John Given was in the Siege of Atlanta as a Union soldier. Do you find it ironic, or at least interesting, that a number of his descendants live in the Atlanta area?
—Pam Greer, Carrollton, Georgia
Pam, I think John Given might be more surprised than I am that some of his descendants, including you and your children and grandchildren, are Georgians. But it does feel ironic to me that he went to Atlanta to fight against the South, while a number of his descendants now actually live there. Of course, the tension between North and South didn’t go away with the Civil War—far from it—but it was so very, very extreme during the period when John came to America and then went to war as a Union soldier. I’m sure the idea of living in the South himself would have seemed more than strange to him.
John spent some of his enlistment period with Sherman—not when Sherman was marching through Georgia on his rampage, but in the earlier period when he’d taken command from Grant, and his troops had begun decimating everything that could support the Southern war effort. Even if John had had a desire to live in the South, he would have realized how battered it was by the war and, as a man who was wary of what welcome he and his family might receive even in certain circles in New Harmony, he would have certainly doubted his acceptance there, and of course known that, given the devastation, Southern poverty and hardship after the war would be extreme. He might have thought life would be as challenging there as it had been in Ireland.
But John’s post-war letters do indicate his perfect willingness to go back to Memphis, where he’d spent a good part of the war. He was ready to head there to do business for his employer. In general, he was a man who kept an eye out for an opportunity that could benefit him and his family, and it’s clear he didn’t disdain setting foot on what had been enemy territory. I think of him as having a clear immigrant’s desire to take advantage of what America offered, and I feel he would have recognized his descendants’ desire to pursue opportunities in the South. That would include your father’s choice to marry a very attractive and interesting Southern woman. In fact, given his pursuit of Ann Bradley, maybe John would have identified particularly with that.
There are other factors that could have made John comfortable with the idea of having descendants living in the South—and even as he knew it without the economic changes that have occurred in recent decades. New Harmony is so far south in Indiana that it’s practically in Kentucky. Though it raised a northern regiment, there would have been a lot of border town Southern sentiment in the area and John would have been aware of it and, as an Irishman, perhaps sympathetic to the part that resisted governmental fiat. There’s also the interesting fact that the name Given is Scots-Irish in origin. If John had ancestors who’d emigrated from Scotland, he might have been comfortable with some of the folkways he would have encountered among the Southern Scots-Irish. And he certainly would have realized it was part happenstance that, as an immigrant, he wound up in the North instead of the South and in the Union army instead of the Confederate.
Mostly, I think John’s eagerness to see as much of the country as he could—an interest he expresses in his letters—might suggest that some of his descendants inherited a curiosity about trying a place that feels culturally new to them, while some of the others might share the desire of his later years: to simply stay home.