but they had enough. My great-great grandfather Joseph Sherrod seemed to have done the best.  Somewhere along the way he got something of a university education, as that had meaning in those days, and became a teacher in a plantation academy.  He and my great-great-grandmother had a pretty nice farm from what I can tell, and a pretty nice life.  They’re also the only ones of my ancestry who owned slaves; they owned a family of slaves who lived with them and worked the place with them.

My great-great-grandfather Sherrod was educated and somewhat political. He was opposed to secession and went so far as to go to appeal to Georgia Gov. Joe Brown to try to get an appointment to Georgia service to avoid service in the Confederate Army. His entreaties failed and on March 4, 1862, like so many reluctant Southern men, he “volunteered” for service in the Army of the Confederate States.

Because he was an educated man, he managed to get detailed to service in Confederate hospitals for much of the war. He was in the ranks at Chancellorsville. I have a letter he wrote home. After Chancellorsville, he was detailed to a Confederate hospital in Tallahassee, Florida.

My great-grandfather, Amos Riner, my mother’s side, wasn’t so fortunate as to get a detail. He advanced with Wright’s Brigade late in the evening of the second day of Gettysburg. He took a .58 ball in his shoulder in Wright’s Brigades withdrawal from Cemetery Ridge.

Since he was walking wounded he was treated in a field hospital and got to walk back to Richmond. Sixteen days later he made it to Chimborrazzo Hospital in Richmond.  After treatment there he was given 30 days leave to recover. His wife had died, so he married a much younger woman, from whence commeth I, a generation closer to most descendants of Confederate veterans.

My great-great-grandfather remained on his administrative detail until the spring of 1864.  By this time the Confederacy was robbing both the cradle and the grave for men.  I have many of Joseph’s letters home and he clearly doesn’t want to return to the ranks, wants to purchase a substitute, the going price of which was around $10,000, and he apparently has the money. It is equally clear that my gg/grandmother is having none of her husband lying abed while others are still fighting, though I don’t have her letters to him.

He returned to the ranks with the 48th Georgia for the Overland Campaign of 1864. He made it through The Wilderness, Spotsylvania, Cold Harbor, and the battles around the Petersburg perimeter.  His luck ran out in Mahone’s counterattack at the Battle of The Crater. He was probably killed by friendly artillery fire. His grave isn’t marked but he probably lies in the mass grave of thought-to-be Georgia soldiers buried in the mass grave at Blandfield Church at Petersburg, Virginia.

I have a copy of his lieutenant’s letter to my great-great grandmother informing her of his death.  It is remarkably cold and impersonal, but by that time there had been a lot of dying.  I have many of his letters to my gg/grandmother, which were always closed with, “Kiss my children.”   I also have the blood-stained Testament that was in his breast pocket when he was killed.

By January of 1868, my great-great-grandmother and her children were on the “Indigent Soldier’s Widows and Orphans Relief List” for the county.   The county courthouse has conveniently burned a couple of times in the ensuing 150 years so I’ve never been able to figure out just how she lost the place when her late husband’s lawyer brother was the executor of the estate.   The South was a cruel place after The War.

I don’t know how we work this out; there are Yankees who think that Confederate soldiers are traitors who deserve no recognition.

Some are destroying or removing monuments and even gravestones.

Others think of them as just men who were fighting for hearth and home.

My ancestors fought for hearth and home. Confederate State companies were raised from a community or county, and regiments mostly from a geographical region of a state. Every man knew or knew of almost all the men in his company and regiment. The officers below Brigade, 10 regiments, command were all elected.

In his Civil War series Ken Burns asks author Shelby Foote how Lee’s Army could have made what all the men knew to be a desperate charge on the Third Day at Gettysburg.  Foote replied, “Because it would have taken more courage not to.”

Art Chance is a retired Director of Labor Relations for the State of Alaska, formerly of Juneau and now living in Anchorage. He is the author of the book, “Red on Blue, Establishing a Republican Governance,” available at Amazon. 


    • I come from a place and time in which Washington’s Farewell Address was required reading for everyone in public school, so I wouldn’t be amazed.

  1. Really great article. Thanks. So cool that you have possession of letters that are are 150 years old. What a treasure!

    • Thanks for the kind words! The letters and other memorabilia spent most of that 150 years in an old trunk in a drafty Georgia farmhouse with no air-conditioning and until the 1960s wood heat, so some of them are very delicate. I have them in a high quality archive box, but it is on my “to do” list to get them mounted in nitrogen filled museum frames. The Testament has lost its bindings but is otherwise in pretty good shape though delicate. There are places that could rebind it authentically, but I’m torn over doing that or leaving it as it came to me; I don’t know if it still had the bindings when he died with it in his pocket. If you are “old family” Southern, you learn to live with the ghosts in the closet.

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