Remembering one of 10 million, 100 hundred years later

One hundred years ago today Capt. Theodore Dubose Ravenel Jr. was killed in fighting on the Western Front. Sadly, he died just one day before the end of the Great War.

Even sadder, given the confusion of war, his family did not find out for some time afterward, so they initially believed he had survived the terrible conflict that claimed 10 million lives.

Ravenel was from a rural community in Sumter County, S.C. He was described as a “brave soldier” and it was noted that he “was highly esteemed by a wide circle of friends.”

That he was brave is indicated by the fact that he was killed on final full day of the war. With German allies Austria-Hungary and the Ottoman Empire already having surrendered, rumors were rampant by early November 1918 that an armistice was imminent. Many soldiers on both sides were understandably content to do their best to just keep out of harm’s way.

Still, high-ranking officers in the rear continued to send men forward, many times only to add to their own personal accolades, resulting in needless deaths in the war’s final hours.

Ravenel, a member of the American Expeditionary Force’s 316th Machine Gun Battalion, was killed near Verdun, France. Verdun had seen some of the worst fighting of the war, and in the history of warfare, in 1916, and the area remained a hot zone throughout the remainder of the conflict.

An after-action report by 2nd Lieutenant Herbert R. Stender, who served under Ravenel, recounted the details regarding latter’s death.

According Stender’s Nov. 14, 1918, report, at about 4 p.m. on Nov. 10 he was ordered to gather a detail of two noncommissioned officers and four privates from his platoon and patrol an area up to the limit of the territory held by the 324th Infantry, then return with his information before dark.

Stender’s detail left a short while later and after about a mile came across the “dead body of Corporal Burgess of ‘B’ Company,” he wrote. “I then realized that something was wrong because Corporal Burgess’ death was caused by machine gun bullets and not by a sniper.”

Stender and his men proceeded cautiously in the same direction and was within 200 yards of Bois de Chabotte when Stender heard “cries of some distress.”

“… to my surprise and sorrow, I found Captain Ravenel of ‘B’ Company. He had been shot through the leg with machine gun bullets and his leg was broken,” Stender wrote.

“He recognized me at once and requested me to take him away before the Boche (Germans) could return and get him,” Stender continued. “I called my patrol to the spot and we fixed the Captain as comfortably as possible.

“The Captain cautioned us to keep down and to get away as soon as possible because the woods in front of us were infested with machine guns and that the Boche would open up on us right away.”

Stender’s patrol then proceeded to bring Ravenel back to the American lines, but Ravenel died en route.

Stender added that the task of recovering Ravenel’s body in was an arduous one: “… we had to go through a swamp covered with shell holes and enemy wire (and the) patrol was under heavy artillery and machine gun fire the whole time while they were returning …”

Ravenel’s body wasn’t returned to the US for nearly three years, when he was interred in the family burial plot at the Church of the Holy Cross in Stateburg, SC, in the summer of 1921.

Ravenel was one of several World War I casualties from South Carolina whose remains were returned to the Palmetto State on Aug. 5, 1921, according to a newspaper account.

The others included Private Williams D. Wells, of Greenville, killed on Nov. 11, 1918, the day the armistice was signed; Private Oscar Camp, Gaffney; Private James M. Lynn, Rock Hill; Private Henry K. Brown, Saluda; Private Jesse J. Moore, Westminster; Private Richard Williams, Jefferson; and Private L.T. Dickson, Kings Creek.

It would be nice to be able to write that Ravenel and the tens of thousands of other U.S. troops who gave their lives in World War I died for a worthwhile cause.

Given that World War II, with all its accompanying horrors, would be spawned from the carnage of the Great War, though, it’s hard to believe much good came from the First World War.

And today, the centennial of World War I has largely gone unnoticed in the United States, from the war’s beginnings in Europe to U.S. involvement in 1917 to its last days in November 1918.

