Famous Families


Henry Timrod

Although the Timrods were nowhere as genealogically prolific or as politically important as were the Gibsons and the Pendarvises or, for that matter, any number of other originally mixed race families whose identities are only now coming to light, Henry Timrod did help define an element of the South which was, in some ways, even more influential.

What this Southern poet (1829-1867) did in finding for his world a romantic language with which to defend itself from the condemnation of the North, was to help create the myth of Southerness. He idealized gentility and in particular, Southern womanhood - a racially loaded symbol because of how many African American males were sacrificed to it after Reconstruction.

Interestingly, the issue of slavery is never raised in Timrod's literary output except for one reference. It is in his 1861 ode, "Ethnogenesis" that we can find the almost blasphemous couplet,

On one side, creeds that dare to teach
What Christ and Paul refrained to preach;

His rhapsodic rage against the North continues along these theological lines:

Codes built upon a broken pledge,
And charity that whets a poniard's edge;
Fair schemes that leave the neighboring poor
To starve and shiver at the schemer's door,
While in the world's most liberal ranks enrolled,
He turns some vast philanthropy to gold;
Religion, taking every mortal form
But that a pure and Christian faith makes warm,
Where not to vile fanatic passions urged,
Or not in vague philosophies submerged,
Repulsive with all Pharisaic leaven
And making laws to stay the laws of heaven!

Timrod penned impassioned and fervent war poems which stirred the South to action in the Civil War and it was for these that he won the accolade, "Poet Laureate of the Confederacy." He was invited to dedicate the cemetery for South Carolina's Civil War dead and his "Ode to Magnolia Cemetery" is the literary monument he wrote for the occasion.

It is with regards to Southern womanhood, however, that his place in Southern literature now has to be reconsidered. Scholars have long been aware that even though he inherited his poetic vein from his father, it was to his mother that he owed his deeply seated love of nature which so informed his work. His mother was Thryza Prince of whom his sister wrote "It was from her, more than his gifted father, that my brother derived that intense, passionate love of Nature which so distinguished him. Its sight and sound always afforded her extreme delight...a walk in the woods to her was food and drink, and the sight of a green field was joy inexpressible...I can remember her love for flowers and trees and for the stars; how she would call our attention to the glintings of sunshine through the leaves; to the afternoon's lights and shadows, as they slept quietly, side by side; and even to a streak of moonlight on the floor."

It was not only on her mind but on this "perfection of form and face" that Timrod modeled his ideal of a femininity which he succeeded in setting as a standard for the rest of the South.

According to Brent Holcomb, one of the foremost genealogical experts of the country, however, the poet's mother was a quadroon. An attempt in the late '30s was made to discredit the rumors about this African ancestry, but court records unequivocally show that at a trial of three men who, in a robbery, had assaulted his great-grandmother, Hannah Caesar, the court did not allow her to testify on the grounds that she was a woman of color, since the defendants were white.

In his criticism of the 1937 article Rupert Taylor published in "American Literature," Holcomb pointed out that even if Hannah Caesar who was Hanna Brown before her marriage was indeed white, as the author claimed, it did not in anyway disprove that her husband was black. The affidavits Taylor cites but which no longer exist, were referred to in a contemporary newspaper report. All that they allegedly claimed was that the mother and sisters of Hannah Brown had always been regarded as white. No mention, whatsoever, was made of her father. No mention was made to the color of Hannah Caesar's husband either, but that is explainable since it was only the question of her own race that had been at issue during the trial. However, since the article itself was an attempt to discredit this long standing rumor about Timrod's ancestry, Holcomb found Taylor's silence on this matter particularly telling since, as is quite clear from both the census and probate records, the only Caesars in South Carolina were black. Furthermore, since the attorney for the defendants would not have made such a declaration regarding Hannah Caesar unless as Taylor himself put it, "he had some ground, however slight...," we can assume that her husband was an African American.

In point of fact, the inadmissibility of Hannah Caesar's testimony was cited as precedence in another trial a few days later when an attempt was made to disqualify a witness on the grounds that she too was a woman of mixed race. As further proof and perhaps, most conclusively, Brent Holcomb points out that in the 1790 census, Hannah's daughter, Sarah Faesch, the grandmother of Henry Timrod, is not only denoted as "free" but is listed in the column reserved for free people of color, as well. Considering the date of Rupert Taylor's publication, it should not be surprising that in trying to allay the continual "gossip" about the poet's having been an "octoroon", he upbraids the "type of mind which, unfortunately, seems born to believe evil or which, obsessed with the idea of miscegenation, leaps eagerly to seize upon any hint of tainted blood in anyone who has achieved prominence."

Coincidentally, one of the writers who helped to memorialize Timrod was none other than the late 19th century South Carolina archivist, Salley, who played such an important role in the creation of southern historiography and who, himself, was a Pendarvis descendant - another Southern mixed race family. As an authority on the genealogical sources of the State's founding families, there can be no doubt that Salley was fully aware not only of his own African heritage but of Henry Timrod's as well.

In 1901, a monument surmounted by a bronze bust of the poet Henry Timrod was dedicated in Charleston, SC. But perhaps the greatest honour paid to him by his fellow patriots was in 1911, when the General Assembly passed a resolution instituting the verses of his poem, "Carolina," as the lyrics of the official state anthem.

Besides the racial irony exposed by the genealogical facts that have just surfaced, it should not be too difficult to argue from the opening stanza included here that despite Lee's surrender, the Confederacy still thumbs its collective nose at the Union anytime this piece by Henry Timrod is sung.

The despot treads thy sacred sands,
Thy pines give shelter to his bands,
Thy sons stand by with idle hands,


He breathes at ease thy airs of balm,
He scorns the lances of thy palm;
Oh! who shall break thy craven calm,


Thy ancient fame is growing dim,
A spot is on thy garment's rim;
Give to the winds thy battle hymn,


Researched and Written by Mario de Valdes y Cocom

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