by Constance Hall Jones
Not long after I declared I was writing a book about my great-great-grandfather William Ellis Jones, a volume that would encompass not only his Civil War diary, but also aspects of his family history, along with a comprehensive pre and post-war biography, I started getting the question, “But why?”
I confess, initially it was mostly about gratifying my own vanity while simultaneously “proving something” to all the people who ever discounted me. My early enthusiasm was cooled when it was pointed out to me repeatedly that the word doesn’t really need one more Confederate soldier’s account of the war! Even I realized it was unlikely I would discover any earthshattering news about William’s life that would reframe our view of the antebellum era.
Despite my own doubts (there were many) I soldiered on, looking for motivation in the material. The truth of the matter is I was simply curious where William’s story would take me. I had a lot of preconceived (ill-informed) notions about who William Ellis Jones was (who I wanted him to be and who I had been told he was), with just enough common sense to realize much of what I believed was based upon nothing more than carefully crafted mythology.
When I began the project, I had two foundational documents with which to work. The first was William Ellis Jones’s Civil War diary. The second was the family history manuscript created by his namesake and grandson (my grandfather), ninety years after the close of the American Civil War.
It was clear to me then as it is now, that these two men shared more than just a name. At their core they were both gifted story tellers with a genuine flare for poetic prose. They were both fiercely intelligent, aspirational characters, striving for dignity in a world that placed a higher value on class and wealth than on wits and ability. Both men, I was convinced, maintained a private intellectual life the world rarely – if ever – saw. Both men, I realized, invested a great deal of effort crafting a public-facing image of themselves that was more myth than fact.
As a writer myself, I could completely relate to their frustrations and their aspirations, as well as the desire to create a legacy that’s slightly more noble than the flawed reality of my actual day-to-day life.
William Ellis Jones died in 1910. If you read the obituaries that appeared in the newspapers, or read the biographical portrait written by his grandson twenty years after his passing, or listen to the words my father (who never knew him, but certainly knew of his legacy in print) spoke about him, you would think the man was born perfectly formed from the head of Zeus, without a single blemish on his soul. This is the legacy William created for himself and passed on to posterity. It’s a pretty fiction, much like the fiction of the Lost Cause which he helped create and perpetuate.
William never published his own Civil War diary because by the time he got around to making books about the war, he realized his diary would fly in the face of the new mythology he was so deeply invested in creating for his peers and for himself. He couldn’t exactly publish a daily journal he kept during the heat of the conflict, one that criticized Confederate officers, exposed doubts about their motivation, often showed them as vain, stupid men who were poor leaders, and which laid bare the fact that William himself was hardly a dedicated soldier. To do such a thing would undermine the myth he was building about himself and his peers, and it would materially damage his financial well-being (as he made a good portion of his living publishing Lost Cause histories). I believed (but had no proof) that William knew the truth about himself and that his dulicity might be revealed through a full investigation of his life and work.
I wanted to discover as much of the private, intellectual life of William Ellis Jones, the Civil War diarist, as was possible. I wanted to understand how well – or how poorly – it aligned with the figure William created of himself by the time he had children and grandchildren. I wanted to understand where the myths I’d been raised with diverged from reality, and to what degree. I wanted to see if the veneer William made for himself ever cracked, revealing the crude material beneath.
I wanted to write this book because I firmly believed at the outset, and believe it even more so after having accomplished it, that we all create myths about ourselves, our families, our communities, about the world we occupy – in order to make our own existences tolerable to our sense of personal and public morality. I wanted to understand how that process of myth creation works at the most intimate, individual level, and how it impacts us down through the generations, extending through the histories we teach ourselves, forever altering the uncomfortable facts, replacing them with cozy myths that bury and burnish over everything we would have to apologize for if we let them remain in the light of day.
Human beings hate being wrong; we loathe apologizing more than we loathe a lie.
I had to write the book because I felt I needed to personally untangle all these myths and outright lies, so that I could more honestly understand myself and my own motivations in a world still grappling with all the same crimes against humanity, injustices, and prejudices we’ve harbored since our founding as a nation. I wanted to expose them in my own family history so I could better expose them in myself.
That effort, unlike my book The spirits of bad men made perfect : the life and diary of Confederate artillerist William Ellis Jones, is still very much a work in progress.
* * *
The “Engaging the Civil War” Series is published by Southern Illinois University Press in collaboration with Emerging Civil War.