We plod merrily along, glutting ourselves with consumer goods, social media minutiae and pointless political squabbling, oblivious to the hardship and sacrifice of 1914-18. Meanwhile,

In Flanders fields the poppies blow / Between the crosses, row on row

As they have for a full century now.

(Top: Gravestone of Capt. Theodore Dubose Ravenel Jr., in Church of the Holy Cross Cemetery, Stateburg, SC.)

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How a Reconstruction president got his own road in the South

Laurens, S.C., is a typical small Southern town. Its mills are closed, the Columbia, Newberry and Laurens Railroad is now part of a major transportation company and the last bank with its headquarters in the community relocated nearly a decade ago.

But there’s no denying its history. Even though it has a population of around 9,000, the town can claim two South Carolina governors, a U.S. Senator and a U.S. Secretary of the Navy. It also produced at least two Confederate congressmen and several signers of the S.C. Ordinance of Secession.

That latter bit is what makes the sign on a main street heading into town rather striking: “President Andrew Johnson Memorial Highway”.

Johnson, of course, served as the 17th president of the United States. Of particular note to denizens of Laurens and other Southerners, he was president during the first part of Reconstruction (1865-69), when Radical Republicans in Congress did their best to stick it to the South for the War Between the States.

At first glance, naming a road in the heart of South Carolina after a Reconstruction president seems akin to, oh, labeling the section of road between the German cities of Stuttgart and Munich the “Prime Minister Georges Clemenceau Memorial Autobahn”.

It should be noted that Johnson was by no means aligned with the Radical Republicans. He favored quick restoration of the seceded states to the Union. Unfortunately, his plans did not give protection to former slaves. He went so far as to veto the Fourteenth Amendment, which gave citizenship to former slaves, and got crosswise with the Republican-dominated Congress.

Andrew Johnson, with a face only a mother, but not a prospective mother-in-law, could love.

He was impeached by the House of Representatives and escaped conviction and removal from office by a single vote in the Senate. Without Congressional support, he accomplished little during his four years in office.

So why does Johnson, generally considered one of the worst, if not the worst president in U.S. history, and the man in charge of the Federal government directly after it defeated the Southern Confederacy, have a highway named for him in the South Carolina Upstate?

It turns out that Johnson, a native of North Carolina, operated a tailor shop in Laurens in the mid-1820s. He even courted a local “blue-eyed beauty,” a lass named Sarah Ward.

Johnson wanted to marry Ward, but according to legend, Ward’s widowed mother didn’t think a tailor was suitable for her daughter and nixed the match.

Once Johnson realized he had no chance of winning Ward’s hand, he returned first to Raleigh, N.C., where he’d been born, then moved west to Tennessee.

It was in Tennessee that he would eventually serve in the U.S. House, U.S. Senate and as governor before becoming Abraham Lincoln’s vice president for six weeks, until Lincoln was assassinated in April 1865, thrusting Johnson into the presidency.

A resolution designating a stretch of road through Laurens as the “President Andrew Johnson Memorial Highway,” recognizing both his time in the town and his service to the people of the United States, was passed by the S.C. General Assembly in 2000.

Alas, I was unable to find any roads named for the widow Ward or any of her kin during my time in Laurens.

Graniteville, S.C.: The original Southern mill town

You wouldn’t know it driving through the dusty streets of Graniteville, S.C., but the small community was at one time a cutting-edge region for economic development.

Today, the unincorporated area has a population of about 2,500 individuals, down sharply from a half century ago. For 150 years, Graniteville, about 10 miles east of Augusta, Ga., was a textile center. It was, in fact, the original Southern mill village, beginning in the mid-1840s.

Graniteville’s place as a textile hub was finally done in by the movement of jobs to foreign countries and a tragic train accident in 2005 in which poisonous chlorine gas was released following a collision, killing nine residents and injuring another 250.

While area does have a tire plant, there’s definitely a feeling Graniteville’s best days are behind it. Yet there remains plenty of interest in the hamlet.

