Choosing Change

Also posted to the website

My fifth great-aunt Miriam Windham was born December 20, 1802, in South Carolina. Being my “fifth great-aunt” means that she was the sister of my fourth great-grandfather John Windham and that she lived six generations of Windhams before me.

Miriam married a young man named Isham Byrd, also born in South Carolina in about 1805. As newlyweds, they pulled up stakes and moved to the promise of Alabama farm life to begin a family that eventually included six children, evenly divided between girls and boys all born between 1833 and 1844.

Even with the rigors of rural living in the nineteenth century, Isham lived about seventy-five years and Miriam eighty-six years, dying November 06, 1889. The story is quite different for their children, especially for their sons.

Of their daughters, Elizabeth Anna lived to 81; Amanda Theodosia to 38; and Arrina, twin to brother Ira, only to 15. None of the three ever married.

Of their sons, Robert J. died at 29, leaving a wife and two children; Ira died at 23; William Franklin probably died at 20.

As Pastor Dan Lacich at Northland Church reiterates frequently during Bible study: To understand a Bible passage, you must first understand the context, the circumstances, the situation, the conditions surrounding the passage.

I submit that understanding context is necessary for understanding anything, not only Bible truths.

So what is the context for the Isham and Miriam (Windham) Byrd family? How is it that only one of their six children outlived them? They loved. They married. They farmed. They worshipped as Methodists. They were healthy. But those circumstances hardly explain what happened. The explanation lies in their times, in the further truth that they lived in Alabama during the nineteenth century, specifically during the American Civil War or Confederate War or War Between the States, or whatever other name is preferred. They participated in that war fought mostly to preserve the institution of slavery in the South even though I have found no evidence that Isham or any of his sons ever owned slaves.

I have found the rest of the family’s story, however, in cemetery records or the lack of them. Robert J. Byrd died January 23, 1863, and is buried far from his Alabama home in Virginia with a Confederate veteran’s marker attesting to that fact next to his widow’s grave in Sylvan Grove UMC Cemetery in Dale County, Alabama. Ira Byrd died on November 16, 1862, and is buried far from his Alabama home in Hollywood Cemetery, Richmond, Virginia, with a Confederate veteran’s marker attesting to that fact near his parents’ graves in Sylvan Grove UMC Cemetery in Dale County, Alabama. I have not yet found the gravesite or records following William Franklin Byrd’s death, but other researchers have found evidence that satisfies them that he died on July 16, 1864, in John’s Island, South Carolina, following the Battle of Bloody Bridge. Because there are no other records for William Franklin, I have to think that the other researchers are correct. All three young men were lost in three years, one each year.

373Photo Credit: General Ambrose E. Burnside and Staff – Warrenton, VA, November 1862

My great-aunt and great-uncle endured the sacrifice of their sons for a cause in which they may or may not have believed, whatever that cause was. Additionally, they never enjoyed seeing marriages and the births of children for their three daughters. One died early, but the other two likely had few or no marriage prospects because many, many, many of their neighbor young men had been sacrificed also. These young men were not my only relatives to die in that war, and every Southern family was affected as was mine.

But entirely coincidentally, this particular family is the one I happened to be researching today, Friday, July 10, 2015, as the Confederate battle flag was being lowered from the flagpole in front of the South Carolina capitol building in Columbia, South Carolina.

As I worked, I thought about Pastor Dan, the Bible, and “context.” Had the flag been flown in front of that statehouse to honor these family members as well as the 750,000 Southern men who died in that war, then the context would be different, and it possibly should have stayed there to honor them. Also, had it flown there honorably for all the 150 years since that war ended, the context would be different, and it possibly should have continued to fly. But I know the Southerner’s ability to justify what we want to do, especially regarding “The War.”

And I know the context of the raising of the Confederate battle flag above and later in front of the South Carolina capitol building. The flag did not fly there until 1961, almost one hundred years after the end of the war the flag’s defenders claim to honor. On January 31, 1961, ten black Friendship Junior College students in Rock Hill, South Carolina, were arrested for refusing to leave a whites-only lunch counter. In quite an example of swift justice, they were convicted of the crime February 01, the next day. Then, in quite an example of slow justice, on January 28, 2015, fifty-four years after they served their thirty days at hard labor for trespassing, their conviction was thrown out by a York County, South Carolina, judge.

Because of that 1961 opening salvo in the American Civil Rights Movement in South Carolina, when the time came to honor the 100th anniversary of the opening salvo of the American Civil War itself on April 11, 1961, the opportunity was grabbed to raise the flag. Almost a year later, March 16, 1962, and following a quickly growing number of Movement incidents and chilling headlines, a resolution passed to make the flag’s presence on the statehouse grounds permanent. All of this condemning context information is easily verified.

We, as the family of Isham and Miriam Byrd six generations later, are free and welcome to honor their sons, as well as all the other Southern and Northern soldiers who died in the American Civil War. But we must be certain that the context of our actions demonstrates clearly that we are honoring men who fought while following leadership they trusted, as soldiers have always done. We must be certain that the context of our actions does not demonstrate hatred for a group of people who were innocents in that fight, who deserved and continue to deserve freedom. That flag signified hatred for many in 1961 and 1962, and, sadly, it still signifies hatred for many in 2015. The South Carolina of the 1950s and 1960s was a place of great beauty, of wonderful, loving, graceful people, but also a place where some people lived with a very human fear: the fear of change. The South Carolina of today is a more beautiful place than it was then with more wonderful, loving, graceful people for having now demonstrated that the time has finally come to overcome the fear and begin the change. May God be with them.

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