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The Spencer County Six

The Spencer County Six

I discovered this treasure of a photograph not long ago in a large, unmarked cardboard box I had inherited after my parents died. I had been lugging it around and intentionally ignoring it for many years. But it called to me recently. History tugs at me ever so often, as it never has before. No great mystery there, I reckon, as I add on the years myself and become increasingly part of the Historical Record.

As it turns out, the gentlemen in the photo were all residents of Taylorsville, Kentucky, the county seat of Spencer County. My grandmother, Mrs. Dora Elder Jolly, had dutifully and legibly written their names and their lines of work on the back of the photo.

My great-grandfather, her father, is on the far left--William Guy Elder. He was a farmer and a livery stable manager. Walter Heady is next, also a farmer. Then comes Mr. Bourne, a banker; Mr. Yocum, the hotel manager; Mr. Crab, an auctioneer; and finally, Lew Brown, the editor of the Spencer County Courier. They are all, we can agree, a distinguished looking, handsomely dressed and magnificently mustachioed group of men. They have been ‘colorized’ and look pretty jaunty. I have taken to calling them The Spencer County Six. One assumes they were joined together for some special occasion.

And it turns out to be true. My Grandmother Jolly noted that they were all members of her father’s Confederate Company in the ‘War of Secession’. The date is regretfully not included, but there is some likelihood that it would have been 1890, twenty-five years after the end of the War. They are perhaps brought together for a memorial photo as the town’s last living veterans of The War Between the States. They are fashionably suited up and presenting as the Confederacy’s Company E survivors in The War That Divided Us All.

I confess my Confederate legacy came as a bit of a shock. I always recognized of course that my direct ancestors during that time were mostly all Kentuckians, and that Kentucky was a border state with divided loyalties and close to an equal share of those with Northern and Southern allegiances. But I had somehow never gone so far as to envision my fore-bearers as Confederate soldiers. As supporters of the Rebel cause, as wearers of the grey uniforms.

But the Truth of the matter was not hard to uncover. It is plainly stated in the Family History’s 3-ring binder: “William Guy Elder (the man on the left in the photo) served 4 years in the Confederate Army as a member of Company E, 1st Kentucky Cavalry under Col. Butler. He took part in the battles of Shiloh, Murfreesboro, Stone Mountain, Chickamauga, Kennesaw Mountain and many other engagements. He was captured at some point and held prisoner for several months.”

So there it is. For a full four years, practically the duration of the War, my great-grandfather fought for the forces engaged in an attempt to overthrow the U.S. Government. On the other hand, his brother, Joseph Elder Sr., although an avowed Southerner, enlisted in the Union Army. Though he was never called up, he volunteered to fight and perhaps die for an entirely different set of principles. Same family. Just three years younger.

I cannot imagine this gulf between brothers. Fraternal bonds torn apart as they chose different sides which then went about killing each other. Mothers, fathers, aunts and uncles, wives and children all involved. At great risk to all. I don’t understand how those fences could have ever been repaired, those wounds healed.

And then, after the War, these soldier, brothers and cousins from opposing Armies, most often returned to the same family farms, the same homeplaces. They rejoined these same fractured families, there to sit before a fire or around a table. How did they manage? How did they resolve those differences? From my vantage point, it would seem to be a bridge too far.

I found this quote from Joseph's son (Joseph Elder Jr.): "As brothers, they frequently ‘kidded' each other about their attitudes toward the Civil War, the South, etc. Uncle Guy, when the families visited each other, would call his brother Joe, my father, a 'lazy slacker', saying he was too much of a 'coward' to fight. Whereupon my father would banter that Guy did not know how to fight or he would not have been caught and 'put in jail', and so forth. I was a small child, too young to understand what it was all about, but I have never forgotten their 'friendly' arguments."

One doesn’t need a degree in psychotherapy to feel the family tensions here. It would have been an uneasy truce. Families would have undoubtedly struggled to remain aligned.

But their opinions about slavery and their attitudes toward the Union and States’ Rights? How did that work? Yes, the War was over, but was it? The Union was indeed preserved by virtue of battles won and lost and the vast numbers of men killed. Over 750,000—2.5% of the entire US population. It became toward the end a battle of attrition, in which the side with the most men left standing, with the most ammunition and the most food, supplies, horses and mules, was summarily declared the winner. The Generals could no longer afford to ‘lose’ significant numbers of their Armies. Counterattacks were impossible, and courageous ‘last stands’ would have been a needless bloodbath. Eventually the South ran out of bodies to throw at the North and surrendered what remained of their Armies.

One-out-of-four who left to fight in this horrible war did not return. But for the three that did come home, where was their allegiance? We all at some level understand that Wars never win hearts or minds. Wars are about Conquest. At the end, everyone is just so fatigued, so relieved that The War is over, that they accept what comes after as better than what was.

So the South ‘lost’ the War and was overnight subjugated to a life of living by Union Rules—the Union from which they had fought to secede. They were now relegated to live under the figurative thumb of a Government against which they had fought and died in enormous numbers. The Federals had defeated the Secessionists. The Defenders of Slavery lost this terrible Conflict, but I would argue that no one’s opinion was changed.

