Monuments to our heroes
Right before my 18th birthday I took my first flight from Cleveland to attend the College of St. Benedict and St. John’s University in Minnesota. Upon arrival, while strolling through the freshman dorm’s foyer, I met Eric, a cadet a few years older than myself, manning a club booth.
We started dating that winter with time seeming to stand still on the wilderness campus. But 18 months later, our college romance led to a countryside wedding. It was the only warm day that summer, when surrounded by family, the honeysuckle perfume of wildflowers, and aroma of a smoked turkey over a firepit, I wore a white sheath dress, embroidered with roses and a sweetheart neckline, and exchanged vows with my boyfriend.
Then, within weeks of Eric’s commissioning the following spring, I dove headfirst into the traditional world of military culture when accompanying him to Ft. Benning, Georgia.
It was there, at the “Home of the Infantry,” we started our family with two pups, and later that autumn, our first baby boy, Danny.
Swampy, orangey, clambering palmetto bugs everywhere—I was in culture shock again. But I also discovered the charms of life near the Chattahoochee River. I’d drive our old brown Oldsmobile with the windows rolled down, take my round belly swimming outdoors almost year-round, and dined on sweet tea, fresh buttermilk biscuits, and fried chicken.
Just a couple of years prior, when freezing in a plaid skirt and little blue blazer while running across Beaumont’s campus to the art building, I had fantasized about being in a scene from Harper Lee’s, To Kill a Mockingbird.
As I had kicked my saddle shoes through mounds of amber maple leaves on my way to class, I imaged I was Scout. I wanted to be barefoot and climbing trees with my brother, while our idealistic father fought for justice. Subsequently, when it came time to choose college courses, I picked, Short Stories of the South, as my first literature classes.
So, as an Army wife, I was realizing my literary dreams, amazed Dixieland was exactly what William Faulkner, Flannery O’Connor, and Pat Conroy described in their novels. Women called me pet names like “baby-doll” and men ran ahead to open the door for me saying, “ma’am.”
I had it good. I knew it… and years of living overseas and stateside confirmed, just how idealistic my schoolgirl reality had been.
More recently, back in Georgia the summer before the pandemic, I scheduled a family tour for the Redcliffe Plantation on Beech Island in South Carolina.
That morning, we drove across the Savannah River, the natural state border, and to the estate towering with magnolia, oak, and cedar trees. Spanish moss and English ivy adorned the massive offshoots and as soon as we parked, my guys climbed the low hanging branches.
Admiration for the arboretum was short lived though as we made our way towards the reconstructed slave quarters to meet our guide. She described the harsh conditions of daily life for the enslaved people as we stood on the dirt floor of the rough cabin looking at black and white photographs of the former inhabitants.
The details didn’t surprise me, yet as we walked toward the mansion, an unexpected sinking feeling came over me as I stepped on semi-hidden cobblestones. Lopsided and slippery with moss, the worn remnants remained jammed in old divots.
Dread hung thick in the morning mist.
“This is what an enslaved woman might have felt as she walked those same steps to serve the once South Carolina governor and senator, James Henry Hammond,” I thought.
Slowly, we walked through the mansion—floorboards creaking underfoot. Decades of humidity and dirt emitted a dankness that matched the drapes hanging from the 10-foot-high frames.
“Weird how with so many windows it’s still dark,” I whispered while standing in the library.
No one heard though because they had walked into another room. I stood alone, reading book titles in the flickers of dusty sunlight.
Cotton is King And Pro-Slavery Arguments, read a book prominently displayed at eye level.
I can’t recall the rest of the gaudy details of that place but remember the eerie feeling grew as I caught up to everyone upstairs and entered an empty room used for bathing and dressing.
It was like a walk-in-closet. Waves of nausea came over me. It was the same feeling I had years earlier in Germany when touring Dachau, the concentration camp.
As we paused in that narrow space, the guide told us of the horrific acts Hammond inflicted on those around him, especially the most vulnerable.
He pushed pro-slavery legislation in Congress while publishing his theories justifying the barbaric practice, claiming it controlled “Black people’s untamed carnal instincts.” Yet in twisted irony, his journals had revealed braggadocios descriptions of his numerous exploitations.
Hammond molested four of his young nieces, a teenage, enslaved woman, Sally Johnson, and later, her twelve-year-old daughter Louisa, who was likely his own daughter.
Furthermore, historians believe Hammond sexually assaulted at least two white men and other enslaved men and women. Also noted in his journals was the high death rate of his “property” including mules, horses, and 78 enslaved people within ten years alone.
When Hammond died on Nov. 13, 1864, he had over 300 slaves, but, within months, Union soldiers walked onto the plantation, freeing them.
As the guide concluded, she said Hammond’s descendants lived in the mansion four more generations. The former enslaved people also stayed. Years of oppression and a continued hostile environment created enormous obstacles and few alternatives to live independently.
We then made our way out of the mansion, and walking over the lumpy front lawn, thanked the guide. She finished by explaining how the state park was able to preserve the historic site, saying people rented the plantation for celebrations, like weddings.
“Really,” I mustered.
I raised my arm, shielding my eyes from the glare of the bleached columns supporting the porches. I imagined a bride in billowing ivory, posing for photos, a veil covering her face.
