Cumberland Times-News

Columns

June 22, 2013

They may be old, but they’re still pretty good

Happy Birthday, West Virginia!

My home state’s 150th birthday was on June 20, but I don’t write a column for Thursday’s paper, so this had to wait.

Also, I’m supposed to talk for half an hour today about Mineral County in the Civil War, and some of those who attend might actually read this. No previews here.

It’s at 2 p.m. in the American Legion post on Main Street in Keyser. Call this shameless self-promotion if you wish, but one or two of you may say, “Where? When? Idiot didn’t tell us,” and I hate to leave people hanging.

However, I will do that in one regard: West Virginia became the 35th state less than two weeks before the battle of Gettysburg. Did any of the Union regiments have a 35-star American flag? Answer this afternoon or next week.

A tour guide who usually ignores Capt. Gary and me stopped with his charges and stood beside me.

“Who are you impersonating?” he asked me.

I told him I represent First Sergeant Theodore Field of Battery C, 1st West Virginia Volunteer Artillery, which was at Cemetery Hill and put fire down on Pickett’s Charge ... and went on from there.

At the same time, the 1st West Virginia Cavalry was at South Cavalry Field, leading the assault that turned back a Confederate cavalry attack that might have broken the Union line.

The 1st West Virginia Cavalry’s soldiers received more Medals of Honor than those of any other regiment in the Civil War — 14.

While all of the above was going on, the 7th West Virginia Infantry — which had been the 7th Virginia Infantry of the Union Army two weeks earlier — was fighting hand-to-hand against the 7th Virginia Infantry of the Confederate Army. They captured a nephew of their own regimental commander, and the fighting was especially vicious.

It would be interesting to ask those men why they tried so hard to kill other men they knew were from their home state ... men who may have been their friends or even family.

There was great misery and suffering, but also a surprising amount of humanity.

When the situation allowed, Union and Confederate units who had members of the same family sometimes called a truce to allow them a chance to meet and maybe trade coffee and tobacco.

After the reunion was over, they’d call out to each other, “Keep yer heads down, boys! We got to start shootin’ agin!”

The thing about the Civil War is that much of what’s been passed down is contradictory or confusing and subject to argument. Everything you learn leads you to something else.

My late friend Jack Sanders probably knew more about the Civil War in our area than anyone else did. I wish he were still around for a variety of reasons, including those of picking his brain.

Jack said his favorite Psalm was the West Virginia (121st) Psalm, which goes, “I will lift up mine unto the hills, from whence cometh my help ... .”

Capt. Gary and I wear Yankee uniforms and talk to tourists at Little Round Top on the Gettysburg battlefield.

He has little patience with people he says “became experts after reading one book” and leaves me to deal with them.

Having spent 20 years covering the court house and watching lawyers at work, I enjoy this. I don’t know how many of them I convince, but I know how to confuse them.

Gary has read at least 200 books. One of many I’ve read is my high school American History book, which goes only to about 1960 — but for thoroughness up to that point I would put it up against any American History book used in our schools today.

I also refer to my old Encyclopedia Americana, which was sold one volume at a time at the A&P grocery store.

Both were written less than 100 years after the Civil War, before anyone knew what it was to be politically correct.

A few weeks ago, The Charleston Gazette ran an editorial about West Virginia and slavery that was informative and interesting, but said some things my friends and I would disagree with.

It said West Virginia would never have become a state if Virginia hadn’t joined the rebellion to preserve slavery.

That is not only wrong, it oversimplifies a complicated situation. Maryland, Delaware, Missouri, Kentucky and what became West Virginia were slave states, but did not secede. Virginia and North Carolina were reluctant to secede.

The western counties of Virginia wanted to get away from the rest of the state for the same reasons the western counties of Maryland probably would like to escape from their state government in Annapolis today.

Slavery wasn’t abolished in Maryland until November 1864, almost two years after Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation. West Virginia didn’t abolish slavery until two months before the war ended.

The Gazette also said it was ironic that Confederate Lt. Gen. Thomas Jonathan “Stonewall” Jackson was born in Clarksburg, but fought to preserve slavery.

Jackson never said much about slavery, but when asked what he thought about the Yankees said, “Just kill them. Kill them all.”

Jackson’s widow, Mary Anna, said he would have preferred to see the slaves free, but believed the Bible sanctioned slavery — which was a common view — and that slave-owners had a Christian duty to their slaves.

He taught slaves how to read in violation of the law and founded a Sunday school for blacks. Two of his students asked him to buy them, and he did. He allowed them to make enough money to eventually buy their freedom.

I’ll leave you with what Capt. Gary and 1Sgt. Goldy often tell people:

If you run across somebody who would lead you to believe he knows everything there is to know about the Civil War (or anything else), get away from him because he’s a damn fool.

That would not be me. Next week, I’ll tell you some more of what I think I know.

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