Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Why we still Revere our Confederate Ancestors

By Lewis Regenstein
Speech to the Gainesville, Georgia Kiwanis Club
10 April, 2007 

Thank you, I am honored to be here today with the Gainesville Kiwanis Club, and to speak before such a distinguished group, on the occasion of Confederate History and Heritage Month.


The observance of this month has generated some controversy and misunderstanding, and I’d like to explain why so many of us are proud of our Confederate ancestors, based on the experiences and writings of members of my own family.

Before I begin I’d like to emphasize that while I am very proud of my ancestors, I‘m not bragging about anything. I can claim no personal distinction for their heroism, which reflects what was common among the hopelessly outnumbered, outsupplied but not outfought Confederate troops, something in which we all take much pride.

Our ancestors often ran low on food, ammunition, and other supplies, but never on courage.

I write and talk about all this because I am proud of our heritage and committed to helping keep its memory alive and honored, amidst the ongoing campaign to rewrite history and discredit the valor and honor of the Confederate soldiers and their Cause.

The Valor of the Confederate Soldiers

It’s been almost exactly 142 years since General Sherman burned Columbia, South Carolina and sent a battle-hardened military unit towards nearby Sumter, presumably to do the same. My then 16 year old great grandfather, Andrew Jackson Moses, rode out to defend his hometown, along with some other teenagers, invalids, old men, and the disabled and wounded from the local hospital.

Jack kept running away from school to join the Confederate army, so they finally let him join up and act as a courier on horseback. His final mission was as hopeless as it was valiant, but the rag-tag group of volunteers did manage to hold off the tough and experienced “Potter’s Raiders” for over an hour before being overwhelmed by this vastly superior force.

The date of this skirmish at Dingle’s Mill was 9 April, the same day that General Robert E. Lee surrendered, and that Jack’s eldest brother, Joshua Lazarus Moses, was killed in the War’s last big engagement.

Josh had been in the thick of the shooting when Fort Sumter was attacked at the beginning of the War, and was wounded in the war’s first major battle (First Manassas or Bull Run). He was killed at Fort Blakeley, Alabama, commanding the last guns firing in defense of Mobile. Josh was shot down a few hours after Lee surrendered, his unit outnumbered 12 to one, in this battle in which one brother was wounded and another captured.

The fifth Moses bother, Isaac Harby Moses, who began the War as a Citadel cadet, was fighting with Wade Hampton’s legendary cavalry, commanding his company since all of the officers had been killed or wounded. His Mother wrote very proudly that after the Battle of Bentonville, North Carolina, he rode home from the War, never having surrendered to anyone.

The War was Not Fought Over Slavery

The five Moses brothers were among the 3,000 or so Jewish Confederates, part of an amazingly diverse army that also included Native Americans, Hispanics, Scotch, Irish, Germans, Italians, even Blacks, all fighting for a common purpose, to throw back the invasion from the North.

These Confederates showed incredible courage and valor in fighting not for slavery, as is so often said, but for their country, their families, and to save their own lives.

Indeed, slavery and other political issues were probably the furthest thing from their minds as they fought desperately against an invading army that was trying, with great success, to kill them, burn their homes, and destroy their society.

Yet, those of us who take pride in our ancestors’ bravery are constantly portrayed in the press as ignorant and intolerant bigots, vilified as defenders of slavery, and derided as living in a past that never really existed.

I know this first hand, because when the battle over Georgia’s flag was raging a few years ago, I wrote for the Atlanta Journal Constitution a mild mannered article trying to explain why so many good and decent Georgians take pride in their ancestors and the symbols & flags they fought under.

I tried to explain that we revere our ancestors because, against overwhelming odds, they fought on, often hungry, cold, sick, wounded, or shoeless to protect their homeland from an often cruel invader.

In response, the newspaper published two letters to the editor:

One said that my statements “were reminiscent of neo-Nazi apologists denying the Holocaust.” The other letter accused me of defending slavery and “a treasonous movement” called the Confederacy.

My then 84 year old Mother asked me, “please wait until I die before you write any more articles.”

Longstreet’s Chief of Commissary

Here in Gainesville, not far the home of General James Longstreet, under whom my ancestor Major Raphael Jacob Moses served as chief commissary officer, is a good place to talk about how that War really was fought.

Raphael Moses was a fifth generation South Carolinian who in 1849 moved to Columbus, Georgia, where he was a lawyer, planter, and owner of a plantation he named “Esquiline.” Moses’ English ancestors came to America during colonial days, one of them being his great, great grandfather Dr. Samuel Nunez, fleeing the Inquisition. He is credited with saving the newly-established, mosquito-infested colony of Savannah, Georgia from being wiped out in 1733 by a “fever,” then thought to be yellow fever but which was probably malaria.

