30 May 2011

Hobbling Down Memory Lane

One artifact I own is an old walking-stick. When my knee abruptly gave out a year or so back and I was hobbling about my nephew found it somewhere and brought it to me to help me get around. I don’t ordinarily use it; there’s a crack running through it, and I can’t trust it to bear my weight, but it worked for that moment. It belonged to my great-grandfather G. F. Weaver who, in the 1930s, left it behind when he went for his final walk on the land where he’d found gold, just after signing over all his rights in it to his partners. His body was found a couple of days later at the bottom of a ravine where he’d apparently fallen, and his walking-stick was among the meager effects sent to his family.

He was an interesting guy, to judge from the contradictory accounts that have come down about him, a preacher, an inventor, a visionary, a horse-doctor, a man who abandoned his family (first absconding with the money from the sale of their crops) to seek a golden fortune out west, a man who traded the rights to an invention for land in Kentucky that didn’t exist, and according to his own story witnessed the assassination of the governor-elect there when trying to seek redress for his wrongs. To this day he has his partisans and detractors in the family. Me, I’m agnostic. Whatever he was, he was.

He was the youngest (and favorite) son of a farmer, James I. Weaver, a man whose entire life is encompassed in the fading script of the family Bible that sits in front of me as I write these words. Born in Kentucky in 1818, the son of a preacher, he married the daughter of a preacher in 1844 and died in Texas in 1888. If he had a life outside of farming, I’ve failed to find it. Tradition has it that he and his wife Rhoda wanted their son to be a preacher like their fathers, and G. F. was, at least briefly. He performed at least one marriage in Texas, before giving it up. Did I mention that G. F. was also a barber and a Bible-salesman?

Anyway, James’ father David (1791-1854) was a preacher, one of the mainstays of a Baptist church in the wilderness of Kentucky. “His labors extended over Laurel, Knox, Whitley and Clay counties,” Elder J. W. Moran wrote of him, “and few men have sacrificed more for the cause of Christ than he. He so ordered his life that the most hardened in wickedness could bring no charge against him. His voice was clear and musical, and his manner was very pleasing. He was greatly beloved by the people to whom he preached.” Blind in his latter years, he had to be carried to church to preach.

His father Samuel (1755-1842) was (thank God) not a preacher, Baptist or otherwise, though he was the progenitor of a large tribe of Weavers. He was a giant of a man—over seven feet tall according to family tradition—and lived at various times in his long life (he was almost 87 when he died) in Virginia, the Carolinas, and Kentucky. His name turns up in numerous land, tax, and census records, though as there were other Samuel Weavers abroad in the land it is difficult to be sure which belong to him, and which to others. As far as those records show his life was uneventful, spent in farming and raising a numerous brood of children with his wife—supposedly a descendent of Gutenberg, of printing-press fame.

In the 1830s he applied for a pension from the government on the basis of his participation in the Revolutionary War, and to that end narrated his experiences. About eighty at the time, his memory was none too good, and the accounts (there are two) filled with phrases like “he does not now recollect” and “neither does he remember”. Still, the story he tells runs something like this:

Somewhere around March in the year 1780, while living in Surry county, North Carolina, he was drafted to serve in the Continental Army. His company commander was Captain Jacob Camplin, who took the outfit south to Charleston, then under siege by the British. Before they got there “a call was made for men to stay and guard baggage wagons and he was one of these, he supposed about thirty, but for what cause the baggage was kept there at the time he can not say, but supposes it was in Consequence of the Siege…” For this reason he missed the siege of Charleston, which fell on 12 May of that year. Captain Camplin returned from the siege with a knee injury, according to Samuel Weaver, and he was delegated to look after him on his way back home, “which he did, tho under much difficulty and trouble, the wound being very severe.”

No sooner than he got home he was discharged, his three months being up, and he returned to his family home, where he walked into a domestic drama. It seems his father had just been drafted, and his mother was in considerable “distress of mind” at the idea of parting with him. So Samuel “resolved to go himself … if the officers would receive him, he told this to his father and Mother … but his father was preparing for the trip and said nothing in reply.” Carrying out this plan Samuel talked to the officer in charge, who “seemed to be much gratified” at the switch, and immediately discharged his father. Samuel soon found himself on his way back to Virginia where they joined troops also on their way south.

Samuel doesn’t say what troops they were, but the time and place suggests they could have been Maryland troops under De Kalb headed south to try to break the British stranglehold there. These troops were combined with others and the whole put under the command of Horatio Gates, who then led them to mass slaughter in a vain attempt to take Camden, South Carolina, on 16 August. Once again, however, Samuel Weaver missed the battle; he (along with others) joined Francis Marion. Presumably this was when the Swamp Fox and a few picked men were detached to cut off the expected retreat of the British after they were defeated at Camden.

