Let Go Your Southern Ghosts!

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Postcard depicting CSA Brigadier General Alfred Iverson

The re-examination of Southern cultural values now taking place after the shootings in Charleston is long overdue. I've noticed many online defenders of Confederate heritage argue that their opponents do not understand history and fail to see beyond racial barriers. I have white southern roots deeper than most. I understand my history, and the lineage of bigotry it entails.

My earliest ancestors were New England Puritans who came through Charleston to settle at Dorchester, South Carolina, in 1697. They displaced the natives, through disease or force, and decided to plant rice and indigo on the plantation lands granted to them through their royally connected patrons. These northern Puritans, not knowing how to grow rice or indigo, bought slaves from Africa who did, trained to do so before they ever boarded slave ships. Through these crops South Carolina's white masters grew to be the richest people, per capita (not counting the slave population), on the face of the earth. In just two generations my New England Puritan ancestors morphed from communal religious fanatics into quintessential southern plantation owners. The mechanics of racial domination set in with surprising speed.

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19th century slave shackles and blacksmith tools.

In 1753 my ancestors moved again, en masse, to Liberty County just south of Savannah, Georgia. On even larger tracts of land they grew rice and prospered on the back of their African slaves until the end of the Civil War. As the primary intellectual seedbed of the state, Liberty County produced two signers of the Declaration of Independence, two governors, judges, scientists, agriculturalists, writers, lawyers, politicians, professors, ministers, and two U. S. Senators. My great-great-great grandfather, born in Liberty County, was one of those.

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Senator Alfred Iverson, photograph by Mathew Brady, circa 1860.

In the 1830s, before he was a senator, Alfred Iverson was an early immigrant to Columbus, Georgia. Married to the daughter of John Forsyth, who was Andrew Jackson's Secretary of State, Iverson was closely connected to the politics of Washington. As a young lawyer for several land investment corporations, Iverson's main job was to screw up legal proceedings of Creek Indian land deals so badly that they could never be sorted out. These massive frauds benefitted the white settlers moving onto the land, and the native population was forced by the U.S. government to move west. My ancestor was so good at his job that the Columbus Land Company alone defrauded the Creek Indians of Alabama out of a million and a half acres of land.

Elected in 1858 as a United States Senator from Georgia, Alfred Iverson was a tireless advocate of secession, not only for the purpose of maintaining slavery in the southern states, but for building a slave empire extending from Mexico to Panama, including Cuba, with the Gulf of Mexico as a private lake. Iverson and a number of his Fire-Eater friends envisioned a country where the whites were at the top of the social strata, the Latin population in the middle, and African slaves at the bottom.

Iverson was considered one of the great southern orators of his day, and was often attacked by northern papers, like the New York Times, for his vitriolic speeches. Here is a taste of a talk in which he speaks of northern abolitionists; "Let us feed them and fatten them and gorge them out of the public crib, until, like young vultures, they vomit in our faces; let us smother their fanaticism with masses of gold and silver; and then, perhaps, they will let us keep our niggers!"

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Harper's Weekly, Jan. 5, 1861, following Georgia's secession, with Alfred Iverson center, right.

Iverson resigned from the Senate when Georgia seceded from the Union, successful in his decade long push to split the Union. If through his treasonous actions he helped bring on the Civil War, it can be said that his son, Brigadier General Alfred Iverson, CSA, helped to lose it. My great-great grandfather was one of the most horrendous generals in the war. At Gettysburg he led his troops into battle from the rear, and of the 1400 men of Iverson's Brigade that marched across Forney's Field that July 1st, less than 400 answered roll call the next day. Fired by Robert E. Lee, my ancestor went back to Georgia and helped form a cavalry to face-off against U.S. General Sherman on his campaign to destroy the will of the South. Iverson marched backwards for the rest of the war, fled the official surrender to be captured at his home, and died of old age in 1911.

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Postcard of Stone Mountain Confederate Memorial plans, 1922.

For doing as much as he humanly could to bring about the secession of the slave states, Senator Alfred Iverson is forgotten by those who still dream so fervently of the Confederacy. With poetic justice he died attended only by a fifteen year old black slave he managed to keep even after the war, and is buried in an unmarked grave in Columbus, Georgia. On the other hand, Gutzon Borglum, the sculptor of Mount Rushmore, planned to carve the notoriously bad Brigadier General Iverson onto the Confederate Memorial of Stone Mountain, but the number of horseman was reduced from twelve to three for financial reasons. However, the General is honored by bronze plaques all over central Georgia commemorating his various actions during Sherman's March. History is a fickle mistress.

The story of mankind is full of bloodshed, violence and injustice. There is not one of us on this planet who does not own a repugnant murderous abomination of an ancestor. That is the truth. But we do not have to own their worst deeds. We do not have to make excuses for their racism, or glorify their ignominy in the name of heritage. We have progressed as a country beyond the narrower limitations that bound our Civil War era ancestors. If we are, as we profess, a civilized people, the greatest civilization on earth, then we should let go of these ghosts. Let them haunt the pages of history, where their interesting lives intrigue us, but their moral choices are seen as the flawed passions of a bygone era. We are not them. We can aspire to be citizens of a more just society.

Discover more about the author's ancestry and American history when The Paternal Suit: Heirlooms from the F Scott Hess Family Foundation opens at the Knoxville Museum of Art on August 21, 2015.