Family history, relatively speaking

When George W. Coggin of Greensboro, N.C., and Pawleys Island, S.C., set out to trace his relatives’ military service in the Confederate Army, he little dreamed the trail would lead to finding black kinfolk. Coggin is white.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. First, the book that grew out of this journey into the past is Abraham & Jeremiah Coggin & The Montgomery Volunteers, published recently after years of research by Coggin, a retired lawyer, who with his wife Carol have a home in Litchfield Beach at Pawleys Island. We all met one day when I was out walking my dog, the late Dro Lamb, canine extraordinaire and companion supreme.

George W. Coggin“All this began as simply a project to transcribe letters from Abraham and Jeremiah so family members could have copies,” Coggin said. (Abraham and Jeremiah, who perished in the war, were two of four Coggin brothers who fought for the Confederacy. All four entered service from Montgomery County, N.C.)

The letters narrowly escaped burning in the 1940s when Jane Coggin Ellis, the author’s aunt, rescued them from the trash when the family home was being sold. Small wonder that Coggin dedicated the book to her.

Anyhow, Coggin’s “simple project” turned into a monumental undertaking when, while reading the letters, he began to ask himself: “Who are the people mentioned in these letters?”

The author and his generation of relatives had little knowledge of many of the family members that were mentioned in the letters — and no knowledge at all of others mentioned.

“I realized then that the letters were as much about Montgomery County and its people as they were about the Coggin family,” he said.

Thus began a self-assigned job, a huge one requiring extensive research and travel. The publication of the book coincided with Coggin’s 84th birth year. (Ever the optimist, he is now researching the letters of the other two Coggin brothers. His anticipated publication: 2026 on his 95th birthday!)

If you’re making your will any time soon, I hope you’ll do it with a lawyer like Coggin. In his book, no “i” goes undotted, no “t” uncrossed, and every person mentioned is footnoted. With instincts that a bloodhound would envy, Coggin tracked virtually every trackable move his subjects made, every battle, every maneuver, every march, every wound, every prisoner of war camp, every death — not just for Abraham and Jeremiah, but for all the boys who served as Montgomery Volunteers in Company C of the 23rd North Carolina Regiment.

Abraham Coggin

Talk about exhaustive (and exhausting) research! And it’s all documented! Maps, photos, battle plans, citations, even an index. What a deal for Civil War buffs!

Now as I was saying at the beginning of this column, George unearthed some history that he had not known was there. In 1981, as he was searching the death certificates index in Guilford County, N.C., he saw the name Alice Coggin Ingram.

Checking the death certificate itself, he saw that Alice Coggin Ingram was black and had been born in Montgomery County to Sam and Jane Coggin.

Coggin’s pulse quickened. It had been whispered in family lore down through the years that Abraham had fathered a child, Jane, by one of his slaves. Coggin had to know if this death certificate was the missing link. So he looked up the deceased’s sister, a woman named Rose Dark, who was the informant named on the death certificate. He called her.

“I told her who I was and where I was from, and she said, ‘I expect my people belonged to your people in slavery time.”

That’s true, he told her. “I have a copy of Abraham’s will, in which he willed your mother and grandmother to my grandfather.”

“Abraham was my mother’s father wasn’t he?” she asked.

Yes, he told her. “That’s what I always heard.”

Mystery solved. But that’s not the end of the story. Here; I’ll let the author tell it:

“I visited Mrs. Dark and gave her a photo of Abraham and a copy of his will, and I copied a photo of her mother, Jane, Abraham’s daughter. Mrs. Dark died in 1995. The funeral and visitation were held at Brown’s Funeral Service in Greensboro, N.C.

“As I was leaving the visitation, Mr. Brown approached and said, ‘If you don’t mind me asking, what is your connection with Mrs. Dark?’

“I told him our grandfathers were brothers. We are second cousins.”

When Coggin arrived next day for the funeral, Mr. Brown approached him again and said, “The family would like you to sit with them.”

“I was honored to be asked,” Coggin said.

Hard to imagine a more fitting end to a story about the Civil War.

(Color photo is author George Coggin; black & white photo is Abraham Coggin)


So far, so good!

A friend who is a particularly insightful reader sent me the following report on my latest novel, soon to be published (working title: Journey’s End).
“Hi Bob,
Yesterday I curled up with your manuscript and uncurled several hours later, and am now up to chapter 14. I could not stop reading it. It’s just a marvelous piece of writing: it is unfolding like a mystery story, which is perhaps very appropriate given the mystery and uncertainty ofmental illness and mental health care. The writing is intimate, without being swarmy. I also wonder how helpful it might be to families who undergo the upheaval of serious illness. There is no marked trail for handling such crises and this well captures the journey.
“I’ve had to put this aside for awhile, as I have other homework for a book group I joined. I need to finish The Orchardist by Thursday! It would not do to not have my homework done the first time I meet with these people. but then then I can return to the Journey.” ~Pat W.

“Made it, Ma! Top of the world!”

Our garage needed re-roofing. I called a roofer.

