Archive | January 2014

TWO HUNDRED YEARS A SLAVE TRADER: Charleston, South Carolina

A Graceful Little City Built on a Soul-killing System

Packing Charleston’s expansive visitor center, tourists signed up for pirate tours, ghost haunts, dungeon walks, and plantation garden tickets.  But George and me?  We picked up a freebie map and strolled toward the Old Slave Mart.  About our speed.

Charleston proved to be unsettling—an unhinged, continual ying-yang.  Its well-preserved historic beauty and progressive present melded with a past of stark evil.  The majority of stolen Africans shipped to America arrived via Charleston harbor.  Longtime mayor Joe Riley speculated that 80 percent of African-Americans could connect an ancestor to Charleston.

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The Old Slave Mart museum, small and dramatic, was housed in the last existing building actually used as slave auction “gallery” after public slave sales were banned in 1856.  The ground floor seemed no larger than a pet shop.  Its first section was the showroom. The word gave me gooseflesh, dehumanizing the merchandise sold here 150 years before, as if human beings were mere machines, Jeeps or Toyotas.  (The structure actually served as an auto dealership in the 1920’s.)

The recreated voice of a slave narrative from the WPA project boomed around that first squeezed showroom.  Blunt and vivid, the former slave’s memories detailed the auction’s degradations.  Around a corner, sound effects intruded—traders’ voices, horse hooves clomping—as we read panel after panel supplying uncompromising facts about the slave business, the efforts of slaves to display themselves as more healthy or more worthless, to avoid cruel owners, gain bearable positions, and keep their families intact.  We were spared a visit to the barracoon, where slaves were shackled before auctions, and the “dead room,” both long razed for a rear parking lot.  Absorbed and appalled, George and I explored the slave mart realizing that we’d actually joined a ghost tour after all.  Slavery seemed a haint that couldn’t be ignored in pretty, preening Charleston, rattling its chains across the centuries.

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The relentless procession of facts overwhelmed us, such as the small number of Carolinians actually involved in owning and trading most slaves—3 percent owned 95 percent. Three lousy percent.  It royally pissed me off to the consider horrific global and national consequences from this tiny number of slave masters. Four years of fratricidal war to preserve such a rare prerogative?

After our tour, we circled back to the gift/book shop.  George stepped out for fresh air (and reprieve, I think) while I perused a Gullah dictionary.  A young African-American woman behind the counter wanted to know if she could help me, and I said I’d love to know how to get closer to the Gullah dialect.  She took umbrage.  “Start with that children’s book, then,” she said, pointing, “because you will be like a child when it comes to learning Gullah.”

I caught her tone and attitude, familiar to me from my halting forays among black radicals when I was a student.  Ah, I was again the Blundering White Dude, trespassing where he wasn’t welcome, another whitey bound to misunderstand. With no idea that I was interested linguistically, the clerk pivoted toward bad faith.  Maybe she thought I was going to break out in ridicule, pronouncing deese’s and dat’s.

But after we chatted about the cultural biases we all so easily slip into, country folk versus city slickers, South versus North, she pivoted back and warmly shared with me a detailed picture of Gullah in her own background—she grew up just outside the city—and her family’s relationships, her girlhood adventures with her country relatives on the Sea Islands and those who lived in and around Charleston itself.  Her relatives, she recounted with pride, had once hosted a white linguist while he studied the Sea Islands Creole.  “If I figure you out in time,” she was told me, “I might just invite you for dinner at my granny’s.”

It wasn’t exactly a firm invitation, but I appreciated it.  When George came back into the museum foyer and stood at my side, the clerk shared a few common Gullah sayings with him.  She seemed amused and bemused by George, this tall, self-possessed Northern black man, and recounted some of our conversation about Gullah culture for his benefit.  She implored George to understand that Gullah was virtually the lodestone of all Black English.  She teased out a few phrases from him, innocuous and commonplace phrases, and assured him that wherever he went and whatever he said, Sea Islands Creole was the wellspring of his vocabulary and outlook.  He carried the South with him everywhere, whether he knew it or not.

