Birney Imes: Abolitionists in Caledonia

March 27, 2010 8:46:00 PM

Birney Imes - [email protected]


"I am not ashamed of having fought on the side of slavery -- a soldier fights for his country -- right or wrong -- he is not responsible for the political merits of the course he fights in ... The South was my country. 


CSA Col. John S. Mosby 




Mike Murphy attributes his love of history to television and playing with toy soldiers as a kid. If you were a boy growing up in the 50s, as was Murphy, you probably watched "The Gray Ghost," a CBS series celebrating the exploits of Confederate John Mosby and his raiders or "The Swamp Fox" based on the life of Francis Marion, a Revolutionary War guerrilla fighter. And then, more recently, there was the Ken Burns'' series on the Civil War. 


In those days, Murphy''s across-the-street neighbor, Ed Yarborough, spent a lot of time playing with toy soldiers. 


"He wanted to be precise," said Murphy. So the two boys turned to history for guidance. 


Murphy grew up on Third Avenue South. His mother, a Memphis girl, did not want to live in the family''s ancestral home on Wolf Road. "She wanted no part of the country, so we moved to town," he says. Murphy now lives in that Wolf Road home, a two-story wood-frame house built by his great, great grandfather sometime before the Civil War, and whose maintenance, like that of any old home, is an unending labor of love. 


Incidentally, Wolf Road gets its name from the wolves once in the area. (Seems I remember the late Gay Mims telling me the road was named for a person named Wolfe. That confusion probably accounts for the differences in spelling you see on road signs -- and on MapQuest. Historian Rufus Ward cites an 1871 newspaper account that unequivocally states the road was so named for the wolves, once so plentiful they were a threat to livestock. Wolf Road runs north from Military Road to U.S. 278 in Monroe County.) 


Friday afternoon, as the sun settled toward the horizon, Murphy and I visited on the front porch of the home built by his ancestor, Amzi Murphy. Earlier in the week, he had e-mailed me information about the autobiography of a Zenas Feemister. 


The Feemisters were prominent in a courageous group of South Carolina abolitionists, who arrived in the area in the 1820s after the removal of the Choctaw and Chickasaw. Attracted by cheap land and the opportunity for a new beginning, the group settled south of what would become the town of Caledonia. In 1832 they organized Salem Church. 


Murphy''s brother, Jim, has published a detailed and well-researched booklet on the church and its leaders who stood against slavery in a land where such was considered next to treason. In 1850, the church, under the leadership of Silas Feemister, established Ridgeway Academy, a coeducational school that after the war admitted freedmen. The school was burned by the Ku Klux Klan in 1874. 


Before the Civil War slavery was a contentious issue among Salem''s members, despite it pastors'' (William Feemister and then his son Silas) strong antislavery sentiments. In 1842 William brought before the church a resolution condemning slavery. The resolution failed and Feemister''s grandson''s account of the vote reveals a surprising tolerance for Feemister''s dangerous stand. 


"... a fearful howl was raised against "Abolition Feemister," and his church, and although the church was then located over 14 miles northeast of Columbus, it was said there was danger of a mob from that town to drive away both pastor and people. It was finally admitted, however, that a church had a right to give its opinion as to the right or wrong of slavery." 


After the war began, fervor increased for the Confederate cause. No doubt this abolitionist enclave felt the pressure. Rather than being conscripted or signing a pledge to the Southern cause, Zenas Feemister in 1862, following the example of 13 young church members who fled north the day before, left family and home to roam through the North preaching and repairing clocks until the war''s end. His autobiography, "The Traveling Refugee," can be read on line: 


Murphy, who devoted his reading time last year to Shelby Foote''s three volume history of the Civil War, realizes he''s on to an inexhaustible subject, one he happens to live in the midst of. 


"It''s (Civil War history) like looking at a mountain from a distance; it doesn''t look so big. Up close, it''s immense. The more you learn the more you realize you don''t know." 


"It''s a benefit of growing up in the South;" Murphy continued, "you can see how good people can do wrong." 


Birney Imes III is the immediate past publisher of The Dispatch.