'For those who wore the gray'

By Daniel Silliman


There's a breeze under the Magnolia tree, up at the top of Tanners Church cemetery.

The breeze flutters the four flags: The American flag with 50 stars and a military fringe, the old Georgia flag, the one with the Confederate cross, a Confederate battle flag and a dark blue flag bearing the name of a long-disbanded battalion.

It's Saturday morning, the last days of summer, and somewhere in the back of the Ellenwood graveyard, there's a bagpiper practicing. About 50 people mill around in the shade, even though the summer heat is really only a memory now. Shannon Bradley Byers, a woman wearing a Celtic cross and an emerald, is making sure every thing is read. Down at the bottom, by the giant old oaks, across the street from the church that names the cemetery and the street, a group of Civil War re-enactors unload a cannon out of a trailer.

They're here to remember a man they never knew.

They're here to honor a man who's been buried for longer than he was alive.

They're here to recognize someone who fought in the war they remember, a war they call -- out of stubbornness, romanticism or both -- "The War of Northern Aggression."

They're here because they value a heritage, a history, and the sort of service and sacrifice represented by the deceased.

"On July 13, 1923, at the age of 83, William Redding Byers answered his last roll call," says Shannon, reading a eulogy. "Eighty five years later, a group of family he never knew gathers to pay him respect. I have long said that when I passed I did not want some stranger speaking about me at my service. Ironically, I stand here to do just that."

About three years ago, Shannon was researching her husband's family's genealogy, when she found William Redding Byers. Excited to have a relative who fought in the war, she's put together what she can about him, and now erects a white memorial stone, marking his service as a soldier.

He was, Shannon says, called "Redin," and Redin had red hair. He was born in South Carolina, in Pickens County, in 1840, and got married at the age of 18. He joined the Calvary, the 2nd South Carolina Calvary, in August 1861, eight months after his state seceded. He probably rode into battle at Second Manassas, Boonsboro, Sharpsburg, Fredericksburg, Gettysburg, Second Brandy Station, Fort Fisher, and a lot of other places with names inscribed in history. He was shot in the throat in December 1863, during a battle in Virginia, and fought until the Southern states surrendered in 1865.

"I often wonder what that time period must have been life for the families," Shannon says. "We can read books and watch documentaries on how things were, we can catch glimpses from diaries, but until its been lived, I sincerely doubt there is true understanding of what kind of hell it was."

The bagpiper, Richard E. Smith, takes up a sad song for the Southern soldier.

"The marching armies of the past, along our Southern plains, are sleeping now in quiet rest, beneath the Southern rains."

He stands back a ways, behind the flags and the fluttering magnolia, on the hill where about 50 people pay respect on Saturday morning, even if they didn't know exactly what it was like during four years of war, a century and a half ago.

"We bow our heads in solemn prayer, for those who wore the gray, and clasp again their unseen hands, on our Memorial Day."

There are children, looking at the soldier on a horse on the cover of the memorial program. There are senior citizens, reading the words of Gen. Robert E. Lee, from when he surrendered at Appomattox in 1865. There's a man with a Santa Claus beard who introduces himself as "Robert E. Lee" Gray. He says he's fought more than 500 battles, and adds, just to be clear, that they were re-enactments.

Tom Stoud, with the Patrick R. Cleburn Camp 1361 Sons of Confederate Veterans, lays a wreath on the grave. Linda Ramey, of the Frankie Lyle Chapter of the United Daughters of the Confederacy, lays a second wreath, too.

Someone says a prayer, thanking God for "Brother Byers," and uniformed re-enactors fire the cannon in salute of the real soldier, who is buried beneath the Ellenwood sod and the solitary Magnolia tree.