Deserters Make Good Ancestors: Reflections on Robert E. Lee and Virgil Marion St. Clair

As they prepared to evict Robert E. Lee from his pedestal in the heart of Richmond, I’ve been thinking about one of my relatives, whose “heroism” was the opposite of Lee’s. He was a deserter from the 22nd Regiment of Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia.

Unlike Lee, Virgil Marion St. Clair wasn’t rich. Unlike Lee, Virgil wasn’t a slave owner. He lived in the Appalachian mountains, grinding out a hard living as a yeoman farmer.

After secession, he volunteered, expecting to serve one year under George Patton’s grandfather. He fought in the battle of the law books in Kanawha (what they called and should have named West Virginia). Got wounded. Served as a nurse, like Walt Whitman, and later named his kids after poets, as his father had named him.

Virgil Marion St. Clair expected to serve one year. Then the Confederacy passed the Second Conscription, the 20-Slave Rule, which exempted large plantation owners from service and condemned other men to three more years on the bloody frontlines, even those like Virgil who had volunteered. Those exempted plantation owners and slave overseers continued to grow cotton instead of food crops and the conscripted soldiers, in ragged uniforms and shoddy boots, went hungry.

Eventually Virgil deserted, an act of genuine courage given that Lee was shooting captured deserters in front of thousands of troops and spectators, as his army fell apart from within. Virgil slipped away during the Third Battle of Winchester. In fact, he may have, like other deserters, joined with emancipated slaves to raid plantation houses for food, in “woke” inter-racial bands that Lee sent troops to violently suppress, weakening his defenses in the Shenandoah Valley and at Petersburg, thus speeding the war’s end.

Virgil lived another 38 years on the flanks of the Blue Ridge Mountains in what the census called a “mountain home.” He married. Raised 15 kids (two of whom died in infancy), including my grandfather’s father. Deserters make good ancestors.

Virgil St. Clair’s headstone, Blue Ridge Cemetery, Boutetourt County, Virginia.

Jeffrey St. Clair is editor of CounterPunch. His most recent books are Bernie and the Sandernistas: Field Notes From a Failed Revolution and The Big Heat: Earth on the Brink (with Joshua Frank) He can be reached at: sitka@comcast.net or on Twitter @JeffreyStClair3

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