Dead Confederates, A Civil War Era Blog

Living Talismans of a Mythic Past

Posted in Genealogy, Memory by Andy Hall on June 7, 2011

A recent news item out of Tarrant, Alabama highlights a man named Tyus Denney, honored as a “Real Son” of the Confederacy, meaning that his father was actually a Confederate veteran. (The UDC has a similar designation for “Real Daughters,” and the Sons of Union Veterans also has a “Real Sons” recognition.) Such people are interesting to me because they demonstrate how close the Civil War actually is to us in terms of the human life span. As the comedian Louis C.K. said on Leno a while back, in reference to the times that’s passed since emancipation, “that’s two 70-year-old ladies livin’ and dyin’, back-to-back.” His arithmetic is off, but the point remains: it wasn’t really all that long ago.

“My daddy was 80 when I come in this world,” said Denney at his home in Tarrant, where he keeps 10 beehives in the backyard to harvest honey. “I was 13 years old when he died. He never did talk about the Civil War. He never said nothing about it.”

But his father, Thomas Jefferson Denney, is heavily documented as having fought in the Civil War, as part of Company H in the 31st Alabama Infantry regiment. He was captured by Union forces on June 15, 1864 near Marietta, Ga., and held prisoner at Rock Island Barracks, Illinois, where he signed an oath of allegiance to the United States upon his release on June 18, 1865.

That makes Tyus Denney one of the last living “real sons” of Confederate veterans, according to the Sons of Confederate Veterans, an organization made up mostly of descendants several generations further removed from their Confederate ancestors. Denney’s sister, Vivian Smith, 88, of Cullman, is one of the last living “real daughters” of Confederate veterans. . . .

In 1986, the Sons of Confederate Veterans made Denney a lifetime member, not required to pay dues. He sometimes goes to Civil War reenactments.

“I just watch,” he said. “I don’t know nothing about the war.”

I mean no disrespect to Mr. Denney, but his example highlights a fundamental conceit of heritage groups (of all stripes), that linear descent from people who lived through historic events imparts a particular wisdom or understanding of those events in people living today. It doesn’t, but it does seem to make people believe they speak with authority on all sorts of things they haven’t the foggiest clue about. I once saw a comment on a message board, seething with righteous indignation, to the effect that neither Robert or Mary Custis Lee ever owned or oversaw slaves; the commenter asserted as his authority the fact that he held a life membership in the SCV.

Unlike that fool, Tyus Denney at least has the candor and self-awareness to acknowledge what he knows and what he doesn’t.

Some Civil War soldiers wrote letters and diaries that have survived down to the present; most did not. Some Civil War soldiers wrote memoirs decades later about their experiences in the war; most did not. Many veterans passed on stories about the war to their children and grandchildren, that have filtered down (with changes unknown) through the generations to the present. All of these things can, in one way or another, shape our understanding if these mens’ experiences as individuals. But even in the best case, they tell us very little about events outside that man’s observation, they way he wanted others to understand them.

But more generally, the mere fact of being kin to a Civil War soldier doesn’t impart any particular wisdom or insight into that conflict. It’s an accident of birth, and conveys no special knowledge or understanding of the past. What intrinsic commodity, exactly, do men like Mr. Denney convey to modern Americans by virtue of their (and their fathers’) longevity? What do we know or understand or believe about the war that we would not, were they not here? How does simple ancestry weigh on the scale against academic study of the conflict when it comes to insight and knowledge? Does direct descent from a Confederate veteran, whom one never knew, impart a fuller understanding of the period that collateral descent from the same man would?

Or are men like Mr. Denny only talismans, valued as living links to a past that is as much imagined as it is recorded?

____________

Image: Parole document of 15-year-old Private Thomas Denny, 31st Alabama Infantry, Rock Island Barracks, June 18, 1865. Via Footnote.

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15 Responses

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  1. Halteclere said, on June 8, 2011 at 10:04 am

    These tangible links are, to me, kind of jarring when I come across them. The Civil War does seem like a whole different era, and to read about someone who is one generation away from a participant makes me realize that 150 years is not that long ago.

