Tag Archives: Slavery

Just Finished Drafting the Final Chapter of the Book!

The only known photo of William Ellis Jones, II. If you know of another, please contact me!

The only known photo of William Ellis Jones, II. If you know of another, please contact me!

As some of you may have noticed, I have been very quiet. That’s because I have been very busy.

Tonight I finished the last sentence of the last chapter of “The Book”; the Biography and Civil war Diary of my g-g-g-grandfather, William Ellis Jones, II. The book is going to be called “The Spirits of Bad Men Made Perfect”, which is an homage to a line in William’s Civil War Diary, and (I think at least) a perfect metaphor for the mythology of the Lost Cause.

There is much more work to do. I have to complete the footnotes, finish two Appendices, write an Acknowledgements page, and go through the thing with a fine tooth comb for style, grammar, etc. – but it’s damn close.

Monday morning I begin searching in earnest for publishers.

I am so happy, and so proud of this accomplishment (I started working on this project in 2006), that I could just dance a jig and then spit!


The Greatest Epic Failure

creole-bitters1

The Bitter Truth is Often Sweet to Swallow!

A month or so back I signed up, via Coursera, to take a 10 week long class at the University of Pennsylvania on the “History of the Slave South”. Since this is one of my favorite subjects of study – a passion, no less – I’ve been anxiously awaiting the start of the class. It began today and I was absolutely astonished to find that there are people from all over the world taking this course. Folks from Australia, New Zealand, German, Spain, and England all enrolled in class dealing exclusively with the unique flavor of slavery that flourished in the Southern Colonies (and later States) of North America. Fascinating!

Today I completed my first assignment; write a brief piece in response to the question, “How was your nation or region shaped by the slave trade?

Here’s my response:

CH Jones – Resident of Raleigh, North Carolina, U.S.A. / Native of Southside Virginia, Nottoway & Roanoke River Valley Region.

My home region was not only shaped by the Transatlantic slave trade, it was and in many respects, still is, completely defined by antebellum slavery – socially, politically, economically, and culturally. Volumes have been written – with many more yet to be written – about the specifics of economics and historical impact on the region. In regards to social and cultural impact, we’ve only begun to scratch the surface.

In the latter part of the 18th century and early 19th century, issues of race and class distinction began to take on great significance in Virginia and North Carolina. In this period there emerged a great fear of “free” blacks – often highly skilled, moderately well educated, and surprisingly autonomous in their physical as well as social movement – “mixing with” and exciting the upward ambitions of both enslaved blacks and lower class (often indentured, or nearly so)  whites.

Upper class whites; those who most directly benefitted from a hardened, legally legitimized institution of slavery, in combination with a rigid, near-feudal caste system which kept most whites equally outside the civil and economic sphere of decision making and economic power, saw themselves as a “pure” and superior race who were destined by God to rule. They saw the mixing of races and the aspirations of lower class whites as a direct threat to their divinely ordained place at the top of society.

And yet, despite myriad laws and regulations passed throughout the 18th and 19th centuries to separate both races, classes, and even sexes, despite sophisticated “divide and conquer” psychologies used to pit poor-whites against free and enslaved blacks, despite entrenched religious justifications used to perpetuate slavery and the social caste status-quo – the “aristocracy” of the south failed to maintain and perpetuate a stratified society in which silos of race, gender, and class coexisted, separately.

Their failure is evident in every respect of the “southern antebellum” culture that arose in the 19th century, matured in the years immediately before and after the Civil War, went underground during the closing decades of Reconstruction, and then began to openly flourish beginning in the years immediately following WWI – and which thrives today openly and unapologetically, despite the lack of self-awareness of many of its most enthusiastic practitioners and beneficiaries – or its most ardent opponents.

I am a white descendant of Planation owning slaveholders. This morning my alarm clock shook me awake to the sound of Aretha Franklin belting out her now famous, and hardly demurring “Respect”; a song which, at every level, flies in the face of what the upper class, white, male social engineers of 18th and 19th century Virginia attempted to institutionalize.

