This month, John Charles Mc-Donald, an 85-year-old retired Vidalia onion farmer and son of a Confederate soldier, was buried. The Georgia branch of the Sons of Confederate Veterans put out an announcement that mourned the death of its last “Real Son.”
It marked the “end of an era,” the organization said, the passing of the last remnant of a time when gallant men fought “innumerable masses of Yankee invaders.”
Luckily for H.V. Booth, the press release was premature.
Reached by phone, the 93-year-old Elberton resident chuckled at the news. “I’m still kicking,” he said.
Booth’s daddy, like McDonald’s, was a Rebel. And now, with McDonald’s passing, it seems Booth has achieved a unique status. Not only is he a rare Real Son, as the SCV calls such historical and long-living curiosities, he is most likely Georgia’s Last Son. Sitting in the dining room of his small home about 100 miles east of Atlanta last week, Booth considered his distinction with a shrug.
“Is that an honor?” he asked. He seemed equally happy discussing a tasty chicken-and-gravy dinner he had just consumed or enjoying a conversation with his great-niece. It’s the small pleasures that keep him going.
He smiled thinking of his father, Isham John-son Booth, a country boy from the area who signed up at age 16 to fight in the Civil War and later lived a hard, austere life, eking out a living as a farmer.
“My daddy was 72 years old when I was born,” H.V. said. “I tell that to people and they say, ‘What a man. What a man.’ “
Henry Victor Booth was Isham’s 12th and last child. His mother, a pretty redhead named Miranda Lue, was 38 and a widow.
As the 20th century dawned, “a lot of the old soldiers had young women taking care of them,” said Ben Sewell, national executive director of the Sons of Confederate Veterans. “When the old men died, they got widows’ pensions.”
Booth’s mother received $25 a month after his father’s death in 1934 at age 87. (The old vet was still picking 90 to 100 pounds of cotton a day not long before his death.) His widow received a pension until her death in 1968. By then, it was $110 a month.
Sewell acknowledged the Georgia’s SCV branch jumped the gun on writing off the state’s last Real Son, adding that they are a vanishing breed. In late 2010, a national count found about 32 known Real Sons still living. With McDonald’s passing last week, there are 18 left.
The dearth of Real Sons has caused the SCV to start honoring Real Grandsons, said Sewell, whose great-grandfather, George Washing-ton Sewell, was wounded at the Battle of Atlanta in 1864.
Guard at a hellhole
After enlisting, the young Isham Booth — no relation to John Wilkes Booth (the family has checked) — was assigned to be a guard at Camp Sumter, which became known as the hellish Andersonville prison. The compound started holding Union prisoners in early 1864. By August, more than 32,000 forlorn POWs were packed into a squalid 26.5-acre pen with a befouled stream running through it.
Almost 13,000 prisoners died of disease, starvation and exposure to 100-degree days and freezing rains.
Isham didn’t talk much about the camp, other than telling his son, “It was the awfulest thing he had ever seen,” his son recalls. “There were dead Yankees laying everywhere. No clothes, no food, no medicine. Just awful.”
He sometimes recounted to his son the story of a lightning strike at the camp, which opened up a spring that provided dying prisoners with water. It became known as Providence Spring.
But there wasn’t much time to converse at the Booth home. “He believed in working,” Booth said. “He said a poor man didn’t need anything but a burial plot.”
Son saw his own war
Life was often hard for the son, too. In 1943, H.V. Booth signed up for the Navy. He was assigned to a landing craft in the Pacific and witnessed some of World War II’s most ferocious battles: Saipan, Guam, Iwo Jima and Okinawa.
Back home, he owned a car dealership but later went broke, losing the business and his home.
He has buried two wives and both sons. “It’s not supposed to happen that way,” he said.
Last year, he was asked to attend a Confederate Memorial Day ceremony at Andersonville and toured that horrible place his daddy long tried to forget. During the event, he slipped away, filled a bottle with water from the famous spring, ignoring a sign warning the water was contaminated. He took a sip of the spring that allowed many Yankees long ago to survive.
Asked why he did it, Booth said he was curious.
“Curiosity killed the cat,” he added, laughing, “but I survived.”