I turned to walk away.
One year later, I was alone, with no home, kids, dog, or husband around. The first time since I was a college student, I was touring by myself. This time, in a graveyard.
A new assignment had moved us to D.C. in the middle of a pandemic. Homeless for three months, our young adult kids in separate locations, and Eric going ahead to the Pentagon to work, I stayed at one of my sister’s home in Salem, Ohio.
As a schoolgirl, I had spent most of my time in the Cleveland area. As a result, knowing little of the surrounding communities but having free time, I decided to go on outdoor adventures.
So, strolling Salem on that crisp morning, I figured a cemetery was a suitable place to explore.
The chill of dew on my arms was lasting, despite the mid-day sun. I tried to rub the goosebumps off, almost missing the Georgia heat as I made my way to dilapidated stones on the hillside.
Stars resting on poles stood alongside many of the stained headstones. I couldn’t read all the beautifully etched words, but realized the metal icons placed on the hallowed ground indicated military service, as well as which conflict a young man had fought in.
“Lieut. Martin L. Edwards II OHIO INF.” I could make out one.
“William Baker, PVT. CO G 18 REGT US NF CIVIL WAR.” Read another.
Bacon aromas drifted from the nearby meat packing plant into the gentle sloping graveyard.
Deliberately stepping forward, I paused to read, moved onto the next row, then walked straight towards a striking large maple sheltering a dark pillar.
Funny. I’d forgotten how tall maple trees could grow… Ohio syrup was the sweetest too.
A light breeze replaced the saltiness with an earthy minty scent that rose from the dampness below my feet.
I stopped and leaned forward to read the hand painted wooden sign placed in front of the column that stood only about five feet high.
“It is the parting of friends, not the dread of death that moves us. Edwin Coppock.”
I had to stand right next to the monument to read the formal writing on the black plaque:
“Edwin Coppock, A martyr to the cause of liberty. Born in Butler Township near Salem, Ohio, June 10, 1835. Was one of John Brown’s company in his attempt to liberate the slaves at Harpers Ferry, Va. October 1859. Was executed at Charleston, Va. December 16, 1859.”
Weird how I never considered those who gave their lives to end slavery as martyrdom before. But yes, of course they were… they make the ultimate sacrifice for a sacred cause.
“24 years old,” I said softly.
I pulled out my phone, googling the details of Edwin Coppock’s life. Raised a Quaker, his father died when he was a young child. He and his brother, Barklay, worked on their grandfather’s farm, as well as their mother’s farm in Iowa once she remarried. Both young men fought for the Union with Edwin executed within days after the raid and Barklay killed early in the war.
“Too bad they didn’t make it all the way to Redcliffe,” I spoke to myself.
I stood in front of delicate pink germaniums carefully planted in front of the shadowy stone—too cool to burst into full bloom under the ancient branches.
“A studious, industrious boy of cheerful disposition. His eyes and hair were brown and his skin fair. He was fond of athletic sports and was intelligent, active, brave, loyal and the soul of honor. He had winning manners, was amiable, generous, and kind.”
“170 years ago, but just like Danny.” This time I spoke loudly—as if the spirits were listening.
I angled my phone to allow the right amount of sunlight to read Edwin’s farewell letter:
CHARLESTON, Dec. 13, 1859.
My Dear Uncle –
I seat myself by the stand to write for the first and last time to thee and thy family. Though far from home and overtaken by misfortune, I have not forgotten you. Your generous hospitality towards me, during my short stay with you last spring, is stamped indelibly upon my heart, and also the generosity bestowed upon my poor brother who now wanders an outcast from his native land. But thank God he is free. I am thankful it is I who have to suffer instead of him.
The time may come when He will remember me. And the time may come when He may still further remember the cause in which I die. Thank God the principles of the cause in which we were engaged will not die with me and my brave comrades. They will spread wider and wider and gather strength with each hour that passes. The voice of truth will echo through our land, bringing conviction to the erring and adding members to that glorious army who will follow its banner. The cause of everlasting truth and justice will go on conquering and to conquer until our broad and beautiful land shall rest beneath the banner of freedom. I had fondly hoped to live to see the principles of the Declaration of Independence fully realized. I had hoped to see the dark stain of slavery blotted from our land, and the libel of our boasted freedom erased, when we can say in truth that our beloved country is the land of the free and the home of the brave; but that cannot be.
I have heard my sentence passed, my doom is sealed. But two more short days remain for me to fulfill my earthly destiny. But two brief days between me and eternity. At the expiration of those two days I shall stand upon the scaffold to take my last look of earthly scenes. But that scaffold has but little dread for me, for I honestly believe that I am innocent of any crime justifying such punishment. But by the taking of my life and the lives of my comrades, Virginia is but hastening on that glorious day, when the slave will rejoice in his freedom. When he can say, “I too am a man,” and am groaning no more under the yoke of oppression. But I must now close. Accept this short, scrawl as a remembrance of me. Give my love to all the family. Kiss little Joey for me. Remember me to all my relatives and friends. And now farewell for the last time.
From thy nephew,
Historical Collections of Ohio, by Henry Howe (1898)