(EDITOR’S NOTE: April is Confederate History Month, a month designated by six state governments in the Southern United States for the purpose of recognizing and honoring the history of the Confederate States of America.)
I was born and raised in South Boston. I grew up helping my grandparents raise tobacco. I played high school football here and then left for college in 1977. It was a good life, although I didn’t appreciate it at the time; back in 1977 South Boston couldn’t disappear in the rearview mirror fast enough.
I went to law school and then did a 20-year stint in Atlanta practicing there. Then, in 2003 I came back and set up law practice here. It’s still a good life, living on the old farm and in the old farmhouse I grew up in with my soon-to-be wife and Shih-tzu doggie.
Through all those years, I held an intense and growing fascination with the Civil War history of Virginia. I was proud of its military heritage (still am). I grew up revering Robert E. Lee and Jesus with equal enthusiasm, and I still do.
I read Stephen Vincet Benet’s epic poem, “John Brown’s Body,” and his roll call of the Virginia counties that manned Lee’s immortal Army of Northern Virginia, with Halifax near the forefront. I studied the storied history of Lee’s little army, “That deathless army,” as Churchill named it.
And as I marveled at what that relatively little band did against “overwhelming numbers and resources” – Lee may have the unique distinction of winning almost every battle, yet losing the war – I began to wonder if any of my folks, my ancestors, marched with my hero through that awful war, where 600,000+ Americans were killed, more than all other U.S. wars combined. Fifty plus thousand casualties fell at Gettysburg alone. Some 53,000 died in the entirety of the Vietnam conflict.
But in my search, for a long time the trail ran cold. I heard rumors, a whispered name, family memories. Then I met my great-great-great Aunt, Edna Smith, who lived in Alton. She was my own great-grandmother’s only surviving sister, and she told me about her grandfather – John Andrew Elliott. He was in the war, she said.
So, the game was afoot. I soon found him in a threadbare old copy of a pamphlet I have called “Halifax Veterans of the Confederate Army.” And there he was, “J. A. Elliott,” 14th Virginia Infantry, Dan River Rifles.”
Boy, I was excited. And better yet, it looked like ol’ John Andrew was with Lee (Longstreet’s Corp) from the Seven Days Battles in 1862 through Second Manassas, Sharpsburg and Fredericksburg, up to Gettsyburg and Pickett’s (in)famous, suicidal charge and then back through the awful, filthy, starving days in the trenches around Richmond and Petersburg, and then the final bleak sadness of Appomattox.
Throughout, John Andrew had been wounded, taken prisoner, then exchanged to fight again. He attained the rank of sergeant. And in 2008, after 20 years of searching, by pure good fortune we also found John Andrew’s grave, only about four miles from my farm as it turned out.
Did he actually lay eyes on General Lee, I wondered? Did he hear him speak? Doubtful, but it could be.
In the years since we discovered John Andrew, my brother and I have uncovered at least a dozen other direct Civil War ancestors, and we have them carefully tabulated.
We honor their memories and take pride in their military prowess under unimaginable hardship in defense of their homes, their sacrifices, marching shoeless over frozen roads leaving them painted red with blood, their allegiance to Mother Virginia and their good citizenship after the war.
There’s an old saying that it’s hard to figure out where you’re going until you know where you come from. Out here on Maple Grove Farm, where five generations of my family have lived, we figure you just cannot do much better than surviving and coming out of General Lee’s vaunted, indomitable army.