Among the appealing features of Graniteville are more than two dozen original mill houses, built in the late 1840s.

The Gothic Revival wood-frame homes, survivors of 100 built more than a decade before the War Between the States, are considerably more stylish than the clapboard mill houses familiar throughout many Southern cities and towns.

The homes feature Gothic vertical board-and-batten siding with a steeply-pitched front gables. They were built with decorative scalloped barge boards, which can still be seen on many of the remaining houses.

Shuttered mill in Graniteville, S.C.

Graniteville was the work of William Gregg (1800-67), an orphan who parlayed a successful career as a jeweler into a textile fortune.

Gregg had been a part owner of a cotton mill in Edgefield District in the mid-1830s, one of several mills that existed in the state at this time. But these ventures tended to be undercapitalized and prone to failure.

Gregg decided to embark on a serious study of the industry, venturing north in 1844 to inspect textile mills in Connecticut, Massachusetts, New Hampshire and Vermont. Gregg’s travels convinced him that with proper planning and supervision textile production could be managed successfully in the Palmetto State, according to research done by Lisa Pfueller Davidson for the National Park Service.

Gregg understood the state was “wasting its potential by shipping raw cotton to the North and buying back finished goods at exorbitant prices,” according to Davidson, who added that Gregg believed that viable textile mills in the state would diversify the state’s cotton-reliant economy and provide jobs for poor whites.

Between 1845 and 1849 Gregg supervised the construction of a mile-long power canal, a mill building and a schoolhouse, in addition to the mill houses.

The mill was furnished with state-of-the-art technology for spinning and weaving, and went into operation in 1849. The financial success of the enterprise prompted the development of other, similar mills elsewhere in the South.

While Graniteville’s mills went into decline as jobs began shifting overseas in the 1980s and ‘90s, the final nail in the coffin came after the operation was acquired by Avondale Mills in 1996, when a Norfolk Southern train carrying chlorine gas, sodium hydroxide and cresol went through a misaligned switch, then collided with a second, parked train.

Several of the cars derailed and one carrying chlorine gas ruptured, releasing about 60 tons of the gas. Of the nine people killed as a result of collision, six were Avondale employees.

The following year, Avondale’s CEO announced his company was ceasing operation, closing mills across four states. He cited the crash as the primary reason for the company’s failure.

It proved a sad ending to a long, remarkable run for the Graniteville operation.

Still, it’s impressive to consider that the mill William Gregg started before the California Gold Rush survived into the 21st century, providing jobs and textiles for more than 160 years.

(Top: One of few remaining original houses built for mill workers around 1850.)

Flea Bite Creek – short on fleas, big on other critters

Even in an area where the streams and bodies of water have names such as Squirrel Creek, Four Hole Swamp and Smoke Pond, the name Flea Bite Creek stands out.

It’s difficult to determine how long ago the creek got its unusual name, which seems a bit of a misnomer today as there are few, if any, fleas along its banks. But given the sandy soil found in the area, near Cameron, S.C., in Calhoun County, less than an hour south of Columbia, it’s possible the irritating parasites once inhabited the locale in abundance.

Standing on a bridge over Flea Bite Creek, with a view of algae-covered water, thick cypress trees and a great deal of brush along the banks, it would seem a more appropriate name for the stream would be “Snake Bite Creek.”

Another possibility is “Gator Gulch.”

But back 250 years ago when the region was being settled it’s likely nearly every lake, river and swamp in South Carolina was filled with snakes, venomous and otherwise, meaning this sluggish stretch of water wouldn’t have stood out had it been host to cottonmouths, copperheads or king snakes.

Not only that, there’s something to be said for a foe one can see, and avoid, even if it’s a six-foot snake, rather than one the size of sesame seed that jumps in an unpredictable manner.

Universities work up new scheme to ‘free’ students from debt

Modern academia is anachronistic, if nothing else.