“That’s why we’re here,” I told George after we left the museum, “to discover your South Carolina roots.  Right, Gullah Guy?”  As we hustled across the cobblestones, dark clouds massed over the afternoon’s bright blue.  Despite the oncoming storm, we were determined to walk  the southern tip of Charleston, the storied Battery neighborhood.

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George was taken aback that by the clerk’s aggressive expectation that he embrace his hidden-but-ever-present Southern cultural identity.  Still, he reminded me there were doors upon doors unopened behind the clerk’s attitudes, pain and struggle that made her so ready to expect injury from a white guy looking at a Gullah dictionary in a gift shop.  George explained what was on his mind as he’d strolled, alone, the block around the Old Slave Mart.  “Since Savannah, maybe I’m hyper-vigilant about the ways that African Americans do and don’t get included in the city’s history.  So thank goodness for that young woman at the museum, for her Sea Island stories and Gullah vocabulary.  She’s providing some color around here, and fiercely protective of her people.”

Following a sidewalk across from the wide harbor, we crossed the threshold of Charleston’s yin and yang, from the slave market towards its opposite as we walked south.  The luxurious results of forced labor, antebellum homes became palatial, fenced behind wrought iron, facing the harbor’s marine horizons.  The dark clouds finally unloaded and a massive squall hit the city’s Battery, Atlantic winds whipping the palmettos.

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Defenseless, without rain jackets or umbrellas, we took refuge on the porch of the Edmondston-Alston House Museum.  Waiting out the storm, we joined the day’s last house tour.  Our guide was a maternal blonde who remained enchanted and excited by the house’s material comforts and original décor.  But for all her love of the finer details, I was nonplussed by her failure to scratch the posh surface.  It felt disconcerting, immediately after the slave market, to wander lavish rooms, exhorted to note every silver pattern and gilded frame.  Our guide’s brief mention of a slave stairwell and slave quarters in a back wing only highlighted how whiplashed labor made this self-celebratory antebellum household function and flourish. We learned so little about the family’s contributions and careers, our guide’s narrative concentrating on the things they left behind.  I studied portraits in the dining room only to feel the dullness and stupidity of the aristrocracy’s blithe lives of ease.  A graceful, beautiful little society built on a soul-killing system, to which a tiny minority–The Three Percent–clung more vociferously than anywhere in the South.

When I noted dynastic bullshit like the Alston family “Coat of Arms” and learned that the upstairs piazza hosted General Beauregard’s view of the 1861 bombardment of Fort Sumter, I recalled that Charleston’s Sons of Confederate Veterans had thrown a Secession Ball on December 20, 2010 to celebrate the 150th anniversary of South Carolina’s withdrawal from the Union.  Described in invitations as a “joyous night of music, dancing, food and drink,” 300 white Charlestonians reveled in period dress while a multiracial crowd of more than 100 protested outside, including Mayor Riley.  NAACP officials compared it to Japanese-Americans celebrating Pearl Harbor or German-Americans celebrating the Holocaust.  When Mayor Riley declared, “the cause of this disastrous secession was…to protect the inhumane and immoral institution of slavery,” Secession Ball revelers shouted down their mayor as a liar. Each celebrant had paid a hundred bucks, after all, to celebrate the courage of their ancestors in defending their Southern heritage.

