The Boys Who Wore the Gray

I saw this quote once, I can’t remember now who said it:

In the south, we know where our grandparents are buried.

That captures much of what it means to be southern. Family is important and history is important. That doesn’t mean everything in that family or that history is as is should be but it does mean you don’t cavalierly abandon either one.

This week a mob descended on a Confederate monument in Durham, NC, put a rope around it and pulled it to the ground. They then kicked it, spat on it, and cursed at it. This was not a statue of a particular person. This was not Robert E. Lee or Stonewall Jackson, this was a statue of a generic confederate soldier and was dedicated to the memory of “the boys who wore the gray.” It was erected by those for whom the Civil War was not just a distant memory but by people who remembered the horror of that war or had relatives who did.

So who were these “boys who wore the gray” that they should be so despised and spat upon? First of all, many of them didn’t actually “wear the gray” because they were too poor to have a proper uniform. They were mostly common men who worked their farms and loved their families. And because of that they left those farms and families to fight when they believed those things were in danger. They were my great, great grandfather who volunteered to fight for his state and his family, not to keep his slaves, having none. He returned from the horror of that war to marry, work hard and raise a family. They were my distant cousins one of whom lost his right hand at Cold Harbor. He too returned home and despite his handicap married, worked his farm in Clayton county and raised a family. They were a third great uncle who was mortally wounded at Olustee then languished in a hospital in Tallahassee for a month and died far from home. They were one of my fourth great grandfathers who died of disease and starvation at the federal POW camp in Elmira, NY, leaving behind a wife and children.

None of these men owned slaves. None of these men were movers and shakers defining the world in which they lived. They were simple men who worked hard, raised children and were willing to sacrifice even their lives for what they believed to be the greater good. To use a southern colloquialism, they were a darn sight better men than those who tore down that statue and spat on their memory.

And this sacrifice was repeated thousands of times across the south. Travis Archie says:

Many counties and towns (in the south) lost an entire generation of young men during the war. Some lost that generation on single battlefields within hours or even minutes. This catastrophic loss has not been replicated.

How do the ones left behind deal with that? One way is to erect memorials to those who died. That’s what happened in small towns and cities across the south after the war. This helped individuals, communities and even an entire region of the nation to heal.

The history purgers may prevail in our day. But though they remove the symbols of history from the public square, they will not change that history or remove the memories themselves. In the south, we know where our grandparents are buried.

Re-Humanizing Johnny Reb by Travis Archie


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