By J. L. Starkey
If you’re gonna make a difference– Carl Jackson, Larry Cordle, Bruce Bouton
If you’re gonna leave your mark
You can’t follow like a bunch of sheep
You got to listen to your heart
“He ate what?” I asked in disbelief.
“Oh sure…my grandma’s father ate saltines in buttermilk,” mom said. “The kids thought it was gross.”
Suddenly, I stopped talking. Now it all made sense. Of course he did that, probably because he didn’t know how to make cornbread. I would bet that no one in his family knew how to make good southern cornbread, so my great-great-grandfather settled for the (admittedly disgusting) alternative of saltine crackers in buttermilk. Maybe he ate that peculiar snack when he was thinking of his childhood in Virginia and remembering the good old days. Or maybe he ate it to remind himself of why he left Virginia in the first place .
I can relate to this man in his quest to blaze his own trail. It can be a lonely place, this black sheep territory. He probably felt like he was out of place for most of his life.
He was born into a family steeped in tradition, and his southern roots were Gone-with-the-Wind-deep. His family was supportive, loving, and well-respected in Richmond.
And yet…and yet…he left it all behind.
He left his traditions, he left his family, and he left his roots. He was the first in his family to relocate to “Yankee” territory, a move that probably horrified some while it delighted others.
Not all rebels were Confederate soldiers. In the post-reconstruction south, my great-great-grandfather, William Everett Baugh, may have been the biggest rebel of all.
Who was Willie Baugh?
Born in 1869 in the shadow of the fallen Confederate capital, William was the youngest child of Everett Wingfield and Ann Eliza (Bass) Baugh . He grew up during the turbulent reconstruction era and found his calling early in life. Willie, as he was sometimes called, inherited his forefathers’ talent for woodworking; as an adult, he would own a cabinet and upholstery shop with his uncle-in-law, George Payne O’Neill .
In an era where southern men followed family traditions, William seemed hell-bent on doing things his own way. By seventeen, he was working in the upholstery business and living on his own . At eighteen he met his future wife, and within days of turning nineteen, he was a married man .
About that wedding…
William and Melcena were married on 4 July 1887 at First Presbyterian Church in Washington, D.C. . It was tempting to assume that the teenagers had eloped, perhaps to avoid a scandal of some sort. Those things happened, right?
After a search of news articles, though, I discarded that theory pretty quickly. The marriage was announced immediately in D.C. and Richmond newspapers with instructions for Chicago papers to copy the news. Sure, the families may have been trying to keep up appearances, but something seemed wrong with that theory. I decided to research the church and officiant a bit more to learn the rest of the story. Just who was this Rev. B. Sunderland, anyway?
It didn’t take long to find answers, and those answers led to two conclusions. First, this marriage was no secret. And second…William Baugh was one outspoken rebel.
Initially, I wondered why William married so far from home when his family had strong connections to their local Methodist church. William’s father had a lengthy history of service to the church, and his niece had even been named in honor of the church’s minister .
Despite his family’s history and traditions, William chose (yet again) to go his own way when he and Melcena married in that D.C. church. But wait right there – you see, this was not just any church . Indeed, this was the church known as “Old First” in the D.C. area, and it counted presidents and senators among its members. At the time of William’s wedding, its senior pastor was a close friend of President Grover Cleveland!
Reverend Byron Sunderland was, by all accounts, ahead of his time, and he was not afraid to ruffle a few old south feathers. In 1853, he began a 45-year tenure as Senior Pastor of Old First. According to records, Sunderland began preaching in favor of abolition in 1857, an action that was called courageous “…in a city that was essentially a conservative Southern town.” An advisor to President Lincoln, Sunderland would later serve as Chaplain of the Senate during the Civil War .
In 1866, Sunderland would make headlines when he invited Frederick Douglass to speak at Old First. Some Richmond and D.C. papers would respond unfavorably to this courageous action, with one heavily-editorialized account calling it a “desecration” to the church .
Sunderland did not let cruel words and prejudice dissuade him from his calling, and he continued to minister to the nation’s leaders. Just one year before William and Melcena’s wedding, he officiated at the marriage of president Grover Cleveland and Frances Folsom. The wedding was the headline-grabbing event of the summer, and news stories gushed about everything from the vows to the decorations to the guests’ attire .
A secret elopement in a distant city for William and Melcena? Hardly.
With his history in D.C. and Virginia and his dedication to the cause of abolition, Byron Sunderland was a well-known minister. Additionally, his connections to politicians and the D.C. elite surely meant that he was a busy man. Arranging for him to officiate at an Independence Day wedding – in our nation’s capitol, no less – must have taken careful planning (along with a bit of cash, I assume).