Sometime last week a stack of shingles showed up in my backyard, near the garage.

This past Satuday three men showed up bright and early to turn those shingles into a new roof.

They worked straight through until mid-afternoon. Roofing on a warm day is a hot job, and I live in South Carolina.

Some time after 3 p.m., the front doorbell rang. The roofer, an older man, told me they’d be knocking off for the day soon.

I said fine.

He turned to leave, but then turned back. Smiling, he asked,   “Are you a writer?”

“I am,” I said, puzzled  at first. It has not been my experience that roofers are great readers – but, to be fair, neither has it been my experience that readers are great roofers. And, frankly, if I were given three wishes, I’d spend the first on do-it-yourself home-repair skills.

“We saw some of your posters in the garage,” the roofer said. “And Tony say he’s read some of your books.”

Tony was one the roofer’s two young helpers, both in their early twenties, I’d guess. The posters were oversized pictures of book covers and blurbs from from readers and reviewers. They come in handy at book festivals in bidding for attention from passersby.

“Tony say you good.”

“Please tell Tony I said thanks.”

“He’d like to meet you. Can you come out to meet him?”

Sure, I said.

Tony smiled from ear to ear as we shook hands at the garage. Then he introduced me to his boss, whose name was given only as Perry, and to his fellow workman, Antonio.

“You working on anything new?” Perry asked.

“As a matter of fact, I’m in the homestretch on a new one.”

“What’s it about?” Tony asked.

“The redemptive powers of rock ‘n’ roll,” I said.

Tony said, “I liked your one about murder.”

Atlanta Blues,” I said.

“That’s the one!” Tony said. He turned to Perry. “You read it?”

“No, but I’d like to.”

“I’ve got a copy or two around here somewhere. Be glad to give you a copy.”

“Will you autograph it?” Perry said.

Sure, I said. Hold on.

Back inside, I found three copies of Atlanta Blues, still nestled in shrink-wrap. I grabbed a pen and scissors, and took the books outside. Leaning on the hood of the pickup truck, I signed three copies: one for Tony, one for Perry, and one for Antonio.

They were happy and I was, too. Couldn’t wait to tell all my friends (both of ’em) that I was, ahem, the favorite author of every roofer I knew.

(top, hardback cover; here, softback cover)


A Fond Farewell

On a recent weekend, my wife Margaret and I attended a Quaker memorial service in Blacksburg, Va., for our late nephew-in-law, dead at 40. Heart attack. He was cremated three or four weeks before the memorial service was held. Quakers wait to memorialize their dead. Don’t know the rationale. No matter. This was the most impressive service of its kind that I’ve ever seen. About 140 people assembled in rows facing each other in a fairly large. square room at the meeting house. No preacher, no pulpit. No prayer, no benediction. The presider, if you can call him that (I think his title was “clerk”), simply announced that anybody who wished to say something about the deceased could stand and say it when he/she got ready, or not speak at all. Either was OK. In the space of an hour, ten or 12 did speak. They all used so nearly the same adjectives to describe the deceased that it was clear they knew him, and knew him well. All the remarks sounded earnest and heartfelt. It was very moving. What struck me most was how this differed from all the similar services I’ve attended in my lifetime; it had virtually no structure, or at most the simplest of structures; nobody tried to gild the lily, as they do in most eulogies. No high-flown phrases. No mention of an afterlife. Jesus Christ was not even mentioned. When the meeting ran its course, the “clerk” signaled the end by shaking hands with somebody sitting near him, at which signal all the mourners shook hands with somebody nearby, then all broke for a lunch in the meeting-house kitchen. This memorial seemed to derive its power from its lack of ritual. In a ritual, the emphasis is on howto do it; here the emphasis was on celebrating the life of a beloved husband, father, and friend. It was most impressive.

Celebrating the Southern Tongue


Just in time for Christmas!

With seven other Carolina writers, I will participate in a Holiday Book Signing and Reception on Dec. 8 from 5:30 to 7:30 p.m. at the South Caroliniana Library, located on the Horseshoe of the University of South Carolina campus, in Columbia.

Billed as a “special literary  evening celebrating South Carolina authors and their recent publications,” the event is presented by the University South Caroliniana Society and the South Carolina Library.

Other authors participating include Walter Edgar,  South Carolina in the Modern Age; John L. Frierson, Memories of A Carolina Bird  Hunter; Philip Grose, Looking for Utopia: The Life and Times of John C. West; Stephen Hoffius and Susan Williams, Upheaval in Charleston: Earthquake and Murder on the Eve of Jim Crow; Patricia Moore-Pastides, Greek Revival Cooking for Life; and Robert M. Weir, Captured at King’s Mountain: The Journal of Uzal Johnson, a Loyalist Surgeon. 

My recently published books are A Majority of One, my third novel, and Six of One, Half Dozen of Another (Stories & Poems +1) . I think mine is the only fiction included in the event.

A writer on writing

Ran across this on the Internet today. Barely remembered doing the interview, so I was surprised to find that I saw little I would change if asked the questions again.

Here’s the link: