Confederates’ offspring 
are ‘last links’ to history

By Bill Torpy

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

When he mentions that his daddy fought for the Confederacy, H.V. Booth gets more than a few raised eyebrows.

“Really? Really?” Booth says, mimicking people’s incredulity. “They just can’t believe it.”

His father, Isham Johnson Booth, a country boy from north of Athens, played a bit part in the Civil War. But it was a grim role, the memory of which never left him and was something he rarely spoke about. He was a guard at Andersonville, the prisoner-of-war camp in south-central Georgia that has become synonymous with suffering.

Booth, who turns 92 this month, is the end of a chapter of American history. He is an actual son of a Confederate veteran. There aren’t many anymore. The Sons of the Confederate Veterans — the organization, that is — believes there are about 30 “real sons” still alive, including two in Georgia.

Their fathers were young when Gen. Robert E. Lee surrendered in 1865 but old when they sired children in the early decades of the 20th century.

Near Vidalia, at a crossroads called Tarrytown, lives 84-year-old John McDonald, whose father enlisted with his rifle and horse when he was just 13, following two older brothers.

“We’re the last link,” Booth said in a recent interview. “We’re the last link of the mouth to the ear.”

There wasn’t much mouth-to-ear. Isham Booth didn’t talk about the war much to his son. They were too busy working. The elder Booth was a stern man who eked out a living as a sharecropper and died at age 86 in 1934, when his son was 15. Up until the end, he picked 90 to 100 pounds of cotton a day.

“He didn’t believe in schooling,” Booth recalled from his living room in Elberton in northeast Georgia. “He believed in working. He said a poor man didn’t need anything but a burial plot.”

It was a message from a man who knew early on that life was hard.

Isham Booth was born in 1847 and joined the Confederacy when he was 16. There was a mustering field near Elberton, where the army took in new recruits. “They’d say, ‘We need 400 men to send to Virginia. We need 100 men in Alabama,’ ” Booth said.

At the time, Union Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman’s army was bearing down on Georgia, and young Isham Booth, it is believed, stayed in state. At some point, he was assigned to Camp Sumter (now known as Andersonville), which started holding Union prisoners in early 1864. By August, more than 32,000 were stuffed like chickens into a squalid 26.5-acre pen.

Skeletal prisoners were common. In July 1864, a Union prisoner wrote in his diary the compound was a “hell on Earth where it takes 7 of its ocupiants

[sic] to make a shadow.”

Almost 13,000 prisoners died of disease, starvation and exposure to 100-degree days and freezing rains.

Isham Booth “said it was the awfulest place he ever saw in his life,” his son recalled. “He told me a lot of times about that old creek. It came into camp with a good head. By the time it ran through camp, it was gone. They used it up.”

The guards and their livestock used the head of the stream. Prisoners were left with befouled water.

“They’d get the fever,” Booth said. “Daddy said they died like flies. There was no food, no medicine. He felt sorry for them.”

Eventually, the guards started dropping, too.

“He came down with a fever,” Booth said. “They put him on a mule and drew him a map. It took about four days to get home. He said he was about dead when he got home.” It was nearly a 200-mile trip.

Isham Booth recovered and was heading back to duty when he learned the war was over. But he was listed as a deserter (unknown to him for decades) until he cleared it up in 1927. That allowed him to receive a $25-a-month Confederate pension. His wife, Miranda Lue, received a stipend until she died in 1968. By then, it was $110.

Times were tough in the rural South early in the past century, and the pensions made aging Confederates attractive, said Ben Sewell, national executive director of the Sons of Confederate Veterans. “The old veterans received pensions and younger women married them for the pensions,” he said.

H.V. Booth, who was 15 when his father died, doesn’t know much about how his parents came to marry. His mother, who had been widowed, was 38 when H.V. was born. His father was 72. H.V. was his 12th and final child.

There were more than 130 “real sons” when Sewell came to the organization nine years ago. Now there are about 30. “We’re losing them at a pretty quick pace,” he said.

Booth displayed a knobby cane given to his father by the Daughters of the American Revolution in 1930, the 65th anniversary of the Civil War’s end.

This year is the 65th anniversary of the end of World II, the war for H.V. Booth’s generation.

Booth, who was in the Navy, was assigned to an LST, a tank landing craft. He served in the South Pacific in some of history’s most ferocious battles: Saipan, Guam, Iwo Jima and Okinawa.

When Booth returned, he worked for more than three decades at a Ford dealership, eventually owning it. He went broke doing so and eventually lost his home. He then worked another two decades as the night manager for a senior citizens complex until “I was getting pretty old.”

Life has been hard. “I’ve buried two wives and two boys,” he said, choking back a tear. “It’s not normal for parents to bury their children.”

Near Vidalia in southeast Georgia, real son John McDonald said he doesn’t remember much about his father. James Malachi McDonald was 79 years old in 1926 when he had his 16th — and last — child, John. Five years later, just a week shy of turning 84, McDonald’s father was dead.

John, who turned 84 this week, chuckled at the idea of having his own 4-year-old son at this age. “I’d be delighted,” he said.

His mother, Ida Lucinda, was 43 when he was born. She had been married before but her husband ran out on her. She wasn’t hunting a pension, McDonald said. “My mother was very attractive,” he said. “They felt like they were good for each other.”

McDonald vaguely remembers sitting on his father’s lap at church and playing with his watch or watching him pull up in his buggy.

“I remember he got a whip on me a couple days before he died,” he said.

His father apparently didn’t tell his wife much about the war. Or she didn’t pass it on to him. Family research found that he signed up when he was 13. They believe he did so after seeing two older brothers enlist.

After the Civil War, James Malachi bought a tract of land and farmed well into the 20th century.

John McDonald worked as an onion farmer and as a supervisor at a clothing mill. The man with antebellum roots has moved into the 21st century and even fiddles around a bit with his computer. “I’m very slow,” he admits.

© 2010 The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

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