The Hoggatt plantation at Clover Bottom, in Nashville, Tennessee was home to one of my slave-owning cousins, Anthony Clopton and his family, and to John McCline. John McCline was born there as part of the enslaved workforce. You should read his book even if he never met your long-ago cousin.
This memoir covers John’s earliest memories of life at Clover Bottoms and his years as a young teenager in the Union army. I’ve never read anything like it before.
One day young John was on horseback, watching the Union army march past the plantation on Lebanon Pike, admiring the men, their uniforms, the horses and vehicles, the whole spectacle. One of the soldiers called out to him, “Come on, Johnny, and go with us up North, and we will set you free.” He was amazed that the Yankee soldier knew his name (he didn’t know they called all southern boys Johnny, like Johnny Rebel). He slid off his horse and into the crowd of soldiers. He travelled and worked with that regiment from Michigan for the rest of the war and they took good care of him. He returned to Michigan with them after the war, got a couple of years of schooling in, worked in fancy hotels in St. Louis, Chicago and Indianapolis and eventually ran the household of the governor of New Mexico, Herbert Hagerman, in Santa Fe. He got married for the first time when he was 85. Never once does John expect the reader to feel sorry for him or his plight. He’s very matter of fact about everything and eager to recount his memories of a remarkable period in his life. John McCline reminds me of Laura Ingalls Wilder with his engaging, detailed, visual descriptions of how otherwise mundane things worked which in turn reminds me of my own grandfather, except for the slavery part.
Now that I’ve compared John McCline favorably to Laura Ingalls Wilder you might veer into the tempting weeds and say, “Gee, yrmama, American slavery wasn’t so bad then, was it. And if it was so easy for him to run away why didn’t they all just walk off into the sunset?”
To which I would say, “Shut the fuck up up and read the book. Mr. McCline is very clear and detailed about the vast evil he was raised to endure, the traumas he and everyone he loved faced, beatings, murders, deprivation, cruelty and outright theft of monstrous amounts of human labor. yrmama is grappling with the knowledge that her ancestors on both sides were slave owners and trying to acknowledge the ill-gotten privileges she has certainly inherited. I may say the wrong thing from time to time, inadvertently, but we are certainly not going to move through this as a society if we don’t talk about it openly. So there.”
- If you have not yet begun listening to 1619, a podcast from the New York Times, you need to get busy with it immediately. It is hosted by Nikole Hannah-Jones who grew up in Waterloo, Iowa, where I lived as an infant, and we both are very smart.