southern family

When George W. Coggin of Greensboro, N.C., and Pawleys Island, S.C., set out to trace his relatives’ military service in the Confederate Army, he little dreamed the trail would lead to finding black kinfolk. Coggin is white.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. First, the book that grew out of this journey into the past is Abraham & Jeremiah Coggin & The Montgomery Volunteers, published recently after years of research by Coggin, a retired lawyer, who with his wife Carol have a home in Litchfield Beach at Pawleys Island. We all met one day when I was out walking my dog, the late Dro Lamb, canine extraordinaire and companion supreme.

George W. Coggin
George W. Coggin

“All this began as simply a project to transcribe letters from Abraham and Jeremiah so family members could have copies,” Coggin said. (Abraham and Jeremiah, who perished in the war, were two of four Coggin brothers who fought for the Confederacy. All four entered service from Montgomery County, N.C.)

The letters narrowly escaped burning in the 1940s when Jane Coggin Ellis, the author’s aunt, rescued them from the trash when the family home was being sold. Small wonder that Coggin dedicated the book to her.

Anyhow, Coggin’s “simple project” turned into a monumental undertaking when, while reading the letters, he began to ask himself: “Who are the people mentioned in these letters?”

The author and his generation of relatives had little knowledge of many of the family members that were mentioned in the letters — and no knowledge at all of others mentioned.

“I realized then that the letters were as much about Montgomery County and its people as they were about the Coggin family,” he said.

Thus began a self-assigned job, a huge one requiring extensive research and travel. The publication of the book coincided with Coggin’s 84th birth year. (Ever the optimist, he is now researching the letters of the other two Coggin brothers. His anticipated publication: 2026 on his 95th birthday!)

If you’re making your will any time soon, I hope you’ll do it with a lawyer like Coggin. In his book, no “i” goes undotted, no “t” uncrossed, and every person mentioned is footnoted. With instincts that a bloodhound would envy, Coggin tracked virtually every trackable move his subjects made, every battle, every maneuver, every march, every wound, every prisoner of war camp, every death — not just for Abraham and Jeremiah, but for all the boys who served as Montgomery Volunteers in Company C of the 23rd North Carolina Regiment.

Abraham Coggin
Abraham Coggin

Talk about exhaustive (and exhausting) research! And it’s all documented! Maps, photos, battle plans, citations, even an index. What a deal for Civil War buffs!

Now as I was saying at the beginning of this column, George unearthed some history that he had not known was there. In 1981, as he was searching the death certificates index in Guilford County, N.C., he saw the name Alice Coggin Ingram.

Checking the death certificate itself, he saw that Alice Coggin Ingram was black and had been born in Montgomery County to Sam and Jane Coggin.

Coggin’s pulse quickened. It had been whispered in family lore down through the years that Abraham had fathered a child, Jane, by one of his slaves. Coggin had to know if this death certificate was the missing link. So he looked up the deceased’s sister, a woman named Rose Dark, who was the informant named on the death certificate. He called her.

“I told her who I was and where I was from, and she said, ‘I expect my people belonged to your people in slavery time.”

That’s true, he told her. “I have a copy of Abraham’s will, in which he willed your mother and grandmother to my grandfather.”

“Abraham was my mother’s father wasn’t he?” she asked.

Yes, he told her. “That’s what I always heard.”

Mystery solved. But that’s not the end of the story. Here; I’ll let the author tell it:

“I visited Mrs. Dark and gave her a photo of Abraham and a copy of his will, and I copied a photo of her mother, Jane, Abraham’s daughter. Mrs. Dark died in 1995. The funeral and visitation were held at Brown’s Funeral Service in Greensboro, N.C.

“As I was leaving the visitation, Mr. Brown approached and said, ‘If you don’t mind me asking, what is your connection with Mrs. Dark?’

“I told him our grandfathers were brothers. We are second cousins.”

When Coggin arrived next day for the funeral, Mr. Brown approached him again and said, “The family would like you to sit with them.”

“I was honored to be asked,” Coggin said.

Hard to imagine a more fitting end to a story about the Civil War.

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Robert Lamb

Robert Lamb

I grew up in Augusta, Ga., where I attended Boys' Catholic High. After service in the Navy, I attended the University of Georgia, majoring in English, and then began a (wholly unexpected) journalism career on the old Augusta Herald, an evening paper, and ended years later in Atlanta at The (great) Atlanta Constitution, which I left in late 1982 to write The Great American Novel. That goal has proved remarkably elusive, but my first attempt (Striking Out, in 1991) was nominated for the PEN/Hemingway Award. My second novel, Atlanta Blues, spent a few minutes on the best-seller list in (at least) Columbia, S.C., and was described in one newspaper’s year-end roundup as “one of the three best novels of 2004 by a Southern writer.” My third novel won no honors but at least didn’t get me hanged; titled A Majority of One, it is about a clash between religion and the Constitution over book-banning in the high school of a Georgia town. For my next novel, And Tell Tchaikovsky the News, I returned to an Atlanta setting for a story about the redemptive powers of, in this case anyhow, “that good rock ’n’ roll.” I've also published a collection of short stories and poems: Six of One, Half Dozen of Another. One of its stories, “R.I.P.,” was a winner in the S.C. Fiction Project in 2009. Before retirement, I taught creative writing and American literature at the University of South Carolina and its Honors College, and feature writing in its School of Journalism. I maintain a now-and-then blog at boblamb.wordpress.comand I walk my dog on the beach a lot at Pawleys Island, S.C.