Confederate Soldiers from Tennessee, Wikipedia
In the midst of working some hard, but thoroughly enjoyable edits (no, really) for my upcoming novel, All This Time, being published by Booktrope in the fall of 2014, I am still receiving acceptances and acknowledgements from literary journals I have submitted to in the recent past. All This Time is contemporary women’s fiction, but if y’all remember, I enjoy writing the past as much as the present. Thus, A Berlin Story and even Budapest, where Anna Laszlo “leaves the New World for the Old”. All This Time is a series of three novels that take place now, but rest assured, My Dear Readers, there are historical works and even creepy stuff coming.
Yesterday, a piece of flash fiction that I wrote about my Great Great Great Grandfather, George W. Gifford’s, experience in the American Civil War, at the Battle of Seven Pines, was presented in Toe Good Poetry. It’s a vibrant and shocking piece, raw in imagery and fear and acceptance, all those things war creates for the dying. You can read the piece here, and do check out some of the other poets and writers featured there. It is a tremendous journal. I read it every week. I find that, sometimes, I am completely distracted by it and I don’t return to my work after having read it. I just ponder and ponder some more; it’s what good poetry does to a brain.
I wanted to write something about how this piece, Seven Pines, sort of just fell out of my heart, a love poem to my ancestor who survived a horrendous American tragedy, head wound and all, to survive the death of two wives, father several children, witness his parents violent murder by his younger brother, and head west to Missouri, to literally carve out the town in which he would die as an old man on the edge of the First World War.
His family owned much of Cumberland Mountain in Tennessee, a beautiful stretch of God’s country (that I would head off and retire to in a half second if I could), but he gave it up to the state after his parents died. There was simply no ties left there for him, and my writer’s brain imagines that he was deeply saddened by the lifetime of memories created on that Appalachian plateau and cut short by an unspeakable and evil passion.
Gen. Robert E. Lee personally wrote a letter of commendation for him towards the end of the war, because he served valiantly as a nurse after he was shot in the head and left for dead in the Chickahominy River. He was one of famed and feared “Wild Boys of Tennessee”, but all evidence suggests that he was born a Quaker and came from a long line of pacifists. His story is my story is your story. Expect the novel to come in time. And because his tale is beautiful and tragic and makes my heart hurt with love whenever I study it, I wrote him a letter a couple of years ago when I first discovered his story. It’s what we writers do. It was what I needed to begin researching his story.
October 10, 2012
Dear Great Grandfather Gifford,
I realize that you have been dead for 112 years now, but I have some questions to ask of you. I realize, also, that you are three times great and that your last name went from “Gifford” to “Lock” shortly after your service in the American Civil War. I know several other things about you as well.
I know that you served with Turney’s Tennessee Infantry, and that you received a severe head wound in the Battle of Seven Pines on May 1, 1862. You should know, about me, that I was not cognitively aware of your existence until earlier this year, or maybe late last year, when I renewed my Ancestry.com membership and after my great Uncle John Lock told me of your existence. Forgive me for this oversight, but I was born in Tulsa, Oklahoma, and I knew that I came from deep Southern roots, but the only connection I could personally find were some vaguely recited tales of a Texas sharpshooter named Burnett. He was, obviously, not you, though he was also just as real and fought shoeless and starving at Little Round Top at the Battle of Gettysburg.
I feel like all those years thinking and rethinking the details of his sketchy story, I was really searching for yours. I know some things about you now, about your silent bravery, about your exhilarating and agonizing experience. It was you who kept calling to me after the crowd had left Gettysburg, when all the tourists had skipped out of town. It was you who crept into my dreams at night and tried to tell me that you had a tale to tell, a story to be shared with the America of today. And I heard you and I looked for you, like Samuel looked for God when he called to him. Though not as holy, it is true, and you are not God and I am no prophet, but I do know something of the Civil War and I do feel your stirrings deep within my own soul. You should know that many Americans do. And the smart ones are sad for it, terrified, and regretful. The stupid ones want more of it.
