Boxing up antebellum ancestors

We hear every day that Americans must confront “400 years of racism.” But what does that mean? How do we find the access points to this story in its nearly countless and changing contexts? History is not a scoresheet; it is a land both foreign and familiar. It lives in us even as it can seem so far away. — David W. Blight, Yale historian, in the NYT 7/18, 2020

We are packing in a pandemic. I’m emptying rooms in the 1892 house where we have lived for 17 years, in the town where Robert E. Lee and most of Stonewall Jackson lie buried. (Jackson’s amputated left arm remained back in Chancellorsville.) The books that we nest into boxes, those little coffins, remind me of that land “both foreign and familiar,” the history of race in America.

I see our great-grandmother Mary Smith Cumming’s history of Augusta, and slip it into a box. I see the book “Tokens of Affection: The Letters of a Planter’s Daughter in the Old South,” edited by Carol Bleser and published in 1995 by UGA Press, and I’m drawn into reading through it again. These are letters that Maria (pronounced MaRIE-a) Bryan wrote to our great-great-great grandmother, her older sister Julia Bryan Cumming, in the 1820s through the 1840s.

Carol Bleser, who died in 2013, was considered a trailblazing southern historian specializing in 19th century southern women before, during and after the Civil War. She was very impressed by the 167 letters of Maria’s saved by Julia and carefully transcribed much later by Julia’s great-grandson, John Shaw Billings, who was the second in command at Time-Life in New York in the 1950s. Maria’s father, Joseph Bryan, was a prosperous slaveholding planter in Hancock County, Ga. Carol Bleser, of course, looked for cultural codes in the letters, evidence of attitudes toward race, slavery and the politics of the time.

She found in the letters a rich sensitivity to the social relations and European-rooted culture of the upper class that Maria belonged to. Her father had ventured to Georgia from his native Connecticut. He raised his children in the Presbyterian discipline of his Yankee roots, establishing a Mt. Zion Academy with two New York scholars, the Beman brothers, one of whom went on to become the first president of Oglethorpe University. Maria read romance novels and the multi-volume biography of William Wilberforce, the great British abolitionist. She lived in New Orleans with her first husband, William Harford of Augusta, vacationed at Saratoga Springs in a hotel with President Van Buren and Secretary of State John Forsyth, and was thankful she bore no children (enjoyed “the happiness of conjugal relations” without “so dear a price” as childbirth).

Maria was served by house servants – her father’s property. Her letters are full of references to the lives of slaves around her, a slave courtship, marriages and families, and the death of some of her favorite servants. But her only comment on the institution of slavery, with all that personal writing, comes at age 19 when she describes her horror at the bloody and swelled face of her personal servant, Jenny, after she was beat by an overseer. “Oh how great an evil is slavery,” she writes to Julia. This was a common sentiment among the well-educated in those days, before the defense of slavery became strident, intellectual, biblical and intractably associated with secession. How great an evil. . .reminds me of what some of us say about fossil fuels as we enjoy its benefits, or about police brutality as we tolerate or support a militarized police force that serves as a wall protecting white areas through tactical force in black inner cities.

I don’t know what Julia thought about slavery. But her life changed when she left her father’s plantation and settled with her husband Henry Cumming in the cosmopolitan life of Augusta. I have a large portrait of Henry Cumming. It’s wrapped and sitting among boxes in the hot front room. This house has always reminded me in a foggy sort of way of Granny and Granddaddy’s house at 2231 Cumming Road. Packing up, it feels like I’m wading into the soul of our memories here, but also saying goodbye to other ghosts: goodbye to Daddy’s childhood in Augusta, and to the world of these letters, the lost wealth in Hancock County. I imagine Carol Bleser finding the forgotten graves and foundations of the Bryan plantation lost among briars and snakes in one of the poorest black counties in Georgia. And against that image, I feel her excitement poring over these letters, discovering and preserving a fantastic world in a book, where she trusted that history lasts longer than in graves or monuments. She dedicated the book to her granddaughter Caroline, who by strange coincidence is the daughter of one of Libby’s childhood friends from McLean, Liz Plummer.

Henry was considered one of the ablest lawyers in the state. He grew rich, mostly, the way New Englanders grew rich, with investment in a cotton mill and practicing law for a railroad bank. Slavery was entwined in that wealth in the ways it was with New England wealth, indirectly. Henry was a Europeanist (he had spent nearly 10 years in Europe in a Grand Tour and diplomatic assignment under President Monroe). All five of his sons fought for the Confederacy. Three were seriously wounded, one three times, another imprisoned three times, and the third left dead as a prisoner of war. The fourth died in 1872 after a relapse of pneumonia contracted during the war. Only Joseph Bryan Cumming, “the Major,” our great-great grandfather, survived “relatively unscathed,” Carol Bleser writes. A daughter, Emily Cumming, married a decent son of the powerful and truly odious pro-slavery senator from South Carolina, James Henry “Cotton is King” Hammond. Henry Cumming had a problem with depression. He shot himself in 1866, leaving a handsome estate to Julia and the Major.

What do you do with Confederates in the attic? What do I do with all these books of history, with family stories, as I move out and into another future? It haunts me, not as guilt but just a condition, a nature. I feel all these blood streams coming together through marriage after marriage, preserved in letters, generation after generation, some published, some better left in boxes unread.

Photograph of three of Henry and Julia Cumming’s sons: Joseph Bryan, William Thomas and Julien

About Doug Cumming

Writer, W&L journalism professor emeritus
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