Saturday, July 17, 2010

Death in Botetourt County - a bizarre introduction into how well off we are

I’m looking at list of people who died in Botetourt County, Va., pronounced hereabouts – botetot. I reside in the small town of Buchanan within the county. According to the U.S. census department, Botetourt County has a little over 32,000 as of 2008. There are some college campuses in this country with more people than that. Buchanan has something over 1200 people, of whom I know by name and face a handful. There are many blocks in NYC with more people than that.

The death list I’m reading is from 1862. Back then, Botetourt had about a third as many people as now, some 11,550 (1860 census), which was less than a sixth of the size of the most populated county in Virginia, Henrico. 24% of Botetourt's population were slaves, which was not a high percentage for Virginia, a couple of counties being nearly three quarters slave.

There is no death list for 1863, the year before the damn Yankees invaded us, requiring our fearless general to personally burn the bridge crossing the James to slow the advance. We couldn’t stop them here, but we did down river in Lynchburg. Actually, my ancestors were busy being peasants in Russia and Hungary at the time, far as I know, so my family didn’t have a dog in the fight and I’m just pretending to take sides now in case any of my neighbors stumbles upon this. Still, just as I adopt the founding fathers as my own, and have an affinity for the ancient Greeks, I, and probably most Americans, am happy to glom onto whatever heritage I like.

By “down river” and “James” in the paragraph above, I meant the James River, of course. The same one that colonial Jamestown sits upon a hundred and sixty miles or so to the East of us. It’s not a straight line by water though. The James zig zags up and down, all over the place. Mostly it goes through wilderness, that is, if you don’t count the train tracks running along it, the dams and the telephone wires passing over it here and there. Occasionally there’s a town on the river, but surprisingly few. Buchanan is the prettiest of them. I know I’m biased, but it’s true all the same as far as I have seen.

This 1862 death list I’m looking at fascinates me. There are one hundred and eighty nine names on it. Thirty two of those were slaves, or almost 17% of them. That’s considerably less than their percentage in the population, but it starts to get a little closer to the target if you remember a bunch of young white men died fighting who probably otherwise would not have been on the list. Still, you’d think the slaves would be much less healthy than the whites and die much easier when there were epidemics. Another much smaller handful on the list was free blacks, but I have no statistics to tell me what part of the population they were. The rest were white, if that wasn’t obvious.

Illness by far took most of those on the list. The largest part of them died of diphtheria – forty six to be precise, or just shy of 25%. According to the source of all knowledge in the universe, Wikipedia, Diphtheria is still around killing folks today, although you wouldn’t think so in America, where we’ve had easy access to vaccination since it was invented in 1920. But there have been outbreaks elsewhere of late, particularly in Russia, the Saharan countries, Central and South America.

Seventeen more Botetourtians died of Typhoid Fever, but others are said to have died of just “fever,” and that may be the same thing. Maybe they just didn’t know. I’m sure it wasn’t real scientific, at least as we see it nowadays. Lincoln's son, Willie, died that same year of Typhoid or something akin. There just wasn't any cure.

Of those who died of diphtheria, April, June, August, October and November seemed to be particularly bad months. Typhoid deaths seemed a little more spread out over the course of the year, but June looked like the worst month to me without actually counting. It’s not hard to figure the terror these people must have experienced when others are just dropping like flies in any given month. Even when they were invaded, few civilians expected to be killed, if any. But, disease doesn’t care what side you are on.

By the end of the war, it looks like the double scourge of Diphtheria and Typhoid had pretty much run its course here, at least for the time being.

There were other causes of death, though. Among them were diarrhea (also referred to as the flux and bowel hemorrhage – not sure if they were all the same or different,) tb, which they called scrofulo (really scrofula), bronchitis, brain injury, neuralgia (“neuralgia”), liver complaint, croup and eueresipelus (probably erysipelas, a strep germ caused skin inflammation according to Wikipedia), among a few others. Samuel W. McClure, 27, was just listed as killed crossing the Potomac. Not sure he was fighting at the time, but it would seem to make sense. One infant died of “teething,” although that seems a little hard to believe.