My head again spun from yin to yang as our guide led us through the master’s study.  She pointed out an island, Shutes’ Folly, in Charleston harbor, exulting in how the tiny islet was visible from the study’s window.  She speculated that the architect deliberately framed the “charming view.”  The guide did not mention how a fort on that island, Pinckney’s Castle, imprisoned 304 African children in 1858, and no wonder.  The incident is little recorded or acknowledged, and I had resort to a contemporary report in the Dec. 1, 1858 Anti-Slavery Reporter to confirm the story.  U.S. federal forces seized an illegal slave trader, the Echo, a half-century after the Atlantic slave trade was abolished in 1807, packed with stolen African children. “Dying at the rate of ten a day,” the children were held there as authorities in Charleston decided whether to sell them on local slave markets or return them to West Africa, where they’d been purchased for “fifty cents to one dollar” per child.  The Anti-Slavery Reporter left the matter unresolved, “there to remain till it should be determined how to dispose of them.”  The journalist noted that the nearly worthless individual children would bring profits of $178,000 as a cargo, concluding “such gains are too tempting to be resisted by those who make haste to be rich.”

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We had Shute’s Folly, now a castle-less sand spit, in our sights again as we cruised to Fort Sumter the next morning.  The fort occupied a man-made reef where the Atlantic met the harbor.  Whitecaps whipped low rocks, flags whipping straight north.  The reconstructed, walled fortress occupied every inch of its Atlantic reef.   Fort Sumter felt unreal, just as sail-away ephemeral as Charleston itself, barely tethered to land.  It seemed vulnerable to the open Atlantic and attack from any direction on multiple shores.  I hustled onto the gangplank, half-believing the island fortress might roil away on a current before I reached the dock.

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A young ranger, Jim, a native Charlestonian, herded the boatload of us near the original wall remnants and, as the opening shot of his narrative, asked, “Who fired the Civil War’s first shot?”

Out of a crowd of visitors from all around the U.S. North and South, a middle-aged man yelled, “We did!”

Everybody laughed.

Jim stressed the length of the siege and the ruination of the original fort, which was not yet finished when the Confederates fired on the site on April 12, 1861.  Despite everlasting Southern claims that the Civil War was about preserving states’ rights and not about preserving slavery, the war began exactly where the mass of captured Africans were shipped to our shores, here on the lip of Charleston harbor’s open mouth.

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Schoolbook versions seemed to begin and end with that first shot, but the long drama of Sumter enacted the entire Civil War in microcosm.  The longest siege in the global history of warfare since ancient times, the Confederates took the federal fort shortly after that famous first shot and held on to it.  But in1863, the Union focused on recapturing Sumter, forcing the Confederates to endure two years of siege.  Accounts focus on the soldiers’ deprivations, the supply lines tenuous or cut altogether, the constant bombardment and rebuilding.

We learned that 500 slaves were the real heroes of Confederate-occupied Sumter, risking their necks and breaking their backs to sandbag and rebuild those improvised walls.  Unpaid forced laborers toiled, hopeless as Sisyphus, in the service of their own further enslavement.  That’s Historic Charleston for ya.

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The young ranger and I stood high on the replica ramparts, overlooking the neighborhood just across the water where he went to high school. I asked Jim how the War was presented in his schooling.  “As a battle for state’s rights,” he said, without hesitation.  “And only that.”

His forthright answer sounded tinged with regret and wonder.  I confessed that my Northern education stressed the ending-slavery narrative and mostly overlooked the excesses of Union destructiveness and occupation.  Every day, Jim dealt with that inevitable answer to his opening question–“We did”–and none of us really know who we are, a hundred-fifty years after that War Between the States, that War Against Northern Aggression, that Civil War.  We can’t yet even agree on a name for it; we have to come to national parks to get a balanced view of the war’s origins and motives.  In our nationwide curriculum, Civil War history seems spun with bias instead of threaded by facts and counter-facts.

Jim hurried with me to the afternoon’s return voyage, breathless with explanations.  I was breathless, too, trying out counter-explanations as if I were rehearsing for a debate that would never end, wishing like I could float, Chagall-like, above the whole scene, ethereal, released from this strange, eternal controversy.  Fort Sumter felt immaterial, woven of a gauzy, unanswered question.  Why does this old, settled conflict feel so raw, so vital, still contested at its very origin?