The latest trend that appears to be catching on is termed “income-share agreements.”

Schools such as Purdue University, Norwich University and Lackawanna College are offering to pay students’ tuition if students offer them a percentage of their future salary for a fixed number of years, according to an Associated Press report.

In contrast with traditional loans, in which students simply pay down the principal and interest until there is nothing left, students with income-share agreements pay back a percentage of their salary for a set period of time.

Uh, isn’t this just another name for “sharecropping?”

Perhaps universities ought to put a halt to the ongoing building spree which so many are currently engaged in – constructing fiefdoms that would make many a medieval lord envious – and get back to the business of simply educating students.

He died among strangers; the sad tale of a 1915 suicide

Gravestones are typically vague beyond name and date of birth and death, but if they include and an editorial flourish, most are laudatory. This can come in the form of a familial platitude: Loving husband and father; a religious bent: Asleep in Jesus; or an indication of virtue: Generous of Heart, Constant of Faith.

A few, however, reflect mystery, sadness or even both.

In Newberry, S.C.’s Rosemont Cemetery is an aging tombstone for one G.W. Dunn. It reads:

“Died in Union Station June 21, 1915 / He Died A Stranger Among Strangers”

The search of old newspapers turned up some background on G.W. Dunn, and it is indeed a forlorn story.

Under the headline “Man Suicides in Newberry,” The Newberry Herald and News reported on June 25, 1915, that Dunn killed himself in the city’s train station by drinking carbolic acid. He was subsequently buried in the city, even though he hailed from several hours away.

“(Dunn) had written a note, which he put on his hat, and then stretched himself on the floor with his head on a bench. It was so clear a case of suicide Coroner Lindsay held no inquest,” according to the paper. “Several passengers saw the man lying in the waiting room, but thought nothing of it, until a drummer (salesman) examined the body, having noticed something wrong.”

Being a different era, the contents of the note were released to the press, and detailed in the Herald and News:

Gravestone of G.W. Dunn, buried in Rosemont Cemetery, Newberry, S.C.

“To the City Authorities of Newberry: I am going to kill myself – and there will not be any use in notifying my people, as I would rather they not know anything about this. I want the city to bury me, and after that you can write to A.B. Dunn, Round, S.C. My name is G.W. Dunn.”

Round, S.C., today known as Round O, is located in Colleton County, not too far from Charleston. It was several hours travel from Newberry in 1915, even by train.

The man’s family was contacted, but, according to the story, “the police chief at Walterboro phoned that the man’s people were not able to look after him. They requested that he be buried here.”

He was interred in Rosemont Cemetery the day following his death, with a local minister conducting the service.

That Dunn was down on his luck is apparent. The paper noted that he was about 35 years old, had one leg and went about on crutches.

It didn’t appear Dunn had come to Newberry to end his life. He arrived in town earlier on the day of his death, from Columbia, about 30 miles south, and spent the day looking for work. He had eaten lunch at a downtown restaurant and left a bundle of clothes, saying he would probably return for supper.

“It appears that the unfortunate man had tried to get work here,” according to the paper. “Mr. W.H. Hardeman of the Newbery Cotton Mill says he applied to him for a job, but there was nothing or him to do there, as machinery has supplanted the hand labor the man had been used to. He tried elsewhere for work, but failed.

“In his despondency, lonely and friendless, the crippled stranger within our gates, with poverty and no work staring him in the face, perhaps without a home fit to be called a home, drank poison and died. He was given a decent burial,” the story concluded.

Dunn had 40 cents in pocket when he was found.

More than a century later, one cannot read of Dunn’s death without feeling a twinge of sadness. To end one’s days in a distant town, with one’s family unable or unwilling to foot the expense to have your body returned home inspires melancholy.

G.W. Dunn rests today on knoll in one of the lonelier parts of the cemetery, the heartrending words on his tombstone faded by time. One can only hope that this “stranger” found some measure of peace in the hereafter.

