I sat at my parents’ dining room table this past weekend and scanned all the old family photos I could until my right wrist felt like a carpal tunnel catastrophe.
I wanted a digital archive of our long-gone beach trips and Christmas mornings. I wanted the faces of family members I’d never met, such as my grandparents’ parents, who are absent from me but part of me in a way.
Included in all the photos were some historical documents. And I scanned those too. For instance, there’s my grandfather’s Pacific WWII “permanent enlisted man’s pass,” which gave Wilson Mitcham permission to visit “Kobe, Osako, Kyoto and vicinity” during his off hours. I’m sure the Walton County native would have preferred a pass to visit Monroe or Athens instead of Osako. I scanned my grandmother’s WWII postcard to her husband in 1943, a formal portrait of herself in a nice dress and large bow pinned to her blouse. “With all my love, Myrtle.”
Also in the old papers were significant Civil War papers from Wilson Mitcham’s maternal grandfather, John P. Clegg — my great-great grandfather. The most notable of these papers was Clegg’s official release as a prisoner of war from Camp Douglas in the Civil War. It’s pictured in this column. I placed that fragile piece of paper on the scanner after a large home-cooked meal from my mother. If I go to my parents’ house, I’m treated to those familiar comforts. I thought of how far from comfort my great-great grandfather must have been at Camp Douglas, where Southern soldiers faced notoriously bad treatment. I imagined what he must have felt when he held the very same paper 145 years ago. It was his ticket to Social Circle, but it was much more than that. It was his ticket to resume life after so much death and suffering. What was he reflecting on as he held that paper? The document is tattered, but still legible. Imagine how hard he held on to that little paper. Where would you place that, in your coat, in your pant’s pocket? “I’m done. And I’m alive and going home. Here’s proof.” Nobody could get such a paper out of your hands. The fact that it reached my hands 145 years later shows that several generations also recognized the power of that paper.
There were a couple of other papers, too. For instance, after being released from the war camp in June 1865, Clegg had to sign a loyalty oath to the United States in September of that year. It read as follows:
“I, J.P. Clegg of the county of Walton, state of Georgia, do solemnly swear, or affirm, in the presence of Almighty God, that I will henceforth faithfully support and defend the Constitution of the United States and the Union of the States thereunder, and that I will in like manner, abide by and faithfully support all laws and proclamations which have been made during the existing rebellion with reference to the emancipation of the slaves — So Help Me God.”
In 1898, J.P. Clegg visited the Walton County ordinary’s office to get a certificate, which was required of Confederate soldiers to authorize them to peddle. So, Clegg was given permission to “peddle in any County or Municipality in this State, without procuring a License or being subject to any tax therefore, provided he shall not sell whiskey, sewing machines or lightning rods.”
Now, I understand the ban on whiskey. But I’d like an explanation on the sewing machines and particularly the lightning rods. Was there a problem with old Confederates doing all three, knocking on doors with whiskey, sewing tools and lightning rods? Maybe you had to sell the first one before you could interest folks in the next two.
No, there’s no way to time travel. But we can look back at things, those old photos and documents. We see those old faces that are familiar but changed, the way we ourselves once looked but no longer do. There’s a sadness in the act, but it’s also a kind of comfort, too. And the only way we can do this is to preserve those important, old family artifacts, by putting them in a safe place, or recording them in a more durable form.
Zach Mitcham is editor of The Madison County Journal.