cem2CEDAR BLUFF, Ala.— I drive over here from Atlanta several times a year and walk through the cemetery to let the folks know I’m alive and that I still think about them. I find myself making this trip more often as I get older.

I moved away in 1957—when I was 14—and never came back to stay. But I still have roots in this soil. Every year I send a check to the cemetery association to help keep the grass cut and the leaves picked up and hauled away. Everything is clean and well-trimmed.

We were sharecroppers, hereabouts. When Alabama Power built a dam on the Coosa River down at Leesburg and flooded all the good farm land, we had to move into town and learn how to read and write. Sometimes, at four o’clock in the morning, I wonder if the dam was a blessing or a curse.

My big brother John, who was killed in the Korean War, was the first buried in our plot. When Daddy died, his body was brought back here and buried next to his oldest son. Momma joined them when she passed on.

They rest side-by-side in the “new part” of the cemetery, which began filling in the early 1950s. After I visit with them for a while, I walk up the hill toward the lake where my ancestors are buried. Their graves date back to the 1850s.

On the way I walk among the old tombstones and am reminded by the dates on each that every Southern family has a story. The most common one, and the one least likely to be true, goes like this: “Yes, we’re poor and uneducated, but at one time we were wealthy, even aristocratic. The reason we’re in this shape is that Sherman came through and burned our plantation house to the ground and destroyed all our crops. We never recovered.”

God bless ‘em, but there weren’t enough plantations in the South to supply all the families that spin that yarn.

My family has a story, too, albeit a more modest one. What it has going for it is that official records back up our internal history.

On March 15, 1863, a tenant farmer named Joseph B. Green left his family near Adairsville in Bartow County and came down to Atlanta, where he enlisted in the Army of the Confederate States of American for “three years, or the war,” according to official records. After a minimal amount of training, the 21-year-old private was assigned to a light artillery battery under the command of one Cornelius R. Hanleiter.

A native of Savannah, Captain Hanleiter apparently had a good relationship with his commander, Major General LaFayette McLaws. Once his unit was trained and provisioned, it was sent to the coast and assigned to Ft. Beaulieu, just 10 miles south of Hanleiter’s home town.

While lacking specifics, we can get a glimpse of Private Green’s military duties from a dispatch composed by McLaws the next summer. Ft. Beaulieu, the general wrote, is manned by “Hanleiter’s light artillery and two companies (of the) Twenty-seventh Georgia Battalion…This force pickets the coast (and) has charge of heavy batteries and light artillery company horses.”

Shortly after reaching southeast Georgia, Private Green became friends with another young private named Thomas Jennings, an Irish immigrant serving the CSA in the 63rd Georgia Infantry. During one of their conversations, Jennings expressed the fear that he would not live to see the end of the war. “If I don’t make it,” he said. “I want you to take care of my wife and baby daughter.”

Green promised that he would.

Jennings’ morbid prediction came true on December 15, 1863, when he died in the military hospital at Thunderbolt of what Confederate Army doctors called “chills and fever.” Malaria? Yellow fever? Something else? Who knows.

A farm boy from the cooler hill country of north Georgia, Private Green, too, found the fetid coastal swamps tough going. On the company muster roll for the pay period ending June 30, 1864, he is listed as “sick in (the) garrison hospital” at Thunderbolt, suffering from the same “chills and fever” that claimed his buddy seven months earlier.

The next roll call indicates that Green was recovered and had re-joined his unit. He was marked “present” when scrip was handed out for the July-August and September-October pay periods, but he was destined to suffer debilitating episodes of “chills and fever” until he died in 1902.

Following his hospitalization, Private Green’s army life apparently fell into a quiet routine until November 15, 1864, when Union General William T. Sherman burned the city of Atlanta and turned his attention to Savannah. Hanleiter’s outfit was still at Ft. Beaulieu, but as Sherman’s army advanced on the coast, it was forced to move.

The record for the next few months is spotty at best, but surviving documents paint a grim picture of a frantic retreat north. On November 22, the unit was reassigned to a Colonel J.A. Gonzales and ordered to “defend the Fourth Military Sub-district of South Carolina along the line of the Combahee (River), from the Salkehatchie Bridge to the coast.” After that entry, Hanleiter’s Light Artillery drops from sight for more than three months.

Sherman’s forces entered South Carolina in February, 1865, and Hanleiter reappeared on March 31, when he was reported near Smithfield in North Carolina. The gap in the record is intriguing, for when Hanleiter resurfaced, he was in charge of an entire battalion.

Nine days after that entry, General Robert E. Lee handed his sword to General Ulysses S. Grant at Appomattox and the war began winding down. Three weeks later, all the units under Hanleiter’s command surrendered to Union forces near Greensboro. Private Green was one of those calling it quits.

After he was released from duty, the now 23-year-old veteran re-traced his steps back through the Carolinas to Savannah and then on up to Atlanta. When Joseph B. Green, civilian, arrived home in Bartow County in the summer of 1865, he was accompanied by a war widow named Elizabeth Pearson Jennings and Mrs. Jennings’ young daughter, Margaret.