Fighting a long-dead enemy with intellectually dishonest tactics

Nothing seems to get the modern-day journalist riled up like the Confederate States of America.

More than 150 years after 11 Southern states opted out of the Union, journalists and a variety of others are falling all over themselves to take on the Confederacy, whether it’s attacking Confederate monuments, the Confederate flag or, as here, Confederate Memorial Day.

The reasoning for such brave assaults on a cause that ended more than 15 decades ago is simple: it’s for the good of mankind:

A memorial to a dark part of American history was recently unveiled in Montgomery, Ala. The memorial opened the same week when the state of Alabama, and several other Southern states, celebrate Confederate Memorial Day, an official state holiday. It was also fitting that the memorial is located in Montgomery, the first capital of the Confederacy.

Called the National Memorial for Peace and Justice, it is the first monument of its kind in America. It addresses the legacy of enslaved blacks, the terror of lynchings, and racial segregation.

So writes an emeritus professor of surgery and humanities at the University of Toledo in a piece that appeared in the Toledo Blade. Because, of course, slavery, lynching and segregation are associated only with the Confederacy. In fact, it’s increasingly become gospel among some that the Confederacy existed solely to enslave, lynch and segregate blacks. Any other argument isn’t worthy of the light of day.

Or this from the editorial board of the Biloxi (Miss.) Sun Herald:

Confederate Memorial Day is divisive. It attempts to obscure the fact that slavery was the reason for the war. It is not, as some will undoubtedly argue, about honoring the bravery and sacrifice of those on the losing side. … This is not about erasing history. Mississippi and the former Confederate states have set aside battlefields and museums in the name of preserving history.

Unfortunately, with most of these self-righteous scribes it’s fruitless to try to discuss the myriad causes of the War Between the States, which included federal economic policy such as the Morrill tariff, taxes that were seen as unfairly burdening Southern citizens, States’ rights, expansionism, and, yes, slavery.

But to say the Confederate States of America existed solely to ensure the continuation of slavery is inaccurate.

As historian Thomas DiLorenzo has pointed out, “In 1861, Southern slavery was secure, although not perfectly so. The 1857 Dred Scott decision had just ruled that slavery was constitutional and that the document would have to be amended in order to end slavery. (Abraham) Lincoln announced in his First Inaugural Address that he had no intention to disturb Southern slavery, and that, even if he did, there would be no constitutional basis for his doing so.”

So, while it would most certainly be incorrect to say that slavery played no role in the War Between the States, it would equally incorrect to say that the war was waged by Southerners solely for the right to enslave other human beings.

However, attacking the Confederacy is an easy target for progressive journalists and other like-minded folks. After all, it’s easy to take a stand on an issue (especially if one doesn’t make the effort to fully understand it) that was settled more than a century and a half ago.

This is not unlike the great uptick in ex post facto civil rights’ support that’s taken place at media outlets and big business over the past 35 years.

Today’s modern journalist, for example, is completely convinced that had they been of age 50-plus years ago, he or she would have gladly walked alongside Martin Luther King Jr. and his supporters and faced down the tear gas and billy clubs on the marches from Selma to Montgomery in 1965.

In reality, they would have almost certainly have done just what nearly all their counterparts at Southern newspapers and businesses did in the 1950s and ’60s: either ignored the issue or blamed them on radical influences.

Right or wrong, we’re all products of the periods we grow up in, which is something these self-proclaimed prophets of enlightenment either won’t realize or don’t want to acknowledge.

Historical revisionism to boost one’s own ego is the worst kind of intellectual dishonesty. If you don’t like the Confederacy because some of the folks who wave the battle flag today aren’t as educated as you, don’t speak as well as you or don’t share your same sophisticated views, then just say so. If you disagree with the concept of secession, argue the issue on its merits.

But don’t use a simplistic interpretation of one of the most complex periods of American history as a soapbox to brag about your progressive mindset.