Novelist autographs copies of his book

Published 12:08 am Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Staff Writer

John Burgwyn was all the buzz in Bath this past Saturday as he talked about his novel, “Kinchen,” and autographed copies for readers at the Noe Building.
Friends of Bath Community Library welcomed Burgwyn for a book-signing for his first novel. Winnifred Webster, librarian for Bath Community Library, said she was pleased Burgwyn explained the reasoning behind his decision to write the book.
“It was very good to have him here and share his story with everyone,” she said.
Burgwyn named his first novel after one of the book’s main characters, Kinchen, a free black man considered a part of a Southern family before, during and after the Civil War.
As a Southerner living in a historically- rich area, it was no surprise to Burgwyn that he would go to college and receive a bachelor’s degree in history from Virginia Tech.
Burgwyn spent several months doing research for the book and discovered more than he thought he would be able to write about.
“Though Kinchen was a black man in the Civil War era, he was not a slave and was seen as an equal in the white family he was attached to,” Burgwyn said. “Which was obviously very rare in those times.”
In his research, Burgwyn found more than 200 letters and several journals to write from.
“Thank goodness my family was a bunch of pack rats,” he said jokingly. “Had it not been for those letters and journals, I would’ve never been able to write this story, or find out so much about my family history.”
Burgwyn did more research than what he had anticipated, such as going through journals, plantation records and libraries filled with information.
“Then I had to figure out how to do the hard part,” he said, “which was to tell the story.”
Burgwyn said he was more interested in the cause and effect of the war.
“And once you delve into that, you really see how much that it wasn’t really necessary,” he said. “The country kind of went crazy for awhile. It’s kind of like a watershed of our history.
“As far as the effects go, well, we’re still under the effects really.”
He said, “One thing I learned is that history isn’t black and white. It’s gray and very complex, and is usually colored by the victorious.”
According to Burgwyn, there was good and bad on both sides, which he said made it even harder to deal with. However, that is the reason he wanted to write a story that dealt with the very essence of war and really portray a good story.
“I wanted to write something that wasn’t good or bad, black or white, right or wrong,” he said. “I wanted to show all the complexities of the time, both North and South — in plantation life and the politics of the time and the ideals of the South.”
He said though his family fought hard for the South, some family members were born and raised in the North.
“Half of my family, back then, was born in Boston and the other half was born in the South,” he said.
One of the people Burgwyn writes about is his great-great-grandfather, Harry Burgwyn, also known as the Boy Colonel of the Confederacy.
According to Burgwyn, Harry Burgwyn graduated first in his class from the University of North Carolina at the age of 17. He was at Virginia Military Institute when war broke out.
“At the age of 19, he was a captain and then elected to be a lieutenant colonel,” Burgwyn said. “His colonel won the governor’s election about a year later, so Harry then becomes a full bird colonel at the age of 20. And that’s why he’s known as Harry Burgwyn, the Boy Colonel of the Confederacy.”
Burgwyn said his ancestor was an exceptionally bright and mature young man for his age, and one who was responsible in the training of his soldiers.
“His regiment was one of the best-drilled and largest regiments,” he said. “He had almost 800 men by the time they went to Gettysburg.”
After that portion of the book comes the story of Kinchen, who had been raised on the Burgwyn plantations.
“Kinchen’s family had died, and he was an orphan,” Burgwyn said. “He became basically a caregiver to the horses and became a jockey because he was so small.”
Burgwyn said Kinchen and Harry Burgwyn were playmates when they were children, but then Burgwyn was sent away to school year-round and rarely came home.
Kinchen traveled with Burgwyn during his two years at war.
“There’s really nothing written by Kinchen, but instead things written about him by those who knew him,” Burgwyn said.
The book also addresses slavery.
During the war, there were hundreds of thousands of freed slaves and free blacks in the South, he said.
Burgwyn touches on many controversial things during the Civil War era, such as slavery being more along the lines of a method of control.
“It was socially an institution of control,” he said, “and was actually cheaper to hire free blacks to work rather than to house and feed slaves.
“It was really a sad time, and millions were in bondage. It was really a sad event and a sad story in our history, in all respects.”
Burgwyn said he wrote the book so readers could get an intimate look at those times.
“I want them to make their own assumptions and draw their own conclusions,” he said. “And I think the readers feel that they were brought there, rather than being told what happened in those times.”