I realized, only a few weeks ago, that you are actually the man in the pictured who is labeled, “AC Locke, Sr.” You have a droopy left sided face and a peculiar cock to your head. Your surgeons at General Hospital No. 9, said that you had sustained a terrible blow to your right parietal bone during battle and that you had combat fatigue, were prone to extreme bouts of deep depression, and that you were haunted by nighttime anxiety. Today, we would say that you were suffering from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. We are again at war, as we have been many times since you took yours wounds deep in the Virginia pine country. Like you, our boys have lost. There is no victory here, no matter what the wealthy politicians say. It is still a rich man’s fight and a poor man’s war.
In the picture, your left side is sort of thrown against the chair, as though half of you had been propped into the regal parlor chair in which you were posed. By the way, I am quite fond of your cowboy hat. I come from a long and winding line of cowboy hat-wearing good ole boys and even better women, most of whom you produced. And though your service during the Civil War was not as lengthy as my three times great grandfather’s from Texas was, it was a million times more violent, and it has moved me beyond words and I find it hard to let go of you.
In fact, I find myself performing ordinary household chores, and wondering if I closed my eyes a certain way, might I see you? Today, in fact, I was hanging out the clothes to dry, it was just such a fall day, when I caught sight of a clean bright sheet flapping wildly to the sway of the wind and I wondered if your flag flew in this same way above your encampment at Yorktown. Records tell me that this is where you enlisted with the Army of Northern Virginia, with your Regiment – the 1st Tennessee, Co. F.
Now, it may surprise you to learn that I am no fan of the Confederacy. I think it was a grand stupid idea to attempt a splitting of the Union and the enslavement of your fellow human beings. I do not believe that state’s rights should trump federal laws.
That being said, I realize that you are my three times great grandfather, and so I will refrain from insulting you further. I think you are a saint. A human being with a godlike heart ( I read the accounts of how you cared for your fellow soldiers while they healed from the loss of sanity and limb and you sang to them ‘Psalms and spiritual hymns of encouragement’, much like Walt Whitman did only a few miles north in Washington D.C.) And I know that the kind of tenacity you had does not come by men so easily, not in your day and not in mine. I have known many men, but not many like you.
I should mention that I am a writer, a freelance writer, if it is not already obvious that I express myself best through words. My work has appeared in literally hundreds of newspapers and magazines all over the United States. And until I realized you had existed, I thought I wanted to write about Russians. Now I know that my own winding family tree has as much triumph and drama, tragedy and miracles, as any Dostoyevsky novel. He was your contemporary, so perhaps, this is why your life carried as much parallels to The Brothers Karamazov as it does with Huckleberry Finn.
With that, I begin this journey to find you, and I sincerely hope that you will be found as much as you wish to be. If you were to read this from your lofty place in the heavens, I would ask that you look down upon my efforts and bless them with your prayers.
I will write this book through as many of your words as I can dig up. I will utilize your pictures and historical documents and books. I will be following you from home to war and back again and then on to Missouri, where you finally settled after two wives and a bunch of children.
I kindly ask for your patience. I am an excellent investigator and a good writer, and I have a fairly good feeling in my gut, that you and I already kind of know each other. By the last page, I want you to know what legacy you have left your country, your children, and your children’s children. I want you to see that because you hung on at Seven Pines, you gave life to one who would fight Adolph Hitler less than 100 years later. And I want you, most of all, to see the beautiful great great great great grandchildren your dedication to life, in the midst of war, helped to create.
So, with this in mind, I begin a long walk with my grandfather. I will hold your hand if you will hold mine. You, the brave soldier, and me the writer with a burning set of questions on the brain. We can be each other’s better angels.
Your Great Great Great Granddaughter, Tiffani Burnett-Velez
“When a book leaves your hands, it belongs to God. He may use it to save a few souls or to try a few others, but I think that for the writer to worry is to take over God’s business.” Flannery O’Connor