Dead Confederates, A Civil War Era Blog

“We are all officers now!”

Posted in Education, Memory by Andy Hall on August 16, 2010

Almost a hundred years ago, an old Texas veteran with the improbable name of Valerius Cincinnatus Giles passed away, leaving a sprawling, fragmentary memoir of his Civil War service. A half-century and a lot of editing later, it was finally compiled and published as Rags and Hope, a volume that has since become a classic among Civil War enlisted soldiers’ autobiographies. In closing Giles wrote:

It is over, and we are all officers now!
It’s General That and Colonel This
And Captain So and So.
There’s not a private in the list
No matter where you go.

The men who fought the battles then,
Who burned the powder and lead,
And lived on hardtack made of beans
Are promoted now—or dead.

I suspect that, in writing these lines, Giles may have been thinking of a relative of mine, Lawrence Daffan. They must have known each other well. Both served in the Fourth Texas Infantry (Giles in Co. B; Daffan in Co. G), both were captured within a few weeks of each other in late 1863 during the Chattanooga Campaign, and both were active in veterans’ organizations after the war.  Lawrence’s daughter Katie, who was prominent in UDC activities and served at the time as superintendent of the Confederate Woman’s Home in Austin, made a big show at Giles’ funeral of placing a small Confederate flag in the dead man’s hands. Cou’n Katie always did have a flair for dramatic gestures.

But beyond Giles’ amusing (and somewhat poignant) rhyme, Daffan is a perfect example of the pitfalls that await the modern researcher, and it underscores the importance of searching out contemporary records. In Lawrence Daffan’s case, everyone in the family “knew” that he had served as an officer, and even his obituary gave his name as “Col. L. A. Daffan.”

But he was never actually an officer. In fact, he wasn’t even a non-com. He was a buck private from the day he enlisted in March 1862 to the day he was released from the PoW camp at Rock Island, Illinois in 1865. He came to be known as “Colonel” Daffan because he was active in veterans’ groups after the war, and the UDC  gave him that as an honorary title. He apparently liked it, and used it, to the extent that by the time he died in 1907, everyone in town as well as his family “knew” that he’d served as an officer. Lots of contemporary publications repeat the title. That was accepted as a given for over a century until, just recently, I bothered to look up his actual service record and discovered it wasn’t true.

This is important to would-be researchers because in Daffan’s case, because family oral tradition, Daffan’s obituary and other postwar sources all confirm one another, that he was a former officer. But he wasn’t, and one has to go back to the original records to determine that.

So genealogists and would-be historians, perform due diligence. Don’t assume you “know” something about your ancestor unless you can document it, because there’s a good chance you’re wrong. Do the research. Your work will be better for it when you do.

Image: Veterans of the Philadelphia Brigade Association and the Pickett’s Division Association shake hands across the stone wall over which they’d fought fifty years before, July 3, 1913. Pennsylvania State Archives.

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19 Responses

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  1. Corey Meyer said, on August 17, 2010 at 12:14 am

    Andy,

    Interesting story. My G-G Grandfather, Ignatius Schaaf came to the US in the 1840’s from Baden, Germany and for whatever reason took on the name Henry Fisher and fought in the 106th Illinois as Henry Fisher. Some think he took a non-german sounding name to avoid German military obligations…but why then join the military here? He only changed it back to Ignatius after the war. On his military stone it has him as a Sergt. but no record I have shows him as anything but a private.

    Who knows?!

    • Andy Hall said, on August 17, 2010 at 1:29 am

      Corey:

      First, thanks for highlighting my post last week about Confederate soldiers and slaveholding. I appreciate it — that and other posts got picked up at places like Balloon Juice, that I wouldn’t have expected.

      Yeah, I’ve found several things doing genealogy now that contradict what was “known” in the family. Sometimes research seems to answer more questions than it answers — which in some ways is a good thing.

