Note: This story has been revised and expanded in my essay collection The Cheese Toast Project, available in print at most online bookstores and in print and Kindle at Amazon.
On the freezing morning of Sunday, 29 November 1863, Union soldiers defending Fort Sanders in Knoxville, Tennessee, leveled their rifles at advancing Confederate soldiers, and fired, killing or wounding more than eight hundred, and thus set in motion a chain of events that would lead to my birth, not quite a century later. One of the Confederate soldiers who died was Nathaniel G. Lupo, my great-great-grandfather. Nathaniel may have died from a single shot, a barrage of bullets, or a mortar blast. He may have been tripping over the baling wire that had been strung between tree stumps to slow down any assault, attempting to scale the frozen wall of the fort with a stand of colors, or struggling in the ditch surrounding the fort, while, above him, Union gunners rained down bullets on him and his comrades. The particular circumstances of his final moments on earth have been lost to history, though one can be certain they were chaotic, and undoubtedly horrifying, with death and devastation surrounding him on all sides. The poorly planned assault on Fort Sanders, carried out by mostly Georgia troops serving in the First Corps of the Army of Northern Virginia, under James Longstreet, lasted approximately twenty minutes, and gained absolutely nothing for the Confederate cause. The only certainty is that Nathaniel’s death altered the course of his family, affecting every generation since, including my own.
I know very little about my great-great-grandfather. While I have vague memories of my grandfather, who died when I was ten, and knew my great-uncle reasonably well, my interest in the history of our family had not yet manifested itself, and by the time I began asking about the family, neither of them, nor my great-aunt, were around to supply any answers. My father claimed to know very little about his ancestors, but, if I asked him specific questions, such as whether or not his great-grandfather fought and died in the Civil War, he usually knew the answer. The Roster of the Confederate Soldiers of Georgia, compiled by Lillian Henderson, lists four Lupos who fought in the war for Georgia, two brothers, one close cousin, and one distant cousin.
What I know of Nathaniel mainly comes from my own research into the family. Given his age on the census, he appears to have been born around 1835, most likely in Houston County, Georgia. He appears on the 1850 census, living in the household of Robert D. Sinclair, a physician, and large land owner in Dooly County, Georgia. On 2 November 1854, he married Amanda Cone, and by 1860, Nathaniel, his father David, wife Amanda, and uncle Giles, and their families, had moved to Jackson County, Florida. A letter from David Lupo, dated 1 April 1860, mentions Nathaniel, and reports the activity surrounding their farm. Nathaniel and Amanda have three children listed in their household in 1860, Nancy T, age 5, William, age 3, and my great-grandfather, James David, who’s about eight months old. There is a story in my family, told to me by one of my older cousins who could remember my great-grandmother, that Nathaniel was a fiddle player, which would be interesting, considering his ancestors were as well, but I have no other information with which to confirm nor refute this.
Around 1861, Nathaniel and presumably his family, returned to Dooly County, where on 22 June 1861, he enlisted for service in the Georgia Volunteer Infantry. His company, made up of others from Dooly County, was sent to Cobb County for training, and later to Virginia, where they became Company I in the 18th Georgia Regiment, which was initially part of John Bell Hood’s “Texas” brigade. In 1864, Hood would be the general who surrendered Atlanta to Sherman, but in 1861, the youthful Hood was just establishing his reputation for being a fierce and reckless commander. His Texas brigade, including the 18th Georgia, was responsible for breaking the Union line at Gaines Mill, and turning the tide in the Seven Days campaign, where Lee drove McClellan from Virginia. The battle-hardened 18th Georgia was later transferred to Thomas R. R. Cobb’s Georgia brigade (later led by William Tatum Wofford), where they continued to be a part of the shock troops, first in, last out, in many of the battles in which they participated. The 18th Georgia played a decisive role at Second Manassas, fought at Antietam, the bloodiest single day in American history, and was stationed behind the Stone Wall on Marye’s Heights at Fredericksburg, which was an absolute bloodbath for Union troops attempting to take the position. The First Corps under James Longstreet, including the 18th Georgia, which was heavily engaged in the Peach Orchard, participated during the second day’s fighting at Gettysburg. Records show that shortly after the Battle of Gettysburg, Nathaniel was admitted to the hospital in Virginia, but the cause isn’t given.