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HOWLING GROUNDS AND SCORCHED EARTH, Part 2: Following Sherman’s March To Savannah, Georgia

 “Who Was We?”:  Doubts and Redoubts in Savannah

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 More mounds heaped at the edge of central Savannah, hosting more  tales of battle, Southern defiance and ultimate surrender. A grassy hillock was upraised, earthen, and obviously handmade, like the Great Temple Mound we’d just climbed in Ocmulgee.  Puzzled, George and I studied the Spring Hill Redoubt, a reconstruction of the Revolutionary War’s Battle of Savannah.  The 234-year old battlefield seemed strangely spiffy, and no wonder:  archeologists did not unearth evidence of the original until 2005, and the city created this park a year later.

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I groaned inwardly.  Too many layers of history had upended themselves, as if from quaking tectonic plates, in too few days–a brute, European-style pile-up of wars ancient and medieval and modern, blood gushing again and again into the same contested soil.

Here in Savannah, I absorbed the tale of this 1779 Revolutionary War battle, another layer of mounding Southern history I hadn’t much considered.  Our just-born nation, fighting to cut its cord to Britain, suffered its second-bloodiest battle here.  French, Haitian, Swedish, Irish, and Polish fighters joined the local colonists against the Brits.  Hundreds of slaves worked twenty-hour days building trenches and redoubts to hold off the British, but by the second wave of attacks, those trenches were crammed with 800 coalition corpses.  “So, the British forces held on to their colony,” I summarized from a laminated historical marker at the site, “and we retreated.”

We?” George asked, his eyebrows raised. “Who was we?

Okay, okay.  The pronoun confusion wasn’t just about the 1779 mash-up of those foreign allies, or the still-undefined status of separate American colonies into a unified nation-state, but of course the “we” of that corps of slaves.  The Coastal Heritage Society presented Battlefield Park as a memorial to those “who died for freedom” from “the clutches of the crown.”  The Society clearly did not have any doubts about who “we” were.

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As we left Battlefield Park, I kept company with my own doubts and re-doubts, even about my country’s sacrosanct origin story.  The American colonies’ secession from Britain seemed remarkably like the Confederate succession from “us,” and just as ill-considered.  Premature, hot-headed and blithe at once.  I was royally sick of hearing that our soldiers always “die for freedom” without ever questioning what this freedom really is, who gets it, and why killing is the only way to obtain it.

Savannah’s extensive historic neighborhoods stretch back the centuries intact, though the port city was the very object of Sherman’s March to the Sea, which scorched the earth across most of Georgia to capture it.  To a city already weakened in years of Union blockade, its forts already bombed and seized, its fields flooded, Sherman issued a threat to burn and ravage the whole gorgeous caboodle.  Savannah remains the Savannah we treasure today only because it escaped direct fire eighty-two years after the Spring Hill battle, during the last autumn of the Civil War.

George and I crossed Martin Luther King Boulevard into the center of town, looking forward to learning more about a paradigm-shifting episode in Savannah’s history, one that wasn’t about violence and threats of destruction.  This little-celebrated event brought lasting change through the hard work of unity and non-violent resistance.  The Savannah Boycott had ended in success in October 1961.

I had targeted the city’s Civil Rights Museum as a key Savannah destination, so I was a little disconcerted that the staff member at the city visitor’s center didn’t seem quite sure where the museum was.

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George and I easily found it, though, in a neighborhood on the edge of Savannah’s historic district. Occupying a former bank that served African-Americans during segregation, the small museum was big and bold in its approach to hands-on history. With displays of Savannah’s African-American past going back to slavery days, it concentrated most of its space to the Savannah Boycott of the early 1960’s.  A lunch counter was faithfully reproduced in its entirety, with an audio feed that scolded the visitor for even trying to get service.  A first-rate film unreeled personal narratives of many living legends of the city’s civil rights struggles, some of whom rose to prominence in the national movement.  Together, their narrative history weaved together the whole tale, how Savannah’s black community mobilized early in the South’s commercial boycott movement and soon became among the most successful.  The boycott successfully drove segregated businesses into bankruptcy and quickly “enlightened” white Savannah about black political and economic prowess.

