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Whimsical history entertains well

Whimsical history entertains well

Posted: Thursday, August 14, 2008 11:25 pm
By: Larry McGehee

One of the delights of history is that it brims with marvelous ironies. I have remarked before how well acquainted and inter-related Civil War leaders were. Many had been West Point classmates, some had married into one another’s families or been groomsmen at each other’s weddings, and many had served together on frontier posts or in Mexico. In some cases, including Lincoln’s wife’s family, brothers and fathers wound up on opposing sides. The Washington College president’s home into which Robert E. Lee moved after the War had earlier been the home of President Junkin, a Presbyterian divine. For a while, Thomas Jackson (later to be called Stonewall), a professor down the lane at VMI, lived there after marrying Junkin’s daughter. When she died soon after the marriage, he stayed on until he courted and wed the daughter of another educator, President Morrison of Davidson College. Miss Morrison’s sister was already married to Jackson’s close friend and fellow West Pointer, D. H. Hill. Hill is buried very near Davidson, and Jackson is buried a few blocks from Washington & Lee, while Lee is buried in the campus chapel itself. The University of Alabama and Transylvania College have the same Crimson and White school colors as Harvard. If one examines the archives in the libraries of those three campuses one finds student conduct codes very similar in wording. Harvard (founded 1636) graduate Alva Woods served as president of Transylvania (founded 1780) in Kentucky and then moved on to become an early president of the University of Alabama (founded 1838), taking colors and conduct codes with him. The tune and lyrics of the Alma Maters at Wofford College, Birmingham? Southern College, and Vanderbilt are virtually the same, and the three also share Old Gold and Black school colors. Before the Civil War, President William Wightman, the first president of Wofford in South Carolina, became president of the newly merged and moved Birmingham-Southern in Alabama, and took the song and colors with him. Vanderbilt, coming on the scene some years later, had a couple of leading professors, plus the famous Chancellor Kirkland, with Wofford teaching and alumni ties, who apparently planted the song and colors in Nashville. A similar tie between Wofford and Emory University needs exploring. Stumbling across trivia makes reading history an adventure. Author Truman Capote lived briefly near author Harper Lee in Alabama when both were children, and the neighboring little boy in To Kill a Mockingbird is based on Capote. Mississippi’s author-critic Stark Young’s home in Oxford is almost within sight of William Faulkner’s Rowan Oak home, and there was a time when Young was the better-known and better-appreciated of the two. Sam Houston, instead of having Tennessee and Texas careers independent of Andy Jackson, was in fact a protege, so much so that when the U. S. House of Representatives was trying Houston for having caned a congressman, Houston lived in the White House with Jackson. Senator Strom Thurmond, a staunch conservative Republican, set a record for filibustering for 24 hours and 28 minutes in 1957. Some 14 hours into the speech Senator Paul Douglas, a very liberal Democrat from Illinois, brought Thurmond a pitcher of orange juice and poured a glass for him. Somehow that bipartisan picture brings to mind the inauguration of John F. Kennedy, when President Eisenhower held Kennedy’s hat for him as he took the oath. Historical irony is a wonderful thing. When Grant moved into Richmond after the Confederacy evacuated it, he slept in a bed in which Lee was said to have slept the night before. (But the innkeeper lied to Grant; Lee had been elsewhere.) When Mrs. Lincoln learned that her husband had gone without her to Richmond after its fall, she commandeered the River Queen and went on her own, taking a party that included abolitionist Charles Sumner, the congressman who had been caned nine years earlier by South Carolina’s Preston Brooks. Sumner slipped the ivory gavel of the Confederate Congress into his pocket and made off with it. According to one account, the surrender table used by Lee and Grant at Appomatox was bought by General Sheridan and presented as a gift to General George A. Custer’s wife. However, another account says there were two tables, one for each general, and that General Ord bought Lee’s for forty dollars and Sheridan bought Grant’s for twenty, but the owner, Wilbur McLean (who had moved to Appomatox after a shell smashed into his former home at Bull Run) threw the money on the floor and refused to sell anything. Everything disappeared anyway. Lincoln being shot on Good Friday, dying in a tailor’s house and being succeeded by a Tennessee tailor, two southern Presidents Johnson coming to office through assassinations–the ironies go on and on. Irony breathes life into history. Larry McGehee, professor-emeritus at Wofford College, may be reached by e-mail at mcgeheelt@wofford.edu Published in The Messenger 8.14.08

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