The oldest to die was Susan Deisher. She was 89 and for her they just said “old age”. Nowadays, we smugly say there is no such thing; she died of some organ failure or cancer, etc., but, in a way, old age actually describes it better than cardiac arrest or the technical cause. Catharine Anderson made it to 86, dying of “old age” as well. I wonder if she and Susan knew each other. Both of them were born at the onset of the Revolutionary War. I guess between the railroads and the industrial revolution, they must have seen a lot in their time on earth.

Nineteen, or more than 10% of those who died never saw age 2, and fourteen of those never even saw 1. Five of that little group were slaves.

Forty six of the one hundred eighty nine, or just a smidge under a quarter of them were age 5 or under. This was not a great time to be a kid, but that has always been the case in the world until recently. I don’t have the heart to tell you how many of them lived only days. Makes you shiver.

Of the thirty two slaves who died that year, the most, five, were owned by Cary Breckenridge, who had a wealthy and powerful family, the only one on the list of whom I was familiar with his family and who I will talk about in a bit.

The oldest slave who died that year, Bill, was 80 and another was 70, both dying of “old age.” But most of the slaves who died were very young. In fact, almost 50% of those slaves were 10 or under. Phil, a slave, died on Christmas Day. I find it a little strange that he was one of only five of all of those who died in Botetourt County to do so in December, 1862. You’d have thought that would have been a bigger month for the reaper, given it was winter. Stranger yet, all five of those who died in December, did so on Christmas Day or after. Sounds eerily like a quota that had to be filled at the last moment. If you ever had a job where you had to bill out your time, you understand the end of the year rush.

The war took its toll too. One man died of camp fever at Richmond. Four were shot at Seven Pines, four at Gaines Mill, three at Williamsburg, one each at Leesburg, Malvern Hill, Sharpsburg, Richmond and Manassas. For four of them, I can’t tell you where it happened, and two were just listed as “Army” and “killed,” leaving aside the drowned McClure. There may be others, but you can’t always tell from the records. It seems to me that there should have been more deaths from disease in the army camps, and one instance of camp fever doesn’t seem quite right. Most of the soldiers died in what was known as the Richmond Campaign of ’62, of which Stonewall Jackson, who may have commanded many of them, served so brilliantly. I have a feeling gun shot might also refer to canon shot, but I’m just speculating. They also distinguish between dying of gun shot and gun shot wounds. I don’t.

Three Wrightsman sisters died, two in February, one in September, of unknown causes. One can only imagine their parents’ pain. Three Aldersons died too, all in their 20s, one at Seven Pines, the other two of diphtheria and pneumonia. Typhoid took three of the Murphy’s and three Glasgows perished too, two of them of the dreaded diphtheria.

George Morris died and three of his children, all of fever, all on August 24th. Three Harris’ died, ages 3, 6 and 8, all of diphtheria, all in August.

Many of the slave children who died may have been brothers and sisters too, but they didn’t have last names, so we can’t know.

Cary Breckenridge’s (sometimes Breckinridge) family bear some discussion. He was from one of those sterling Virginia families dating back to colonial times. His father, James, became quite wealthy, amassed some 4000 acres and built a mansion at Grove Hill in the Shenandoah Valley which I am planning on visiting sometime this year. I don’t even know if big house is still there. Cary studied law under the pre-eminent instructor of the time, George Wythe, who also taught Jefferson (Cary’s uncle was Jefferson’s attorney general) and John Marshall. Grove Hill is not that far from Monticello, and Jefferson visited him there as did Madison, Monroe, Patrick Henry and Edmund Randolph (a bigger deal back then, than now). His brother, John, was Jefferson's attorney general (almost VP in 1804), and figured prominently in the controversial Kentucky Resolutions. Love to see Jame's guest roster.

Cary was one of James’ two sons, but in 1844 he was all that was left and he moved into Grove Hill with his family. He served in some minor government posts, but concentrated on the estate. To document his wealth, only five families owned over 50 slaves in the County. His was second largest with 131.

