By Phillip J. Chesser
Although my accent only hints at my Tidewater Virginia origins because I have lived all over the country and traveled the world, I am nonetheless an American Southerner by ancestry and by inclination. My ancestors landed on the Eastern Shore of Virginia in 1635. My great, great, great… How many greats? I would have to go back to the genealogy and count … grandfather John Chesser (then spelled Cheshire) was a soldier in the Continental Army during the War of Independence. My great-grandfather’s brother Richard Chesser fought for the Confederacy as a soldier of the Maryland Line, Confederate Infantry in the Second War of Independence. He survived the war only to drown in 1867.
Yes, Maryland did not secede from the Union — Mr. Lincoln jailed the secessionists in the state legislature — but many Marylanders fought for the South. During the war both my great-grandfathers were jailed briefly in the Union Prison at Point Lookout, Maryland, for suspected smuggling on Potomac River. Both skippered sailing workboats.
I grew up in the Virginia suburbs of Washington, D.C., at a time when the second Northern invasion had only just begun to change the sleepy Southern character of not only suburban Virginia and Maryland but also of Washington, D.C. My high school was named Washington-Lee and many rose and cheered when the band played Dixie at Friday night football games.
In school we were taught about Virginia’s indispensable role in the founding of the nation. The Father of our Country, George Washington, as well as Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, George Mason, Patrick Henry, and John Randolph, was a Virginian. Virginia provided four distinguished Presidents: Washington, Jefferson, Madison, and Monroe. Virginia also produced the great Southern Generals Robert E. Lee and Thomas Jonathan “Stonewall” Jackson.
As part of my continuing education I have also learned to appreciate and enjoy the South’s many cultural contributions, especially to American literature. In America’s post World War I days, Northern writers lacked the story telling ability of Southerners. No equivalents to William Faulkner, Thomas Wolfe, Erskine Caldwell, Flannery O’Connor, Shelby Foote, Walker Percy, Eudora Welty, Katherine Ann Porter, Zora Neale Hurston, or Richard Wright emerged in the North. “The omnipresence of the scriptures in the Southern Imagination” accounts for the Southern writer’s story telling ability. Georgia native Flannery O’Connor writes about how “The Hebrew genius for making the absolute concrete has conditioned the Southerner’s way of looking at things… Our response to life is different if we have been taught only a definition of faith than if we have trembled with Abraham as he held the knife over Isaac.”
The South was also blessed with the literary contributions of the Southern Agrarians so prominent at Vanderbilt in the 1920s. Probably the best known to contemporary readers is Robert Penn Warren who wrote the novel All the King’s Men, about a Huey Long type character, which has been made into movies twice, first with Broderick Crawford as Willie Stark, more recently with Sean Penn in the same role.
I come from a family of story tellers, especially my father who told endless stories of his boyhood sailing with my grandfather on the Chesapeake Bay, of my grandparents, uncles, and cousins, and of his adventures during the 1930s as skipper of the luxury yachts Panchax and La Gonave, owned by multimillionaire William K. Ryan and moored in season at the Capital Yacht Club in Washington, D.C. Most of the young men my father and our cousins knew and worked with at the yacht club grew up on the banks of the Potomac River near its mouth, my father on St. George Island in Maryland, others across the river in Virginia.
Both of my great-grandmothers on my father’s side came from Virginia when the war ended. One, Tabitha Elizabeth Stevens Chesser (1848-1909), went across the Potomac to St. George Island to live with and work for my great, great grandfather and grandmother. Illiterate at the time, she was fortunate that my great, great grandparents boarded the school teacher, who taught her to read and write.
Although I love my Southern history, I love something else more: Southern manners. When I retired in 1998 I traveled to various places up and down the East Coast looking for a place to light. I finally decided to settle here in Tennessee because the people are so nice. People here smile, ask if you are all right, give way happily and allow others to pass — not only in stores but in their cars — and laugh easily. Who would want to live anywhere else?