In short, Nathaniel didn’t just serve in the war, he was front and center at some of the bloodiest and most brutal fighting of the bloodiest war in America’s history. Having never served in combat myself, I cannot begin to imagine what participating in such carnage can do to a man’s psyche. Records show, in addition to the aftermath of Gettysburg, that Nathaniel spent time in hospitals following several battles, including Antietam, without the cause being reported. The 18th Georgia was among the troops who accompanied Longstreet on detached service in Tennessee and Georgia, in fall and winter of 1863, though the 18th did not participate in the Battle of Chickamauga, the one battle the First Corps fought on Georgia soil. Longstreet didn’t get along very well with Braxton Bragg, who was in command of forces around Chattanooga, and left to conduct independent operations in Eastern Tennessee, which brought the First Corps to Knoxville by early November. All accounts of the battle in which Nathaniel lost his life indicate it was poorly planned using faulty reconnaissance. The ultimate responsibility for ordering the assault rests solely with the commanding officer, Longstreet, though Confederate military records are filled with accusations, recriminations, and charges by Longstreet against his subordinates, following the failed assault.
I do not know if I would be here, had Nathaniel lived. In all probability, I would not be, given that his death is the main event which started my family on their journey through the next century. Nathaniel’s actions, returning to Georgia, and enlisting for service, probably felt obvious to him. He may have felt he had no choice in the matter, yet every step of the way, he made the choices, up to and including where he stood in formation in preparation for the assault on the fort on 29 November. Just as I do not know the exact circumstances of his death, I also do not know what became of his body. In all likelihood, he was buried in a mass grave on the battlefield, and left behind as the army moved on. He does not appear to be among those re-interred in the city cemetery after the battle, though recently, the grave of his commanding officer, Solon Z. Ruff, has been located and marked in Knoxville, by the Sons of Confederate Veterans. Reports of the battle indicate Ruff died in the ditch surrounding the fort, while commanding Wofford’s Brigade, which included the 18th, so most likely, that’s where Nathaniel died as well. Most of current day Knoxville, and the University of Tennessee at Knoxville, was built over top of the battlefield. In 1982, I went there with two friends to attend the World’s Fair, with no idea of the importance the city had in my family’s history. While I’m not a believer in signs, I will report that the first day we were there, it rained the entire time.
One cannot speak of Confederate ancestors without invoking the memory of the cause for which they fought. Let me be clear, I do not honor the Confederacy as a governmental entity, nor do I believe in what the politicians of the Southern states attempted to accomplish by breaking away from the Union. Secession was a horrible idea in 1860, and those in the South who invoke the specter of secession for their own political ends today, merely perpetuate the arrogance and ignorance of those who led the South to secede, leading to hundreds of thousands of needless deaths in the resulting conflict. Many will point out that most of the rank and file Confederate soldiers did not own slaves, which is true, but they knew the system they were fighting to defend, it being the only lifestyle they had ever known, and they had to realize, if they were successful, the plantation system, which depended upon slavery, would continue. While the soldiers themselves may have marched into battle with the belief they were defending their families and livelihood, as their leaders told them, it cannot be denied that success on their part would have been a victory for the status quo, which included slavery. For those who argue that the war was about states’ rights and not slavery, the reality is that the main right the politicians and rich plantation owners in the southern states were claiming was the right to own slaves, as the history leading up to the war makes abundantly clear. From the Missouri Compromise in 1820, to the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854, and the founding of the Republican party in the lead-up to the 1856 elections, slavery had been a hot button issue in the country since the drafting of the Declaration in 1776, and had only gotten more heated in the intervening time. Had there been no slavery, there most likely would have been no war.
That being said, it is pointless to ignore or downplay that aspect of my family’s history, as it plays so great a part in it, just as my ancestors played their part in the history of this country. While I do not always agree with the decisions my ancestors made, I cannot deny those decisions played a part in the circumstances which eventually led to me being here. Had Nathaniel lived, he may have decided to take his family west, as many did in the wake of the war; or returned to Florida; or traveled elsewhere in Georgia. Records show that his death had a devastating effect on his young family. Other than her listing on a record of widows who received a salt ration in 1864, no records whatsoever have been found on his widow, Amanda, until she applies for a pension with the state of Georgia in the 1890s, and the fate of their daughter, Nancy, is unknown. Their son William shows up on the incomplete census of 1870, in Dooly County, living near the family of Nelson Moye in or near Pinehurst, Georgia, and in 1880, their son David can also be found near the Moyes in Pinehurst, living away from Nathaniel’s brothers and sisters in and around Vienna.