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Confederacy's confusing legacy 

City Sage

Two pictures hang next to my cluttered desk at home. One is of my maternal great-grandfather, Col. Charles Farnsworth; the other of my paternal great-grandfather, Pvt. John Gill (after whom I am named).

Farnsworth fought for the Union, Gill for the Confederacy. They faced each other in battle a half-dozen times.

Both survived the war. Farnsworth died in 1867, drowned while crossing a river in South Carolina. Gill, who became a prominent Baltimore merchant and banker, died in 1912.

To a boy growing up they were legendary figures, men who risked their lives in a terrible war. The bitterness of combat and unresolved issues of slavery, segregation and racism were not topics of dinner-table conversation. My father was an unreconstructed Southerner, my mother a liberal feminist. Their unlikely marriage might never have happened, except for Colorado Springs.

Founded in 1871, this city was not haunted by memories of bloody conflict. It was a place of refuge. Its mild and healthful climate attracted anyone suffering from respiratory disease. Bars, breweries, distilleries and smoke-belching factories were banned.

Farnsworth's widow came to Colorado Springs in the 1880s with her tubercular son, and Gill's widowed daughter brought her asthmatic son here 30 years later. And that's why Confederate President Jefferson Davis' daughter Margaret Hayes and her ailing husband Joel Addison Hayes came to Colorado Springs in 1885.

It's easy to honor Col. Farnsworth, a passionate opponent of slavery whose beliefs led him to the battlefield. He was taken prisoner and sent to Andersonville, the infamous Confederate prison.

But John Gill, who became a general?

As the Confederate battle flag is lowered throughout the South, and as place names, memorials and plaques are slowly and inevitably removed, those of us who are descended from Confederate soldiers must ask: How do we honor these brave men without honoring the cause they fought for?

In 1904, Gill privately published a memoir, Reminiscences of Four Years as a Private Soldier. At Gettysburg, deployed as a picket as Lee's army retreated, Gill wrote:

"Those of us who were there will never forget that night. The dead had been exposed to the broiling sun for more than twenty-four hours, and had already turned black. To add to the horror of the scene and the cries and groans of dying men, a terrible thunder and lightning storm broke over the battle-field. The rain fell in torrents and as each of us stood at his post, with pistol in hand, the lightning flashed in our faces casting shadows on the dead strewn around us. Here we remained until day dawned."

Reading these words, I am proud to be John Gill's namesake. But what about these, the opening paragraphs of his autobiography?

"My family for many years, especially on my mother's side, had owned slaves and I had never been taught to believe that slavery was a sin or a crime. Therefore when the question as to the right of these States to separate peaceably from the compact formed by their forefathers ... I determined to take up arms and defend it. I was a mere boy at the time, scarcely nineteen years of age."

In all, 50,000 Americans died at Gettysburg. In the Gettysburg Address, Lincoln honored the Union dead who had given "the last full measure of devotion." Yet Lincoln's words were not spoken over the unattended, unmarked graves of Confederate dead.

How do I know that? Because my father told me as a boy what Gen. Gill had told him — and so the Confederacy lives in myth and memory. But it's time to discard such myths and heed other words.

Gill never abandoned the Confederacy. He has many descendants, among them seven men and women of color: my son, my grandchildren and my great-granddaughter. When I married their mother, our marriage was illegal in Maryland because of "miscegenation" statutes.

I admire Gill for his bravery — but I've never spoken of him to his descendants. His is in part a legacy of shame, and I have tried to make amends for it in my own life.

Today, the words of Lincoln's Second Inaugural seem as fresh and timely as yesterday.

"With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation's wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations."

  • Farnsworth fought for the Union, Gill for the Confederacy.

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