In reality the British were not defeated, and Marion ended up lurking in the swamp, carrying out occasional raids against the Tories. Samuel Weaver vaguely remembered taking part in several night actions, and one day skirmish, but the one thing that stuck out in his mind about this chapter in his life was this:
During the time he was with Genl. Marion, a British Officer as he was told came into Camp, but for what he does not know, he was roasting & bakeing Sweet Potatoes on the Coles—Genl. Marion Steped up with the British Officer and remarked he believed he would take Breakfast, he felt proud at the request, puled out his potatoes, wiped the ashes off with a dirty handkerchief, placed them on a pine log (which was all the provision they had) and Genl. Marion and the British Officer partook of them. He has been told by some that this has been recorded in the life of the Genl. as a dinner, but this was a breakfast.
So, apparently, Samuel Weaver was the very soldier who took part in this famous episode, first revealed to the public by Mason Weems, of George Washington and the cherry tree fame. It’s a sobering thought.

After about a month with Marion Samuel Weaver ended up on hospital duty, was discharged, and returned home. This wasn’t the last of his adventures in the war—the next year he again volunteered and headed off to do battle at Guilford. Again he missed the battle; the volunteers stayed to help bury the dead and then went back home. And even then, according to his narrative, he enrolled as a minute man, and continued to be called up as needed for brief skirmishes.

Now, it’s Memorial Day, and I don’t want to cast aspersions on the memory of the old guy, but there are problems with this narrative. (I’m sure you already guessed that, if you’ve spent any time here.) First, Jacob Camplin, the captain whose knee was injured during the siege of Charleston? Okay, there really was a Jacob Camplin, seemingly, and he really did injure his knee—but not at the siege of Charleston. He injured it a year earlier, at the Battle of Stono Ferry, 20 June 1779. Near Charleston, true, but not at that time and place. Further, an account by a fellow named John Melugin (and this is not my research) seems quite similar to Samuel’s—Melugin left Surry County (like Samuel Weaver) under Captain Jacob Camplin headed for Charleston. During the events there he was assigned to drive a wagon and as a result missed the battle at Stono Ferry where Captain Camplin was injured. He then (like Samuel Weaver) went home.

Okay, so what? So the old guy was a year off, got the Siege of Charleston mixed up with the Battle of Stono Ferry—what of it? Well, the thing is, it’s not that simple. You see, Jacob Camplin didn’t come back from that battle to be helped home by Samuel Weaver or any other soldier—he was taken prisoner by the British, and not released for over a year. So that whole part of his story, the “difficulty and trouble” of getting the captain home with his severe injury, kind of drops out. And further, if the Stono Ferry redating be accepted, then there’s no way he could have been one of Marion’s guerillas, as Marion didn’t take up his career as the Swamp Fox until the next year. Samuel Weaver’s narrative is quite tight here—he gets home after nursemaiding Captain Camplin to find that his father has been drafted, and he sets out immediately to replace him, at this time joining up with Francis Marion. Poke at it anywhere and the story kind of unravels and falls apart.

One more thing—that sweet potato story. It was pretty well known in the 1830s, when Samuel Weaver was applying for his pension. Now I hadn’t originally planned on going into this, but as J. L. Bell is doing a nice job deconstructing this legend at Boston 1775, I’ve got to at least point people in his direction. There is considerable doubt as to whether this event even occurred, let alone that Samuel Weaver took the part he assigns to himself in it. I can’t help but wonder whether, perhaps, his own memories of events being shaky, he didn’t appropriate bits and pieces of stories around him to fill out an otherwise bald and unconvincing narrative.

That he took some part in the Revolution doesn’t seem to be in question—too many people were willing to swear to it on his behalf. It doesn’t look like sheer fantasy, in the manner of William Drannan. But the specifics he recalls, when they can be checked on, are iffy. If he went out with Captain Camplin on the occasion when the captain’s knee was injured, it must have been in 1779, and the battle must have been Stono Ferry. If he escorted a wounded officer back from either Stono Ferry or the Siege of Charleston it can’t have been Captain Camplin, who was a prisoner of war at the time. If he was in the swamps with Francis Marion it is unlikely that he took part in a dinner (or breakfast as he insists) that nobody recalled until Mason Weems used it to pad out a heavily-fictionalized biography. It’s frustrating, but there it is. Like the crack running through my great-grandfather's walking-stick, there are cracks running through his great-grandfather's war stories. The old man’s memory can’t be trusted.

I doubt very much that he’s romancing; the stories are too mundane. (Again, take a look at William Drannan to see what happens when fantasy replaces memory.) But events have somehow become jumbled and are mixed with things that never were.

I’m reminded of another time, when a much more recent ancestor of mine—my father, actually—lay dying in a Portland hospital. A veteran of World War II, he kept returning to scenes long past, his once-sharp mind dulled with drugs and delusions. Convinced for some reason he was in a war zone, he would ask about the enemy—how close they were, and whether we were going to be evacuated. “How long was your father in Vietnam?” one of the attendants asked. It was a tough question. I didn’t know where the Vietnam thing was coming from. He’d been on a hospital ship in the Pacific, he’d been in occupied Japan, but Vietnam? He was in Portland that whole time, to my personal knowledge, working as an engineer at a radio station. I smiled weakly, and somebody said—I don’t remember who—“He must be having somebody else’s flashbacks.”

Maybe Samuel Weaver was having somebody else’s flashbacks.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

A great memory piece and interesting detail about mutual ancestors. neat! rfh

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