Cary’s cousin, John, was vice president of the United States under Buchanan, and then a respected general and the last secretary of war for the Confederacy (and, actually, after Lincoln, received the most electoral votes in 1860).

Cary was way too old to fight in the Civil War himself, but he paid for a cavalry company and his five sons fought.

His son, Cary, rose to Colonel, and actually Brigadier General at the end, but he refused to use the rank because he never saw combat as one. Losing his three brothers (one of them, John, is on the 1862 list, dying at Seven Pines), he barely managed to keep his own, having five horses shot from under him and being wounded five times. He was also a prisoner briefly. A physical giant, he went on to some public posts, and lived until 1918, long enough for the First World War to happen. He had been a Botetourt County school superintendant by then for over thirty years.

His sister Lucy has had some small fame, at least among history buffs, because she kept a diary for two years during the war, which I understand is quite interesting, but I haven’t read. It, like too many other books, is on my list.

She was engaged twice, the first fiancé dying in the war. The second she held off marrying as long as she could, having a low view of the institution – “A woman's lot after she is married, unless there is an immense amount of love, is nothing but suffering and hard work”. You might wonder then what her mother's life was like. She also seemed to have a great interest in flirting with her gentleman callers. She eventually did marry the poor guy, but, sadly, she lived only five more months after that herself. All that suffering and hard work, I guess.

She described herself as a “complete abolitionist,” and cried when she saw a young slave beaten, but, part of the reason she was against it was that she saw the “peculiar institution” as a burden on whites. She noted that she and her brothers were never allowed to strike or even scold a servant. Her desire was to fight along with the men, as she did not see female lives as being any more worthwhile of preserving than mens'. Plus, she seriously wanted to kill some Yankees.

I read Mary Johnston’s wonderful The Long Roll last year. She was a bestselling author of the early 20th century who was from my adopted hometown, and her account of the Civil War, which focused on Stonewall Jackson and his troops, was hailed by one major book review as the “best fictional study of the Civil War . . .” and got similar reviews from others. Her father was a major during the war and her older cousin was General Joseph E. Johnston. I’ve read that Margaret Mitchell claimed to have been intimidated by The Long Roll when she started the far more successful Gone with the Wind, but I can’t seem to verify it any way that satisfies me.

One character in Mary Johnston's story is named Cary and another has a last name Breckenridge. When I read The Long Roll, it immediately reminded me of the Breckenridge family history, particularly their kindness to slaves, and I believe aspects of different characters, particularly those from the two leading families, are drawn from them. I could be wrong, as while the family had strong credentials, they were not unique in Virginia.

I don’t know why there are no death records for 1863. I’m not sure anyone knows. The 1864 records show only forty three deaths, a dramatic improvement. There are no slaves listed at all on it and only eight free blacks, one of them dying at age 90. Hard to say what the absence of slave deaths means. Obviously, there was less death all around that that year, but could it have been because there were fewer slaves around too?

Of course, despite my faux-Yankee bashing at the top of this post, I am a Yankee through and through, regardless of where I live. When I read Civil War history, I am invariably rooting for the North, and champing at their incompetence, particularly the infantile Gen. George B. McClellan who has very few admirers since he and his wife died. But, if not for the issue of slavery, my sympathies would be with the South. I hardly want secession now, but I do believe it is as natural a right as it was at the time of our revolution. Certainly, I had greater admiration for the southern fighters, too, if much less so their government and economy. Both of those were more of a mess than they were in the north and it decided the outcome in my (and many others) opinion.

There is a point to all this going on about death and the like here. If you read a newspaper or an online forum these days, all you hear and see is how bad everybody seems to think it is these days. I can bellyache about the economy a bit too, if you hadn’t noticed. But, I do believe it will likely all work out some day, when it has to. It might not be fair when it happens, or pretty, but reckonings rarely are. I do remember dear old Grandma Sophie telling me when I was a little boy, you will stop eating sugar when you are ready and not before then. The old battleaxe knew something. And we will stop with the spending way over our heads someday too, but not before we are ready.

