It is a rare opportunity to see Southern culture and history combined with one’s own family history being portrayed in a novel – and then being made into a movie, but I have that privilege. I had known that the novel So Red The Rose, written by Stark Young, was about my ancestors. What I had not been aware of was that it was made into a movie. The movie was produced by Paramount Pictures in 1935 (4 years before Gone With The Wind). In the book, the Bowling Green Plantation is called Montrose, hence the title So Red The Rose. Mr. Young was my 4th cousin a couple times removed and based several of his novels on the history of the McGehee family – primarily the families of Hugh McGehee and his son Edward. They were my first cousins several times removed. In the movie the focus is on their neighbors, the Bedford family; the McGehee family plays only a very minor role (they ride up to the plantation to gather horses and men to join the battle).
[07/23/2013 – edited to remove YouTube video clip that no longer exists]
The history that it is based on is the life of a prominent Mississippi planter, Edward McGehee. They lived at Bowling Green Plantation, just outside of Woodville, Mississippi. On October 6, 1864, Union troops routed the Confederates and then galloped up to Bowling Green Plantation which the Confederates had used as their headquarters. The Union soldiers dragged out Edward McGehee, his wife, and daughters, then burned the house. Today, only the porch columns remain, rising out of the undergrowth.
In the fall of 1864, the family of seventy-eight-year-old Judge Edward McGehee of Wilkinson County was subjected to even more egregious treatment by troops of the Third United States Colored Cavalry. On October 6, this unit, commanded by Major J. B. Cook, raided Judge McGehee’s Bowling Green plantation; ransacked the mansion; ordered the judge, his wive and their three daughters to vacate the house within twenty minutes; and burned it to the ground. The pretext for this vindictive act was simply that McGehee had been providing food to Confederate troops in the vicinity. Alerted by a pal of smoke rising over Bowling Green and by the tearful pleas of a faithful McGehee servant, a neighbor rushed to the scene and found “the House in ashes & the family sitting in the yard with a small pile of wearing apparel,” virtually the only items saved from the house. During the course of the incident, according to family members, both the judge and his wife were physically abused by the Negro soldiers. Major Cook, however, categorically denied that any of this men had struck either of the elderly residents. “I would have shot any one on sight had I witnessed such a thing,” he declared vehemently. By all accounts, McGehee behaved with exemplary dignity and restraint throughout the entire ordeal. Whatever the truth concerning the alleged assaults, Major Cook later conceded that the order from his superior to burn Bowling Green was “very cruel and very unjustifiable.”1
A Harvard University study concluded that Woodville, Mississippi (incorporated in 1811) best typified a Southern town preserving the traditions, customs, and culture of the antebellum South.
The McGehees had originally emigrated from Scotland to Virginia in the seventeenth century, pushed south to Georgia, and then moved westward first to Alabama, then Mississippi, and eventually, even to Texas. The influence of this enormous, sprawling family upon Young cannot be overstated. From them he received a lasting admiration for family life, a sense of belonging, an awareness of his own identity, and a commitment to high personal standards of honor and integrity. Much of Young’s Southerness and his agrarian humanism derives from the McGehees to whom he always referred as “my people.”
Edward McGehee was a successful planter by any definition of the word. He owned 29,800 acres of land and 825 slaves. His estate before the war has been conservatively placed at $2,717,000. His good friend, President Zachary Taylor, said of him, “the best man I ever knew… I have known him to lift a drunkard from the road into his buggy and take him home.” He offered him the office of Secretary of the Treasury, but Edward declined, preferring the independence of a private gentleman.
- Masters of the Big House: Elite Slaveholders of the Mid-nineteenth-century South, by William Kauffman Scarborough
Page 369 ↩
- From Lives of Mississippi Writers, 1817 – 1967 ↩
- Ref:”Edw. McGehee of Bowling Green Plantation, MS” by John Hanson Kennard as quoted in McGehee Descendants, Vol. III) ↩
- Some information in this post came from the March 1980 issue of Southern Living, and some came from McGehee Descendants by Ethel C. Woodall Grider ↩