Children of the Blue & Gray

updated 12/31/1990 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 12/31/1990 AT 01:00 AM EST

Jefferson Davis

Bertram Hayes-Davis has the same piercing blue eyes that gaze down from the portrait of his great-great-grandfather. And, like the only President the Confederacy ever had, he labors for what may be a lost cause—in this case, the rehabilitation of Davis's reputation. Where historians find a drab, obstinate man, Hayes-Davis sees a leader of vision. "He had such a strong spirit," he says. "The man was so driven, nothing was going to stop him."

Hayes-Davis, 42, a geologist who lives in Dallas, is president of the 600-member Davis Family Association, made up of descendants of Jefferson Davis and his nine brothers and sisters. (By contrast, Abraham Lincoln's last direct descendant, Robert Todd Lincoln Beckwith, a great-grandson of the 16th President, died in 1985.) "We try to say that Jefferson Davis was more than just President of the Confederacy," he says. "He was also U.S. Secretary of War under Franklin Pierce. He was a noted orator and Senator. He was a war hero. All these things are part of what made Jefferson Davis a great man."

Every other year in early June, around Jefferson Davis's birthday, the Davis family meets at Rosemont, the plantation outside Woodville, Miss., where the old rebel grew up. The oldest member present cuts a cake with Davis's sword; the youngest gets the first piece. Says Bertram Hayes-Davis: "I want my children to realize they have a very important ancestry."

Ulysses S. Grant

His great-great-grandfather, who failed first as a peacetime soldier and then repeatedly as a civilian, found his place in the world as the North's greatest general, leading vast armies across the blood-drenched nation, pounding the Confederacy into rubble and, eventually, into submission. John Grant Griffiths has found his place preserving the memories of war. As curator of ordnance for the Air-Ground Museum at the U.S. Marine Corps base in Quantico, Va., he catalogs weapons, ammunition, combat vehicles and other hardware of carnage. One of his hobbies is taking part in reenactments of battles past. "I'm very involved in doing 17th-century militia and the English Civil War period," says the 52-year-old bachelor, whose mother, Edith, 82, General Grant's great-granddaughter, lives in a retirement home in Fort Belvoir, Va. Naturally, Griffiths also participates in several Civil War re-creation clubs, playing a private. "These big reenactments give you some appreciation of how generals directed their armies," he says. Though his illustrious ancestor would probably have approved of the sentiment, he might not have approved of Griffiths's loyalties; on the battlefield, more often than not, he wears Confederate gray.

Joshua Chamberlain

Wearing a green dress with an antique gold pocket watch pinned to her chest, Rosamond Allen, 92, leans back in her rocking chair and talks about the hero of Little Round Top, the man who led his Union troops to the South's surrender at Appomattox Court House. But it isn't the fighting commander of the 20th Maine that she remembers; it is a gentle grandfather called Gennie. "We children called him Gennie because we couldn't pronounce 'general,' " she says. "For all the fact that he was famous, he was very gentle—just the opposite of pompous. He had white hair and a fuzzy mustache. I'd hate to kiss him, I'll tell you that."

Because she hated the cold northern winters, Rosamond, the general's last surviving descendant, moved to Florida more than 40 years ago. She still keeps up the family ties with Bowdoin College in Brunswick, Maine, where Chamberlain was president; his home is next to the campus. Now, however, the apartment complex where she lives in St. Petersburg is being sold, and she and the other elderly residents are being evicted. "I didn't do anything to deserve this," she says. "I just wanted to live here until I die." Rosamond wasn't contacted in connection with the Civil War series and watched little of it. "I think," she says, "that war is a great causation of suffering."

Frederick Douglass

Maria Weaver, 22, first saw discrimination up close, she says, on Labor Day 1989. Black fraternities and sororities traditionally gather for summer's last weekend in Virginia Beach, Va., and Weaver, now a Pace University junior, was there for the party. But things turned ugly when police and students clashed. "The police beat a friend of mine. He had a huge bump on his head," says Weaver, who also witnessed another beating. Last May, at the Urban League's annual Frederick Douglass dinner in New York City, Weaver, whose great-great-grandfather spoke so eloquently of the rights of blacks, stood up and spoke out herself. Reading her ancestor's lines, she said: "It is vain of us to expect to realize any degree of liberty and respect in our country unless we are willing to bear our share of the struggle." Says Weaver, who works as a computer graphics designer and lives in Manhattan: "There are ways to get ahead. You have to fight harder if you're black or Hispanic, but it's worth it."

William Tecumseh Sherman

Last year the Saint-Gaudens equestrian statue of Sherman that stands in front of the Plaza Hotel in New York City was unveiled following a face-lift that included regilding. William Thorndike Hamlen, the general's great-grandson, watched proudly as his children, Billy, now 12, and Anna, 15, pulled the cord that revealed their illustrious ancestor in his newfound glory. Among the invited guests were modern-day "soldiers" who do reenactments of Sherman's Army of the West. And Hamlen met the city official who had supervised the restoration of the statue. "I'd know you anywhere," he told Hamlen. "You have Sherman's nose."

Hamlen, 65, of Darien, Conn., also has a fading photograph of the general with his youngest daughter, Rachel, Hamlen's grandmother. And he has the old calling card that Confederate Gen. Joseph E. Johnston presented when he went to visit his old foe after the war. "My grandmother told the story of the two of them, late in their lives in New York, on the floor of the living room, poring over maps, refighting their battles. Later, General Johnston went to General Sherman's funeral and caught cold and died."

