The wanton murders of nine innocent people, folks so decent and welcoming that they provided a spot in their church to a stranger, who then methodically shot them to death based on his twisted logic, shocked the nation. Resentment against symbols of hatred and racism such as the Confederate battle flags grew and resulted in many (hopefully all) being removed. I grew up in a segregated part of the south, in the rugged triangle where West Virginia, Virginia, and Kentucky come together. I recall the "white only" drinking fountains and separate public toilets. I recall the all-white "separate but equal" (what poppycock) schools.
For me, the reaction of decent people to take down public displays of Confederate battle flags, rancid symbols of resistance to desegregation legal rulings in the nineteen-sixties, was heartening. Hats off to Nikki Haley of South Carolina, which was the first state to secede, and the state that has clung to many of the most intransigent vestiges of racism for years.
So with all that, it's interesting that one of my family's most treasured possessions was a small book, more properly a large pamphlet, written by my great grandfather. He volunteered for the Army of Northern Virginia, leaving his home town of Princeton, Mercer County, Virginia, and joining Virginia's 118th Battalion of General Robert E. Lee's army. He entered as a private, without education beyond elementary school (that was customary in rural areas) and rose to Lieutenant based on brevet promotions. In other words, his superior officers were killed or injured and he was selected to replace them. His war ended at one of the two battles of Cold Harbor, outside Richmond, when the New York Seventh Heavy Artillery Regiment charged at daybreak with heavy bombardment, and overran the Confederate lines. My great-grandfather was shot and bayoneted, and left for dead. He would have died for sure, but for the fact that his buddy next to him killed the Union soldier by swinging his rifle butt and smashing his head in hand-to-hand combat. Lt. George was carried to the Union trenches as a prisoner of war, most likely to succumb from his gruesome injuries. Surprisingly, the Confederate forces counter-attacked after thirty minutes, and regained their original trench lines. The charge ended with both armies in their starting positions, however George was a captive, and somehow he survived and spent the remainder of the war in difficult POW camps: first in Fort Pulaski, near Savannah GA; and finally in Baltimore, MD, after an unsuccessful escape attempt attempt in Georgia.
After General Lee surrendered at Appomattox, great-grandfather came back home to a different place: Princeton, Virginia was burned nearly to the ground (by retreating Confederate forces) and now was Princeton, Mercer County, West Virginia! The change was too much to bear for my predecessor, who moved across what was the new state border back into Virginia near Saltville.
He prospered there, and at some point, paid someone to write his memoirs, titled "One of the Immortals," which was a name given to Lee's army. My aunt, when a little girl, was presented a copy of the pamphlet, along with a note from W.W. George and a handwritten letter to her. When George died, apparently as a somewhat notable there in southwestern Virginia, someone hand drew a small battle flag that was placed on his coffin. This flag was part of the family lore designated by my Aunt Mary to me, and from her on to my oldest son. A photo of the front of the pamphlet, along with the various inscriptions as well as the small battle flag is shown. The final decision will be up to my son, JKG III, but hopefully this material will end up in the Institute for Civil War Studies at Virginia Tech.
If you have any doubts about this story, you can read more in several noted accounts of the Battle of Cold Harbor, including Cold Harbor: Grant and Lee, May 26-June 3, 1864, pages 322-323, by Gordon C. Rhea.
This small symbol is part of my family history, but I'd never want it to be a reminder to any group of the injustice forced on people before and after the Civil War. Based on when my ancestors arrived and where they lived, I have a reasonable pride in my family, but certainly agree with the recent decisions to remove public symbols of an economic and social system that was based on subjugation and bias.