  2. Corey Meyer said, on August 17, 2010 at 1:44 am

    I was glad to highlight the article…I suppose I should have asked before I did but I did not realize you wrote it until a bit after I made the post. I guess I need to read the top of the post before I make a decision on who wrote what. I first gave Ta-Nehisi Coates the credit and then noticed it was your article.

    I also saw that Old Rebel over at Rebellion Blog picked it up also…I hope they did not cause too much disruption to your daily life with their comments. I have dealt with these guys for years now.

    Keep up the good work!!

  3. S. Thomas Summers said, on August 17, 2010 at 6:06 pm

    The photo provided above is haunting – tragic is some ways. It reminded me of this. Follow the link.

    http://thelintinmypocket.wordpress.com/2010/08/15/civil-war-my-enemy-my-brother/

    And I need to read the book you mentioned.

    Thanks for this.

    All the best.

  4. Woodrowfan said, on August 18, 2010 at 2:41 pm

    I heard a similar story in my family. I was always told that a multiple-great Grandfather, who was a chaplain in the Confederate army and from Tennessee, had performed the service at President Polk’s funeral. A quick bit of digging, however, showed that G-grandpa was born in 1838, and Polk died in 1849. oops.

    However, G-Grandpa’s Dad served in the Tennessee legislature and so might well have known Polk. That could have morphed over time into confusion as to which ancestor knew the former President, and what their relationship was….

    One more quick story, a buddy here in Virginia loves to tell the story of some family friends who were very proud of their ancestor who served in the Virginia Calvary during the war. They went full-bore Confederate–flying the flag, pictures of Lee and Jackson in the living room, etc, etc. Then one day someone went to the archives to find great-granddad’s records. Oopsie, it seems his regiment was a UNION regiment from Virginia.

    • Andy Hall said, on August 18, 2010 at 3:07 pm

      Thanks for your comment. As you suggest, it’s really important to document what you can independently. While some family traditions or stories will, by their nature, never be provable/disprovable in the historic record, there’s still a lot we can do to sort out fact from legend. And — in my view — if we’re going to do the family heritage thing at all, we’ve got an obligation to get it right.

    • Andy Hall said, on August 18, 2010 at 3:19 pm

      I should also say, your comment this morning over at Kevin’s places on the appeal of Black Confederates was spot-on. Levin really needs to get a “like” button for his comments section.

  5. Dick Stanley said, on August 18, 2010 at 2:57 pm

    The old photo/film was obviously staged. The sentiment may have been genuine, but I find even that unlikley.

    Giles’ lines are funny, and quite true in the post-war South well into the 20th. My own private great grandfather. however, was promoted to reverend, which I expect he preferred to colonel or captain.

    • Andy Hall said, on August 18, 2010 at 3:16 pm

      Thanks for commenting. Yes, that image is staged, from (IIRC) the 1913 Gettysburg reunion. I agree that the sentiment, too, was almost entirely for the cameras; while there are innumerable stories of former opponents becoming great friends, one-on-one and based on parallel experiences and hardships, as a whole there wasn’t much real spirit of reconciliation so long as those veterans lived.

      So yeah, that image reinforces a false, if widely-accepted, meme of postwar reconciliation. I really should know better than that. Thanks for (very politely) calling me out on it.

  6. Marc Ferguson said, on August 18, 2010 at 10:00 pm

    One of our family stories is that my grandfather would never see Gone With the Wind, as it would have reminded him of stories his grandmother told him of Sherman’s atrocities committed against the family and it’s property. The problem with the story is that Sherman’s troops never came anywhere near their home in Alabama. Their are similar family stories from he side of the family in Jackson County involving Quantrill and later the Younger brothers that either cannot be verified or don’t fit the facts. Individual memory is a tricky thing, and family memory even trickier.

  7. Andy Hall said, on August 18, 2010 at 11:22 pm

    The problem with the story is that Sherman’s troops never came anywhere near their home in Alabama.

    Heh. Had to read that twice before catching “Alabama.”

