CEDAR 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.