Saturday, May 18, 2013

The long shadows of history

It's been a lovely week on the Mississippi coast. Today will be my last day on the beach, then I'll head  over to New Orleans for Pentecost Mass, and then spend a few days making my way north. I'm planning to go up a bit along the Mississippi, then back across Mississippi and then home.

There's a lot of history here, some long ago, some recent, and the shadows are longer than we might realize.

One of the questions on my mind when I came down here was how much the effects of Hurricane Katrina in 2005, as well as the 2010 BP oil spill, were still felt. While I can't say how much the spill still effects things, Katrina is less "past" here than present. The hotel where I'm staying faces the gulf with lovely views; on either side are vast, empty lots. The locals say the cost of insurance skyrocketed after Katrina, curbing development. I'm guessing the financial crisis of 2008 had something to do with it as well. In any case, driving up and down this part of the coast this week, I saw lots of empty lots.

Earlier this week I visited Beauvoir, the post-war home of Jefferson Davis, the president of the Confederate States of America. It's a lovely home, just a few hundred feet from the gulf, designed to be breezy and cool, or as best as could be managed before air conditioning. This was Davis's home after the war, when he was largely destitute; the prior owner took him in, letting him stay in a cottage on the grounds. Here it was that ex-President Davis wrote his memoirs and apologia for the Confederacy. The prior owner, whose name escapes me at the moment, was at the end of her life, and she sold her home to Davis; before the price was paid in full, she had died, and her will bequeathed the home to him. According to the tour guide, Mr. Davis made the remaining payments to her heirs anyway.

The historic site isn't run by either the federal or state government, but by the Sons of Confederate Veterans. After Mr. and Mrs. Davis departed this life (the adjacent museum had a video of the massive funeral held in New Orleans), the property ended up being used as a home and hospital for Confederate veterans, their wives and servants. It served this purpose up to 1956. Does that late date surprise you? Apparently the last veterans of the War Between The States, on both sides, died in the early 50s! And the last widows died in 2003 and 2004!

In 1956, the home was repurposed to its present status as a museum and memorial. Alas, its location has not proved a boon to this venture; being right on the Gulf Coast, it was vulnerable to hurricanes. When Camille hit, the museum was located immediately below the house and thus exposed to flooding. Then a nearby building was set aside for the displays of the Davis's personal effects, papers and other historical bric-a-brac.

Then Katrina hit. The museum building now there was built after Katrina; only the main house survived the storm. Much of what the museum had washed away; a fair number of items were reclaimed, and they are being restored as much as possible. Among the few items on display for me were a few pieces of Confederate currency--from what had been a substantial collection--as well as some once-lovely glass decanters and a silver tea service now smashed and mangled.

Behind the house is a Confederate cemetery, where veterans and their wives and servants were buried; it was difficult getting there without interfering with the workers who were laying out the paths and garden beds for restoration. Prominent in the graveyard was the Tomb of the Unknown Confederate Soldier. This, surprisingly, is a recent addition. The remains were discovered in 1979, near Vicksburg, and the shrine was dedicated in 1981. Surrounding this fresh stone monument were scores of gravestones, some badly faded of course, but others looked like they had been replaced recently. On many of them, a flag fluttered--the Stars and Bars.

While walking amongst the graves, I came upon one marked "Revolutionary War"--why was that here? It was the grave of Samuel Emory Davis, born in 1756, who served in the Revolution, had ten children, the last of whom was Jefferson Finis Davis.

As I said, tomorrow my plan is to visit New Orleans; a friend of mine who grew up there gave me a list of things to see; I'll get as many as I can. Then I hope to go up along the Mississippi; I hope I can find a spot where I can look at it as perhaps it looked when the first explorers came upon it, or Mark Twain wrote about it. Natchez is famed both for its homes, as well as being the terminus of the almost-forgotten Natchez Trace, which was trod by the first arrivals on this continent, the Amerindians, and then by European settlers. Merriwether Lewis, who with William Clark explored so much of the American west, met his end along the Trace--exactly how remains a mystery to this day.

There's another trace I want to follow--the road that runs from Philadelphia to Meridian. In the 1960s, three young men were among those working to promote civil rights in these parts; and it was along the road from Philadelphia, one night in June 1964, that James Chaney, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner were kidnapped and murdered.

As I write this, I recall another shadow of history--my own. I haven't thought about this in years. Once upon a time, at age 26, I ran for office; in the course of that campaign for state representative, I met a man from Mississippi then living in Cincinnati: James Meredith, who history will recall was the first black man to enroll at the University of Mississippi, and who stood up for registering African Americans to vote and took a bullet for it. Memories get fuzzy, but as I recall, Mr. Meredith sought me out; and to my great surprise, he said he wanted to help me. We had some events and he came to a news conference I think, it's all kind of a mush in my head, now.

Well, that was one of many curious experiences in that campaign, which despite a lot of enthusiasm, ended with me garnering only 31% of the vote against the Majority Leader of the state House, a veteran of 22 years. After that, I moved to Washington, D.C., and didn't see Mr. Meredith again. According to Wikipedia, he lives in Jackson, Mississippi.


Jennifer said...

Thank you. That was very interesting!

And I never would have thought you had once run for office, Father. What a surprise!

Mary Ann Kreitzer said...

I'm interested in Civil War history, especially since I moved to the Shenandoah Valley where so much of it took place. Thank you for the information about Jefferson Davis. I read somewhere that the north decided not to prosecute him for treason because they feared he would make the case for legal secession. Wouldn't that have been an interesting trial?