We are so much better off than we were in 1862. I can see dear old Bear commenting now - "You do realize that there was a bloody civil war going on then, you idiot" - but, I don't care if it was 1892, 1942 or 1972. We are so much better of now, it's not funny. 

No time in the history of the world has ever been as magnificent as it is now right here in our own country and much of the world. Even our poor are nowhere near as badly off as they once were. Even poor people in far poorer countries have a shot at a better life. Yes, we are congenital knuckleheads, and we screw a lot of things up, but collectively, we make a lot of things better too. Between our medicines, our communications and technology, the omnipresent free entertainment, our shops and products, life could not be better for the healthy, if you just open your eyes. And while we have the potential to destroy ourselves, why waste what time we have being depressed? At least give a little hurrah.

I heard a comedian, Louis C. K. talk about how he was on an airplane, sitting in a chair flying 34,000 feet above the ground, and the guy next to him was cursing because he couldn’t use the internet on his laptop. It was funnier when he said it, but you get the point.

I’ve heard all the arguments before - those poor people in The Congo are starving or being tortured and my aunt died of cancer at age 21. Was it Woody Allen’s Alvy Singer character who said if one person in the world was starving, he couldn’t sleep at night? I sympathize. It's really sad, but, at some point, you have to get over it or why not take the little pill you have hidden in the secret compartment in your tooth?

It’s not that everyone has it great, or the same fortune, and I’m sure not saying people are happier now, because we may be the whiniest babies in the history of the planet. Maybe that comes with all the success. I’m saying, collectively, we have the most magnificent lives and opportunities of any time, anywhere, ever. The fact that a technological moron like me can communicate with others thousands of miles away simply by typing on a keyboard and punching a few buttons should prove that. Even if you are massively depressed, and I know a bunch who are, you can take a little pill and make yourself feel better.

I’m also saying that there is so much we have now that we didn’t have before that we really need, health permitting, to be a little happier, a little more optimistic and stop the doomsday chants. Neither Bush nor Obama signals the end of the world (just maybe a horrifying financial disaster). Unless you have fantasies of being Conan the Barbarian, D'artagnan or Pericles, when in history would you have rather lived?

Were we alive in 1862, no matter where we might have resided, there would have been no feeling of security that we would not die of any number of diseases at any time. It's possible now, just not likely. When you see the devastation that was part of normal life back then memorialized in a document like this death list, it really comes to you - things are just not so bad.

We all have our personal problems, but nothing like the slaves faced or even the Breckenridge family or those who came before me in beautiful Botetourt County.

Now, shut up, America and try to enjoy yourself, for crying out loud.


  1. Optimism from Frodo. And I thought I lived long enough to see everything. Wonders truly never cease. HOO-ray.

  2. Very interesting> You should be working for the census.

  3. Me? Not optimistic. I'm Captain Mister Optimism. I just think the economy is going to collapse and everyone is going to whine about it endlessly as if they were born to the manor and the serfs are rebelling. Other than that, life is good. Everyone should watch Love, Actually at least once a year.

    As for the census suggestion, even in that little document I was reading, I repeatedly lost count. No thanks.


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About Me

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I started this blog in September, 2006. Mostly, it is where I can talk about things that interest me, which I otherwise don't get to do all that much, about some remarkable people who should not be forgotten, philosophy and theories (like Don Foster's on who wrote A Visit From St. Nicholas and my own on whether Santa is mostly derived from a Norse god) and analysis of issues that concern me. Often it is about books. I try to quote accurately and to say when I am paraphrasing (more and more). Sometimes I blow the first name of even very famous people, often entertainers. I'm much better at history, but once in a while I see I have written something I later learned was not true. Sometimes I fix them, sometimes not. My worst mistake was writing that Beethoven went blind, when he actually went deaf. Feel free to point out an error. I either leave in the mistake, or, if I clean it up, the comment pointing it out. From time to time I do clean up grammar in old posts as, over time I have become more conventional in my grammar, and I very often write these when I am falling asleep and just make dumb mistakes. It be nice to have an editor, but . . . .