The Other McCain

"One should either write ruthlessly what one believes to be the truth, or else shut up." — Arthur Koestler

History as Heritage and Legacy (and Something I Learned About My Parents)

Posted on | July 11, 2019 | Comments Off on History as Heritage and Legacy (and Something I Learned About My Parents)


Who are those good-looking young people? That’s my mother and father, as students at the University of Alabama circa 1950. Dad was a World War II veteran attending on the G.I. Bill, and I’m not sure if he met my mother in Tuscaloosa, or if she started going there after he married her. Both of them were from Randolph County, Alabama, and nearly all my ancestors are buried in two cemeteries there, Dad’s family at Ava Methodist Church and Mom’s family at Big Springs Baptist.

One of the things about knowing who your ancestors were is that it gives you a sense of personal connection to history. Because I knew that my father was a veteran — he was wounded by German shrapnel while serving in a forward reconnaissance unit in France — I was always interested in World War II. My interest in Civil War history could be traced to sixth grade, when I did a social-studies project about the Battle of Kennesaw Mountain. When I was a boy growing up in Lithia Springs, Georgia, Dad used to take us fishing at Lake Altoona, which we reached by driving up past Lost Mountain and Cheatham Hill in western Cobb County, so I was familiar with the terrain. Also, the ruins of the New Manchester mill, burned by Sherman’s cavalry in 1864 and now part of Sweetwater Creek State Park, were the destination of an obligatory field trip when I was in elementary school. I started digging deeper into Civil War history when, as a teenager, I read a multi-part series about Sherman’s Georgia campaign in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. It was not until many years later, in 1990, during a visit to the Ava church cemetery, that I saw a plaque on the grave of my great-grandfather, Winston Wood Bolt, that led me to research his service in the 13th Alabama Infantry and discover that he had been captured, along with Brig. Gen. J.J. Archer, in the opening clash of the Battle of Gettysburg.

How many Americans know anything about the lives of their great-grandparents? How many even know the names of their great-grandparents? What happens to a people who know nothing of their own history? “People will not look forward to posterity, who never look backward to their ancestors,” as Edmund Burke wrote, conveying the value of our sense of historic tradition as an inheritance, an ancestral legacy that we have an obligation to pass on to our descendants. When we think of how to raise our children, shouldn’t this involve some effort to help them become people that their ancestors would be proud of? Isn’t it a valuable source of self-esteem to a child to know something of the struggles that his ancestors survived? Isn’t a young person more likely to conduct himself with courage and dignity if he thinks of himself as an heir to a legacy, who has a duty to uphold the honor of his ancestors?

For an entire century, from at least the 1840s until World War II, nearly all my ancestors resided in Randolph County, Alabama, which was a frontier wilderness when they arrived as pioneers and which is still largely rural today. My parents were part of a sort of diaspora of rural America in the mid-20th century. After Dad graduated at Tuscaloosa, they moved to Atlanta, where Dad’s brother-in-law helped him get a job with the Southern Railroad. After working a year there, he hired on at the Lockheed plant in Marietta, where he worked the next 37 years.

My brothers and I grew up in middle-class suburbia, but with a strong sense of our roots in rural Alabama. Both of my grandfathers died before I was born, but we spent a lot of time with our grandmothers. Ma Kirby lived in LaGrange, Georgia, where she worked at Callaway’s mill, and lived in a tidy little house on Park Avenue. The tree-lined streets of LaGrange were picturesque, and as a boy visiting Ma Kirby, I loved walking to the store or to the swimming pool with my brothers and cousins. Ma Kirby was a gentle and genial soul, devoutly religious, but full of cheerful good humor. Our father’s mother, Ma McCain, was more stoic in temperament, as she still resided on the family farm near the Little Tallapoosa River, where she drew her water from the well, cooked on a wood-burning stove and didn’t have indoor plumbing until about 1969. To use the bathroom at Ma McCain’s you went out behind the barn.

Having some sense of the hardship of my pioneer ancestors’ life on the frontier — Ma McCain hoed her vegetable garden well into her 80s — conveyed to me the idea that I was the descendant of survivors. Whatever difficulties and challenges I’ve faced in life are as nothing compared to what my ancestors lived through 150 or 200 years ago. Considering that my own father came within an inch of death in World War II, I think of my existence as somewhat miraculous, and therefore I should be grateful to God even to be alive. How many young Americans today grow up with this sense of themselves as a descendant of heroic survivors?

Mom and Dad Were Kissing Cousins?

One of the amusing aspects of having so many generations of my ancestors being from Randolph County is that I’m kin to nearly everyone there. When I attended Jacksonville (Ala.) State University, if I ever met someone from Randloph County, we’d start talking and trying to figure out how we were related, because surely we were cousins somehow. In fact, my Dad used to say that he thought he and my mother must have been distant cousins, which I didn’t believe — until just this morning!