Reverend Sunderland was respected in many circles but reviled in others, especially in the former capitol of the Confederacy. Still, William and Melcena chose him to officiate at their wedding, and then someone (presumably William’s father) announced that fact in the Richmond papers.
Was William sending a message to his friends, family, and the Richmond community?
I believe that William’s choice had a deeper meaning, and that he was making a statement to his family and friends regarding who he was and who he wanted to be. Shortly after the wedding, he and Melcena left Richmond for good.
By 1890, William and Melcena had settled in Chicago, where William remained for the rest of his life. I often wonder if he endured harsh comments when people learned of his southern roots. Was he stereotyped? Did people assume that he supported slavery, or that he was stuck in the ways of the old south?
How wrong they would have been, and how much they would have learned if they had known the rest of his story. I am so proud to call this courageous and rebellious southern gentleman my great-great-grandfather.
If William had a theme song, it would probably be “Against the Grain.” It’s a well-known song that was made famous by the husband of a distant Baugh cousin (but that’s a story for another time, isn’t it?). For now, I’ll have a look at William’s photo while I imagine him saying:
I have been accused of makin’ my own rules.
There must be rebel blood just a-runnin’ through my veins.
But I ain’t no hypocrite.
What you see is what you get.
And that’s the only way I know to play the game.
- Cornbread and buttermilk is a traditional southern treat! Learn more at https://www.southernthing.com/why-cornbread-and-milk-is-the-ultimate-southern-treat-2593296467.html.
- “United States Census, 1870,” database with images, FamilySearch (https://familysearch.org/ark:/61903/3:1:S3HT-6QVB-S2?cc=1438024&wc=92KW-T3L%3A518656301%2C519031901%2C519146401 : 22 May 2014), Virginia>Chesterfield>Revenue District 2, Manchester>image 15 of 38; citing NARA microfilm publication M593 (Washington, D.C.: NARA, n.d.).
- According to the 1850 census, William’s grandfather, James S. Bass, was a carpenter. See: 1850 United States Federal Census [database on-line]. Provo, UT, USA: Ancestry.com Operations, Inc., 2009. Images reproduced by FamilySearch. Virginia>Lower, Chesterfield> Roll: M432_940; Page: 149A; Image: 302. Retrieved from Ancestry.com. William’s great-great-grandfather, James Shackelford, was also a carpenter around the time of the American Revolution. See: Burroughs, Paul H., Southern Antiques. New York: Bonanza Books, 1931, p. 6.
- Richmond, Virginia, City Directory, 1886, p. 118, col. 2. U.S. City Directories, 1822-1995 [database on-line]. Provo, UT, USA: Ancestry.com Operations, Inc., 2011.
- “District of Columbia Marriages, 1811-1950,” database with images, FamilySearch (https://familysearch.org/ark:/61903/3:1:939V-4N9K?cc=1803979&wc=3FT6-PTP%3A1584493301 : 26 May 2015), 004281821 > image 1699 of 1771; Records Office, Washington D.C.
- “Marriages,” The Richmond Dispatch, Richmond, Virginia, 6 Jul 1887, p. 3, col. 5. Retrieved from newspapers.com.
- “A Good Man Gone,” Richmond Dispatch, 23 Jan 1902, p. 5,col. 4. Retrieved from newspapers.com. (Note: William’s niece was named Robena Vanderslice Baugh, probably to honor the pastor of family’s church, George C. Vanderslice. See “Manchester and Vicinity,” Daily Dispatch, Richmond, Virginia, 14 Jan 1878, p. 1, col. 6. Retrieved from newspapers.com; and Virginia Department of Health; Richmond,Virginia; Virginia Deaths, 1912-2014. Robena Vanderslice Baughan; 1926> 03630-04165> image 134 of 591. Retrieved from ancestry.com.).
- “The Marriage,” The Richmond Dispatch, 3 Jun 1886, p. 3, col. 3. Retrieved from newspapers.com.
- “History of the National Presbyterian Church,” retrieved from
- “Letter from Washington,” Richmond Dispatch, 15 February 1866, p. 4, col. 1. Retrieved from newspapers.com.
- “125 Years Ago: Nice Day for A White House Wedding,” History.com staff – https://www.history.com/news/125-years-ago-nice-day-for-a-white-house-wedding. (See also: “The Marriage of the President,” Alexandria Gazette, Alexandria, Virginia, 3 Jun 1886, vol. 87, p. 3, col. 3-4. Retrieved from genealogybank.com.)