An estimated two of every three Americans have an ancestor who lived through the Civil War. It helps explain why so many people — re-enactors, treasure hunters, genealogists, collectors, hobbyists, preservationists, tourists, battlefield rats — feel so connected to a war that began 150 years ago.
“It’s our war. All the blood fell on our soil,” says Lloyd Garrison, 79, great-great-grandson of the abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison. He says the war even has a contagious, old-time glamour.
The great-great-grandson of the abolitionist’s ideological opponent, Confederate President Jefferson Davis, agrees. “Americans are fascinated by the individuals who fought,” says Bertram Hayes-Davis, 62. “They want to know more about what these people did, who they were and what they went through.”
Today, descendants such as Garrison and Hayes-Davis underscore our link to a struggle that shaped the nation as much as the arrival of the Mayflower or the victory at Yorktown.
The Civil War ended slavery, strengthened the federal republic and allowed settlement of the West; it pioneered an industrial style of “total war,” which included mass production of weapons and the systematic destruction of Southern agriculture; it killed about 620,000 combatants — nearly as many Americans as all the other wars the country has fought combined.
Like many other Americans, descendants of the war’s great figures have discovered and grown into their Civil War legacies. They raise issues that still divide us: Why was the war fought? What did it achieve? Was Davis a traitor? Was Union Gen. Ulysses S. Grant a drunk?
Over the next four years, the nation will observe the Civil War sesquicentennial with ceremonies, books, recordings, films, lectures, exhibitions, concerts and encampments. The war began with the Confederate attack on Fort Sumter, S.C., on April 12, 1861, and ended with Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee’s surrender at Appomattox, Va., on April 9, 1865, five days before the assassination of President Lincoln.
About 100 children of Union and Confederate veterans are still alive. Roughly 18 million Americans — one in 17 — have an ancestor who fought in Blue or Gray, Ancestry.com says.
Among these, a few have the kind of forebears who stand on pedestals and hang over fireplaces. Although Abraham Lincoln’s last direct descendant died in 1985, other famous lines and names from the war live on.
Robert E. Lee V is athletic director and football coach at Potomac School outside Washington. His father, Robert E. Lee IV, is a retired distillery executive whose accent hints at the city where he was raised —New York.
J.E.B. Stuart IV, a retired Army colonel and great-great-grandson of Lee’s cavalry general, lives in Richmond, Va., where his son J.E.B. V is an orthopedic surgeon.
Ulysses S. Grant V, the general’s last surviving great-grandson, died in March at age 90. He is survived by his son, Ulysses S. Grant VI. VII has yet to appear, but J.E.B. Stuart VI is a sophomore in college, and Robert E. Lee VI is in grade school.
Confederate Gen. Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson’s great-great-grandson, Henry Shaffner, 75, is a professional songwriter who married the daughter of a Lincoln buff and has lived for the past half-century in Philadelphia.
In some families, a famous Civil War connection isn’t to be exploited, touted or sometimes even mentioned. Shaffner says that growing up in Winston-Salem, N.C., “we were told, ‘Don’t rely on your ancestors.’ It was something you didn’t talk about much.”
Pauline Johnson, 83, says she didn’t even learn she was the great-grandniece of Underground Railroad conductor Harriet Tubman until she was 25. Johnson says she’s mystified why her parents never told her about the Tubman connection; she learned from her aunt. She treasures her one tangible link to Tubman: a black dress with white lace sleeves and collar she found hanging in a closet in her parents’ house in Auburn, N.Y., after they died. It had a label with Tubman’s name on it.
Alice Mecoy, 51, wasn’t told she was John Brown’s great-great-granddaughter until she was 16; her parents were embarrassed by the anti-slavery zealot who in 1859 attacked the federal arsenal at Harpers Ferry in what is now West Virginia.