Back in the 1990s, when I was doing historical research into my family tree, there was no Internet, and going through census records and other archival materials involved spending hours scrolling through microfilm records. So I knew that my father’s mother, Perlonia Bolt McCain, was the daughter of Confederate veteran Winston Bolt, and although I researched Private Bolt’s ancestry, I didn’t research his wife, except to note that her maiden name was Chaffin. And while I was familiar with Ma Kirby’s ancestors — her mother was a Fincher, and we used to attend the Fincher clan reunion at Big Springs every August — I’d never done much research into my grandfather Kirby’s ancestors. Well, a lot of records are online now, so I was able to learn that my great-grandfather William Thomas “Tom” Kirby’s wife, née Martha Elizabeth Almon (1872-1914), was the daughter of North Carolina native Elijah R. Almon (1839-1875), whose wife Eliza (1844-1901) — my great-great-grandmother — was the daughter of Nathan Perry Chaffin (1821-1888).

Wait a minute — Chaffin?

Eliza Chaffin Almon’s father was the son of Virginia native Tyre Chaffin (1797-1878), who moved to Georgia, where he became a church deacon and the father of 11 children, one of whom was Eliza’s father, and another was Moses Burris Chaffin (1823-1864), who served in the 8th Alabama Infantry and was killed during the fighting around Petersburg, Virginia. Moses Chaffin’s daughter, Frances Elizabeth, married Winston Bolt.

Therefore, my mother and father were both descendants of Tyre Chaffin, who was my father’s great-great-grandfather, and my mother’s great-great-great-grandfather. (Check my math on that.) My parents were third cousins twice removed, or something like that, and I’ll defer to genealogy experts on the exact terminology. Because Eliza Chaffin Almon died in 1888, 26 years before her grandson (my grandfather) Hermit Eiland Kirby was born, it was highly unlikely that my mother was aware that her great-grandmother was a Chaffin. It was somewhat more likely that my father knew that his grandmother Bolt’s maiden name was Chaffin, although she died before my Dad was two years old, but it would have been almost impossible for him and my mother to have figured out how they were related without access to genealogical records.

Well, my children have the benefit of the research I’ve done, so they know who their ancestors were and they’re unlikely to marry their cousins — not that there’s anything wrong with that, you know. Anything beyond first cousins is what folks down home call “kissing cousins,” and beyond second cousins, the degree of consanguinity is small enough that there’s little risk of hereditary defect, so long as a pattern of in-group marriage is not repeated in successive generations. Because I married a girl from Ohio, to whom I couldn’t possibly be related (except perhaps if you traced our ancestry back to England, or maybe the very earliest colonial era in America), there would be little risk if our children or grandchildren married someone whose parents could trace their roots back to Randolph County, Alabama, and thus are potential distant cousins.

From a knowledge of our ancestors, we gain a sense of our own lives as a bridge between the past and the future. My ancestors lived in a world that existed before I was born, which I can know only from history, and my descendants will live in a future that is beyond my imagination.

“To live for the moment is the prevailing passion — to live for yourself, not for your predecessors or posterity. We are fast losing the sense of historical continuity, the sense of belonging to a succession of generations originating in the past and stretching into the future. . . .
“Narcissism emerges as the typical form of character structure in a society that has lost interest in the future.”

Christopher Lasch, The Culture of Narcissism: American Life in an Age of Diminishing Expectations (1979)

Maintaining our “sense of historical continuity,” as Lasch called it, provides us with a bulwark against the “prevailing passion” of narcissism, which has only grown worse in the four decades since Lasch so brilliantly analyzed it. What inspired me to write this lengthy post was that Gene Wisdom, a JSU classmate, called my attention to a recent reissue of Family and Civilization, a 1947 book by Harvard University sociologist Carle Zimmerman, who died in 1983. In this book, Professor Zimmerman wrote: “The struggle over the modern family and its present rapid trend toward a climactic breakup will be one of the most interesting and decisive ones in all history.” According to one review, Professor Zimmerman “predicted many of today’s cultural and social controversies and trends — including youth violence and depression, abortion and homosexuality, the demographic collapse of Europe and of the West more generally, and the displacement of peoples.”

Religious devotion, when coupled with a knowledge of our ancestors, can be a powerful antidote to the degenerate trends of our age. Remember my ancestor Tyre Chaffin, from whom both of my parents were descended? In 1828, age 31, he was ordained a deacon of what is now Zion Baptist Church in Covington, Georgia, and according to one memorial, the deacon “was a devoted man, to his God, to his church, to his pastor and his family; always taking a decided stand against the fashionable vices of nominal professors, and in favor of the true and second determination to live right.” Until this morning, however, I had never known about Deacon Chaffin, who was such an influential figure in the Christian faith of his community and who sired a remarkably large brood of offspring that included ancestors of both my parents. Speaking of family . . .

My older brother Kirby is currently out of work because he’s got to go through some medical testing as part of federal regulations that require truckers to get their health recertified annually. The doctors want to do a scan on his carotid artery, and that might lead to another surgery, so he’s got a fundraiser going at GoFundMe, and I’d be most grateful if readers could contribute to help him through this situation.

Thanks in advance, and God bless you.



Comments are closed.