The Traitor in My Family Tree

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Confederate Memorial Day 2012, Loudon Park Cemetery, Baltimore. Photo by Sarnold17.

My great-great-great grandfather, Asa Ladd, was shot by the Yankees. This happened for two reasons: first, he adamantly refused to declare his allegiance to the United States when given the opportunity to do so; second, he and five of his fellow Rebels drew an unlucky black bean. His death, then, can be traced to both a certain stubbornness in political opinions (some might say this is a family trait) and unhappy fate, an adverse decision by God or the universe or a simple unfortunate arrangement of random events.

Asa Ladd’s grandson-in-law, my great-grandfather, was named Jefferson Davis Rogers, from which I conclude that it took a few decades for my family to become fully reconciled to the Southern defeat. My older son, having grown up well north of the Mason-Dixon line, was so mortified by his ancestor’s name that he insisted on replacing it with “Jeff” in a school family tree project, and in general my children regard Asa Ladd with an air of embarrassed resignation. (“At least he didn’t own slaves,” one of my sons said ruefully. “He just *aspired* to own them.”) My parents would no doubt be chagrined to learn this.  I wasn’t raised to think of Asa as a hero, exactly, but he was certainly not to be considered a villain; he was more of a tragic figure, someone who may have made some mistakes but did nothing worthy of his ignominious death.

I’ve been thinking about Asa Ladd the last couple of weeks because of Hoda Muthana and Kimberly Gwen Polman, two American women who flew to Turkey to join ISIS and now want to come back home. The government does not want them; Muthana had the dubious honor of appearing in a Presidential tweet (“I have instructed Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, and he fully agrees, not to allow Hoda Muthana back into the Country!”). Both women were befriended by Islamic militants online and convinced to leave the United States, neither seems to have done more for the cause than spread propaganda, and provide medical care. (A British woman in similar circumstances, Shamima Begum, also wants to return to her native country, and is also being kept away.)

These women made such outrageously foolish and misguided choices that it’s hard to feel a lot of sympathy for them. But there are practical reasons to repatriate these women, and other repentant refugees from ISIS: most importantly, taking a hard line against repatriation strengthens ISIS’s ability to hold onto regretful recruits, since they will believe they have nowhere else to go. It’s hard to believe these women are actually dangerous; the worst thing Muthana seems to have done is tweet intemperately, which, it must be admitted, the president does on a daily basis. It’s possible that that the women can offer intelligence on how ISIS operates and how radicalization happens. And Muthana is willing to face the prospect of American prison, if she is allowed to return and give her infant son to her parents to raise.

Was Asa Ladd any better than Hoda Muthana? In our minds we’ve sanded down the fury and oppression and sheer wrongheadedness of the Confederates to a simple disagreement on principles: they weren’t traitors but devotees of federalism. But the historical evidence does not bear this out. They believed in states’ rights, sure, but only when it was rhetorically useful to them: you don’t find any Southerners denouncing the Fugitive Slave Act in a fit of intellectual consistency. We have to be honest with ourselves even if it doesn’t make us feel good about our forebears: the South did not secede out of an excess of ideological purity. Southern appeals to ideology were purely pragmatic. The South seceded because it was a slave society and so determined to remain one that it was willing to abandon the United States.

Asa Ladd and his fellow soldiers took up arms against the United States and swore allegiance to another country, and then when that new nation collapsed, those Confederates who were not hanged or shot or bayoneted were allowed to return home and rebuild their lives. And when the survivors returned home, some of them helped form a terrorist organization: the Ku Klux Klan, which terrorized communities and beat people and photographed lynchings. In fact, 150-plus years later, white supremacist organizations like the Ku Klux Klan are still more likely to cause death and destruction in today’s United States than Islamic extremists, even if it’s the Islamic extremists that many Americans tend to fear most. And yet for the most part we don’t regard our Civil War ancestors with scorn. We put up statues in their honor and name schools after them, and we resist mightily when others suggest that maybe honor is not appropriate.

If Asa Ladd had abandoned the Confederate Army and fled north, should the North have taken him in? Muthana has a child, an infant living in a detention camp, whose future is no more than a question mark, whose citizenship is unclear. Asa Ladd’s children lived to be Americans, to have children of their own, and now 150 years later I am typing this paragraph in a comfortable American home. One hundred and fifty years hence, what will the lives of Hoda Muthana’s great-great-grandchildren look like? (And if Muthana’s grandson were named after an ISIS leader, how would we feel about that?)

It seems that so many of us — up to and including the president — are content to abandon her and her baby to the fate she recklessly chose at nineteen. It’s an understandable human impulse. But how many of us would have the lives we have today if our ancestors had been dealt with the same way we want to treat Muthana? You’d think we’d find more sympathy, since so many of us have traitors in our family trees.

One thought on “The Traitor in My Family Tree

  1. Pingback: What I Read This Week | Sophronisba

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