As a case in point, I had a great-great-granduncle named Basil Hayden. This is not THE Basil Hayden of Old Grand Dad bourbon fame. But THIS Basil was famous in his own right. He was known far and wide as “The Hermit”. And he gained that moniker by virtue of his bizarre and persistent behavior.

I quote here from the Hardin Co., Kentucky abstract from Oct. 22, 1897: “Basil ‘Hermit’ Hayden in his youth was a social leader. When the War broke out, he entered the Confederate army. When he came back from the War, he changed. He declared that the Lord had dealt harshly and unjustly with him, depriving him of his slaves. And out of revenge, he registered a terrible oath that he would never again put his foot to the Lord’s ground.”

He was one of the wealthiest farmers in Nelson Co. and hired others to do the work of the farm. He would reportedly review the operations--his crops, stock, mules, fences, barns, etc.--from his 2nd story balconies and give directions. But he died true to his word. In 1909, at the age of 85, never having left his house in over 40 years, he was finally laid to rest in that self-same Lord’s ground that he vowed never again to touch.


So we can see that for my Uncle Basil, the end of the War changed nothing. And I suggest that he was unique only in the extreme and unyielding nature of his vow. He was exceptional only in the stubbornness with which he maintained his intractable grievances.

Similarly, my grandparents on my mother’s side, though born a generation after the War, also suffered from its remnant hostilities. Their people were from different parts of the country. Theirs was a ‘mixed marriage’. They emerged from that poisonous War with different views.

My grandmother Elder’s family were all from Kentucky. They had at one time been slave owners and consequently fought mostly on the side of the Confederacy.

My grandfather Jolly’s folks had lived in Ohio since before the Revolution. So their loyalties remained with the Union.

And even though my grandparents married a full 40 years after the War, even though they became parents, raised a family and remained married for 47 years, the War persisted as a stumbling block. I always heard that the worst arguments they ever had were over the North-South conflict. It was a disagreement that never resolved itself.

None of it was ever really resolved. The truth is that General Lee had surrendered the Army of Northern Virginia, but the Confederate Government never actually ‘surrendered’. The individual Armies surrendered, one at a time, and the soldiers of those Rebel Armies were mostly all ‘paroled’ and allowed to go home with their mounts and their side pieces.

“The Rebels are our Countrymen again,” declared Gen. Grant, hopefully, “as long as they agree not to take up arms against the Government of the United States”. Over the years, they mostly kept that part of the agreement. They did not ‘take up arms’, but I suggest that neither did they lay down their views.

No one said: “Well, the Union Army won the War, so they must have been right.” Allegiance and firmly held beliefs did not change by virtue of Appomattox. The War was ended and the Confederate flags came down in most places, but the ‘hostilities’ never really ceased. Wars do nothing to address the resentment and the entrenched ideologies. No one renounced their opinion. If anything, the bitterness just went underground and continued to simmer.

It is my opinion then that the War of Secession never really ended. The differences were never reconciled. We just ceased the military engagement phase. But we continue fighting the ideological parts of it to this day. The Union was saved, but the intersections of race and the legacy of slavery and its remnants, which was at the core of the Civil War, continue to confront Americans today.


But back to the photograph. These six men, released from service--or worse perhaps, released from the horrible conditions of those infamous Prisoner of War camps--came back to their hometowns to supposedly now work side-by-side with others from the town who fought for The Other Side. They were expected to now partner with those who wore different uniforms. Those devils who fired the cannons and led the charges and tried to kill them in many of the same battles. Who were, just weeks or months before, their sworn and deadly enemies.

When they came home, did they work in a cooperative way with the other town leaders who had chosen to fight for their Enemy?

Did Mr. Bourne, the banker, dispense loans in an equitable and impartial way in this small town with divided loyalties?

Did the editor of the Spencer Co. Courier, Lew Brown, did he write fair and impartial editorials regarding the town’s interests and politics of the time?

Did they all willingly sit at the Taylorsville Tavern and sip Old McKenna whiskey with their counterparts from the Union Army?

And my great-grandfather, a devout Catholic, did he sit in the same pew with Union loyalists at little All Saints Church and take the same communion?

My assumption is that they did. To the best of their abilities. I suggest that the men in this photo put the war behind them in the way perhaps that the veterans of WWII put the horrors of battle and what they saw behind them. My sense is that these men scarcely spoke of this Un-Civil War and thus maintained a tenuous and uneasy peace.

I reckon they somehow laid aside the memories, the horrors and the enmities of all those battles. Otherwise, Taylorsville and every other community along the Mason-Dixon border would have torn themselves to pieces. They could not have continued to exist. And likewise, no family would have survived.

Having had enough of War and Hate, Fear and Anger, they assumed good will from their townsmen and colleagues. They made amends and went about their business. They reconciled with their neighbors and decided to live and let live.

So I turn to these men, these dapper, turn-of-the Century gentlemen--The Spencer County Six--for inspiration, for a way out of this 21st Century morass. I hold them as guides, battle hardened but tempered, tough but wise, men of moderation, to help us re-find our Democratic path. They somehow look like they know the way.

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