Watson’s family history presents the past to the present

Dr. Mary Wayne Watson discusses 

By Kevin Spradlin

ROCKINGHAM — Vickie DeFrate’s students might never be much concerned with the life and times of John Charles McNeill or any of Dr. Mary Wayne Watson’s other ancestors.

The point of nine of them attending a Richmond County Historical Society presentation on Monday night, she said, was to get them interested in their own stories. DeFrate brought nine students from her AP U.S. History class at Richmond Senior High School to the society’s monthly meeting at Rockingham City Hall to hear Watson, of Knightdale, present “Women’s Attitudes towards Secession and the Civil War.”

Kevin Spradlin | PeeDeePost.com

Kevin Spradlin | PeeDeePost.com

Through a series of letters written between female family members, Watson’s letters, from pre-Civil War in 1860 towards the end of the war in 1865, Watson showed that for at least one family, the cause became far less significant than the mounting loss suffered by the family.

Watson, for one, was happy to see the nine students among the more than 50 people in attendance for the seminar, which was cosponsored by the Richmond County Historical Society and the North Carolina Humanities Council. The subject is one of four seminars Watson has put together on her ancestors, which have a rich Sandhills region history from Riverton, near Wagram.

For DeFrate, it was a way to expose the students — Bryson Patterson, Joquan Williams, Zarna Shah, Shavani Surati, Ibrahim Henson, Miranda Haltom, Mara Cobb, Ashley Oldham and Angela Chen — to a very thorough body of research outside the classroom.

“A lot of times, history’s taught one way,” DeFrate said.

From the outset, Watson expressed surprise in part that anyone would care what a woman might think in that day and time.

“I feel it is a gift,” she said of the preserved letters, written between relatives in Scotland and Moore counties, found in a family member’s attic during genealogy research.

Watson expressed to the audience no small surprise also in that a literary society that encouraged membership among men, women and children would stage queries, or debates, among topics more than a little controversial — some even still so today. One such query, on June 9, 1860: Which has more influence on man, education or custom? Another debate questioned, “Which is most effectual, persuasion or compulsion?” yet another: Should confederate (military or civilian) officers be discharged from service if they are found guilty of drinking any amount of liquor?

The introduction of the literary society in general and the specific questions were intended to convey the idea that the women involved in the letter-writing campaign were intelligent and engaged. Their letters reflected this.

“What are you for up there,” one asked another. Up there, Watson noted, referred to Moore County all the way from Scotland County.

One writer describes seeing a flag with a single star and a Palmetto tree in South Carolina. The pro-union writer in the most southern part of North Carolina offers a pro-union stance.

“I hope the stars and stripes will continue to wave,” she wrote.

Back and forth the letters went: “I’m for the union.”

If the union were to be overthrown, she wrote, it would be an indication that “man is incapable of self-government.”

Free and happy, one of Watson’s ancestors wrote, could mean discontent. Pride, she wrote, could be the reason the union fails.

“I think of nothing … talk of nothing but the dreaded war.”

We should, wrote another, “know when it is best to leave well enough alone … young men leaving college and home (and walking into) death and carnage.”

Kevin Spradlin | PeeDeePost.com Dr. Mary Wayne Watson

Kevin Spradlin | PeeDeePost.com
Dr. Mary Wayne Watson

In the summer of 1862, one woman takes her life, consumed by grief over the loss of so many.

“America gave us everything,” wrote one Watson ancestor. “We should have been ashamed not to fight. My brother died in the fields of Atlanta, but he died without regret.”

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  • Dr. Mary Wayne Watson


    You did a great job covering this event. I enjoyed your thorough coverage of my remarks. You got excellent shots of my photos. Thank you. I was delighted that high school students were there.

    Mary Wayne Watson, Ph.D.

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