Wednesday, July 18, 2012

How the Fourth of July did a disappearing act...

Everyone loves fiery displays and explosions.

That’s why summer blockbusters usually do well at the box office, racking up millions of dollars that make the moviemakers break into wide grins.

And it’s why folks love Independence Day. It’s a fine day of eating hamburgers and hotdogs along with corn-on-the-cob and potato salad followed by a night filled with sparkling fireworks in the sky and boom…boom…boom.

On the Fourth I decided to post on Facebook some photographs of long-ago folks celebrating the nation’s birthday.

So I went a googlin’ and found me a heap of yellowed, old-timey photographs. I settled on the time period between 1880 to about 1910. Over a multi-hour period I posted about a dozen photographs along with captions. They captured moments in time – picnics, band concerts, parades, even the Wright Flyer at a Fourth of July event.

My favorite is a faded shot of Uncle Sam leading a late 19th century parade in an open-air buggy.

I’m a reporter; I thought that perhaps I could incorporate these photographs into a news story. First, though, I wanted to find an old photograph of two of a Fourth of July picnic or band concert in Pender County, N.C., from the late 19th or early 20th century.

With the help of a librarian, I scoured the Pender County Library’s reference section looking for photographs. We turned up nothing. The closest was a photograph of a picnic at Moores Creek Battlefield, but those folks weren’t picnicking on the Fourth of July. I left the Burgaw library empty handed.

Initially, I figured digging deeper would result in a photograph. Then I had an epiphany moment.

In my younger days, I had been a Confederate re-enactor. Of course, I didn’t find a photograph. All the photographs I posted on Facebook were of people from New York, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Maryland, Ohio, Minnesota, Kansas and Illinois – all Union states.

The men and women in Pender County had just been through four years of a terrible war. They were more likely to celebrate Jeff Davis’s birthday. During the war, they sent nearly 4,000 troops to battle. Many didn’t come home.

During the Civil War and up to 1875, the land that would become Pender was part of neighboring New Hanover County. Tired of Reconstruction corruption and carpetbagger rule in Wilmington, the voters in the northern portion of New Hanover voted to establish a new county. They named it after Confederate Gen. William D. Pender, who was killed at Gettysburg in July 1863.

People naming their county after a Confederate general are not likely to celebrate the Fourth of July.

To borrow a timeworn metaphor, time heals all wounds. Or to be more succinct, graveyards fill up with more and more bodies. The men and women who lived through the war and Reconstruction passed away and their descendants were molded by different life-changing events – two world wars. When loved ones die defending the Stars and Stripes, you look at the Fourth of July reverently.

As an afterthought, a photograph or two of a Fourth of July celebration in Pender County could very well exist from around 1905 or 1910. Europeans settled in a farming community known as Van Eeden starting in 1905. I figure these new immigrants to America and Pender County may very well have celebrated the Fourth of July, even though they struggled mightily to make their farmland productive and ultimately failed.

And Reconstruction military forces would have probably celebrated Independence Day in Wilmington and invited locals. Would any have shown up? And would a photographer have captured the moment with his wet-plate style camera?

I’ve quite a few Facebook friends who are romance authors. An unlikely romance between an unreconstructed southern lass and a Union officer has the makings of a melodramatic novel. Let’s assume the lady is willing to risk the ostracism of her relatives and friends for the caresses and kisses of her Union soldier. If asked by her lover, would she go with him to a Fourth of July band concert and picnic? And what would happen if she did?

I once read a newspaper story about a Fourth of July picnic in Parkersburg, W.Va., during the Civil War. Early in the war the counties of West Virginia seceded from Virginia and were admitted to the Union in 1863. Yet there were still residents who were secesh, a slang term for folks who were pro-Confederacy. Insults were hurled at that picnic and the affair devolved into a brawl involving both men and women.

I can well imagine some Northern wives of Union officers making some unbecoming remarks about the Southern lass’s hometown. I picture her as fiery with an untamed heart. It’s one thing to launch into shouting matches with her relatives; it’s quite another to listen passively to Yankee women disparage her loved ones. I’d be disappointed if she didn’t slap the smiles from their faces.

Yep, I’m going to have to outline and write a Civil War novel someday.

Mike Staton is the author of a fantasy trilogy called Larenia’s Shadow. The first two novels – The Emperor’s Mistress and Thief’s Coin – have been published and are available on the websites of Amazon, Barnes and Nobles, and Wings ePress.