Major Moses is known as “the father of Georgia’s peach industry,” and is most famous for having attended the Confederate Government’s last meeting, and carrying out its Last Order.

As General James Longstreet's chief commissary officer, Major Moses participated in many of the major battles in the East, and was responsible for supplying and feeding an army of up to 54,000 troops, including porters and other non-combatants.

General Lee had forbidden him from entering private homes in search of supplies in raids into Union territory (such as the incursions into Pennsylvania), even when food and other provisions were in painfully short supply, and his soldiers were suffering greatly from this lack of supplies..

Often while seizing supplies, Moses encountered considerable hostility and abuse from the local women, which he always endured in good humor, and it became a source of much teasing from his fellow officers.

Moses always acted honorably, compassionately, and as a gentleman. Once, when a distraught woman approached Moses and pleaded for the return of her pet heifer that had been caught up in a cattle seizure, he graciously gave the cow back to her.

Moses’ memoirs contain some very interesting observations on General Longstreet and especially the ill-fated and crucial Battle of Gettysburg. “…We lost the battle,” laments Moses, “and then came the retreat; the rain poured down in floods that night ! I laid down in a fence corner and near by on the bare earth in an India rubber [tarp] lay General Lee biding the pelting storm.”

In his memoirs, Moses reveals that “General Longstreet did not wish to fight the Battle of Gettysburg. He wanted to go around the hill, but Lee objected on account of our long wagon and artillery trains.” Longstreet, as historian Ed Bearss notes, “knew what muskets in the hands of determined troops could do,” and felt that the Union forces, holding the high ground, would have the same advantage over his forces that the Confederates had over the Federals at Fredericksburg. If his advice had been taken, it could have changed the course of the War.

But Lee rejected Longstreet’s recommendation to swing his troops around the heights, and instead ordered the attack on the center of the Union forces at Cemetery Hill, saying of the Yankees, “I will whip them here, or they will whip me.” Honorable as always, after the battle Lee took responsibility for the disaster, saying “All this has been my fault.” Longstreet, feeling that the ground fought over had no military value, called that day “the saddest of my life.” Shelby Foote calls Lee’s decision “The mistake of all mistakes.”

Interestingly, the entire battle might have been avoided and the course of the war changed if Longstreet’s forces had not been forced to wait for reinforcements to arrive. Moses says that if the Confederates had not been delayed near Cash Town for over a day waiting for General Richard Stoddert Ewell’s wagon train of supplies, “…I do know that we could have marched easily from Chambersburg to Gettysburg, in a day, and been there before the Union troops.”

THE LAST ORDER OF THE LOST CAUSE

About three weeks after the war’s end, as chief commissary for Georgia, Moses carried out what is reputed to have been the last order of the Confederacy. It involved safeguarding and delivering the Confederate treasury’s last $40,000 of silver and/or gold bullion (perhaps $750,000 today).

The money was to be used to feed and help the thousands of Confederate soldiers, in nearby hospitals, and straggling home from the War, sick, tired, hungry, often shoeless or wounded.

Moses' three sons also fought for the South, and one was killed at Seven Pines in May, 1862 after performing acts of amazing valor – Lt. Albert Moses Luria, at age 19, the first Jewish Confederate to fall in battle. His first cousin, Josh Moses, killed at mobile, was the last.

Brutality of the Union Army

The contrast is striking between the humane Confederate policies and those of the North, wherein Union generals Grant, Sherman, and Sheridan regularly burned and looted homes, farms, courthouses, churches, libraries, and entire cities full of civilians, such as Atlanta and Columbia, South Carolina, and most everything of value in between. Some typical Union actions included:

• Ordering the destruction of an entire agricultural area to deny the enemy support (the Shenandoah Valley, 5 August, 1864).

• Overseeing the complete destruction of defenseless Southern cities, and conducting such warfare against unarmed women and children (e.g., the razing of Meridian, and other cities in Mississippi, spring, 1863, and the burning of Atlanta the following year and most everything between there and Savannah).

Most terrible of all was the mass murder, a virtual genocide, of Native People, slaughtered mercilessly before, during, and after the War, such as the Plains Indians in 1865-66. The victims were mainly helpless old men, women, and children in their villages, eliminated to seize their land for the western railroads.

What the famous Civil War author and television producer Ken Burns, and other eminent historians euphemistically call "the Indian Wars", was carried out by many of the same Union officers who led the war against the South – Sherman, Grant, Sheridan, Custer, and other leading commanders.

The Role of Southern Women

Some of the most impressive stories of the War concern the role of Southern women in these perilous and trying times.

One of my ancestors of whom I’m most proud is my great great grandmother, Octavia Harby Moses, who was a leader in Sumter, S.C. in supporting the troops from the homefront, and I think she typifies many of the Southern women who did so much to help the war effort.

