16 April 2013

Conflicts On Descending From Slaveholders and Confederate Soldiers

Confederate Civil War Soldier, John M Lawrence's Parole
Identifying the father of my grandfather after all these years has been an exciting time.  It’s been so interesting to research brand new family lines. The Lawrences, Priests, O’Bannons, Tapps, etc., were early, founding residents of Virginia and through them, I’ve realized that I have Native American heritage.  Yet, researching these families has often left me feeling very conflicted.  You see, my newfound families were slaveholders.  I’ve yet to find any of my “new” ancestral families that did not own slaves. The thought of it is difficult to stomach.
Many of my friends are African American.  My son’s lifelong best friend is D*. His mother is from Japan and his father is African American. D* is like a second son to me and he calls me Mom. I wonder if my friends or D* would think differently of me knowing my ancestors owned slaves?  I know it was a very long time ago and I personally did not own another human being but I’m feeling this weird guilt by association.
During Spring Break, D* spent a lot of time at our house.  The boys were hanging out with me in the living room, watching a movie and goofing around.  I was doing some online research when I stumbled upon my 5th great grandfather, Bryan O’Bannon’s will.  Finding a will can be like finding a goldmine of information sometimes so I couldn’t wait to start combing through it. Immediately, I started seeing Bryan O’Bannon doling out slaves to his children and grandchildren just the same as he was doling out chairs and horses.
 From the will of Bryan O’Bannon, 4 September 1760:
To son, John O’Bannon – plantation whereon he now lives, 212 a. – Negro woman Judy, after death of son John and his wife, Sarah, sd. Negroe (if living) to granddaughter Sarah dau. of John – “the said Negroe Judy shall after my Decease be Totally Exempted from Labouring without Doors during her Natural Life”. Still and young unbroken horse.
I cringed.  Bryan O’Bannon not only willed Judy to his son but dictated that she be given to John’s daughter after their death if poor Judy was still alive?! In the next sentence he wills John a horse?! I could not possibly wrap my head around what I just read. Reading that will with D* across the room from me, I could feel myself turn red.  I felt bad and embarrassed and quickly shut down my laptop.
My 2nd great grandfather and Confederate Civil War Soldier, John Mason Lawrence, at age 91.
Another conflict is really just an extension of the slavery issue. I’ve done plenty of Civil War research on my great grandfathers and uncles but they were Union soldiers.  John Mason Lawrence, my second great grandfather, was a Confederate soldier.  In my mind, they were the ones fighting to keep their slaves, to keep people as private property.  Fighting to own another person is just foreign to me. While I don’t like the fact that John Mason Lawrence was a confederate soldier, I have tried to look at the situation through his eyes in order to be more accepting of him.  Fortunately, I have learned some things that ease my anxiety.
He was a part of the 43rd battalion Virginia Cavalry, better known as Mosby’s Rangers. The Union side called them “guerillas” so there has been much written about them and many artifacts from their skirmishes are around today.  Fortunately, John Mason Lawrence is very much a part of the documented Mosby’s Rangers’ history.  His pistol and gun horn are in a museum and there’s a picture of them on line. He attended most Civil War reunions. Since he lived to be almost 95 years old, my family is able to see John progress in age in the group photos taken of the men at the reunions. We can look at his photos as a young man and see features which are in our own faces. In his military file, there is an incredible photo of John from 1936 at age 91, watching a re-enactment at Manassas. He looks frail but behind that huge beard and hat, there’s great pride in his eyes.
I read a story passed on by John’s granddaughter. She said that the Union soldiers had ransacked John’s family farm when he was 16 or 17.  Immediately, John ran away from home to join Mosby’s Rangers.  His father, John Neville Lawrence, realizing he was gone, went out to search for him, brought him back home, made him pack up some provisions, and then allowed his son to return to Mosby’s Rangers. We all have family folklore that is so stretched that the subject seems heroic. This is one family story I want to keep as true.  If I think about the hurt and rage that John Mason Lawrence felt as he watched his home being torn apart, his reason for wanting to be a Confederate soldier makes me feel better.  I can’t bear to think of any other reason for John Mason Lawrence to be a soldier.



  1. How very much I can identify with you!

    And how well you have explained the outrage and confusion upon reading a will in which a slave is "chattel" -- a moveable possession, just like a horse. My family's wills are the same way: the Negroes, the land, the 4-poster bed, and the Horse-Cart are all treated the same way.

    I wonder how it became easier (I'm guessing) for John to live with what he did than it is for you to live with the memory of what he did and believed. I know Southern culture buttressed itself with all sorts of rationalizations, practical and religious, that they were doing what was right.

    Sometimes I imagine myself waking up two centuries ago and being told, "You are now the owner of a house, a farm, and 20 slaves. Don't let our family down." Whites must have reinforced one another, somehow, in shoring up their self-images as good and God-fearing people.A cultural mystery to me.

    Even though I grew up in that milieu.

    Absolutely, you and I did/do not support slavery. But we probably benefited from and even owe our birth to those who did. Even so, I'll bet D* would understand your feelings. We're all in history together.

    Thank you for such an intelligent and heartfelt post.It helped me learn about another dimension of our historical predicament!

    1. Thank you for your kind words. Part of me does understand that they had vast amounts of land, spread among many counties, thus they needed manpower in ways that I don't think could be supported by other settlers in the area. Those settlers needed to work their own lands and provide for their own families. It's just the way they obtained their "manpower".

      My Clary family was in Virginia and Maryland in the 1600/1700s. I can see the slaves in their wills but I know my line of the Clarys gave up their slaves and moved north to Ohio. The language used about the slaves seemed more humane. I don't see this in my "new family". In fact, I read a story told by a slave who described one of the O'Bannon sons as being notorious for abusing and torturing slaves. He mentioned the cutting off a limbs, etc. I was horrified.

      I just hope in my research somewhere that I find some bit of humane treatment of their slaves.