Friday, August 21, 2009

Family Finds Its History in Resaca

Search for family history leads to Confederate cemetery in Resaca, Ga.
Special to The Times Wade Byars

Sunday, August 9, 2009

RESACA, Ga. — "Resaca, eh? Well, you're about a holler from there!" The man sitting in the lawn chair grinned. "But don't blink your eyes or you'll miss it," advised another as he whittled away at the stick in his hands. The pleasant scene was just beyond the square in Calhoun, Ga., at a cave-cool hardware store, the only place open on a warm July Saturday afternoon."Whatcha lookin' for? The cemetery or the battleground?""Both!" Wade, my husband, answered. And directions were clearly and quickly given.

We were meandering, searching for an obscure Civil War battleground that turned out to be not as obscure as we thought. The Battle of Resaca was a late-in-the-war delaying tactic by the Confederate Army to impede Union Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman's March to the Sea. The march began for Wade and me in Vicksburg, Miss., and never reached the sea, because we found a common ancestor story.My grandfather, Barney Goodson, used to tell about his mother, Mary Keith's, adventure one day during the War Between the States. "She lived with her parents in Calhoun, Ga., walking distance from the little town of Resaca.

The Yankee soldiers had come down through Dalton and fought Gen. Johnston and his Rebel troops for three days at Resaca. Mary and her family heard the guns and the cannons from their house. Her mama wanted to get away from there, but Pa wouldn't let 'em leave. He wasn't going to let the Yankees run him off his property, you see. "Then, on the third day, the guns got real quiet. The trees and the ground that had shook with the battle got still, and you know how young people are, my ma just had to see what had been happening.

She slipped off from her house and began walking; when she got to Col. John Green's plantation, she stopped stock still. All over the ground were bodies of soldiers, blue and grey coats alike, white and still in the sun. She couldn't move; couldn't look away. All those bodies, and blood!" Here, Pa Pa Goodson's voice got cryptic."What was that white stuff scattered all over the ground, the bodies, in the blood? Scattered everywhere soaked in the darkening blood was ... hard tack that the soldiers carried to eat along their march; but to Mary it looked like soda crackers soaked in blood!"

She turned away from the battlefield and ran all the way home. She went back to help Miss Mary Green and her sister Pyatt Green gather the bodies of the hastily buried soldiers, identify the bodies as best they could and bury them in the cemetery Miss Mary's Daddy, Col. John Green, gave them the ground for.

My ma lived long after that day, but she never forgot that first look: blood and death and crackers. And ... " Papa always rolled his eyes toward the neat, clean kitchen, "she never ate another soda cracker as long as she lived." I grew up hearing that story, and, though I never let it keep me from eating crackers, I never forgot it, either. I told the story to Wade when he started reading the new Winston Groom book, "Vicksburg, 1863." Then he shared a Civil War story from his mother's side of the family, the Bradleys, that was part of his growing up years.

Millport farmer and great-grandpa Jeremiah Bradley hadjoined the 42nd Alabama Infantry when it formed in Columbus, Miss., and had fought in the battle of Vicksburg, been captured, sent to the Union prison in Demopolis, then "walked all the way home after he was released from prison." The 42nd went on to Alabama and Georgia, where they engaged the Union troops again at Resaca. Of the 440 graves in the cemetery, several inter-identified 42nd soldiers. Wouldn't it be ironic, we thought, if Jeremiah Bradley had somehow made it to Resaca? Then our two relatives would have been on the same ground on the same day all those years ago? The thought overwhelmed my romantic imagination. What if Jeremiah and Mary had been that close?We began to sleuth into the history of the 42nd Alabama.

According to the Internet, the prisoners from the Battle of Vicksburg were sent to Demopolis but were released after the Union troops left the area. They rejoined their regiment and went on to Alabama and Resaca, where they engaged the Union troops once again, creating delaying tactics to Sherman. The 42nd then followed Sherman on to the Carolinas, where they were when Lee surrendered, the war was over and each found his own way home. Jeremiah did walk all the way, but from Demopolis or South Carolina?

The coincidence was enough to send Wade and me to Resaca two weeks ago. Turn right at the yellow sign, go until the road runs into a pasture. Turn right again. Can't go any further either way; roads dead end. Right there's the Resaca Confederate Cemetery, first Confederate cemetery in Georgia. The cemetery is absolutely still, as it might have been that May 15 afternoon when Mary Keith came upon the bloody battlefield. Pine trees make a circle around the stone-fenced ground. The parking area is clean except for leaves and pine needles, and as we stopped before the tall, natural-stone entrance erected, according to a plaque set in the wall, by the Works Progress Administration, a soft, warm breeze caressed us.

From somewhere, the tinny sound of a recorded children's choir filled the air."Do you hear music?" Wade asked."Well, yeah, probably coming from that house over the hill." Wherever it came from, the sound was deliciously eerie and sadly appropriate. We walked through the geometrically placed stones that identified some of the soldiers and pronounced some "unknown." The 42nd Alabama section is to the left of the entrance and up a small incline. Fifty-nine 42nd's were killed or wounded at Resaca. J.M. Elliott, Co. B 42nd Alabama, is one of the identified soldiers; Elliott's daughters placed a marker on his gravesite; they were little girls and hardly knew their father when he left for the war. They were probably old women when the marker was placed.

I could almost see them as they saw the marker for the first time. William Stubbs' 42nd Alabama's father placed a marker on his son's grave, also probably many years after the battle. No need for words as we walked around the perimeter of the graves; I thought of the pretty Green sisters and their friends, maybe my great-grandmother, as they planned the cemetery and drew off the places for the markers — in perfect rows around the tall cross that marks the center of the site. A rickety wooden bridge spans a brook that begins somewhere to the right of the back wall and gurgles quickly on, eager to leave this haunting place. Naked tree roots well up from the ground like skeleton arms; hickory nuts that look like mini balls rest on the bare "swept" ground. A fine souvenir, but they lie, like the soldiers did, where they fell, waiting for someone to take them home.

No birds sing in the spiny trees; no squirrels scamper about laying by winter food; indeed, nothing alive wants to stay here for very long. These young men gave their lives for a "cause" that soon after their final battle was lost forever. The 42nd Alabama and the Keith family were not concerned with whether the United States was slave or free, states rights or government controlled. Like most Southerners, they were interested in living as independently as possible without interference from people far away — the old "taxation without representation" argument that had spurred 1776 Americans on to freedom.

As I turned away from the past and looked toward home, I was glad we came searching for yesterday, glad that we charted our relatives' journeys to the place where we are convinced two 19th-century people who never knew each other paved the way for two 21st-century people to search out a place in history that all four share, creating a sense of continuity, of history. As the sun moved shadows over the pine trees and into the crevices, I felt them. Gentle eyes watching from the shadows, urging me on. Go. They whisper. Go. Tell our story to your children. Let the cause of freedom never be lost; teach your children, so that we and thousands of others have not died in vain. Teach them love of country; love of comrades; love of history that spirals down into the years, repeating and repeating until men learn brotherhood, honor and patriotism.