When I arose from bed I showered – alone. There was no servant there to bath me, dress me, or do my hair. In fact my hair requires very little “doing”, as I wear it very short – much like the female slaves of the 19th century were required to do, as their masters found African hair unruly and offensive. So I find my own hair when it gets too long. I crop it close.

My clothing includes indigo blue dyed denim jeans (indigo being a hugely profitable crop in the plantation south, it’s cultivation, production, and application imported to the Colonies by slaves in the 19th century) – not silk or lace or taffeta. I wear flat soled work boots – not slippers or heels. I make my own coffee and I take out my own garbage.

The language I use is infused with regionalisms informed by generation upon generation of exchange between white and black and mixed race neighbors. For breakfast I’ll “crack a guinnea into my pone” (eggs & grits.) For dinner I will “cook up a mess of collards.” When I go to work I won’t leave until “I’ve hoed to the end of the row.” When I get in trouble I’m “in the stripes” (a reference to flogging or whipping.) When I’m almost done with a monolithic task, I’m, “working the short rows.” When I’m unexpectedly fortunate, I’m “shittin’ in high cotton.”

When I head out for an evening’s entertainment in Raleigh, I’ll likely venture downtown to the City Market area. There, surrounded by street musicians of every color and creed, I’ll hear strains of blues, reggae, “beach music” (a unique North/South Carolina blend of African inspired blues combined with country “dance” music), rap and hip-hop, all played out in the open air on cobbled sidewalks and streets that once hosted the weekly slave market auctions, held in this place, more than one hundred years before I was born.

Depending upon my mood, I can step into any number of restaurants offering Caribbean fare, soul-food, or low-country Creole. Inside these establishments patrons – black, white, Latino, and otherwise – mix and comingle without the least awareness of the “failed” culture in which they live.

They eat, sleep, dance, and make love together. They work side by side. They love and hate one another with undifferentiated passion – rarely based on skin color or even class – usually having to do with more common human complaints of ambition, desire, and greed.

Meanwhile, a mixed race man of half-African, continental descent sits in the “White House” (which was built entirely by slaves), and contemplates how to heal a deeply divided, racist nation that can’t seem to work through its racist history. Despite his concerns, the movie “12 Years a Slave” sits poised to sweep the academy awards, demonstrating that America may finally be paying attention to its past, after all.

The culture that thrives in my community demonstrates that Virginia, the South, and the nation as a whole – despite its many successes and social, civil advances – is the Greatest Epic Failure in the history of the western world.

Thank God.


The Immobilizing Power of Intimidation

John Hennessy Speaking at the National Sporting Library, Photographer Douglas Lees

John Hennessy Speaking at the National Sporting Library, Photographer Douglas Lees.

A few days ago I began reading John Hennessy’s “Return to Bull Run” (1993, Simon & Schuster), which is considered by people who know about such things to be THE definitive work on the topic of the Second Battle of Bull Run (Manassas) which occurred in August of 1862. Mr. Hennessy is a historian with the National Park Service at the Manassas National Battlefield. He’s authored several books on various Civil War topics and he is a regular staff contributor to the Civil War blog “Mysteries and Conundrums” – which is where I learned of him and his book.

The book, so far, is simply wonderful. It’s well-written, entertaining, and approachable in the same way that Shelby Foote’s “Narrative” is well-written and approachable. It differs dramatically from Foote in the aspect that Mr. Hennessy is a historian first, and a gifted story-teller only as a matter of the readers’ good fortune. (Hennessy is a gifted storyteller. Foote was a less-than-disciplined historian, IMHO.)

Just to get this in perfect context, this book consists of the following; 472 pages of thoroughly researched and documented prose narrative plus multiple maps; 88 pages of footnotes; 3 pages of “Order of Battle” (which provides the arrangement and ranking personnel and brigade units on the field); 24 pages of bibliography; and 10 pages of Index notes.

