Confederate general an unlikely hero for black author STONEWALLING

May 31, 1994|By Scott Timberg | Scott Timberg,Special to The Sun

His friends dreamed of the Shadow and the Lone Ranger, but young David Sawyer had only one hero: Stonewall Jackson.

"Back then, there were people like Tom Mix, Tex Ritter, Buck Jones," Mr. Sawyer, 66, says of his boyhood in Depression-era North Carolina. "These were white cowboy heroes. Their deeds of daring were nothing in my mind compared to the legendary Stonewall Jackson."

Friends, relatives and teachers were confounded by this young black boy who idolized a Confederate general. But to Mr. Sawyer, Jackson was not only an idol and a role model, he was a relative.

Mr. Sawyer learned of the possible blood link to Jackson from an aunt, who had whispered the story to him when he was 8. In the story, Jackson "borrowed" a slave to cool him down before his wedding night.

The rest of Mr. Sawyer's life was shaped by this knowledge, true or false. The story is recounted in "My Great-Grandfather Was Stonewall Jackson: The Story of a Negro Boy Growing Up in the Segregated South," a fictionalized version of his life just released by a Baltimore publisher. It is an anecdotal, lightly comic book about the pleasures and perils of an idyllic Southern boyhood.

Few saw the boy's Jackson connection as something to be proud of. Teachers in Fayetteville, N.C., tried to interest him in upstanding black role models -- George Washington Carver, Booker T. Washington, the women who ran the Underground Railroad. But the young Sawyer would have none of it. Stonewall was his man, and like the indomitable Jackson, he wouldn't budge.

"I put them in another niche," recalls Mr. Sawyer from his home in East Baltimore, where he moved in 1956. "I was too hung up on Stonewall. Everybody else seemed a little bit less."

Mr. Sawyer, a playful, mischievous man, speaks in the rhythms ** and inflections of rural North Carolina, a leg draped over the arm of a chair as he remembers his youth. "I keep looking back to an easier time, a softer time. Oh, man, I had a ball. We were poor as heck. I didn't know I was poor until way later."

He modeled himself after the Confederate general. "It made me feel like I was somebody. 'Guess where I came from. Shoot, I can do anything,' " he says. "In the South at that time, there wasn't a whole lot to feel good about."

Flak from friends

By high school, he was met with not just confusion and indifference, but outright hostility. His friends suggested he find new hero, preferably a black one, and everybody got tired of his bragging.

"My cousin Bill told me flat out: 'You're the biggest fool. He's a white man, and besides that, he fought on the wrong side.' "

While Mr. Sawyer spent nearly his whole life dreaming of Jackson, the urge to write about him came later. "When I seriously started thinking about it was when [Alex] Haley started the 'Roots' thing."

Mr. Sawyer, who was a production operator, then manager at SCM Corp., a chemical manufacturing company, has no formal writing training outside of night school classes. But he's long been a reader; as a kid he read everything in sight -- the Bible, his grandmother's law books, comic books.

His book is about the emotional truth, rather than the literal fact, of his connection, says Mr. Sawyer. "I didn't set out to prove that Stonewall Jackson was my great-grandfather. I set out to write an honest book about my feelings about him, growing up. When I was a boy, this is what made me feel like somebody. It helped shape my life to a degree."

He wrote the book as fiction so he could take some liberties with the story, though he adds that almost everything in it actually happened.

Mr. Sawyer credits his gift of gab to his grandfather, a Methodist preacher with a florid and formal style of Victorian English, and to long days sharing stories with his extended family. "I guess being in that atmosphere, I learned to tell stories, sitting around fires and tobacco barns."

Mr. Sawyer has been in touch with a number of Jackson scholars, who have helped him learn about the man and his possible relationships. None is sure that Mr. Sawyer is really descended from the general.

"It's difficult for us today to see how casual and relaxed the mid-19th century South was about recordkeeping," says Robert K. Krick, chief historian of the Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania National Military Park.

Mr. Krick feels that Mr. Sawyer's contention is not only hard to prove, it's hard to believe. "It does run very, very counter to Jackson's known persona. He was one of the most pious men ever to achieve prominence."

It's taken Mr. Sawyer 12 years to publish his book. He shopped it around to publishers in North Carolina, New York and Baltimore, including the Johns Hopkins University Press. Robert Bruegger, director of the press, suggested Mr. Sawyer contact Ric Cottom, a local writer, historian and publishing consultant who operates Publishing Concepts/Baltimore.

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