February/March 1999 | Volume 50, Issue 1
It turns out my great-grandfather fought to free my daughter.
But in this case I have an especially personal interest in a piece. Jillian Sim’s article about her investigation into her past is a tale any reader should find compelling, suggesting as it does the mysteries and riches concealed in everyone’s personal past.
This particular story, however, is by my stepdaughter.
I helped raise Julian from the time she was two years old. She was a delightful charge—straw-haired, blue-eyed, lively, and agreeable to most uses of the adult world. She cheerfully absorbed my pieties about table manners and street crossings, was good company on the long, sticky car trips of childhood, even acquiesced happily in visits to historical sites (although once, when she was nine, at Henry Ford’s vast and wonderful Greenfield Village, I did hear her mutter to her older brother, “He’s going to make us look at another goddamn sawmill!”). I was just as surprised as she was when the dimensions of her history began to reveal themselves.
It’s been said that race is not just an important part of the American admixture; it is the important part. This idea is succinctly encapsulated in the national attention paid the results of the DNA tests that recently ratified what overwhelming circumstantial evidence and common sense should have made manifest: Thomas Jefferson and his slave Sally Hemings were lovers and parents. Jefferson’s black descendants knew this; his white chose not to. (Not all of them: Lucian Truscott’s highly personal meditation on the largest meanings of the DNA business suggests the vigor with which he has campaigned to bring Jefferson’s African-American descendants to the fore.)
I suspect Jill’s story will be more surprising to our white readers than our black ones. Indeed, it may be far less surprising a decade down the road. As Cyndi Howells points out in her story, the Internet has opened our past in ways that would have been unimaginable as recently as a decade ago. Go look up your name, and see what may be waiting for you.
I probably wouldn’t have the job I do if I weren’t an optimist about America, but I strongly believe that the fact that Jill was exhilarated rather than chagrined by what she discovered says something about the way we have come in little more than a generation, despite the path’s still being a steep one. So too does the attitude at Jefferson’s home. When, in 1972, American Heritage first published the results of Fawn Brodie’s scrupulous research into the relationship, Carla Davidson, then a picture editor, asked the curator at Monticello if he had a portrait of Sally Hemings. “No, young lady, I don’t,” said this custodian of our heritage, “and if I did, I’d tear it up.” A quarter-century later, when Julian traced her family back to Jefferson’s slaves, the people at Monticello welcomed her with courtesy, warmth, and keen professional interest.
Finally, Jill’s story made me think of the immediacy of our past—in my case, as incarnated in my paternal great’ grandfather. He joined the Quincy (Illinois) Volunteers when the Civil War broke out. I know very little about this man. He did not enjoy his service with Grant’s army. My sole living connection with him is my father, to whom he spoke about the war just once. My father was only ten years old at the time, but he remembers it because he saw a seventy-five-year-old patriarch start to sob and say, “My God, it was awful.” My great-grandfather was in the fighting at Shiloh, which to this day remains about as bad as combat has ever been.
I have no idea if he went to the war because he was a foe of slavery. There were Illinois men who threw down their rifles when they got word of the Emancipation Proclamation and said they’d lie there “until moss grew on their backs” before they’d fight for blacks. I hope my great-grandfather wasn’t one of them, but I don’t know.
I do know that whatever his motivation, he was there in the murderous thickets of Shiloh, and, reading Jill’s story, I feel very close to him, because it turns out he was fighting to free my daughter.