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This Civil War chess set, at the Carr Manor Luxury Bed and Breakfast in Cripple Creek, Colorado, served as a reminder in that in many subtle ways and places, the war between the states is still being quietly waged.

Cripple Creek, Colorado.

Quote of the day: “We all need people in our lives who take away the chill of this world with the warmth of their presence.” —  Lessons Learned In Life

Daily gratitudes:
So much exercise today!
Sencha Rose Green Tea
Plane tickets
That it gets light earlier
That the cat crawls into my lap whenever I am sitting down
Finishing Pride and Prejudice

Rocky Mountain PBS is showing the Ken Burns film “The Civil War”.  I just came upon it tonight, and don’t know if this is a one-night affair or if it will be rebroadcast again this month, this month – and April 12 specifically – being the start of the Civil War.

I first encountered this film on my honeymoon.  We were winding down and spending the night in Taos, New Mexico in a chain hotel, eating Lottaburgers and purusing the cable channels when we found it.  I had no idea what it was, but I was fascinated and entranced. On viewing it tonight, I find that I still am.

I’m not quite sure why.  Perhaps it’s because Ken Burns obtained an amazing amount of photographs from the era and the battlefields.  I have no idea where he found them all.  Perhaps it’s because it’s simply a marvelously well told story that brings this important chapter in history leaping so vividly back to life.  Perhaps it’s because the background sounds – crickets, frogs, cicadas, the cries of blue jays – take me back to my beloved homeland (I am, and will always be, a Southerner).  Perhaps it’s because I fell a little in love with the late Shelby Foote the first time I heard his honeyed drawl.  He was always one of the people I’d have at my dinner party, if I could invite anyone in history.

The War Between The States was (from a Southerner’s perspective) a war of honor and identity, with very little glory.  It was an economic war, with slavery being the lynchpin of the Southern economy.  It was futile for the South in the end, and caused a rift within the country that has never entirely healed.  As I’ve said before, some Southerners still seem to be fighting the war, and I have always had a sense that the South is just biding it’s time, waiting for the right moment to rise again.  There was a pridefulness about the War that I was aware of even as a child growing up in North Carolina 100 years later.  I can still recall old men – grandsons of Civil War veterans – marching in their grandfather’s uniforms in a parade down Main Street once.  I remember my father had to explain it to me – I must have been very, very small.

A few years ago, Kelsea and I did a bit of a Civil War tour as part of a trip to Virginia and Maryland.  We went to Manassas, Loudon, Antietam, Harper’s Ferry, and a few other spots, exploring, learning and picking up the vibe of places where so many lives were lost.  It was powerful and we’d both do it again, investigating some of the many other sites we didn’t get to see.

All this is feeling particularly close to home these days. Perhaps it’s because of a certain uneasiness in the world and the economy.  Perhaps it’s because 1% of the people in the US are taking in 25% of the nation’s income, according to an article by Joseph E. Stiglitz in Vanity Fair.  With the uprisings in Egypt, Libya and other Middle East countries recently, protesting inequality and injustice, I wonder if we in this country are not due for an uprising of our own, one that pits class against class, similar to our late Civil War.  If such a battle were waged, who would triumph?  And would the price of victory be too high for anyone to pay?

As I say, this film fills me with reflection.

Today is the day that the shot that started the Civil War was fired from Fort Sumter, South Carolina.  While this wasn’t one of the “shots heard round the world”, it was certainly a shot heard round the United States.

From a born and raised Southerner’s perspective, the Civil War has many layers of meaning and significance.  (Let me say here that I’m not a historian, so this isn’t going to be a history lesson. And I am fully aware of the failed and magical thinking of Southerners of previous generations, so don’t shoot the writer.)  The war was called many things – the War of Northern Aggression, the War Between the States, the War for Southern Independence – and to this day, when I go home to North Carolina, there are still traces.  The side of barn outside of Hampstead still bears a faded wall-sized Confederate flag.  Those flags appear on license plate holders of trucks, and on flagpoles outside of small old houses.  I still get the sense that the South is biding its time, waiting for the right time to strike – that the war isn’t really over – it’s just in hiatus.

In high school, which is when we first started studying the Civil War, we were taught that it was a war about economics – not about slavery (though slavery was inseparable from economics, wasn’t it?).  When slavery was discussed, the focus was not on the philosophy behind it, or even the politics surrounding it, but on the unfair portrayal of slavery and slave owners in histories created by non-Southerners.  I also had an English teacher in senior year who sent students out of the room if they said that the South lost the War.  Mention of Generals Grant and Sherman were not permitted in her presence.  But Robert E. Lee had achieved demigod status in her mind.