    A couple years ago there were several articles on the passing of the last Civil War widow:

    http://www.usatoday.com/news/nation/2004-05-31-war-widow_x.htm

  2. Lyle Smith said, on June 8, 2011 at 11:50 am

    I just discovered a Confederate ancestor last week. He’s a great-great-great Grandfather. That’s a five generation gap.

    This reminds me of how I got banned from posting at Ta-Nehisi Coates’ blog; it was my response to his post about this exact Louis C.K. commentary on Letterman (I think it was Letterman and not Leno). I could be wrong about that. Not Ta-Nehisi’s best day. I enjoy his blog and like him, but I don’t agree with him or his flock about everything, and it was a cardinal sin that day.

    • Andy Hall said, on June 8, 2011 at 11:57 am

      Who was your ancestor? What do you know about him?

      It’s funny how the generations pile up, or sometimes, don’t. Most of my CW relatives were of my g-g-grandfather’s generation, but in one case my g-grandfather was not quite old enough, and his older siblings enlisted. My own mother was old enough to have known members of the extended family who were CW veterans (though if she remembered them she never said so), so the living linkage back to 1861-65 can be surprisingly close.

      • Lyle Smith said, on June 8, 2011 at 3:22 pm

        A W.L. Jones. He was in the 27th Louisiana Infantry according to some online muster rolls I checked out. Was at Vicksburg. He apparently enlisted in the spring of 1862. That makes me wonder if he was conscripted. He has some interesting Confederate pension records according to my ex-LSU librarian researching cousin. I’ve not looked at those. The muster records (he apparently mentions more details of his prison time in the pension record) show he was a prisoner twice during the war, but remained on the muster rolls from 1862 to 1865. My cousin discovered that he may have become a doctor of some kind after the war, based on information written on a postbellum photo (labeled Dr. Bill Jones) that another descendant has (I haven’t seen this photo) and from another source. She wants to show me his grave. The tombstone has his company designation listed according to her.

        … and my Dad was in his early 40s when I was born and remembers WWII as a child. So at least 4 generations came quick, since my Dad was born in 1934.

        I think my main point to TNC’s blog post was something to the effect of “let’s not let history tie us down”. It’s true it’s not that long ago, but focusing too much on that can create present day hurdles we may not need. I then brought up American relations with Japan and Germany as an example of what forgetting or letting bygones be bygones can achieve. I personally think many of our black brothers and sisters have much worse problems than the fact that their ancestors were slaves. That was what I was attempting to get out, but it didn’t go down to well.

        • Andy Hall said, on June 8, 2011 at 4:13 pm

          Yes, looks like he was captured and paroled at Vicksburg, was officially “exchanged” in 1864, and then surrendered again at New Orleans at the end of the war. His service (March 62) appears to predate the first Confederate Conscription Act (Apr 1862) so I doubt he was drafted.

          • Lyle Smith said, on June 8, 2011 at 4:23 pm

            Yeah, I hadn’t checked on when the first conscription act was passed. I guess I should memorize that fact. Kind of makes sense since he seems to have stuck with his unit until the end.

            • Andy Hall said, on June 8, 2011 at 4:37 pm

              It’s a legit question. I’ve seen several Union CSRs that identify men as conscripts, but I don’t recall any CS records that said so. Either all the Confederate records I’ve looked at were volunteers (unlikely), or it’s not recorded in those documents in a reliable and systematic way.

  3. Corey Meyer said, on June 8, 2011 at 6:58 pm

    It is funny how family lines fall in and around the time of the war. On one part of my family tree I have ancestors who fought, but on another the mother and father of the Civil War generation had 9 daughters…count them 9…no veterans there…not much you can do. But I do feel that it give me a right to discuss woman’s issues…:)

  4. charlie Persinger said, on June 9, 2011 at 10:43 am

    This is off subject but did you happen to read this article in slate yesterday?

    http://www.slate.com/id/2295509/

    Wondering what your thoughts are on this subject?

    • Andy Hall said, on June 9, 2011 at 11:11 am

      I did read it. In fact, we had a rollicking discussion about it (and related matters) over at Coates’ place.

