The words I remembered were those of the mad woman on the lawn. “Calling yourself soldiers,” she said. “Burners is all you is.”
The Civil War had been over for exactly ninety years in 1954, when my cousin, Shelby Foote, published “Pillar of Fire” as part of his novel, Jordan County: A Landscape in Narrative. The book's stories painted a vivid picture of a fictitious Mississippi county steeped in Southern culture.
“Pillar of Fire” took readers into a heartbreaking and commonplace scene late in the Civil War, when Union troops moved through the civilian South destroying not only plantations but also ordinary homes and cabins. Those troops, battle-hardened and bitter from the loss of their own brethren, shared the tragic effects of war.
In “Pillar of Fire” they take no joy in burning a home in front of its dying, elderly owner and his frail servants. The cruelty of the circumstances is as much a given for them as the dying man's grief over all the memories that burn with his house.
Now, after the Civil War's 150th commemoration, my mission is to draw attention not only to the architectural heritage devastated by the War, but also to the heritage we’ve lost since then: to neglect, to poverty, and to shame, as the war's infamy colored the attitudes of later generations and tainted the homes those generations inherited. What the war didn't take, time and apathy did. And yet those grand old homes—whether mansion or cabin—deserve our reverence and protection.