Monday, May 02, 2011

More Than A Marker

There is no more beautiful place to ride a motorcycle than through the hills and dales and forests and farms and across the rivers and lakes of northern Durham on sweet, winding two-laners.

My route often passes a historic marker noting the life and death there of U.S. Senator Willie Preston Mangum (1792-1861) but it makes no mention that next to his grave, not far from there and just off the roadway, lies that of his son and only child, Lt. William Preston Mangum.williemangum_grave_031009

Mangum was elected to the U.S. House for three years in 1823 and then as U.S. Senator from North Carolina (next to last to ratify the U.S. Constitution) from 1831 to 1836 and then again from 1840 to 1853.  Elected to the State Legislature in his 20’s, he devoted his life to public service.

His experience in governing was dominated by issues that were euphemisms for slavery, the “elephant in the room” left unresolved during the nation-making that followed the Revolutionary War.  In a way that still typifies people who live in Durham today, Mangum was iconoclastic.

Some examples surrounding issues that sound familiar today:



  • Mangum also bucked the State legislature and opposed Jackson’s destruction of the National Bank in part on grounds it was unfair to slave (agrarian) states, a move that threw the nation into a deep and long recession, much as threats about the debt ceiling could do today.


  • He was deeply involved in shaping compromises to preserve the Union, yet Mangum sided with South Carolina’s insistence then, as it would again thirty years later, that it could opt-out of any law passed by the Federal Government to which it didn’t agree, much as some want to do with healthcare reform today.


  • While representing a slave state, Mangum was a constant friend of the Eastern Cherokee during the struggles following Jackson’s Indian Removal Act that relocated five settled and civilized Southern tribes to lands west of the Mississippi River.


Following retirement from public life, Mangum’s health deteriorated as he watched former fellow-Whig, Abraham Lincoln, struggle to hold the Union together, the secession of South Carolina 150 years ago this month, followed by the secession of next-to-last North Carolina a month later.

I can imagine what was running through the old Senator’s mind as his only child enlisted as one of 50 members of the Flat River Guard under Captain Robert Webb and then deployed two months later under then Colonel Stonewall Jackson in Prince William County, Virginia at the First Battle of Manassas (aka Bull Run to the North) as part of the 6th North Carolina and the Third Brigade of then Brigadier General Joseph E. Johnston’s Army of the Shenandoah.

Young Lt. William Preston Mangum was cut down on July 21, 1861 taking Henry House Hill, a key Federal artillery position.  He died on the 30th, one of 5,000 casualties in that fist major land battle and one of the first casualties from a state that would suffer more than any other.

It must have broken the old Senator’s heart both for the loss of his son and the apocalyptic nature of things to come.  He died of a stroke two months later.

Fast forward four years and the same General Joseph E. Johnston who had commanded young Lt. Mangum at the First Battle of Manassas met in Durham at what is now called Bennett Place. This was just a few miles south of the twin Mangum graves where he negotiated with Union General William Tecumseh Sherman the surrender that effectively ended the Civil War and restoration of the Union.

Durham quickly led North Carolina into each of the nation’s three Industrial Revolutions and beyond, first with manufacturing and then today with an economy centered around research and development, technology, biotech, pharma-manufacturing and higher education.

Now 150 years since his passing, Senator Mangum would smile as we celebrate the first anniversary of Bull City Forward and Durham’s prominence as a center for social innovation and entrepreneurship.

But he would also shake his head at some of the issues that threaten the Union, even today.

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