      Because I’m lazy, I’ll repost here two of my comments from there that express my views on it:

      Important to understand that while Foote is known primarily for his appearance in the Burns film and his classic trilogy of the war, he was not an historian and never thought of himself as one, per se. He was a novelist, who in the 1950s got talked into writing a quickie Civil War book and ended up embarking on a project that eventually consumed his career and public persona. So at the end of the day, he remains a storyteller, a raconteur, without real parallel [in the Burns film]. (And that narrative skill, rather than the research or analysis behind them, is what has made his trilogy such a beloved work by many.)

      I think Burns was smart to use him in that role in the film, because it kept the audience engaged and helped keep that epochal event anchored in the funny, poignant and horrific experiences of individual soldiers and civilians. Seriously — no one would watch that for ten or eleven hours to hear Garrison Keillor read old soldiers’ letters. And, Lord knows, there was surely a need for periodic levity in telling that story. But Foote’s contribution is like the film itself — engaging entertainment with a mostly solid core of history, rather than the other way ’round.

      Added: I gather that Foote spent the last 15 years of his life simultaneously thrilled and frustrated by his fame from the Burns series.

      and

      But I do think that both Lundberg, and perhaps Burns (as filmmaker and editor) make too much of [Foote’s anedote about the Confederate soldier saying, “because y’all are down here.”]. It’s hard to know in what context Foote told that story, in the hours and hours of recorded interviews; that he seems (to some) to be peddling an old Lost Cause trope is as much about the context of the narrative around it as about Foote’s own words, and that context is entirely the responsibility of Burns as the director and editor.

      • charlie Persinger said, on June 9, 2011 at 11:34 am

        thanks

    • Andy Hall said, on June 9, 2011 at 11:31 am

      The other thing to keep in mind is that no media outlet (magazine, TV interview, newspaper, whatever) is going to be interested in devoting space to someone with minor quibbles about a famous work by someone else. So there’s always a structural bias to be a little more strident, a little more over-the-top, then one would be normally. And that goes double for managing editor who (in print news, anyway) writes the headline and frames how the story is presented to the reader.

      No one’s going to read an opinion piece titled, “I Mostly Liked Ken Burns’ Civil War Documentary But Thought He Gave Too Much Screen Time to Shelby Foote,” you know? 😉

      • charlie Persinger said, on June 9, 2011 at 11:52 am

        I agree with that! I think Burn’s follows to much of the narrative of “Killer Angels” when it comes to Gettysburg.
        Col. Ireland went against greater odds than Joshua L. Chamberlain. I like Foote but I didn’t like how he put Nathan Bedford Forrest and Lincoln in the same category of importance.

        • Andy Hall said, on June 9, 2011 at 12:02 pm

          Some grad student really ought to do a study (if not done already) on how “Killer Angels” and the movie based on it, “Gettysburg,” has shaped non-fiction interpretations, books, paintings, documentaries over the last 20 years. Troiani, I think, has done at least 3 paintings of Chamberlain and the 20th Maine at Little Round Top, and the staff of the National Cemetery at Gettysburg frequently are asked for directions to Buster Kilrain’s grave.

          I suspect “Killer Angels” has done more to shape the public’s view of the war than any work of fiction since GWTW.

  5. Brainz said, on June 18, 2011 at 9:12 pm

    I wouldn’t expect a “Real Son” to have unique insights, but I would like the opportunity to meet him anyhow. There’s no chemical difference between a lump of lead poured into a mold last week and one dug out of a tree on Wilmur McClean’s farm. There’s an aura, a magic, a meaning to artifacts and relics that link us to the past that moves me.

    I was at a talk a couple months ago about Delia’s Tears — a book about pseudo-scientific photographs of slaves made in the 1850s. After the reading and the Q&A, a woman in the audience got up and explained that she was one of the descendants of Renty, this man.

    I’m not sure how to put into words what it meant to meet that woman, so forgive me if I get cosmic for a moment. I’m not a religious man, so I think immortality only comes in three ways: through memory, through work, and through children. Much of the past is dead and gone, incapable of recollection. (The enormity of genocide is that one not only kills a person, but one sets out to kill every person who ever knew that person.) The gathering of genealogies, the preservation of artifacts, and the accumulation of history are all part of the same endeavor.


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