Cumberland Times-News

December 22, 2012

They were on his land, so he decided to fight

Jim Goldsworthy, Columnist
Cumberland Times-News

— An old friend’s father was a brave American soldier, and I’ve lost track of how many people I’ve told about them.

I am proud of the relationship my friend and I have had. I also refer to him and his father as an example of how things aren’t as simple as folks think they are. Usually, the message gets across ... but, I’m afraid, not always.

My late friend Mary Calemine used to say (in Italian) of some people that “He doesn’t know that he doesn’t know,” or “He doesn’t understand because he doesn’t understand.”

Al Comer became my friend years ago on the golf course at Maplehurst Country Club.

His late father, James John Comer, used to work for one of my relatives — Thomas Jonathan Jackson, former lieutenant general of the Army of Northern Virginia, who is better known to Yankees as “Stonewall.”

Those of Rebel descent usually understand who “Thomas J. Jackson” is, especially Virginians. They know he didn’t like that nickname and preferred it be applied to his brigade.

James may have been at Gettysburg, along with relatives of mine who were on opposite sides of the battle lines. He was 14 when he enlisted and the youngest infantryman in Jackson’s army.

Twice wounded, James was recovering at home in the Shenandoah Valley when a squad of foraging Union soldiers showed up with the intent of confiscating livestock.

Coming to the defense of his mother and their home, James confronted them with his musket, and they left empty-handed.

Al, who passed away a week ago today at age 91, told me what it was like growing up.

He was born when his father was 74, James having married a woman 34 years younger — Lucy (Sly) Comer — after his first wife died.

Such a marriage was not uncommon among Civil War veterans, because the older man had someone to look after him, and the younger woman had her husband’s pension to help with life. Just a few dollars a month was all they got, but it was better than nothing.

Pensions for Union veterans came through the federal government, and in the 1890s amounted to 40 percent of the federal budget. Confederate pensions were granted through the states for which the soldiers served.

“Where I grew up,” Al told me, “there were no black people and no white people. There were just poor people.”

They survived by working together and, as Grandmother Goldsworthy used to describe it, “Doing for each other.”

If a woman had a baby but was dry and couldn’t nurse it, another woman did it for her.

“It didn’t matter what color the woman’s skin was,” Al said. “If it had to be done, it had to be done. The day might come when she needed somebody to do the same for her, and somebody would have.”

As of last February, there were only 17 surviving children of Confederate soldiers in all of America. Al was the last in Maryland.

Capt. Gary, Cpl. Reggie and 1Sgt. Goldy were at Gettysburg when we met a black woman who was nearing her 100th birthday. She must have known people who had been slaves ... maybe even her parents or grandparents.

What amazing things could she have told us, if only there had been time?

Did her family and Al’s know each other? Could she and Al have grown up together? Stranger coincidences have happened. At the least, their stories must have been similar.

Al’s path and mine haven’t crossed much in recent years, although I have spoken to him over the phone, and my friend Debbie Strong — who helped care for him — has given me occasional updates.

He was one of my favorite golfing partners. Even though he was 80 or thereabouts, he went after the ball with the vigor of a man less than half his age, and he was a good teammate.

If I wasn’t carrying my weight, he’d ... encourage me to do better, and I tried to do so.

A wonderful man who was firm in his beliefs and proud of his heritage, Al must have inherited his competitive fire from his father, who aimed a single-shot musket at the Yankees and promised that the first one to touch his mother’s animals would be the first to meet his Maker.

Had someone asked James why he was fighting, he probably would have given the same answer many Confederate soldiers did: “This is my land, and you’re on it.”

Most could have cared less about slavery, and it may be that many never even saw a slave. They were fighting for a cause they believed in. Between 60 and 90 percent of them were dirt farmers or laborers, and three-quarters of them were either killed or wounded.

Many Southerners, including Confederate officers, opposed slavery. They felt that slavery stifled their economy and had other issues, including property rights, tariffs and what they considered restrictions on free speech. Their loyalty was to their states, not the concept of a unified country.

Many Northerners favored slavery, especially those who profited from it. Common soldiers feared that freed blacks would come north and take their jobs.

A letter written home after the war by a former Confederate soldier from Hampshire County, W.Va., told how he and his friends hated the Yankees for coming in and telling them how to live their lives.

He also talked about a white merchant who was employing free blacks and paying them far less than he would have paid white men. It was a sin, he said, for the merchant to take advantage of those poor people.

I was proud to know Al, and I would have been honored to serve with James, no matter the color of his uniform. In my veins runs the blood of some men who wore blue and others who wore butternut.

Relatives on my mother’s side served in Jackson’s army, and some — like James — were Prisoners Of War. They were in many of the same battles, and it is conceivable that they fought beside each other or were confined together and were friends.

As Grant said after he and his men tipped their hats to Lee and his officers following the surrender at Appomattox: “The war is over; the Rebels are our countrymen again.”

And they still are. As far as I’m concerned, despite our occasional differences, they always have been and always will be.

They were American soldiers ... all of them. Together, they made us what we are today.

P.S.: I attended Al’s graveside services in my Union uniform and, on behalf of all my kinfolk who once fought for Old Virginia, was proud and honored to join the Confederate honor guard in carrying her state colors.