Monday, May 31, 2010

MEMORIAL DAY NOT JUST FOR 20TH CENTURY VETS



The most notable military relative in our family is a gentleman named Captain Lawrence Dade Greenlaw, who served in “The War,”or “the late great unpleasantness,” as southerners often refer to the Civil War. I recently discovered some material about this family military figure, a portrait of whom hangs in my living room in New Iberia, Louisiana. He was engaged in the Battle of Shiloh, and in a history written in my Great Grandmother’s hand, his military history has been revealed.
I had already decided to write a novel featuring Great Grandfather Greenlaw when I returned to Tennessee this Spring and am planning a journey east to the Shiloh Military Park, near Savannah, Tennessee, only a three-hour drive from Sewanee. Great Grandfather’s ancestors came over in 1733 on a ship named MacBeth which had disembarked from Scotland bound for the Virginia coasts. He settled on a tract of land near the Rappahannock River in the County of King George in Virginia. William Greenlaw, his son and my great-grandfather’s grandfather, had fourteen children after he married a “Miss Underwood” (none of the women in the autobiography, copied in my Great-Grandmother Greenlaw’s handwriting, have first names!) who was then sixteen. “She departed this life at the age of thirty-six,” Great Grandfather wrote. Well, I reckon so, after all that begetting!

It’s interesting to read some of the letters dispatched from the Virginia Military Institute to Great Grandfather’s guardian about his training at the Institute where he spent three years preparing for a military career. He seems to have accumulated many demerits for conduct, and this is a fact that none of my Greenlaw relatives have ever mentioned. Nor does the correspondence reveal just what his misdemeanors were. I might add that Greenlaws are noted for their humor and mischievous nature. However, I figure that he was just peripatetic because after leaving VMI, he set out for Texas in 1860 at the age of twenty. He stopped in Memphis, Tennessee, traveled over to Arkansas where he supervised railroad construction, then returned to Memphis, and when The War Between the States broke out in April, 1861, he joined a company of Irishmen entering the Army of Tennessee Volunteers.

When he entered the Civil War at Belmont, he captured a magnificent black horse and his rider for which he was given the horse as a reward for gallantry by public order of the famous General Leonidas Polk (founder of the University of the South, the campus on which I now have a cottage). At the Battle of Shiloh, he was wounded on his first day of battle on Sunday, but returned to the field on Monday, was wounded again, then remained absent from his Command about one month because of his wounds. After he recovered, he became a part of the campaign in the battle of Perryville in Kentucky. Retreating from Kentucky, he engaged in the battle at Murfreesboro, Tennessee (about one and one half hours away from where I presently live and the town in which my good friend, Anne Boykin of Sewanee, was born.) There, he suffered a leg wound, was captured and thrown into prison. He was exchanged when the battle of Chancellorsville occurred and became Commander of the Post at Calhoun, Georgia, but was recalled to the field, and during the Georgia campaign, he again sustained wounds during the battle in Atlanta. He became Inspector of the Cuthbert, Georgia post for the Rebel army and remained there “until the surrender was made.” Great Grandfather summed up his military service: “I served four years in The War, was wounded four times, and in prison once.”

Great Grandfather’s military career reads like the story of a Virginia farm boy who went off to war to engage in battles about a misguided war effort, and he says that he returned to Memphis, Tennessee to a “despoiled South.” Eventually he moved to Sardis, Mississippi, then to Hazlehurst where he took up the photography profession. He is buried in Franklinton, Louisiana, my birthplace, and where my great-grandmother Dora Runnels Greenlaw, died the night I was born. She’s the one who passed on her love of writing to me, but the Greenlaws were actually the literary lions in the family, Edwin Greenlaw being a distant cousin who became the mentor and teacher of Thomas Wolfe when Wolfe attended the University of North Carolina.

I don’t now how else to recognize this former Confederate soldier, misguided as he may have been about the purpose of this “late great unpleasantness,” except to give him some respect that he may not have achieved for his service in the Civil War. The Greenlaw men have been gentle, and when I found Great Grandfather’s sword in the attic of the old Greenlaw home as a child, I couldn’t believe that he had been engaged in battle campaigns. I have begun a novel, entitled “Redemption,” in which he is a major character, and I salute Captain Lawrence Dade Greenlaw on this Memorial Day, 2010, almost 150 years following the end of the Civil War.
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