The old adage is “You learn something new every day.”
That’s abundantly true in my job. On Monday, I was neck-deep in the city’s downtown strategic plan. Tuesday brought the intricacies of Forest Service procedures regarding Tracy Ridge. Thursday brought new historical knowledge regarding the Old Whitestown Cemetery outside of Garland.
I learned something else new this week – I could join the Sons of Confederate Veterans.
A few months ago (and I wrote a column about this previously), I started digging into some genealogical research.
That effort has proved insightful and fruitful.
Starting with great-grandparents and working back, I’ve got two or three of the lines worked back as far as the 1500s.
Most of what I’ve found to date I expected to find – a strong link to England and West Virginia, Mennonites, a bunch of pastors, some Dutch and German heritage and some Revolutionary War and Union service.
I hadn’t found anyone born further south than Virginia.
My parental great-great-great grandfather changed all that.
Hugh Alexander Hopper was born in Sumter County, Alabama on January 22, 1837.
He married Catherine McRae in 1855 and had two daughters – Emma and Mollie – and one son – James Alexander – by 1865.
But in 1861 he enlisted with the 36th Mississippi Infantry and appears to have served throughout the Civil War.
According to National Park Service records, Hopper entered the service as a private and left it a sergeant in Company H, also known as “Edwards Tigers” or “Edwards Rebels.”
The 36th served in the Western Theater and was first engaged at Iuka and then suffered just over 80 casualties in the Battle of Corinth.
The regiment was then placed in the area of Vicksburg, Mississippi and was captured when the city fell to U.S. Grant and the Union Army, suffering an additional 100 casualties in the process.
Exchanged back into the service, the regiment took part in the Atlanta Campaign, the defense of Mobile and in battles at New Hope Church, Kenesaw Mountain and the Chattahoochee River before the conclusion of the war.
Hooper’s father, John, was a farmer and a “lawman,” killed in 1857 when he fell from his horse while chasing a criminal.
After the war, Hopper was appointed sheriff of Kemper County, Mississippi and was later elected treasurer and it was said that “in the discharge of those duties pertaining to those offices he was faithful and efficient and gave entire satisfaction to the people of the county.”
There’s no mention in the records I’ve found or in family histories I’ve consulted that the family owned any slaves. The odds would suggest they simple weren’t rich enough.
How we remember the Confederacy has come under intense scrutiny since tensions flared at Charlottesville earlier this year.
That had always been an intellectual exercise for me.
There are three markers to the 36th Mississippi on the battlefield at Vicksburg. One is a small stone monument and the other two are position markers.
They aren’t draped in the Stars & Bars or any of the imagery we typically associated with the Confederacy.
They are so non-descript that it’s difficult to find photos of them online.
Should they go?
I readily argue that the origins of the Civil War are tied directly to slavery, even if the narrative in the early stages of the war didn’t always expressly say so.
But if I’m correct that Hopper – like hundreds of thousands of other Southern whites – didn’t own slaves and still enlisted and served in the Confederacy, then there has to be more to it.
I harken back to the line in the movie Gettysburg where Col. Chamberlain’s brother is talking to a couple prisoners and he asks them what they are fighting for.
Given the accent difference from Maine to Mississippi, they struggled to understand what each other was saying; but the Rebels asserted they were fighting for their “rats” or “rights,” however you want to spell the deep-South pronunciation.
Maybe the lesson is that when we fight for our convictions, we can’t always fully understand the effects and reach what we’re actually standing and fighting for.
Maybe the lesson is that we can support something that is wrong (a slave holding society) while doing what we think is right.
Maybe the lesson is to be aware of the effects of the individualism that is at the core of what it means to be an American.
Either way, I’m thankful for this new-found connection to a controversial part of the American story.
In some small sense, it’s fascinating to know I have family that is at the heart of that story, that played a role – for good or bad – in shaping the less-than-perfect Union we live in today.
I have whole branches of the family that remain undiscovered.
So who knows what else is out there…