Full Pardon and Amnesty

By Geoff Davidson


Waco, Texas

My great-great-granddaddy was a farmer, a carpenter, and a reverend. He was also a traitor. James Thomas Davidson was born in South Carolina a few months before a spectacular 1833 meteor shower rained heavenly fire across the country and inspired the song "Stars Fell on Alabama," a fitting auspice for the man who would come to Alabama and begin our family history in my home state. 

I am a Baptist minister, born and raised in Dothan, Alabama, and living now in Waco, Texas. A recent exchange with some fellow clergy led me to examine my roots. But I'm not sure I was prepared for the spectral image that materialized when I looked at my great-great-grandfather’s full life. 

Before I dug deeper, I faintly smelled the salt and soil of his hard and dutiful life, scratching an existence from the same coastal-plain earth my father fortifies to better my mother's flowers. I heard the bells of Christmas and matrimony over James Thomas’ first marriage, which occurred when the family paused in Georgia on their way westward to Alabama. I heard the creaking of a casket being lowered at his life’s end. 

No matter the era, being a minister means being with people in the most joyous and most devastating moments of their lives. (It also means figuring out how to make your voice work in the pulpit when pollen turns the Southern sky a chalky yellow.) So, as a minister, I couldn't help but wonder what James Thomas and I have shared in this life. 

But when I looked deeper, I realized I had missed out entirely on one of my great-great-grandfather's most defining life experiences, which happened when Alabama's four decades of statehood came to an abrupt end on January 11, 1861, with a declaration of secession. 

That's where the traitor part comes in. 

James Thomas Davidson, or JT as he often styled his signature, signed up for the Confederate infantry in the spring of 1862. His unit saw a great deal of fighting, with decimating losses throughout Mississippi, including at the siege of Vicksburg. After a brief time being held captive, his unit revisited the hell of war at scenes of infamous carnage — like Lookout Mountain and the siege of Atlanta — before his military career, his unit, and the Confederacy all came to an end. He was enlisted for three years, and every single day he lived in open defiance of Article Three, Section 3 of the United States Constitution, which defines treason as "levying war" against the United States. 

Great-great-granddaddy was a traitor.

Despite his service to a national enemy, JT and a sea of Southerners like him got to pick up their lives after the war because they received a "full pardon and amnesty for the offense of treason against the United States" from the desk of President Andrew Johnson. 

I'm not sure how JT felt about it, but I have to say I like how things turned out. My great-grandfather, a son of JT's second marriage, wasn't born until a quarter-century after the Civil War ended. Without that “full pardon and amnesty,” I might never have been here. Thanks to his repatriation, none of JT's descendants had to worry about being citizens of the United States. On top of that, the Constitution guarantees the descendants of traitors cannot be held liable for an ancestor's actions. Not only will I never be forced to pay for JT's Confederate service, there are organizations I can join only because of it. 

I think that which haunts me the most about getting to know James Thomas is how inescapably close he feels to my own life. JT died in 1902, and my great-great-grandmother Alice died in 1927; their lives — and the memory of them — are fading from this world. But his grave is a short drive from my hometown. My own father knew JT's son. The Mississippi fields and cliffs where my great-great-grandfather drew blood are all around me when I visit my girlfriend, a Methodist minister in Jackson, Mississippi. 

Today, Mississippi remains a place of tears for many — people who long for half the grace shown to the Davidsons. On August 7, U.S. immigration authorities descended on towns near Jackson to conduct one of their largest raids ever, their departmental SUVs racing between the same towns through which JT marched and fought. Many children of those targeted were at their first day of school, leaving educators, administrators, and even bus drivers scrambling to discern what to do with children who no longer had someone to welcome them home. 

My girlfriend, her ministerial colleagues, and various other Mississippi community leaders have been working feverishly to do all they can for those affected. I'm writing this in the same room in Jackson where she's on a conference call about their next steps. I can't look away from these children and their parents any more than I can avoid seeing JT marching to Vicksburg. 

The past, present, and future of the South are all right here.

James Thomas Davidson levied war against the United States, while those arrested today committed only immigration misdemeanors in desperate attempts to provide for their loved ones. 

JT was restored to his community, while their communities are separated, with children unable to be reunited with their parents.

I can be honored today for my family's past, while others see their family members shamed by pundits. I get to wax poetic about the lawlessness in my family; meanwhile, children cry to television cameras in the hope that someone will respond to their pain. 

I have the right to talk about "law and order" consequences for those striving for a better life in America, yet that right stands firmly on the shoulders of a region-wide waiving of consequences. 

Folks, where are our manners? I thought we were Southerners. 

I was raised to cheer for families, respect hard work, and welcome others. I can't rightfully do any of those things while ignoring how others are hurting. Such a short time ago in the life of the South, we found a way to restore James Thomas Davidson to his family and to honor the efforts he made to take care of them. 

Being proud of where I come from means I have to ask the same for our new neighbors, too.