Sunday, January 9, 2011

The Sword Over the Mantel, 1960

My grandfather was born in Richmond and brought up in the former capital of the Confederate States. The city's atmosphere was still that capital's in the early 1900's of his childhood.
As a child he would be lifted to the deep window sill beneath the library wall. There, beneath a sword that once belonged to General Robert E. Lee he'd perform the following poem:

Forth from its scabbard pure and bright,
Flashed the sword of Lee!
Far in the front of the deadly fight
High o'er the brave in the cause of Right
Its stainless sheen like a beacon of light
Led us to victory

He grew up in a huge home, Laburnum, with his grandfather and grandmother, his father and mother; three of his four uncles who were not yet married and assorted relatives, friends, servants and dogs. He is seen to the left, standing with his seated cousin, Thomas Pinckney, in a photgraph dated 1917.

His grandfather, Joseph Bryan, fought as a private with Colonel Mosby's Rangers. He was injured twice.
Mosby told his men "I will tolerate no blasphemy or profanity in my command under any circumstances but one: I permit you to call, 'Surrender, you Yankee son of a bitch!'"

His Great-uncle Ran was a ballonist. General Joe Johnston sent him a hundred feet above the treetops to spy on Yankee positions. His adventures are worthy of a future post. Historian Burke Davis wrote a book about them called Runaway Balloon.

My grandfather's most colorful uncle was St George Tucker Coalter Bryan, nicknamed Teasey ( or "T.C" for his middle initials). After the war in which he served as an artilleryman with 2nd Company, Richmond Howitzers, Teasey went west and lived among the Zuni indians, sharing a hut with a gold-miner and a wrestling bear. Thirty years of this cooled him down, and he came back to Virginia. He is the first man on the left of this photograph. Joseph Bryan is standing on the far right.

And finally there is one more great-uncle, Capt. Thomas Pinckney. He had starved as a Yankee prisoner at Morris Island outside Charleston, SC. He once told my grandfather offhandedly, "You get used to them after a while, son. Rats don't taste all that bad".
All of these stories, and many more, are told in my grandfather's 1960 memoir, The Sword Over the Mantel: The Civil War and I

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