Back to the point of today’s post.  One lovely summer afternoon, I was wandering through the Virginia Military Institute Museum with a friend.  I peered into a glass case and gasped.  There was a photograph.  A photograph of a man who I’d known my whole life (until he died.)  What on earth was his picture doing here?  But wait, he looks a little different – he has long hair.  And the photograph is a tintype.  It’s not possible.  I’m so confused!  All that ran through my mind in about 5 seconds. When I found the caption for the image, I realized I’d been mistaken…but I’d been as close as could be.

Edmund Ruffin claimed (and many accept the claim) to have fired the first shot of the Civil War.  A farmer, writer, ardent believer in state’s rights, and Fire-Eater (a group of extreme pro-slavery activists), he was on the fringes of politics for his entire life.  He joined South Carolina troops at the age of 67, which is how he found himself at Fort Sumter for the historical moment.  While there is much debate about exactly what his role was in initiating the battle, it is definitely the case that he was present at the firing of the first cannon shot.

Where does this tie into my life?  My Mother worked for years for Edmund Ruffin’s grandson, a gastroenterologist in Durham.  Dr. Ruffin, a gruff, irascible soul (like his grandfather) had  a heart of gold, a green thumb passed down through generations, and a dry sense of humor.  Having lost my only grandfather at age 7, Dr. Ruffin served as a sort of surrogate grandfather (without the laps and snuggles – he was far too dignified and scary).  He had three daughters, a loving wife, and two faithful servants, a husband and wife couple.  I spent much time at his office at Duke Hospital (later at Croasdaile Clinic) and at his plantation-style red-brick house in town, which looked eerily similar to his ancestral home of Evelynton Plantation.

Behind his house, Dr. Ruffin had a garden.  This was no ordinary garden.  This was at least an acre of seemingly endless vegetables, and a lovely rose garden tended by Mrs. Ruffin.  E-Bro and I would go work in the garden in the summers, helping Dr. Ruffin tend the crops.  And these could legitimately be called crops.  He had rows of cucumbers growing on tall fences.  Vines heavy with green beans.  Corn, tall and golden. Onions and potatoes dug from the ground.  Yellow and pattypan squash. And more tomatoes than anyone could know what to do with.  (It never occurred to me to ask what he did with the harvest – I’m sure it was something good for the community – that’s the sort of man he was.)

Summer thunderstorms would chase us inside some afternoons, and the female half of the hired help would give us sandwiches and milk at the small kitchen table. I remember drinking out of the hose from the side of the house, the water icy cold and sparkling, with the metallic tang from the brass hose head.  Fresh mint and parsley grew alongside the house by the kitchen door.

I remember Mrs. Ruffin as looking coiffed and lovely.  Even though she may not have always worn pearls, she was one of those women who gave the impression that she was always wearing pearls.  Her rose garden had little benches and a pergola.  I used to try to smell each different type of rose – there must have been a hundred.  Even at that age, the adage “Take time to stop and smell the roses” was engrained in my little head.  Mrs. Ruffin developed Alzheimer’s, much to the family’s extreme sorrow, and passed away in a nearby nursing home.  I think it broke Dr. Ruffin’s heart.  I can’t imagine the pain inherent in being a physician yet being helpless to heal the one you love most.

To  this day, the smell of sun-warmed tomatoes on the vine takes me back to summers in Dr. Ruffin’s garden.  I still laugh at a particular memory:

E-Bro and I were picking tomatoes, and he found one that had been bored into by hornworms.  He took it over to Dr. Ruffin.  “What do I do with this?” he asked.  Dr. Ruffin said, “Well, you take it, and you take this one,” splatting a second such blighted fruit in his hand, “and you take them both down to the end of the row and you throw them over the fence.”  OK, it doesn’t seem to translate, but with the seriousness of his delivery, you’d have thought he was about to reveal some mystical gardening wisdom, not just instructions to toss tomatoes into the woods. Guess you had to be there.  I’m glad I was.

In 1865, Less than two months after Lee’s surrender to Grant at the Appomattox Court House, Edmund Ruffin wrote the following:

“I here declare my unmitigated hatred to Yankee rule—to all political, social and business connection with the Yankees and to the Yankee race. Would that I could impress these sentiments, in their full force, on every living Southerner and bequeath them to every one yet to be born! May such sentiments be held universally in the outraged and down-trodden South, though in silence and stillness, until the now far-distant day shall arrive for just retribution for Yankee usurpation, oppression and atrocious outrages, and for deliverance and vengeance for the now ruined, subjugated and enslaved Southern States!”

He wrapped himself in a Confederate flag and shot himself in the head.  Some historians have described this as “the last shot of the Civil War.”

Edmund Ruffin and his grandson were both Southern Gentlemen, with a code of honor that is rapidly becoming a ghost of itself in the South today.  I could – and will – write about that concept of the Southern Gentleman, but not now.  Today, it’s overcast in Colorado, and I’m a long way from whatever home is now.  I’m feeling the need for a quest to reconnect with my roots and discover the directions in which they’ve spread, beneath and above the soil of my soul.

In other words, I’m ready to start something.

July 2020


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