This book is about a single battle, composed of three major engagements, which occurred over the course of just three days.  “Return to Bull Run” takes 607 pages to discuss and document the seminal events of just three days of a war that lasted four long, complicated years!

And I’m trying to place context to a War Diary that covers not only this battle (Manassas), but the whole nine months of William Ellis Jones’s service throughout the course of the 1862 Peninsular campaign, the Shenandoah Campaign, and Lee’s foray into Union territory when he takes his Army into Maryland? Before I was through the first chapter of “Return to Bull Run”, I was asking myself “What in the hell do I think I am doing?”

The people who tackle these subjects have spent their lives and the entirety of their careers studying the subject. I spent my life and career chasing the idea that the corporate world would eventually recognize and reward me for my creativity, hard work and unique contributions. Instead, I got a stern reminder that Capitalism is all about consumption. Once they consumed the best, most productive intellectual years of my life, they spit me out like the indigestible gristle on a well-gnawed chicken bone.

Indeed. What in the hell do I think I’m doing?

I’m taking a deep breath. I’m thinking.

I’m not a Civil War scholar – not a historian. I never will be. That decision was made for me when I was fifteen years old when my grandfather told me in no-uncertain terms that history majors and archeologists could not earn a living, could not live in homes of their own, were perpetually poor. I just cringe when I think of how he broke my heart with those words. I cringe to think about how wrong he was and how different my life might have been. It was the ONLY thing I think Papa was ever wrong about. He was so right about so many things – and so all-knowing – I just gave up my dreams and I did what he wanted me to do. I went into the dreamless, soul-crushing world of business.

And I was miserable. And today I am broke, and way under-employed. But despite all the wasted time, I am now doing what I wanted to do all my life. And I am happy, creatively and intellectually fulfilled. Finally.

But I digress. I’m still no historian.

Here’s the thing that I need to keep reminding myself. I don’t need to be a historian! God knows there are countless well-written, well-researched books about the Civil War. I don’t need to think that I am in any way competing with them. What I need to do is tell the truth – tell William’s side of the story. Tell the story he could not tell because of the social and political risk to his life, his family, his future. There’s probably not a historian around who can tell that story as truthfully as William’s own blood kin.

That’s my obligation to William. Tell his story. I don’t need to fight the whole damn Civil War all over again!

I just hope that the real historians out there will see it that way, and make room on their shelves for a little book about a great big man who lived in the conflicted middle ground between loyalty, morality, and the immobilizing power of intimidation. A man who went on to try to bring wisdom to future generations so that the Civil War would never have to be fought again. A man who still has a great deal to tell us, despite the passing of more than 150 years since he went completely silent on the subject of war, of slavery, of a social and civil fabric ripped wide open by fear and ignorance and arrogance. A man who still speaks to me every day and every night in my dreams. He wants his story told. Even if I’m hopelessly intimidated by him – and by all those insanely smart historians out there on the haunted battlefields where my great-great-great-great-grandfather huddled in the cold; shoeless and hungry, praying he survived another day – if only just to have a chance to have his story told.


Reading Between the Lines – Civil War Diary

COVER1862For months now I have been parsing through William Ellis Jones, II’s Civil War diary, plucking details, context, and hidden subtext from his scribbles. While the diary has been previously used by many Civil War scholars and is quoted in a countless list of books and articles about the 1862 Peninsular and Shenandoah marches and battles, no one to date had done a comprehensive study of the whole text.

Despite my lack of academic pedigree or publishing chops, I have the advantage over most of those scholars in that I’ve spent eight years studying William Ellis Jones, II’s family history. Having those details – knowing who, where, and what he came from – has given me a really precise lens through which to examine the intent and implications of the diary’s author.

That lens has allowed me to pluck meaning from seemingly benign statements. For instance; in August of 1862, William and his battery witness the advance of the whole of Jackson’s Army marching brigade after brigade into the Shenandoah Valley. He describes the endless lines of soldiers as “stretched out to the crack of doom.” This statement appears on its face to be a simple description of a very large, ominous looking advance of troops, until you dig deeper and discover why William chose to enclose the description in quotes.

