Confederates in My Attic

Black History Firsthand

Rush saved newspaper clips in the 1880s and '90s of stories about blacks, alleged black folklore, and cartoons with black characters. She was clearly studying how other writers handled the subject. This alone points to one way in which fictions of blackness have been sustained. When she studied life, she did a better job than when she borrowed from the "known" fictions of the time, like dialect tales. Her vignette collection has the virtue of sticking to the facts. In one, a black sawyer who cut lumber for her husband, though destitute, refuses to work for a woman. Another black man moves his family off her land because she brings his wife a broom and a galvanized tub.


Lulu McKenny's mother died when she was born, and she came to live with Louisa, Will, and his brothers. She grew up with them and a number of African American children belonging to their slaves, and her memories of the blacks are very fond. As the story unfolds, though, one reason for this is overwhelmingly clear—she was seldom in the company of parents. She never lived in any one household more than three years, and for the five years from the outset of the war until her grandmother Louisa's death in 1866, she saw very little of her, being left with aunts and friends, and then in boarding school.

The Campbell family home in Springfield, Missouri, on the day of Will Campbell's birth in 1852
photo: Courtesy of the History Museum for Springfield-Greene County
The Campbell family home in Springfield, Missouri, on the day of Will Campbell's birth in 1852

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Sidebars:

"'Don't Grieve After Me': More Than Singing for Your Supper"

"Who's Who"

Lulu describes in familiar terms how her "mammy," Mary, "ruled supreme, not only in the kitchen." She recalls taking solace from songs sung in camp at night on a month-long trek to Mississippi in 1861, with another mammy along to care for them instead of parents. Near Memphis, she got lost with Marina, "my little colored foster-sister." That's an interesting term I've never seen, and it speaks volumes as a coinage.

Some customs Lulu describes may have come here during Middle Passage, such as the singing of "songs of praise" on a departure, and they do indeed sound hospitable, as they were no doubt meant to be when practiced in Africa. Offered up in a racialized culture, the songs become a marker of white privilege, an image a black reader finds an uncomfortable reminder of the oppression of her elders. After all, when asked for a song, could the folk in the slave quarter say they weren't feeling it?

Lulu's story begins in late July 1861, when Union soldiers came into Springfield and broke up a church picnic the family attended. She was 12 and my great-grandfather, whom she called her "brother-uncle," was 9. That day, Will's brother Sam, then 16, packed a bedroll and rode off, and the next morning his brother Tom, 18, left. His oldest brothers, who were adults and in the South, had already joined the Confederate troops.

Will and Lulu witnessed the Battle of Wilson's Creek, where three of his brothers fought, and the next day the Campbell house became a Confederate hospital. Within days the children left home, never to return. They were sent with a cousin on what turned out to be a long haul by horse, mule, wagon, and raft to Mississippi, where they would be stranded for two years. There they saw the fighting around Fort Pemberton, and went through the Union flooding of the Delta, which left Lulu and many others sick with typhoid fever for weeks.


Thulani Davis, New York, 2003
(photo: Robin Holland)

Louisa Campbell, who escaped from Missouri into Arkansas, did not come to Mississippi to get the children because she spent the next two years on horseback, setting up tiny field hospitals wherever the 3rd Missouri troops were fighting. This means, according to the Campbells' military records with the confederacy, that she may have been at the Battle of Elkhorn Tavern (known also by its Union name, the Battle of Pea Ridge), and various other skirmishes in Arkansas. When Missouri was admitted to the Confederate States of America (CSA), her sons were transferred east over the Mississippi. As the war went on, her sons fought in Tennessee (Farmington, Chattanooga, and Murfreesboro), Georgia (Chickamauga), and Mississippi (Iuka, Corinth, and Vicksburg).

In 1863, Will and Lulu headed with Louisa for Arkansas but were captured by a Union patrol boat and taken prisoner for a few days. After their release, they camped across Arkansas, hiding from Union troops. Louisa left them periodically to go to battlefields before finally depositing them in Waco, Texas. By 1866, Louisa was dead of pneumonia, and two brothers were dead from war injuries. Will was planted in Yazoo City, Mississippi, and Lulu in a St. Louis school.


Maybe wisdom came to Rush Owen later on. If she continued to see race and class as fixing a person's place in life, she was still not altogether typical of her times. Confederate though she had been, she later dedicated her novel to Walt Whitman and to the people of the "coal trade." In middle age she had an unaccountable affinity for Eastern thought and her own type of 19th-century transcendentalism. Her writing makes passing references to Confucius, Brahma, and Buddha, and to being in the "one-moment-ness." The narrator of her novel, like Rush, loses two of her children and then looks back and says, "After a time I had healing visions of them busy and happy. Then, I received my Illumination. I found the wells of peace, raised my weary head, and drank." My illumination may still await, but if nothing else, hers has shed light on the direction whence I came.


Sidebars:

"'Don't Grieve After Me': More Than Singing for Your Supper"

"Who's Who"

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