Today—on Memorial Day—we honor all those who gave their lives serving our country in the armed forces, but the day originally commemorated those who died in the Civil War. There were scattered observances decorating the graves of the fallen, both Union and Confederate, even before the war ended; but the first official Decoration Day took place at Arlington National Cemetery on May 30, 1868—established by proclamation from the Grand Army of the Republic, a Union veterans’ group.
They say that history is the story of the winners, and to some degree that is true. My family was on the losing side of the Civil War, so I grew up hearing an alternative version of the war. For example, it was about “states’ rights” and “northern aggression,” not slavery. Robert E. Lee, Stonewall Jackson and Jefferson Davis were the great heroes of the Civil War; not Grant, Sherman or Lincoln. What seems like ancient history to young people today was just a generation removed from me. The distance from the Civil War to World War II is nearly the same as the distance from World War II to today.
During the war, we lived in my great-grandmother’s house in New Orleans. She died in 1933 at the age of 91, the “Little Colonel” of the Fourth Louisiana Regiment of the Confederate Army. Lucy Smith met my great-grandfather, Lt. Abishai Woodwood Roberts, when she volunteered at the U.S. customs house, which served as a temporary prison for officers captured at the end of the siege of Port Hudson. A few of his letters to her from the notorious prison at Johnson’s Island, Ohio, have survived. When “Bish” was freed in 1865, he returned New Orleans to ask her to marry him. They were wed in 1866 at the bedside of her dying mother, attended by her cousins, who were nieces of Jefferson Davis.
Abishai W. Roberts
“Bish,” a young lawyer from Lake Providence, LA, was injured in the Battle of Shiloh, where nearly 24,000 soldiers were killed, and injured again in the Battle of Baton Rouge. From there he went to Port Hudson, where troops endured 40 days of unrelenting shelling from Union gunboats on the Mississippi while under siege. Though “Bish” returned to Lake Providence after his marriage to resume his law practice, it was hardly habitable after its years of occupation and battles under the direction of Gen. U.S. Grant, part of his campaign to capture Vicksburg and control the Mississippi. While “Bish” served as mayor, district attorney and judge, in addition to publishing a newspaper, Lucy and the growing family spent most of their time back in West Feliciana Parish, where she was born, her mother had property and much of her extended family still lived. A staunch ally of old Louisiana Confederate generals and a leader in the Democratic Party (which was then the states-rights, white supremacy, anti-Reconstruction party), he survived an attempted assassination in 1876; but it was one injury too many and his health began to deteriorate. Two years later, while running for state office, he died. He was 42. Lucy, only 37, was left with four young children, boys aged 9, 7 and 4 and a daughter 14 months old.
A starving family
Lucy Smith Roberts
The little family struggled to survive in West Feliciana for almost two years. Letters at LSU tell the story—excuses from her husband’s family, even her mother’s half-brother as they turned down her pleas for food when she and her children were starving. Only her godmother Lucy Boyle, the daughter of her uncle Luther Smith and his wife Anna Davis Smith (Jefferson’s sister), came to her rescue. In one letter she wrote, “I send you a little meal, grits, sugar & Coffee & G_ puts in a piece of pork….” In another, “Pray let me hear all about dear little Tomie—if I can make any for him to eat. I have no butter or would send it to him—only milk enough for our baby….” And another, “I received your sad note two days since & have not been able to find a messenger to send you an answer before now. I need not say how Miserable your note has made us all; as we are powerless to render you any substantial aid—I cannot even get into see you as I have no way to ride in…Gordon & Jed [her brothers] have made some potatoes—& send you some…I put in also a pillow slip of part Grits—and part flour and a little tin Bucket of fresh butter…if I have any thing you would like write & tell me. I am very poor but will divide with you…Would to God I had a house to take you & the Means to support you—but you know dear child how Miserably I am situated—I have nothing of my own & am utterly helpless to do good to anyone.”
(Ironically, Varina Davis’ letters to Jefferson are full of complaints about the constant appeals for help from his relatives, particularly Lucy Boyle, who in her own desperate poverty was—apparently unknown to Varina—feeding her cousin’s family.)
About 1881, Lucy and the children moved to New Orleans, where the three little boys supported the family by throwing newspapers. They were up before dawn, making their way down muddy streets with no lighting to the Times-Picayune horse barns, where they would get the papers and begin the day’s deliveries. A widow for 53 years, Lucy became one of the prime movers of the whole “Lost Cause” effort—chairing the committee to build a Jefferson Davis Memorial and founding the local chapter of the United Daughters of the Confederacy, proud of the family connections to “Cousin Jeff” Davis. According to my mother, his portrait hung over her living room mantel, and a Confederate flag stood beside it. She never stood for the National Anthem, and she never said the word “yankee” without prefacing it with the word “damn.” I am quite sure that she, like most Southerners of her era, never observed Memorial Day, with its founding so closely associated with the Union cause.
The wrong side of history
Lucy and her contemporaries were on the wrong side of history. They were wrong about slavery…and much more. That does not diminish their grief. Perhaps the widows and children of the losers grieve even more than the surviving families of the winners. They don’t have the pride of victory or the accolades of the nation. I haven’t acknowledged the Confederate flag since I was a young, unknowing girl; but would it be so wrong to put a small Confederate flag on my great-grandfather’s grave today? Southern women lost a generation of sons, husbands and fathers in that awful war. Much of their land and property was taken from them. It was the bloodiest war that Americans have ever fought. About 620,000 were killed, North and South; 476,000 captured or missing; 400,000 wounded. Almost one in four soldiers never returned home. And there is no count of the emotional injuries—what we call today post-traumatic stress disorder; no count of all those who, like my great-grandfather, died later due to injuries, illnesses and deprivations suffered in the war. Two percent of the population of the United States died in the Civil War. A war of that magnitude today would claim 6 million lives.
So today I pause to remember all those who have given their lives for our country. I give thanks that the Union endured, but I so regret that the deep divisions in the U.S. at that time almost destroyed us. Perhaps no compromise was possible, when the majority of the country understood that ending slavery was a moral imperative and a hot-headed militant minority was unwilling to concede. May the lessons and the toll of the Civil War be a reminder to us at this time, when we are polarized and divided and when consensus and compromise are dirty words.
Footnote about the Jefferson Davis connections: Lucy Smith’s mother Aurelia Smith was the daughter of Courtland Smith of West Feliciana Parish, reared by his brother Luther on his nearby plantation. Luther’s second wife was Anna Davis, sister to Jefferson Davis. She introduced Aurelia to her older brother, Dr. Benjamin Davis. They married in Luther and Anna’s home, and on the mantel were silver candlesticks, a wedding gift from Jefferson and Varina. Ben died in an 1827 small pox epidemic and their only child died a few months later. Aurelia married three more times. Luther and Anna, Jefferson Davis’ first wife Sarah Knox Taylor, and Aurelia’s first two husbands and children are buried at Locust Grove, Luther’s old plantation. The silver candlesticks are still in the family. Anna and her daughter Lucy Boyle were sponsors when Aurelia, Lucy and her sister Josie were confirmed in 1851 at Grace Episcopal Church, St. Francisville, where Roberts family members are buried.