Torpy at Large: Georgia bids farewell to its last Rebel son

This time, H.V. Booth, the last known son of a Confederate veteran in Georgia, is actually gone.

There was a premature passing three years ago, when the state’s chapter of the Sons of Confederate Veterans announced that its last known Real Son had died. The organization was actually noting the death of another old fellow, and erroneously characterized it as the “end of an era,” hailing the deceased as a remnant of a time when brave southerners battled “innumerable masses of Yankee invaders.”

Concerned that a man I had grown fond of had passed without my knowing, I called the number I had for old H.V. and was heartened to hear the 93-year-old pick up the phone. He was tickled at the news of his supposed demise. “I’m still kicking,” he cackled.

H.V.’s father, Isham Johnson Booth, was a Rebel, a teen-aged soldier who played a bit part in the Civil War as a guard in the Andersonville prison camp. Nearly 13,000 Union prisoners wasted away and died horribly in the Middle Georgia hellhole. Daddy Booth called it “the awfulest place I ever saw.”

Henry Victor Booth, who lived in Elberton, 110 miles northeast of Atlanta, died this week at 96. He occupied a rare place in history and, with his passing, there are just three men alive who can say their fathers fought Yankees. They reside in Tennessee, North Carolina and Virginia. All are in their 90s.

H.V. had hoped to hang in there and become the last, said his great-nephew, the Rev. Tim Adams, who officiated at the funeral. Adams joked that this was the first time he buried someone he could Google.

The old fellow got a modicum of fame after an article I wrote in 2010, which noted that he was one of maybe 30 Real Sons in the nation his father had fought to split up.

On Thursday, H.V. was laid to rest with SCV members carrying the casket. A Navy bugler in dress whites played taps as an American flag flapped in the breeze.

H.V. Booth was a hero in his own right; he experienced ferocious fighting in the Pacific in World War II. He served as a crew member on a landing craft that shuttled troops to and from beaches on Saipan, Guam, Okinawa and Iwo Jima.

It’s the dichotomy that is The South. Among some, the bloody heritage of secession from the Union is still celebrated as a hallowed event. But its sons have since fought and bled in the many wars since, including the latest, defending that same Union.

Al Perry, an SCV member with a long gray beard reminiscent of another century, stood at the grave site and mused on the reasons: “Truth, honor, fidelity. Our society ascribed to those virtues.”

Perry, the editor of the Georgia Confederate Newsletter, called H.V. a “physical connection to the past” and apologized that the Sons organization didn’t accord him the proper respect when he was alive.

Our discussion then veered toward history and politics, two subjects that remain alive with the heritage folks.

“The South was invaded,” Perry said. “Lincoln started the war, please quote that.”

He said I should read “The Real Lincoln,” a book whose subtitle is “A New Look at Abraham Lincoln, His Agenda, and an Unnecessary War.”

I haven’t picked up the book but I gather that “agenda” isn’t one that matches the soaring words inscribed on his grand monument in D.C.

Perry asked about Nat Turner. “Yeah, the slave who led a revolt,” I said.

“It was a massacre,” he corrected, going on about how he beheaded a white child before going on the killing spree. I noticed that a black cemetery worker tending to the grave glanced over at us a couple times during the discussion.

An intern who rode with me to the funeral wondered about the continued interest in the Civil War. I told her about William Faulkner’s quote that sums up many things Southern: “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.”

H.V. didn’t much indulge in political or historical meanderings. He was the son of a sharecropper who learned early on that life would be hard. The elder Booth was a stern man who picked 90 to 100 pounds of cotton a day up until he died in 1934 at age 86.

“He didn’t believe in schooling, ” Booth told me. “He believed in working. He said a poor man didn’t need anything but a burial plot.”

Not only did he, like his father, witness the horrors of war, H.V. buried two wives, as well as his own two sons. “It’s not supposed to happen that way,” he once told me, choking up at the thought.

Isham Booth’s son said his dad joined the Confederacy at 16. At the time, Union Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman’s army was bearing down on Georgia, and young Isham, it is believed, remained in state. Later, he was assigned to Camp Sumter (now known as Andersonville), which started taking Union prisoners in early 1864. By August, more than 32,000 were packed like chickens into a squalid 26.5-acre pen.

“He told me a lot of times about that old creek,” H.V. recalled. “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, ” H.V. said. “Daddy said they died like flies. There was no food, no medicine. He felt sorry for them.”

Finally, Isham got the fever, too. They put him on a mule and sent him off on a 200-mile trek home, thinking he’d probably die on the way. He made it home, got better and started back to his post, only to learn on the journey that the war was over.

Late in life, 72-year-old Isham married a 38-year-old widow named Miranda Lue. It was not uncommon in the poor, rural South for young women to marry old Confederate vets to gain rights to their pensions. H.V. didn’t know the particulars of their union but said his father picked up a $25 a month pension in the 1920s, one that had grown to $110 a month when his mother died in 1968.

During our last meeting, H.V. described his recipe for a long life: “I never had any fights. I never been to court. And I try to treat everyone like I want them to treat me.”

He smiled and amended the middle element in his statement — he had a lead foot and had been to traffic court a few times.

On Thursday, under a Confederate gray sky, H.V. was buried between two wives and alongside a son. A few yards away is a grave marked “Faulkner.”

Somehow, it seemed fittingly southern.

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