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Soon after, Martin Luther King, Jr. anointed Savannah “the most desegregated city south of the Mason-Dixon line,” but despite that early and lasting success, Savannah’s pioneering civil rights victories are seldom recognized and often forgotten in the roll-call of the struggle.  Even the King Institute’s own website, touting Greensboro and Nashville in its wrap-up of the early sit-in and boycotts, failed to mention Savannah.

Old Savannah’s mass-tourist mob scene intensified down on the riverfront, full of bustle, buskers, and festive evening lights.  Competing with working, industrial freighters, cruise ships emptied more visitors onto the quay, adding to the party-time mix.  Under the Sheraton Hotel, sculptor Dorothy Radley Spradley’s memorial to the black family, depicted a father, mother, and two children and bore an inscription by Maya Angelou:

“We were stolen, sold and bought together from the African Continent. We got on the slave ship together. We lay back to belly in the holds of the slave ships in each others excrement and urine together, sometimes died together, and our lifeless bodies thrown overboard together. Today, we are standing up together, with faith and even some joy…”



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George and I wandered away from yelling tipplers and back to the river, where, as if on cue, an extended African-American family emerged from a dockside excursion boat in the throes of reunion festivities.  The clash of Angelou’s agonized yet understated expression of black experience amid the riverside party addled my brain, and I found myself staring at the water.  My earlier misgivings haunted me; I felt myself a disconnected Westerner with no hope of penetrating the real South.  Other Savannah visitors seamlessly joined the good time atmosphere around the bars and craft markets.  Why wasn’t I just as content to line up for the next Garden of Good and Evil cemetery tour or the Haunted House Scare or Paula Deen’s next serving of Authentic Southern Cookin’?  Why was I so bugged that the Civil Rights Museum was empty during the crowded high season? We built National Monuments around any bloody battleground but didn’t commemorate nonviolent change.  Even where human rights won unqualified victory, we forgot to remember.  Across the river, a convention center business reception was underway, spotlights revealing people in evening clothes wandering with goblets on the opposite shore.

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George said he wouldn’t mind leaving Savannah soon.   “Even though the city has a black majority, I didn’t see many African Americans living in the older central parts of the area we walked through.  I kept thinking that black people helped build the city and its plazas.  But I didn’t see many blacks owning those properties.” Though the charming, spooky city made me ache to discover ever more of it, I didn’t protest.

HOWLING GROUNDS AND SCORCHED EARTH: FOLLOWING SHERMAN’S MARCH THROUGH GEORGIA

 Pt 1.   Through Butts County to Macon

 

The old guy in the booth told us the mountain was closed.  “You can drive around all y’ all want, but we’re down for the season.”  In hiking shorts, at the gates to Stone Mountain on another one of our journeys out from Atlanta, George and I surrendered our plan to trek up the summit. Studying the brochure as we fled the place, I realized Stone Mountain sold itself as a commercial, Confederate version of Mt. Rushmore. Its massive carving of Stonewall Jackson, Robert E. Lee and Jefferson Davis was the “largest bas-relief in the world.”  The brochure proclaimed the mountain “sacred ground.”

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Sacred to whom?  Was I supposed to pay twenty bucks to admire the carvings of three enemies of American unity and universal liberty?  The details got worse and worse.  In season, the park featured skyrides, scenic trains, golf-course resorts, “the world’s largest laser light show,” and something called the Yogi Bear 4-D adventure.  Konfederate Kitsch.  “I can’t stand pay-to-play motorized amusements.”  I wagged the brochure at George in disgust.  “Jesus.”

“You’re swearing again.”  He laughed.  “Don’t you like fun?”

