The Bloody Handkerchief
The inscriptions read, “Eliza to Corinne Pickett” and “L.P.Walker to Eliza.”
Leroy Pope Walker first claimed my attention not from The Pile of documents in my closet but from my silverware drawer, where his name is engraved on a silver serving spoon: “L.P. Walker to Eliza.” It kept company in the drawer with another serving spoon, this one engraved “Corinne to Eliza.” I knew these were family names, but that was all.
I was getting ready to trace this path of my family history when my husband offered to take on some of the research. I showed him the names on my spoons, and then left to go out for the evening. By the time I returned, Peter had found the answer. He’d typed L.P. Walker into the Google search box and up had popped an entry in Wikipedia. L.P. Walker, it turns out, was Leroy Pope Walker, the first Secretary of War of the Confederacy. I was stunned. This was the man who ordered the bombardment of Ft. Sumter on April 12, 1861, starting the Civil War. I couldn’t remember ever having heard his name. How the hell did he end up in my silverware drawer?
Walker’s wife was Eliza Dickson Pickett, of “L.P. Walker to Eliza” on my spoon. This Eliza was a first cousin of the Eliza on the other spoon, my great-grandmother Eliza Ward Pickett – the mother-in-law of my beloved paternal grandmother Blanche. Looking back, I imagine Granny probably told me the provenance of the silver I was to inherit. I just hadn’t paid much attention. That was the past. My life was about the future.
The two Elizas now nestled together in my silverware drawer were near contemporaries. Both were married to men of consequence in Alabama who were on opposite sides of the burning question of the day: whether their state should stay in the Union or secede.
Eliza Ward Pickett’s husband, my father’s paternal grandfather Edwin Banks, was strongly for staying in the Union. L.P. Walker, married to Eliza Dixon Pickett, was an ardent Secessionist. He was from a wealthy and influential planter family near what is now Huntsville. As a lawyer active in politics, Leroy chaired the Alabama delegation to the 1860 Democratic National Convention where he helped lead a pro-slavery walk-out. After Abraham Lincoln was elected, Walker joined the Confederate cabinet.
L.P. Walker was not Jefferson Davis’s first choice for Secretary of War: he was offered the job only after two other candidates had passed it up. Davis soon had reason to regret that Walker had said yes. Among his many blunders upon taking office, he gave a speech in which he famously prophesied not only that the South would win, but also that the Civil War would be over so quickly that he’d be able to sop up any blood that was spilled with his handkerchief.
He made an equally reckless declaration while the bombardment of Fort Sumter was underway: "No man can tell where the war this day commenced will end, but I will prophesy that the flag which now flaunts the breeze here will float over the dome of the old Capitol at Washington before the first of May."
The flag that survived the bombardment of Ft. Sumter.
Walker proved no better at administration than he was at prediction. He clashed with President Davis and soon quit as Secretary of War before he was fired. As a consolation, he was commissioned as a brigadier general, but his military career went no better than his stint in as Secretary and he resigned his commission abruptly in 1862.
It was beyond unnerving to realize that I’d harbored the Confederate Secretary of War in a silverware drawer for so many years. “Touching our food!” my daughter said. Just so. Touching our food. As James Baldwin wrote in his brilliant essay “White Man’s Guilt:” “The great force of history comes from the fact that we carry it within us, are unconsciously controlled by it in many ways, and history is literally present in all that we do.”
This connection to the past was more intimate than any of the documents in The Pile. A piece of paper might represent something; a spoon is something I had regarded my inherited serving spoons through a dreamy haze, appreciating the inscriptions because they hinted at ancestral mysteries – precisely because I didn't know the stories behind them. But once you know things, you can’t unknow them. All you can do is learn more.
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