Published Sunday, October 21, 2012
By W. WINSTON SKINNER
Moreland resident David Dean recently shared the outlines of a family story that inspired him to write a book.
Dean spoke at a meeting of Coweta Guards Camp 715, Sons of Confederate Veterans. Mike Webb, commander, introduced Dean to the group, noting Dean is “one of our newest members.”
Dean, a native of Montgomery, Ala., spoke during the SCV meeting in the basement at Unity Baptist Church. Dean’s book, “The Long Ride Home,” was recently published.
The book tells the story of George Roots Clayton Wilson, who kept a diary detailing his ride home to Alabama from Appomattox Courthouse, Va., at the close of the Civil War. Dean, a descendant of Wilson’s brother, read the diary and recreated much of the trip on horseback a few years ago.
Dean, who spent 48 years in military service and as an airline pilot, “has always been interested in the War Between the States and genealogy,” Webb said.
The Wilson family came from Virginia to Milledgeville and then to Montgomery in 1838. “My great-great-grandmother and grandfather were married in Milledgeville at her father’s home,” Dean told the group of about 30.
Montgomery was “wild Indian country in those days,” Dean said. The family in Georgia gave the couple wagons and other necessities – and six slaves – before they departed for Alabama.
The couple settled “on the very edge of Montgomery, on the bluff overlooking Montgomery,” Dean said. They started a plant nursery.
Much of the history of the nursery was preserved when a relative wrote about that era in 1905. “She wrote a lengthy chapter ... about the family history and how they lived there on the plantation and what they did and what life was like there,” Dean said.
Clayton Wilson was aware of his family’s connections to colonial America. The first member of the family to come to America was Nicholas Martiau, who was in Virginia by 1624. “They settled in Yorktown,” Dean said.
Martiau was a Frenchman “who had left France and gone to England and been naturalized,” Dean said. “He was George Washington’s first ancestor in America.”
“Clayton knew that he had a grandfather who served in Williamsburg in the House of Burgesses” and who “served with George Washington and Alexander Hamilton,” Dean said.
“Clayton Wilson knew that he came from good stock. He knew they wanted to keep their way of life when the war” came, and Clayton himself was determined to be “part of helping to maintain” his family’s way of life, Dean said.
Wilson was 19-years-old in January 1861. “He went to Mobile because Mobile was being threatened,” Dean said. Northern troops were expected imminently at the harbor.
“Clayton went down there and joined up with the Montgomery Rifles,” Dean said. Soon afterward, he came back home and then went to Columbus where he joined the First Georgia Volunteers.
“He signed up with them for a year,” Dean said. Wilson spent a few weeks at Ft. Oglethorpe and then traveled by train to Mobile and then Pensacola.
“On the way down, they learned Fort Sumter had been fired upon,” Dean said.
Wilson’s unit was sent to western Virginia – the part that later became West Virginia. “Western Virginia was totally different country from the Virginia cotton land,” Dean said. Many people from northern states had “migrated into western Virginia,” he added.
In Virginia, Wilson “saw his first land battle of the war,” Dean said. He said Union and Confederate leaders were “trying to decide how this short war was going to end quickly.”
When each side proved stronger than anticipated, leaders employed various strategies – but the war continued and young men were dying.
“The enlistment ran out. Clayton came home. His parents thought that was great,” Dean said.
Three days later, Clayton Wilson and his brother, Dean’s ancestor, joined another unit. Soon they were headed to Chattanooga.
Braxton Bragg “was the commanding officer up there,” Dean said. “Bragg did not do a sterling job as a general.”
Clayton Wilson was among troops Bragg led to Perryville. After a 350-miles roundtrip, they “came back and then they went down to Chickamauga,” Dean said.
Gen. James Longstreet had come down from Richmond on a train “the day before the battle began” at Chickamauga, Dean said. Wilson was assigned “to be Longstreet’s logistics guy,” he said.
Dean said Chickamauga was the “second largest battle of the war” and ““probably the most important battle of the war.”
Chattanooga had “such a critical location” as “a rail center” that connected with places all over the South. “Chattanooga had to be kept,” Dean said.
“The North was so desperately tired of the war. They were ready to quit,” Dean posited. He said the fighting at Chickamauga and Chattanooga meant that by the November election, voters in Union states could see the war’s end in sight.
Dean suggested Abraham Lincoln was re-elected in part because of Union strength shown at Chickamauga/Chattanooga.
After Chickamauga, Wilson remained with Longstreet. Being with Longstreet “probably saved his life,” Dean reflected. His old unit went to Franklin, Tenn. and “got slaughtered,” Dean said. “When they got into Nashville, the Army of Tennessee was almost totally annihilated.”
With Longstreet, the brothers from Montgomery headed back to Virginia and “ended up in Petersburg.” Clayton Wilson was at Appomattox when the war ended. “He was on horseback,” Dean said.
Wilson and other Confederate soldiers in the area “didn’t know if they were going to jail or what their terms were going to be.” So Wilson and others simply left the area – headed for their homes.
In Wilson’s journal, he wrote of his travels and mentioned the places where the spent the nights – usually at a family’s home. “That became a fascination for me,” Dean said.
Dean took horse to Appomattox and began retracing Wilson’s route to Montgomery. “I found eight of the 16 houses where Clayton stayed. It was quite an adventure,” he said.
Dean traveled 365 miles in 15 days. He was amazed to find “the roads had not changed all that much.”
He said the project was fascinating but also exhausting.
“I was so tired. I’ve never been so glad to get home,” Dean said. “I had been through some military duty I thought was pretty hard.”
He noted that Clayton Wilson made the same trek after nine months in the trenches of Petersburg with no way to leave and no showers or other modern conveniences. “I don’t know how they physically did it. To me, it seemed like an impossibility,” Dean said.
Dean’s experience was different in many ways from Clayton Wilson’s. Along the way, there often were ceremonies at sites associated with the ride. Sometimes reporters were present to ask Dean about the trek.
“It was hard to really reenact it like he did it,” Dean said.
There also were the peculiarities of Dean’s horse, who had a particular aversion to the color yellow. “If there was a yellow tractor in a field, I had to ride about three miles out of the way,” he said, and Dean dreaded meeting school buses.
He also told Coweta Guards about writing the book. “It took me probably a couple of years to do the whole thing,” Dean said.
“I don’t think it can be described properly,” Dean said, reflecting on the Wilson brothers’ wartime ordeal. The two probably would not have been able to deal with the deprivations of war in that period, “if they had not been farm boys,” the author said.
“I don’t think it’s possible for us today to know what they went through and what they suffered,” Dean said. He said he found it interesting that neither Clayton nor his brother wrote about suffering in the surviving papers from that time period.
“They just saw it as their duty,” Dean said.