“…stretched out to the crack of doom.” is a quote taken from the speech of a Mr. Stanton, published in the “Proceedings of the General Anti-slavery Convention” from the British and Foreign Anti-Slavery Society, published in London in 1841. (Page 479.)

Mr. Stanton used the phrase in reference to the United States’ desire to extend and legalize institutionalized slavery not only within her own borders, but to use the nation’s growing international strength and influence to extend industrialized slavery into Mexico, Latin America, South America, and beyond. Today the idea that such an expansion of slavery was ever conceived seems preposterous to us, but a study of the antebellum, pro-slavery coalition operating inside and on the periphery of the United States Congress prior to the Civil War shows us that this kind of international expansion of slavery was exactly what the proto-Confederates intended. This was to become a central component of the United States foreign policy; if southerners could manage to wrest a majority in the House and Senate.

The idea that William read this speech, was familiar enough with it to quote from it, and had a firm conceptual grasp of the idea that the massive army he was watching (and serving in) represented a real physical manifestation of the policy that Mr. Stanton warned against in 1841, is simply amazing to me. He was just twenty-four years old, and had been born and reared in a city (Richmond, Virginia), whose very foundations were laid by the hands of slaves.

William in no way celebrated the idea of slavery in the use of this quote. Rather, I believe, he carefully selected it to record his true feelings about what was happening, while remaining just ambiguous enough for self-preservation (should his diary fall into the hands of one of his commanders.)

The diary is dotted with examples like this one; statements that show us the veiled concerns and conflicted loyalties of a less than enthusiastic confederate soldier.

When viewed from this perspective, it becomes clear why William chose to never write or publish any of his own words about the War, and why he chose to rear his sons with social and political leanings that were anything but in keeping with the spirit of glorification of the “Lost Cause”.

More to come.


Slaves in the Family – Review

slaves-in-family-edward-ball-paperback-cover-artSlaves in the Family, by Edward Ball

Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, New York

Edward Ball blows the doors off the spoken-of-only-in-inferences-and-whispers subject of the source of his family’s wealth, status, and generations long domination (economically and socially) of the South Carolina Low Country; i.e., their slaves.

The book is a thoroughly researched historical document specific to the Ball family, well-written, and candid. But more than all that, it is a look at All Our Histories,  putting a mirror in front of us and forcing us to look at the aftermath (for both black and white) of slavery, and the “cover-up” created by white descendants to romanticize and gloss over the grim facts of the past.

Bell’s is one of the bravest books on this subject that I have so far encountered. Near the top of my “Must Read” list.


Journal of a Residence on a Georgian Plantation in 1838-1839 – Review

Frances Kimble - JournalJournal of a Residence on a Georgian Plantation in 1838-1839, by Frances Anne Kemble, Edited with an introduction by, John A Scott

Brown Thrasher Books / University of Georgia Press, Athens, Georgia, 1984. (Originally published, 1863.)

Frances Kimble’s journal is surprisingly approachable, despite its vintage. She’s a skilled, sharp-eyed “journalist”, motivated to tell a story that few people in the 1830’s wanted to hear, fewer would have found sympathetic, and most would have derided as fiction.

This book is ‘Downton Abby’ with an underbelly so bleak, so grim it makes Dickens’ (writing in the same vein, on similar subjects occurring in England), seem like pretty cartoons. Kimble’s work is the very factual, well-documented, first-person account of what slavery was in the American South. Hard to face, but impossible to look away.

If you only read one book on the subject of antebellum slavery, this is the one.


The Ghost of the Ashley Wilkes Archetype Haunts Me

Ashley Wilkes; effete, tortured, loading with fear and self-loathing. And fascinating to me.

Ashley Wilkes; effete, tortured, loading with fear and self-loathing. And fascinating to me.

My head is a swimming blur of conflicting priorities. On one hand, I have William Ellis Jones, II, the Civil War Diarist and book publisher demanding that I “get back to original programming”. On the other hand I have his grandson, William Ellis Jones, III, and his dead daughter and his two living, but very tormented children, agitating for an expansion of the fiction “assignment” I produced for Mr. McNair.