“I hate fun!” I cried. Later I learned historical facts about Stone Mountain that would curdle any amusement.  When George Washington’s treaties with the mountain’s native, rightful owners failed, warfare began against the Creek Indians.  The tribe lost the battle and their sacred mountain in 1821.  A century later, the Ku Klux Klan got heavily involved, fundraising to build the Confederate monument.  The racist terror group used Stone Mountain for annual rallies until 1981.

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We explored back roads between Atlanta’s exurbs and our next destination just southward, Macon.  Happily lost on twists and turns of side roads that followed the Ocmulgee River toward Macon, George and I stopped at the courthouse square of Jackson, county seat of Butts County.  As soon as we parked the car and popped onto Main Street, contemptuous laugher howled past.  A trio of young guys hooted from a pickup, pointing at us as we left our rental car.  Yowls receding, they sped away from the town square.  I checked for a gun rack on the old pickup, telling George we were going to be forced at gunpoint into some ditch and left for dead just because our rental car had Atlanta plates.   “They think we’re city slickers, wearing shorts in the fall.”

“Or is it because I’m black and you’re white?”

As we waited to be dismembered, dragged to death hitched behind that pickup, it hit us. Compared to Stone Mountain, at least Jackson felt authentic, the winner in a thousand casting calls for Small Southern Town—the old courthouse, the Confederate monument, complete with heroic bronze soldier overlooking the shabby, struggling businesses ringing the square.  Around the next corner, I expected to spot Cool Hand Luke lashed to a chain gang and a fat sheriff leashed to a bloodhound.

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Wandering the square, we stopped to puzzle over a long list of rules.  You couldn’t enter the courthouse with 1) electronic device,2) handbag 3) briefcase 3) hat 4) sunglasses 5) shorts  6) baggy pants or 7) untucked shirttails.  It was like an archaic middle school dress code, including a ban on male earrings.  George was amused at the petty prudery of it all.  In full ACLU dudgeon, I was horrified at the breach of civil liberties.  In our hike-less hiking clothes, we couldn’t explore the 19th Century Butts County courthouse and were reduced to circling the exterior,  reading  historical markers.  As we studied them, the pickup shotgun trio made another pass, howling again.

One Civil War marker detailed Union troops invading Butts County during the 1864 March to the Sea, General Sherman’s arson scorching the earth between Atlanta and Savannah. Butts was only a few counties south of Atlanta and Jackson one of the first towns Sherman’s troops ravaged for supplies and “forage” while destroying mills, severing rail links, burning crops, and killing livestock.

When we asked about the strict courthouse rules at a Mexican place off the square, our chatty young Latino waiter became cautious.  He wanted to know if we had local connections.  After we made it clear that we were just strangers, and lost, he began to speak freely, mentioning the “backward” quality of towns around, including some we had just passed through:  “Those little redneck burgs make Jackson look good, and Jackson isn’t so great.”  He talked about Alabama’s recent immigration law and how it endangered natives as well as legal residents, casting every other fellow citizen as either spy or accomplice for even associating with undocumented people.  He said Georgia had almost passed a similar law, and the close call made him feel alienated from his fellow Georgians.  “It’s weird, how I’ve lived here all my life, and local whites still assume I don’t know about country music or where to get good grits.  They’re astonished that I’m just a typical Southerner.  It’s just not funny anymore.  This town has a lot of darkness.”

The first entry in the 687 pages of Jackson’s official history described the town’s origin as “a place that was once howling grounds for two packs of wolves…frightful to early settlers due to the hideous howling.”  Unlike Rome’s origin story, though, Jackson’s wolves never nurtured anything.  “In 1826, Indians were scalping and skylarking wherever they liked.” Indian Springs staged another broken treaty with the Creek Indians, robbing the tribe of their ancestral claim to most of Georgia.   Four decades later, “Butts County men answered the call to war, becoming the ‘Jeff Davis Rifles’ on July 9, 1861.  Next came the Butts Invincibles.”