    In his Yale lectures David Blight tells about another historian (whose name I should remember, but don’t) who in the 1980s set out to retrace Sherman’s March on the ground. The historian told how, in little Georgia town after little Georgia town, the local historian would tell a tale of woe and hardship, how that evil old Sherman burned everything in sight, that literally nothing was left as far as the eye could see but cinder and ash. Literally. Then, after a dramatic pause, would turn and point out several examples of the wonderful antebellum architecture that little town was so famous for.

    I have family from Cole County, Missouri, who settled in Texas after the war because, according to tradition, “Missouri was no place to raise boys” after the war due to the Youngers and Jameses and their sort. No specific incidents, but that’s the story. Seems like a pretty good reason to me.

    • Dick Stanley said, on August 19, 2010 at 7:03 pm

      I think Sherman himself set out to be “that evil old Sherman” burning his way through Georgia and South Carolina to, as he said, “break their will” to continue fighting. Seen this doc of what he did to Columbia, SC? Contemporary revisionism is laughable.

      • Andy Hall said, on August 19, 2010 at 7:27 pm

        Dick, thanks for commenting. I was a little — OK, a lot — flip about Sherman. And I do know about Columbia. But as you know both Sherman and his army, up and down the ranks, had a very different vision of South Carolina and its culpability in causing the war than they did about either Georgia or North Carolina, which culminated in the near-total destruction of Columbia.

        But yeah, I was intentionally poking fun at exaggerations of Sherman’s destructiveness in Georgia. The wreckage Sherman did leave behind was plenty enough without having to amplify it. I really don’t see what I said as “contemporary revisionism,” but we may have to disagree on that.

  8. Stephen Clay McGehee said, on August 19, 2010 at 1:17 pm

    I remember my father telling me stories about when he was a boy, how other kids would boast about their grandfathers being high ranking Confederate officers. My dad could just tell the other kids that there wasn’t much opportunity for advancement in a POW camp. His history was quite similar to the story above – not long after joining, he was captured at the Battle of Petersburg, and then spent the rest of the war as a POW at Point Lookout, Maryland. Here is a scan of his POW release.

    To make things a bit more awkward in the family, my grandfather’s cousin was Lt. Colonel John Pelham – The Gallant Pelham. I’m sure that really raised the bar for expectations. There was no escaping the shadow of his famous cousin – my great grandfather’s name was William Pelham McGehee – as in Private William Pelham McGehee.

    Stephen Clay McGehee
    ConfederateColonel.com

    • Andy Hall said, on August 25, 2010 at 3:42 am

      Stephen, thanks for sharing this. Sorry for it taking a while to appear, it got caught in the spam filter for I-don’t-know-why. Thanks for linking to that release document, as well.

  9. Dick Stanley said, on August 19, 2010 at 8:20 pm

    I didn’t mean you were a revisionist. But Blight seems to be. Interesting name.

  10. Dick Stanley said, on August 19, 2010 at 11:09 pm

    Slightly OT: Re Sherman’s destructiveness in SC, the Union destruction there actually began in October ’61 with a Union expedition by sea to Port Royal Inlet (between Charleston and Savannah) where the 79th New York Cameron Highlanders (among other units) burned several plantation mansions.

    I wrote about the Highlanders in my battle novel “Knoxville 1863” which you might enjoy (also the blog by the same name). There was no shortage of hatred on either side and it didn’t take four years of war to bring it out.

  11. David Haberly said, on August 21, 2010 at 7:20 pm

    The Daffan story reminded me of a distant relative of my wife’s, who was posthumously promoted to General (probably because a title he actually did briefly hold, Adjutant General, was misread or misunderstood) and honored by a statue in the center of his hometown, Onancock, Virginia. See http://www.virtualtourist.com/travel/North_America/United_States_of_America/Virginia/Onancock-888725/General_Tips-Onancock-BR-1.html

    • Andy Hall said, on August 22, 2010 at 12:16 am

      David, I really do apologize to your wife’s family for laughing at that story, but wow, that’s funny. The name given on the town website, “General Oddment Bagwell” sounds like something from a Dickens novel. Thanks for sharing that.


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