A software marketing executive for IBM, Hamlen sometimes travels to places where Sherman's name is still anathema. But even in Atlanta, which his ancestor burned, it has been a long time since anyone has been discourteous. "My mother tells the story of her mother, Rachel, going to Atlanta around 1910," he says. "Someone was rude to them at a party. The next morning the social elite of the town came around with flowers, apologizing and saying that the person was not really a Southerner."

Stonewall Jackson

Because of her failed eyesight, Julia Jackson Christian Preston, the 103-year-old grand-daughter of Lee's most demanding general, could not watch the Civil War series. Her daughters, Anna Shaffner, 80, and Cortlandt Creech, 76, did watch, though, and by and large they approved. "I thought it was fine," says Shaffner, although she did take exception to the show's portrayal of Jackson as "a pious, blue-eyed, Presbyterian Manson."

Julia Preston, who has lived in a retirement home in High Point, N.C., since 1962, was 2 when her mother, Jackson's daughter Julia, died. The general's widow, Anna, raised her and her younger brother. "My grandmother was a remarkable woman," she says. "She wasn't but five feet tall with soft, gentle hazel eyes." Jackson had married Anna after his first wife died in childbirth, and she was by his side when he died from his wounds after Chancellorsville. "Grandmother sang hymns to him," says Julia, "and he saw his baby daughter for the last time."

Julia Preston grew up in Charlotte, N.C., and her childhood was filled with parades and ceremonies and the kisses of aging veterans. Her first memory is of the dedication of a monument to Jackson at his gravesite in Lexington, Va. "My little brother saw a grasshopper on the platform and said, 'Oh, Grandmother, there's a grasshopper." The papers quoted him saying, 'Oh, Grandmother, there's my grandpa.' "

At the ceremony the crowd of aging veterans gave the infamous rebel yell—"the real one," says Preston. "Have you ever heard the rebel yell? It sounds like an Indian war whoop. It's the most terrifying thing in the world."

As for the war itself, Cortlandt Creech says: "If you're a Southerner, you're going to always feel that the Civil War was such a romantic and terrible time. Mother says it was so much better it came out the way it did. I think so, too."

Robert E. Lee

After the surrender at Appomattox Court House, with all his military genius gone for naught and his personal finances in a shambles, Robert E. Lee, resisting calls that he join a Confederate government-in-exile and continue the struggle, became president of tiny Washington College in Lexington, Va. "It shows a lot that he went into education," says Robert E. Lee V. "The war was over, and Lee was going to do his best to put the South back together again."

The general's great-great-grandson also went into education in Lee's beloved Virginia, where he teaches third grade and is an assistant basketball coach at a private school in McLean. Although he missed much of the Civil War series because of a school camping trip, he and his class did discuss the war. "I was amazed how interested they were in it," he says. "They were really attentive and patient."

Lee, 27, has lived in the Washington area most of his life and has visited many of the battlefields and homes associated with his ancestor, including the Lee Chapel on the campus of what is now Washington and Lee University, where the general is buried alongside his parents, his wife and his children. (Traveller, Lee's gray war-horse, lies just outside.) "We've been there for many occasions," says Robert E. Lee V, "some happy and some sad. Our family is buried there. That's where I'm going to be buried."

J.E.B. Stuart

"I guess the fact that he died at the age of 31 still has me mesmerized," says J.E.B. Stuart IV. His great-grandfather, the man Lee called "the eyes and ears of my army," commanded the cavalry in the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia. A dashing cavalier, he baffled the Union armies with his daring scouting missions and swift, destructive raids. Yet his 55-year-old namesake, a retired Army colonel, prefers to talk about his other qualities. "He had a beautiful voice and often had a banjo player next to him keeping in key," he says. "And he was concerned for his men—and for being victorious. I think it's remarkable that he was in his late 20s and setting this example." After his retirement from the Army in 1985, J.E.B. Stuart IV became executive vice president of the American Historical Foundation, which operates four small museums in Richmond, Va. He is also active in the Association for the Preservation of Civil War Sites. Right now the association is battling a developer's plans for the ground at Brandy Station, Va. A lesser man than J.E.B. Stuart IV might not care so much about this particular battlefield. After all, it is the site of one of the few battles that Jeb Stuart did not win.

Julia Ward Howe

Growing up in Concord, Mass., John Shaw Jr., 39, often heard the rousing phrases of the "Battle Hymn of the Republic." "When I attended weddings and funerals," he said, "the battle hymn was always played." His great-great-grandmother had watched Union soldiers preparing for war in 1861 when she was inspired to write the verses that begin, "Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord...." She was also a suffragist and an abolitionist, and when she died in 1910 she left a tradition of service to her descendants. Shaw, a social worker, says that learning about his family's past "just became more and more important to me as time went on." In 1989, he, his wife, Peg, and their children, Samuel, now 4, and Julia, 2, moved to Gardiner, Maine, and bought the Yellow House, which has been in the family since the late 1800s. Less than a year after they moved in, a thief struck John Shaw over the head with a wooden mallet, chained him in the basement, abducted Peg and the children and fatally shot her. (The killer, a local electrician's helper who had worked for the Shaws, is now serving time for murder.) "My plans are to stay here," says Shaw. "Peg and I were in awe of the people who lived here before. Our goal was to honor these people and be worthy of staying in that house. I still plan to do that."

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