Octavia lost her Mother at age four, and married Andrew Jackson Moses Sr. (Jack’s father) at age 16, bearing 17 children (three of whom died in infancy), and outliving most of them. She was very active on the Homefront in support of the Confederacy. As she put it, “When the War broke out, …like every other Southern woman, I immediately began work for the soldiers”:

I organized a sewing society, to cut and make garments for them. Many boxes of clothes and provisions were sent off, not only to my own sons, but to any others who needed them. I made it a point to try and meet every train that brought soldiers through our town, and, with others, frequently walked from my home, sometimes at two o’clock in the morning, to take food to our men as they passed through. We always greeted them with the wildest enthusiasm, and no thought of defeat ever entered our minds.

During all this time, I was working unceasingly for our soldiers – getting up entertainments [meetings] to furnish means and, like other women, I cut up my carpets and piano cover for them, sent them blankets, etc. … Whenever the boys were fortunate enough to get home on short furloughs, they were the guests of the town – everybody feted them, nothing was too much to do in their honor.

Octavia’s daughter Rebecca adds that “For our own soldiers, she felt that nothing she could do would be too much – they deserved all that was possible”:

With young children clustering round her knees, with her home filled with aged and helpless relatives who had refugeed there from Charleston and other points, she yet found time to work unceasingly for “the men behind the guns.”

Octavia stressed that, considering the widespread suffering so prevalent throughout the South, she did not consider her sacrifices to be a hardship, writing that “I have always said that I knew no privations during the War.”

“The History of Sumter County” related how “The women of Stateburg and Sumter formed themselves into the Soldier’s Relief Associations…”:

"They knitted socks, rolled bandages and lint for dressing wounds, and sent boxes of supplies to the larger centers of Charleston and Columbia…At the depot in Sumter, the ladies set up a long table beside the tracks, where in fair weather, hot food was served to soldiers on the crowded troop trains passing through. In bad weather, they used the dining-room of the Rev Noah Graham’s hotel. Later in the war, when hurrying soldiers did not have time to stop, the ladies handed out packaged lunches, while their little daughters filled the canteens with fresh water. Even in the hours after midnight, Mrs. Octavia Moses and other devoted women would walk to the depot, taking food for the soldiers."

With provisions in short supply, “the busy women of Sumter,” doing all they could to support the war effort, “stitched by hand the garments for their families as well as for the soldiers. They made coffee from okra seeds and parched peanuts, and dim, evil-smelling candles from tallow and myrtle berries. They devised hats from corn shucks, and new dresses from old window curtains. They sent their silver to the Confederate government, the church bells to the foundries to be cast into cannon, and cut their carpets into blankets for the soldiers. They held fairs and bazaars to raise money for the war activities.”

When hospitals were established in Sumter, Octavia writes, “Our ladies, of course, took immediate charge, and the soldiers were fed and nursed with all the means of our command, and all the tenderness of Southern women.”

She also showed compassion for the Union troops who had been taken prisoner: “When I heard that the Northern prisoners would be brought through our town and that they were nearly in a starving condition, I immediately exerted myself to obtain a large quantity of provisions…to give to them…”

After the war, she devoted her life to memorializing "The Lost Cause," and in 1869 was elected president of the "Ladies Monumental Association.” Succeeding her was her eldest daughter Rebecca, who wrote that “Daughters and grand daughters were all taught by her that this was a sacred duty.”

In 1903, at the age of 80, Octavia wrote a summary of her memoirs, describing the family's experiences during the war, concluding with the paragraph, "the rest of the miserable story, through the days of Reconstruction, need not be told. We suffered, as others did, and endured as best we could."

How can you not take pride in people like that !

And how can we not undertake the “sacred duty” to continue to speak of our ancestors’ sacrifices and valor ?

Southerners are stubborn people. And so we will never give up on honoring our ancestors, remembering their valor, recognizing their sacrifices, defending our heritage, and insisting that The Truth be known.

It may have been a Lost Cause, but it was an honorable one, and no matter how hard and frustrating it is, we must never let that be forgotten.

Thank you for inviting me and for the honor of being with you today.

Lewis Regenstein , a Native Atlantan, is descended on his Mother’s side from the Moses family of Georgia and South Carolina, whose patriarch, Myer Moses, participated in the American Revolution. Almost three dozen members of the extended family fought for the Confederacy, and participated in most of the major battles and campaigns of the War. At least nine of them, largely teenagers, died in defense of their homeland, and included the first and last Confederate Jews to fall in battle.

1 comment:

  1. What a great article. Too often this part of our history gets overlooked. It is important that we continue to remember those Southerners who stood up, and in some cases even made the ultimate sacrifice.

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