When Dred Scott Madison II was a boy, few outside his family realized the kid called “Scott” was descended from the man whose 1857 Supreme Court case strengthened slavery’s legal underpinnings and set the stage for the war. That anonymity is gone, says Madison, 52, an air-traffic controller who was embarrassed the other day when a college president in San Antonio fawned over him when they were introduced: “People see the name and go, ‘Wow!’ But it’s not as if I did something. I’m just part of the gene pool.”
Madison tells his kids — including Dred Scott Madison III, 22 — “Don’t blow this up. You’ve done nothing yet. Earn your own accolades.”
A famous family name, Lloyd Garrison says, “puts a little pressure on you to live up to the standard.”
His son Sam, 45, says that when he thinks about how his ancestor fought slavery as early as the 1820s, “I’ve asked, ‘Would I have done the same thing?’ “
He says he tries to emulate Garrison’s spirit in small ways. When he and his wife decided to move out of New York City, they chose Maplewood, N.J., one of the region’s most diverse communities. As a real estate agent, he likes to help people buy a first home there, including black and same-sex couples who might not be welcome everywhere.
How do you pass on the legacy? “I don’t want to trumpet William Lloyd too much. I don’t want to overburden my grandchildren,” says Lloyd Garrison, who has seven. “But it’s important for them to know that blood runs in their veins.”
Every generation discovers anew the meaning of that blood. Here are three examples of how it works.
Fixing Grant’s tomb — and his reputation
In his great-great-grandson, the top Union Civil War general and the second Republican president has an unlikely if effective champion: a gay Democrat who as a young man jumped for joy when the military draft was abolished (his call-up number was 4) and who as an adult opposed “don’t ask, don’t tell.”
In some ways, says Ulysses Grant Dietz, 55, curator of decorative arts at the Newark Museum, he’s not an ideal spokesman for Ulysses S. Grant.
When he was a boy in Syracuse, N.Y., Dietz was called “Grant,” not “Ulysses,” and switched to the latter in prep school only “because weird names were in.” He was unengaged with his legacy until 1994, when he lent his name to a lawsuit to force the National Park Service to remedy years of neglect and vandalism of Grant’s Tomb in New York City.
After Dietz threatened to have Grant’s body moved to Illinois, the Park Service undertook a $1.8 million restoration project. The tomb fight forced Dietz to read up on Grant. He was so impressed he decided that, having helped restore his ancestor’s tomb, he would try to restore his reputation.
People know Grant was a winner, but there are also stories that he was a drunk, a poor student, a crude military strategist who benefited from superior numbers, a political incompetent who presided over a corrupt presidential administration.
In speeches and personal appearances, Dietz counterattacks, explaining that Grant could not tolerate alcohol and drank excessively only on occasion, and only when separated from the family to whom he was devoted.
He says Grant was in the middle of his class at West Point (though not at the top, like Lee); that other Union generals who enjoyed Grant’s numerical superiority failed; and that the corruption that soiled his administration stemmed from an explosion in private wealth and corporate power that would have overwhelmed any president.
On the plus side, he says, Grant saved the Union, made the United States a world power and tried harder than anyone else to reconstruct a South in which blacks could be equal to whites.
He failed, and Dietz bristles at the mention of “neo-Confederate” ideology, which holds that the South fought for states’ rights, not slavery, and that it had the legal and moral right to secede.
“I think the Confederate flag should be banned. To me, it’s like the Nazi flag,” he says. “The South was wrong, and they got what they deserved. (President) Grant wanted to make sure after the war that blacks had a place. His smacking Southerners around to make that happen doesn’t bother me at all.”
Dietz is a member of his town’s race relations board and this year gave the Martin Luther King Jr. Day sermon at his church. In 2008, he wrote an opinion piece in TheStar-Ledger of Newark arguing in favor of gay marriage. (Dietz and his partner, Gary Berger, were joined in a civil union ceremony several years ago. They have two adopted children, one of whose middle name is Ulysses.)