The Butts men turned out to be far from invincible.  The brass-plate histories in the courthouse square told of  their disastrous loss.  “Patriotism” and “Love of Country” were ascribed to the young soldiers who took up arms against their birth nation.  I howled in protest.  George, absorbing the information, defended the right of the soldiers to fight for the “new country” of the Confederate States and implored me to understand “their point of view.”  Meanwhile, the pickup trio made a third pass, though this time their jeering toned down. George waved at them.  As if exhausted by their exertions of free-lance contempt, they simply waved back.  After, George insisted their truck didn’t even have a rifle rack.

When we hit the back road to Macon, I pretended to empathize with the Confederate point of view to appease George, then gave up and declared that the entire Confederacy stunk.  “The Lost Cause was contaminated from the start,” I told George, “by the weakness and premature nature of its intentions.”  Think of a family house, I told him, only a few generations old.  “It’s still being built and expanded, but half the children think it’s okay to betray their parents and abandon it.  Abandon it, then attack it!”  Wasn’t the Confederate secession from the young nation just an ill-formed whim, a bad idea that unleashed self-destruction?

The heat of my response surprised me.  What inspired my impassioned  “American House” metaphor?  Since when was I, who avoided patriotism as much as amusement parks, the big defender of the Union’s unity?  And now George, who went all Black Panther at the smallest challenge to the glory of Negritude, was suddenly taking the slave-masters’ side in the Civil War!

Not even a full day had passed on our journey out of Atlanta, and we were already gripped in the Civil War’s reach across the centuries.  The sky closed over us, dark and roiling. As autumn leaves shredded, horizonal across the windshield, I felt trapped in that spooky scene in To Kill A Mockingbird when Scout heads home from a Halloween party, blind in her ham-hock costume to her attacker’s snatching hands.

The storm chased us the short distance to Macon, but George and I were determined to explore the city despite the pouring rain and falling dark.  Armed with a damp map of Macon’s Historic Buildings, we prowled the hilltop north of downtown, dutifully locating Italianate and Queen Anne addresses, some the best samples of antebellum houses left in the South.  We ended the day standing in the rain before a hilltop mansion’s historical marker, which declared that Sherman’s earth-scorching had marched his forces and torches down the Ocmulgee River in November 1864, halting across the river from the town.  Only flood-stage waters prevented Sherman from setting fire to Macon.  Though the city was spared from Union’s arson, Macon suffered under long occupation.  This mansion, the Woodruff House, had served as a Union headquarters during the last months of the Civil War.

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I tried to wrap my wet head around it:  occupation.  Right here.  American military men occupied private American property, their incendiary trail still ablaze from Atlanta to Macon to forecast their ruthlessness.  They’d kicked fellow American families out of their houses and turned parlors into war strategy centers.  Finally, sympathy for the Confederate predicament slid into me like cold rain at nightfall.

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Under the next morning’s bright sun, George and I peered across the Ocmulgee River into central Macon, trying to fix our sights on Cannonball House, where the only Union shot fired into Rebel Macon had landed “with a thud.”   We stood atop the Great Temple Mound and regarded the flat, swampy horizon of the Macon Plateau.  With a rocket launcher, we could’ve easily fired on sitting-duck Macon.

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Great Temple Mound was the centerpiece of Ocmulgee National Monument.  The green-velvet expanse of archeological sites on the east bank of the Ocmulgee dated back 17,000 years, a flabbergasting number for North American “Paleo-Indian” human settlement (especially for those whose hemispheric history starts in 1492). As late as 1540, Spanish explorer DeSoto found thriving palisades and villages, the last phase of the ancient Mississippian culture in Ocmulgee. A violent narrative scorched itself upon millennia of civilized occupation in 1864, when the site was the bivouac for Sherman’s forces.  Exploring the paths around the Temple Mound, we never knew if an earthwork was a mound-builder remnant or Civil War redoubt.  Soldiers used the mounds for war preparations, even cutting a trench through the Grand Temple, just another battleground in that nasty squabble over slavery that ripped apart the American house.

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