Back in February of 2014, I was rather surprised to receive a phone call from a Mr. John Hennessey, head of interpretation at Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania National Military Park. John had been chatting with my advisor, Dr. Peter Carmichael, and had heard the story about my interesting ancestry and its connection to the Battle of Gettysburg. John then called me after getting my information from Professor Carmichael and invited me to be a part of the “Years of Anguish” Program that was being held at the Salem Baptist Church on April 5th, 2014. The themes of the panel were presidents, generals, and descendants of the American Civil War and John invited me to share the story of my ancestors’ involvement in the war as part of the lecture. I was truly honored and hit with a jolt of excitement when I realized that I would be telling my story to a crowd of people who were just as passionate about the Civil War as I was.
As I looked over my research and prepared what I was going to talk about, I wasn’t sure what to expect from the people I would meet and talk to at this program. Would they be interested in my story or would I be met with swift criticism as many Civil War historians have encountered on numerous occasions. As a review, I would be telling the story of two men: Henry Lentz of the 149th Pennsylvania and Isaac Avery of the 6th North Carolina, one Union and one Confederate who had ties to my mother’s side of the family. As April 5th approached and my anticipation grew, I kept in touch with John Hennessy and he assured me that everything was organized and I would be able to engage the audience with a chance for them to respond at the end of the program. In other words, I was going to be on the panel for people to engage me about what I had just told them.
Even more interesting, I found out that I wouldn’t be the only descendant speaking that day. I would be sharing the panel with a man by the name of Clark “Bud” Hall, who talked about his ancestors who fought for Mississippi and how growing up in a racially divided South during the 1950s and 60s had opened his eyes to what exactly his ancestors had died for. Using his personal experiences as a Marine who fought in Vietnam, Bud told the audience that he is proud of his ancestors’ bravery, but also acknowledges that the cause they were told by the Southern governments to go fight for–slavery–was immoral. The other man I shared the panel with was none other than the great-great grandson of Confederate President Jefferson Davis, Bertram Hayes-Davis. Bertram talked about how he acknowledges the South had fought for an unjust cause like slavery, but didn’t want Jefferson Davis to be the scapegoat for criticism of the Confederacy. He wants to improve the image of his great-great grandfather and the way history will remember him in the generations to come.
The other speakers that day were Dr. William J. Cooper, Boyd Professor of History at Louisiana State University who talked about the relationship between Jefferson Davis and Robert E. Lee, and Dr. Brooks D. Simpson, ASU Foundation Professor of History at Arizona State University who talked about the relationship between Abraham Lincoln and his generals, specifically Ulysses S. Grant. Furthermore, I was surprised to find out that the great-great grandson of Ulysses S. Grant was also in the audience that day, which reminded me of how big of a scale this war was and how the descendants of the men who fought it are still affected by the issue of remembrance today.
John Hennessy asked me on the panel about how young people in my age group and younger remember the civil war. I responded by saying that there are still a huge number of youthful historians who are extremely passionate about Civil War history. I also mentioned that there are huge number of people my age who don’t remember what they learned in high school or college about the war, or just don’t care. I stressed the importance of how the war is remembered and that it is up to the next generation to carry on the legacy of remembrance. All in all, I made new contacts and had an enriching day at Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania National Military Park and urge everyone to attend their 150th Anniversary of the Overland Campaign of 1864 coming up in May.