As a history buff, I have always been particularly interested in my family tree.
My mother spent several years compiling an exhaustive archive of information on our family, and some of that information dates back to the 1600s.
We have traced our family connections to Robert E. Lee, the Confederate general, and we have even discovered a connection to Martin Van Buren, the eighth president of the United States. He served one term between 1837-1841, and he is widely regarded as a below-average president. As you can imagine, I don’t tout my connection to him often, but it seems pertinent to include the president in this article.
My family has been rooted in southwest Mississippi for generations, particularly in Lincoln and Lawrence counties. In fact, my family lives pretty much on the line that divides the two counties, and they’re about 15 minutes away from Brookhaven or 10 minutes away from Monticello.
My parents – and most of my immediate family – live on Perch Creek, which empties into Fair River, on land complete with rolling hills and a nice fishing pond. It’s a great area, but don’t expect cellphone service or high-speed internet.
Anyway, the Wilsons have been there for a while. In fact, many of my ancestors fought in the Civil War, and several of them never returned home from that bloody conflict. We have detailed records on many of those family members, including my great-great-great-grandfather, Lorenzo Wilson, and his brothers.
Lorenzo enlisted as a private in the Confederate States Army on June 1, 1861, and he served his new country – the Confederate States of America, which Mississippi officially joined in February of that same year – for the next two years. He was captured at the Battle of Lookout Mountain in Chattanooga, Tennessee, in November 1863, and he spent the remaining three months of his life in a federal prison in Rock Island, Illinois.
The prison was unfinished when Lorenzo and his fellow captives arrived, and the temperatures were below zero. There was no hospital or sanitation system, and those early prisoners were subject to a smallpox outbreak and malnutrition. Lorenzo died, reportedly of starvation, on Jan. 31, 1864, at age 38. He left behind a wife, Jemima, and five children, including my great-great-grandfather, Orlando.
Lorenzo is buried in the prison cemetery, and a white tombstone marks his grave. My grandfather, Jerry, spent years of his life wishing he could reclaim Lorenzo’s remains and bury him with his family in Mississippi, but the cost was prohibitively high and the red tape difficult to cut. The emotional toll of losing someone in the Civil War was still fresh when my grandfather was born in 1926. In fact, Orlando lived until 1944, and he was able to share the memories of losing his father at a young age with my grandfather.
The pain of the loss – along with the anger over Lorenzo’s treatment at the prison – has traveled through generations, and it’s difficult for me to reconcile my heritage with my current thoughts on the debate over the Mississippi state flag. For the record, I want the flag to come down, and I believe it’s a symbol of white supremacy and hate. It features the Confederate battle emblem, and my ancestors fought under that very same emblem. I’m sure they believed their cause to be just, and they died for it. How can I be against that emblem and their cause without being ashamed of them?
I believe this is an ethical dilemma facing many descendants of Confederate soldiers who are aware of their heritage and want things to change for the better. This topic is a painful one for me, and it’s certainly uncomfortable, but it must be explored. White Mississippians must be able to remember their history without worshipping it, and we must be able to memorialize our Confederate war dead without idolizing their cause. We can’t write off our history, but we can no longer afford to glamorize it.
The “Lost Cause” mythos, or the idea that the South had honorable reasons to fight in the war, must end. We must recognize that the Confederacy was a failed state built on the evils of slavery, and its symbols – including the battle emblem – are, to our black neighbors, extremely painful reminders of that fact. We should be aware of our ancestors, and we should honor them by changing the status quo.
Racism has no place in 2020, and the state flag and its divisive symbol must go. The time is now, and I’m calling on my fellow descendants of Confederate soldiers to stand with me, to grasp hands with all of our neighbors and to push this change forward.