During their life together, Joseph and Elizabeth Green produced several children of their own, one of whom was John Jefferson Green. Among John Jefferson’s children was a son named James Henry Green. James Henry Green, who died on May 1, 1963, was my father. He rests near the road where my car is parked.

On Decoration Day, one of my cousins put tall pots of flowers on our graves. One of them had blown over. I sit it upright and put a rock on its base to keep it that way then make my way back down the hill.

I am proud of our family story. Not because my great-grandfather was great hero in The War of the Rebellion, or because he founded a rich family dynasty or a politically powerful one. I love it because in my ancestry is an honest man who kept his word.

You can’t get any more heroic than that.

Cliff Green

Cliff Green

Cliff Green is a former writer for The Atlanta Journal. He worked there when it was a real newspaper. His accomplishments since include the fact that he has never watched a minute of reality TV, and he has never been inside a Starbuck's. He owns no device onto which he can download music, nor does he know how to record a television show. He is not sure what an iPhone is. He is proud of all the above.

  1. Billy Howard

    What a beautiful story of love and war, it is iconic. I’m glad you have held onto it and passed it down for us to hear.

  2. Cliff like your statement “Every Southern family has a story”and there is a cemetary to visit the ghost of our ancestors. Mine is in Johnson County, Ga. and dates back to before 1800 with brick covered graves and homemade markers. Like you I am kin to 90% of the occupants. The markers that really get my attention are the commemorative markers for the ancestors that did not make it back home and are buried on foreign soil. Not that I’m in any hurry to do so but I look forward to hearing each of their stories when I end up there.

  3. Don O'Briant

    Wonderful piece, Cliff. Whenever I go back to South Carolina, I visit the family cemetery. My mother’s ancestors go back to the 1700s, but their stories were never passed down. I wish they had been. And I wish I had asked more questions when my grandparents were still alive.

  4. Cliff, my family has a similar old cemetary where my father, grandfather and grandmother, and two more generations are buried all in close proximity, all near the foot of Pilot Mountain in Surry County, N.C. Generations of brothers and cousins are buried around them. We have a similar humble story of a man who survived the Confederacy, gathered his life back together after the war, went back to the land with a new wife and raised a family on a small tobacco farm under the shadow of the mountain icon. We are, truly, the Taylors from Mayberry. I was lucky enough to have a father who loved his extended family dearly, so have a pretty good sense of where I came from, at least on his side. An uncle traced the line back to before the first Taylor, an Episcopal minister, immigrated to Mecklenburg County, VA in 1730. There is a certain comfort and stability in that knowledge, even if it doesn’t reflect a wealthy background.

  5. Tom Baxter

    Great line:
    “Sometimes, at four o’clock in the morning, I wonder if the dam was a blessing or a curse.”

  6. Capt. Cornelius Hanleiter died in 1897 at the age of 82 and is buried at Oakland Cemetery in Atlanta. He is buried with his family and not in the Confederate Section. Tad and Nancy Mitchell, the nice folks who own Six Feet Under, adopted his grave. I believe Capt. Hanleiter was a seafood importer. Anyway visit Six Feet Under on Memorial and raise a glass to Capt. Hanleiter and his boys.

  7. Cliff, thanks for sharing. There’s something comforting about cemeteries and the older I get the more I like to walk among the stones and read the inscriptions.

  8. Janet Ward

    Lovely story. My sisters and I are crazy about cemeteries. When we are all at home in Fernandina, one will say, “cemetery?” and all the others will say, “Let’s do it!” And we’ll jump into the car and head for Bosque Bello, a lovely cemetery with graves that date to the 1700s and include those of my father, grandmother and brother, as well as numerous friends, relatives and acquaintances. It’s a much better trip in the winter, when the skeeters aren’t out (it’s very wooded, and we all know how skeeters love woods).
    Anyway, we are all known to hang a u-ie when we are driving and pass an interesting graveyard. Our affinity for cemeteries is one reason I almost regret my decision to be thrown to the fishes (buried at sea) when I die. A few of my sisters are heavily into geneology research, and they like to point out that geneology demands tombstones.
    I do have to admit that I love tombstone inscriptions and always feel a pang when I see one with birth and death dates way too close together. Bosque Bello has many graves that date from the Yellow Fever epidemic that struck Fernandina in the 1880s.
    My 25-year-old brother was killed in a ship accident, when a tow-line snapped and struck him in the back of the head in 1985. His grave has the words “Home is the sailor; home from sea” on it, from the lovely Robert Louis Stevenson poem, Requiem:
    Under the wide and starry sky,
    Dig the grave and let me lie.
    Glad did I live and gladly die,
    And I laid me down with a will.
    This be the verse you ’grave for me:
    Here he lies where he longed to be;
    Home is the sailor, home from sea,
    And the hunter home from the hill.

  9. Alice Murray

    Without our stories, we are somehow less human. It is our stories that make us who we are. I thank you for sharing yours as I wipe the tears from my eyes.

  10. “I love it because in my ancestry is an honest man who kept his word.”

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