Wednesday, May 24, 2017

'Forrest Gump' author's great-great-grandfather was born in Wilcox County, Alabama

"Forrest Gump" author Winston Groom.
A couple of months ago, my young son and I took a daytrip to Mississippi to visit the Vicksburg National Military Park. We spent a full day there touring the large park, which preserves the site of the epic Civil War battle and resulting siege that occurred there between May and July in 1863.

I’ve always been interested in the Civil War events at Vicksburg because my third-great-grandfather Benjamin Franklin Burge had fought there with the 38th Mississippi Infantry Regiment. During the tour of the battlefield park, we found several historical markers that mentioned his regiment, but I left the park with the deep realization of just little I really knew about Vicksburg’s Civil War history.

I decided to “read up” on Vicksburg, and the first book that I turned to was “Vicksburg, 1863” by Winston Groom. Groom, who lives in Point Clear in Baldwin County, is best known for his 1986 novel, “Forrest Gump,” which was made into an Academy Award-winning movie in 1994.

In addition to his novels, Groom has written more than a dozen nonfiction books, including several books about the Civil War. In his introduction to “Vicksburg, 1863,” which was published in 2010, Groom noted that in all of his previous war histories, he’d had a close relative in the conflict and that he “found these direct links with the past particularly gratifying while writing the books.” He went on to say that he undertook the book about Vicksburg with a “little trepidation” because he knew of no family link between himself and the Civil War events there.

However, that all changed when Groom received an e-mail from a distant cousin who was an expert on Groom family history. This cousin told Groom that his family moved in the 1830s from Virginia and North Carolina to Wilcox County, “about a hundred miles up the Alabama River from Mobile, in the heart of the black belt, at that time the greatest cotton-growing region in the nation – maybe in the world.”

“There, in 1832, at a place named Snow Hill, was born one James Wright Groom, who would become my great-great-grandfather,” Groom wrote in his introduction. “In 1862, one year into the Civil War, he rode a short distance over to Meridian, Mississippi, and joined the Fourth Mississippi Cavalry Regiment – the so-called East Mississippi Dragoons. Why he chose to enlist in Mississippi instead of Alabama is anybody’s guess, but the records show that’s what he did.”

As fighting around Vicksburg intensified, the Fourth Mississippi was sent there to reinforce the thousands of Confederates that were already there defending the “Gibraltar of the Confederacy.” Groom said he’s not sure what role his second-great-grandfather played in all this, but no records show that he was captured or wounded. “From all indications, he never rose higher than a private, but the records show he wasn’t a deserter or a coward, and he fought on till the bitter end.”

After the war, James Wright Groom moved to Mobile, where he became a marine engineer. According to the May 31, 1906 edition of The Mobile Register, “he won a high standing in this profession and was one of the best-known engineers on the river.” The newspaper also noted that he was a “highly respected citizen of Mobile.”

This coming Tuesday – May 30 – will mark the 111th anniversary of his death, for it was on May 30, 1906 that James Wright Groom died at his family home in Mobile at the age of 74. If you travel to Magnolia Cemetery in Mobile today, you’ll find there among the thousands of graves where he is buried beside his wife, Mary E. Groom, many miles from his birthplace in Wilcox County.

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