Dietz says his social and political views were formed before he knew much about Grant, but “learning more about Grant’s personal integrity and sense of justice affirmed what I had become as an adult and just made me feel prouder of being his descendant.”
A name to protect
At a reunion in Mississippi 35 years ago, the descendants of Jefferson Davis formed a family association and elected a president: a bearded, longhaired geology graduate student born and raised in Colorado.
Bertram Hayes-Davis had at least one qualification others lacked: his hyphenated surname, created by an act of the Mississippi Legislature on Feb 21, 1890, to preserve the name of the president of the Confederacy. Jefferson Davis had six children, but only his daughter Margaret married (to a man named Hayes) and had children.
In his ancestor, Hayes-Davis found his calling: to show that Davis’ life was about more than slavery. Because Davis led the Confederacy, he says, “everything else about him was obliterated” — West Point graduate, successful planter, member of the U.S. House and Senate, wounded Mexican War veteran, early advocate of the transcontinental railroad and secretary of War (1853-1857).
Hayes-Davis says it’s not just Davis who is misunderstood; Confederates in general are tarred by slavery. “What about everything else they did?” he asks. “We want to tell the world we still have that integrity and those values today.”
Those values include states’ rights. Hayes-Davis is a member of the Sons of Confederate Veterans, which calls the South’s secession in 1860-61 “the Second American Revolution,” motivated not by slavery but “the preservation of liberty and freedom.”
Over the past three decades, Hayes-Davis has made more than 1,000 speeches and appearances, many at the kind of functions where Dixie is sung, the Confederate flag is flown and the Confederate “Lost Cause” is mourned.
He says that if Americans knew Davis better, they’d respect him more: “Ignorance is our barrier. It’s what we get up for every day. This is something I believe in.”
When he sought support for observations of Davis’ 200th birthday in 2008, he was rebuffed by dozens of museums and organizations. Even Mississippi, where Davis lived, declined to establish a bicentennial commission.
Hayes-Davis, who lives in Dallas, has a son and a daughter. He hopes the family name will continue, because even though Davis has hundreds of great-great-great-grandchildren, “it means more when one of the descendants has the name.”
Kenneth Morris says he realized his great-great-great-grandfather would not be the last abolitionist in the family when he discovered that slavery hadn’t ended with the Civil War.
A friend showed him a magazine article about how slavery in various forms around the world, including indentured servitude, forced labor and sex slavery, affected more people than in 1861.
It hit him: What better person to fight modern slavery than a descendant of Frederick Douglass? What better way to preserve Douglass’ memory?
Douglass, a slave who fled to freedom in the North in 1838, became the most influential black abolitionist of the 19th century. But to the young Ken Morris, he was the old man with “the wild white hair” and the fierce expression, glaring down from the painting on the wall. “It scared me,” recalls Morris, 48. “He looked mean.”
The Douglass link was played down by Morris’ parents, possibly because his own grandfather, who had struggled to live in the great man’s shadow, had committed suicide. “There’d been pressure on males in the family to be the next Frederick Douglass,” he says. As an adult, he turned down requests to speak or appear as a Douglass descendant. He raised his family in Riverside, Calif., established himself as a travel marketer, and disengaged from a legacy that, he says, “I took for granted.”
There were stirrings. After seeing the TV series Roots, he says, “I wondered if I’d lived during that time, whether I would have been an abolitionist. I thought so, but I could never prove it.” Finally, when he saw the article about modern slavery, “I couldn’t walk away.”
He phased out his marketing career and joined his mother, Nettie, in 2007 to found the Frederick Douglass Family Foundation, which goes into schools seeking to create “modern abolitionists” to fight global slavery.
Morris says he’s as motivated by his two teenage daughters as his famous ancestor: “When I found out young girls were in brothels in Asia forced to be sex slaves, how could I do nothing and look my daughters in the eye? I had this platform my ancestor built through struggle and sacrifice. To not do something would have been a crime.”