Searching for Clayton Fain by Travis McDaniel
Three-quarters of a century separates Clayton Fain’s death from my birth, but I still feel I know this man. Certainly I’m aware of documented facts such as his being a lawyer in the small mountain town of Morganton, Georgia; serving in the state legislature for two terms in the mid-1850’s; and that he was elected to serve as one of the two representatives Fannin County sent to the capital in Milledgeville to help determine if Georgia would secede from the Union, as several other Southern states had already done.
But I’m not referring to those kinds of facts. I’m referring to the powerful empathy I developed for this man while researching his life and times for a planned magazine article. A man referred to by some as a “firebrand.” A man who had the intestinal fortitude to stand up for his belief that the Union should be preserved, and refused to sign the articles of secession once Georgia’s majority vote went against him. A man whose gritty subversive activities, although ineffective in the overall scope of the war, were nevertheless a zealous statement of where he stood. An ardent and blatant statement of defiance against a government he refused to recognize or condone. A position that could have easily gotten him hung for treason by his good neighbors. And I’m referring to his actions later in the war too, when he felt he could no longer stand helplessly on the sidelines and hope for the best. His conscience dictated he take positive action, and he heeded that call.
Slipping off to Yankeedom in East Tennessee, he sought authority from a Union commander there to form a Union regiment from like-minded Unionist and Confederate deserters hiding out in the remote tri-state mountain area of Georgia, Tennessee and North Carolina…a bold but rash action that ultimately led to his capture by a Confederate cavalry company, followed quickly by his execution in the middle of a lonely dirt road between Ducktown and Copperhill, Tennessee. Henry Robinson, a recruit captured with Fain, was taken across the Ocoee River into Georgia, tied to a tree along the Ellijay Road, and also executed.
When I learned the small cemetery in which Clayton Fain was buried was abandoned and completely overgrown, I felt a strong need, a personal obligation if you will, to locate his gravestone and clear the site. The gravesite of a man mostly forgotten with the passage of time. Maybe that effort would help me span the years and better connect to him.
My eyes strained to locate the marker as I picked my way through an overgrown thicket of briers, vines and saplings. After a long, fruitless search, and an increasing doubt I was at the right location, I finally saw the outline of what appeared to be the object of my quest, a gravestone dulled by age and neglect and almost obscured by vines and privet. I scrambled the final twenty yards on hands and knees before reaching the upright white marble stone. I felt a rush of emotions when I saw his name etched there, and placed my hand on the cold, algae-stained marble. This government marker, erected by a descendant in the 1970’s, marked the place he was laid to rest more than seven-score years ago by his Masonic Lodge brothers from the tri-state area. There alone with his marble memorial, I half expected some kind of transcendental emotion to overcome me, but that never happened. Instead, a feeling of deep melancholia covered me like an engulfing cloud.
The connection I sought would take more than the laying of hands on the Civil War marker furnished by the Department of Veterans Affairs. Maybe my writing about the events that led to his tragic, untimely death, and correcting misinformation about the identity of his captors and how he died would give me the attachment I wanted to make with this man. My story would not be the story of a traitor who went against the Confederacy, but of a patriot who stood for his country in the face of insurmountable odds. A man who was my kinsman, my first cousin, four times removed. Yes, that’s what I will do.