I shipped McNair the deeply revised story (Is it a short story? Is it a novella? Is it a draft of a book I didn’t know wanted to be written?) yesterday – with tremendous trepidation.

I’ll tell you why I have trepidation. It isn’t about my weak verbs, or too many adjectives, or lulls in the prose, or even the fact that the damn thing is too long to be a short story and too short to be a novel. All those things can be resolved if the thing has any legs underneath it at all. My trepidation has to do with something that I have dealt with my whole life, and can’t do a damn thing about.

It’s about who I am, where and who I come from – and what that all means – in this case, to Mr. McNair as a person.

Yeah… yeah… yeah. I know I’m not making any sense.

I’ll spell it out for you.

McNair’s protagonist in Pickett (and I suspect Land O’ Goshen too, tho I have not read it yet), is an Alabama “cracker”; a man from the dirt-farmer class of southern folks who make fantastically tough, very colorful characters in modern literature. They’re just interesting to read and write about because they’re so damn uncivilized and irrational that they’re actually “novel”, in the original sense of the word.

When McNair and I first met, and I told him I was writing a bio of my g-g-g-grandfather, who fought in the Civil War, he instantly recommended a book for me to read. He said it was the best piece of autobiographical / historical prose he’d ever read, and it demonstrated near perfectly how to draw out a character and bring him to life.

That book is ‘All Over But The Shoutin’, by Rick Bragg. And I agree that it is incredibly well-written. It’s a great book about a whole lot of tragically broken, complicated, very colorful misfits.

But here’s the thing… Bragg’s misfits, like McNair’s protagonist, are of a “class” of Southern stereotypes that, while interesting, are about as remote from my experience and understanding as it gets (I could come up with a lot of nifty comparisons here, but that would just be trying too hard.)

Bragg, in his memoir, writes “White people had it hard and black people had it harder than that, because what are the table scraps of nothing? This was not the genteel and parochial South, where monied whites felt they owed some generations-old debt to their black neighbors because their great-great-grandfather owned their great-great-grandfather. No one I knew ever had a mammy.”

Well guess what? My own Mother (born 1936) had a Mammy. And her Daddy had a black wet-nurse. And both sides of my mother’s parentage descended from the “Plantation Class”. And I grew up with an overwhelming sense that we “…owed some generations-old debt to their black neighbors because their great-great-grandfather owned their great-great-grandfather…”, because the fact was that we knew every advantage we had (and even by the 21st century, there are still many) came at the expense of someone who our ancestors “owned”. I grew up understanding that my intelligence and ability to converse and move with ease through any social or business setting was literally stolen from the descendants of the people my ancestors enslaved.

I find the struggles and torments of the fallen southern aristocracy to be dark, often quite tragic, but more than anything else – complicated. And I’ll never be able to shed my fascination with the concept or the characters – because they are the people I know. They are, in fact, me, as well.

All that said, I wonder if Mr. McNair– given the characters and culture he knows best and who he respects – will be able to stomach reading about a somewhat effete, fallen aristocrat, who is full of self-loathing and guilt on so many levels that he can’t think his way out of his wet paper bag of pathos.

Looking at me and my characters from his (or better perhaps, from Rick Bragg’s point of view), we’re not a very sympathetic lot. We’re the people who built the system that stole every opportunity from everyone “below” us on the social ladder, and now that the ladder has upturned we’re sitting in the dirt feeling sorry for ourselves, trying to figure out what happened and where we went wrong. Pathetic really.

The reality is that we’ll probably never escape the class issues that define and divide us at least as much as the race issue. It makes me sad. I wonder whether this issue is enough to sink any hopes I might have had that McNair might actually help me become a better writer, and then do something with it.

I’m just hoping that all the above is just my own pathetic insecurity – and not what Mr. McNair actually sees in me or my work.

Maybe I just think too much.


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