I am the great, great, great, great, great, great granddaughter of Revolutionary War hero, Major General William Moultrie (the last man appointed by Congress to that rank).
We still talk of you. How you and your 400 men fought off 2,000 British soldiers to keep Sullivan’s Island from falling under their control. It’s a point of family pride that your victory in South Carolina encouraged and emboldened the men in Philadelphia who were penning the Declaration of Independence. You let them see that we could win our independence. We could fight and win. You did that.
I wonder if you know about the statue of you? It’s in White Point Garden in Charleston. Erected in June of 2007. You’re 8 feet tall and standing on a 7 foot pedestal. You’re hard to miss!
Yes, we remember you aloud.
But it’s harder to talk about other days of yours.
You enslaved people, G6Grandfather. How could you?
And don’t even start with all the excuses. Did you know we’re still saying them today? We are! We talk about how it was the culture then, and the necessary thing for the economy. We tell people that slavery wasn’t just a Southern thing and we spew out millions of words, thousands of deflections – many true – even while we cringe inside. I hate this part of being a Southern woman.
You know what I’ve wondered?
I’ve often thought about your time before you were Major General William Moultrie of Washington’s great Continental Army. You know what I’m talking about. Yes. That time. That year before your heroic defense of Sullivan’s Island – I’m talking about the raid you led as colonel of the 2nd South Carolina Regiment.
Are you ashamed of that now?
No, that’s not what I want to ask you.
What I really want to ask is harder. It’s harder because as soon as I ask it, I answer for you with the words I desperately want to be true – an answer that could be true. It could.
G6Grandfather, when you killed those 50 runaway slaves and when you imprisoned the rest of the slaves you captured on that island – slaves who had run from plantations like yours to fight for the British on the promise that Britain would grant them freedom – did you see before you a British soldier or a black slave?
You know, every man on both sides of the family in the last generation served in a branch of this nation’s military. You’d be proud. The family dedication to the nation has stayed strong. We don’t talk much about the fighting they’ve done, either.
But I wish I could talk with you about yours. Were you killing enemies to the nation’s independence…or runaway slaves? What were they in your mind?
A year later, you killed British soldiers. White men, most likely. In doing so, you won a decisive victory that helped lead to American independence. Was your intent then the same as the day you killed the slaves?
We’re taking down statues of men like you now. A white woman was killed by a white man who thought he was somehow “better” just because he’s white. Others of many ethnicities were seriously injured.
Do you agree that this is insane?
Do you fold in upon yourself, broken by the idea that this thought even exists? That you helped perpetuate it? How did you live in the dissonance of fighting for liberty while removing it from black men? How?
Oh, I want to scream at you! Why couldn’t you and those other men – good God, you were smart enough to start a nation! You thumbed your nose at a monarchy! – how could you not figure out a way to end slavery, too?! You all said how awful it was. You said it was an offense to God. You said it was breaking with natural law. And yet you were so scared to break the economy – so worried that it would cripple the nation and we’d lose our independence – that you let slavery continue.
You kicked that evil ball down the field for another generation to handle.
Why could you not be brave enough to end it no matter the consequences?
Don’t we say in our family to do good and let God handle the result? Couldn’t you trust that?
For Mother’s Day this year, my sweet Hubs surprised me with something I’d long wanted: a kit from 23andme. (It’s a DNA test that reveals your ancestry. Yeah, you’re not going to understand “DNA” either.)
Anyway, scattered within the expected British, Irish, French, Scandinavian and “Broadly Northwestern European” lay two surprises: 0.2% Native American (apologies, Aunt Ruth, you were right)…
…just a tiny little 0.1%…
Sub-Saharan African – West Africa.
Yep. I’m not all “white” (what does that even mean?). And, since I don’t know when or how that little 0.1% came to be, you may not have been either.
I love this part of me.
Would you have?
What would you say about the idea of taking down your statue? (Let’s assume you’re humble enough to not have wanted it in the first place. Work with me here, G6.)
If you knew that your statue makes citizens fold in on themselves, broken and hurt by the reminder that their family worked your land for your gain…what would you say?
I’m one of a lot of your granddaughters. Am I supposed to say something? Would you want me to?
You know, the best part of our family came from your line. Retta Moultrie. I’m named after her mama, Rebecca Hayes (your great granddaughter). Aunt Retta. Born in 1894. Oh my heavens, a better woman has never walked this earth. She helped raise me. Lived to be 102! I can still feel her little, wrinkled hand on top of mine as we sat on her velour couch, singing hymns together. I can hear her humming as I played with her white hair. I have three pillows on my bed that she sewed by hand. They’ve lost the smell of her but, every great long while, I can close my eyes and nearly catch the scent by memory.
She taught me to love people, G6Grandfather. All people. To be kind. Patient. Generous even when I didn’t have plenty. Lord knows she didn’t. If you were anything like Aunt Retta, you’d care deeply about the hurt that comes from the racial divide of today. A divide you helped cause.
I hope you’d also be relieved to see that slavery has been eradicated. We’ve found a way to be economically strong without it. We are a fully free nation. No monarchy. No ruler. The government by, of, and for the people that you and others created is still going.
The descendants of your slaves? They’re no doubt leaders today! Business owners. Doctors. Elected officials. Engineers. Scientists. Writers. Do you see how powerful freedom is? Look where we are! The last governor of South Carolina – the very state where you were governor for two terms – was a woman – an Indian woman! And now she’s the Ambassador to the United Nations!
Oh, G6Grandfather, we’ve come so far.
Thank you for fighting to create an independent nation. A nation conceived in liberty, still struggling to fully live in it.
Maybe your statue isn’t just a reminder of your Sullivan’s Island victory on behalf of the United States and its fight for independence.
It is also a reminder of that year before.
I need to remember you were both a hero and a horror.