I grew up in the South in the 1960’s and 1970’s. The world I grew up in was still pockmarked with the scars from the Civil War (or The War of Northern Aggression, as we call it). The scars were not obvious, but they were not hidden either. The indentations left from horseshoes on the altar of an Episcopal church. A union officer rode his horse down the aisle up on the altar and took over the church as his headquarters. Then there were scorch marks on the baptismal brazier, union soldiers used it to cook chicken in.
Then there are the people too, a sharecropper trying to eke out a living for his family on another man’s land. When he did not produce enough crops for the landowner, he and his family were kicked off the land and out of the house that went with the land. What happened to the little farm? The landowner’s slaves replaced the sharecropper, and life went on. Yet, when the war started this man, this poor sharecropper, donned a grey coat and left his family to fight the Yankees. I knew this man did not fight to protect slavery; he had to compete against slave labor to feed his family.
Our schoolbooks were written in the north. Schoolteachers who were born in the north (most of them) told us no atrocities were committed against Southerners and the war had been fought to end slavery and for no other reason. So, as a boy I learned to doubt the accepted version of Southern history, I adopted the Missouri motto “show me.” I had to verify for myself what was factual and what was not. I learned the old adage “the victor writes the history books.”
As I became a man and moved north, I began to wonder if what I learned about Southern history applied to all history. Was Napoleon really the megalomaniac we were taught, the anti-Christ Nostradamus predicted? About this time, I began to read about a French doctor, a simple family physician, who left his field of chosen endeavor to stand up for his country and defend it with arms. What this man taught me was that the victor does write the history books, and that even a simple family doctor is capable of extraordinary things in extraordinary times.
This simple doctor who changed my approach to history is the man I want to introduce you to next.