Family Reunion By Morgan Gates
Historian: (Noun) a person who researches, studies, and writes about the past, and is regarded as an authority on it.
I am a historian and I live in one of the most historically and culturally diverse parts of the United States. When most people think historian, they picture the university professor wearing a tweed sport coat, pipe in hand, eternally posed on the back dustjacket of a glossy book in the clearance bin at the local Barnes and Noble. Or perhaps a name etched in fading gold-leaf on the cover of some musty old scholarly tome. Buried deep in the stacks of some imposing old library, another dry scholarly book that reads like the “begat sections of the Bible”. That is not me! I sent my tweed jacket to the Salvation Army, a long time ago, and I have never been a fan of tobacco in any form or fashion. I have some books in the pipeline, and I may have a picture on the dustjacket at some point, but that remains to be seen. You see I believe that history is a living breathing thing, the story of who we are. History must be not just written but written well so that the story has life and will be remembered and retold and not just be filed away in some dusty archive, to be forgotten once more. This blog is an effort to do just that, to pull out the old dusty stories, first written down long ago, blow the dust off them and retell them for a more modern audience.
I also believe oral history is an important and often neglected part of the human experience, so you are likely to find me walking a historic battlefield relating a story of some long-forgotten hero, to fellow history lovers. Oral history may in fact be our most endangered cultural custom. It was our first way of remembering the past. Long before the first Mesopotamian scholar figured out how to “draw sound” by making imprints in wet clay, the old men sat around the fire at night and told stories of the past. Yet nobody listens to grandpa and grandma anymore, nuclear families dissolve and extended families scatter, the tribal elders move to Florida or they are shut away in nursing homes as obsolete relics of a bygone era, and YouTube and Facebook occupy their niche with inane babblings and fake news, and we lose our connections with the past. My own family is no exception.
I’ve often been asked when conducting a tour, what is your personal history, and here I fall short. My pat answer is that “ I am guilty of knowing everybody’s history but my own”. You see history can be a two edged sword, at least your own can. There is no pain in blowing off the dust of someone else’s history, but there can be within one’s own family… I was pretty sure there was no grand old antebellum mansion with my family’s name on it in my past. My parents were hard working blue collar middle class folk. My mother’s father was a sharecropper and my father who lived in town was also from a family of modest means. My father however was from a broken family. His parents had divorced when he was a child, and he had little contact with his natural father, and no desire to know of him. I only met the man once when I was very young, and he died in 1972, long before I was old enough to be interested in family history. --I reserve judgment on my grandfather, I never knew his side of the story and my grandmother could be a difficult woman, perhaps there was good reason, perhaps not -- That link in the family chain was broken.
I did not grow up in the computer age, I was already a grown man when the first personal computer was introduced, it would be many more years before I heard of ancestry.com, by that time more important things occupied my thought. Women, college, career pretty much in that order. My love of history led me to a career in education, and I did teach American and World History for a number of years, but soon the financial reality of marriage and family lead me out of the classroom and into more lucrative but less satisfying administrative work. As I wound down my career in the educational system a number of years ago, I began to return to my one true (professional) love—History, but by this time my parents had both passed and I figured that door had closed. Enter my friend Michael Logue, I first met him when he took over operation of my Historic & Haunted Vicksburg website. He had recently concluded a career in the computer realm, he too is a lover of history and we often work together in that field now. Michael; however, has a skill set that I do not, genealogy. When I learned of his skills in this area, I toyed with the idea of having him see what he could find, again a thought that simmered on the back burner for quite some time. A couple of weeks ago, I learned that he was teaching a four-week genealogy workshop, business is slow this time of year the time was ripe, I signed up.
I went to the class the first night with quite modest expectations. I had scrapped together a few names and birth/death dates, and I hoped by the end of the class to know if I had a relative that fought in the Civil War, I am after all a Civil War historian, and where if I was lucky. Michael took my scraggly “Charlie Brown Christmas Tree of a family tree” and in a few minutes, he had it bearing fruit! First, I met my estranged paternal grandfather, where he had lived what he did for a living, he was a veteran of WWI. Then my great grandfather, he lived about 90 miles from where I do. A simple farmer but he owned his own land and was mortgage free, he raised a large family, including a set of twins, my daughters are twins. Then to me the biggest plum, my great-great-grandfather. Franklin Plumber Gates! F.P. Gates was a private in the Confederate army 46th Mississippi Infantry. A veteran of the Vicksburg Campaign, engaged at the Battles of Chickasaw Bayou, Port Gibson, the assault on Stockade Redans on May 19th & 22nd and of course maned the trenches during the siege. Oh, the stories this man had to tell. I saw his signature on the parole document and yesterday I walked the section of trenches where he was stationed. I have a picture of his tombstone and one day in the not too distant future I will visit that grave. Just to introduce myself.