The death of retired University of Mississippi historian Dr. David Sansing is an event that should give all Mississippians pause, for we have lost one of the great, important voices urging our state to move forward.
One of the most difficult things for native Mississippians to do is to see Mississippi – warts and all – for what it is while maintaining fervent hopes and aspirations for what our state can ultimately become. Dr. Sansing possessed that dual vision to perhaps a greater depth than anyone I’ve known.
He was a prolific scholar and author, a compassionate yet demanding teacher, a reliable and generous friend, and a man who at his core had a warm and encouraging demeanor. He saw, acknowledged and confronted the worst in human nature, but he strived to encourage those individuals to become the best they could be.
I met David in the early 1980s through the late writer Willie Morris while he was writing “The Courting of Marcus Dupree” over drinks at Clyde Goolsby’s bar at the old Holiday Inn. My friend Gale Denley was there along with others in Willie’s circle.
Later, at Willie’s Faculty Row bungalow, David engaged Willie in long and interesting conversations about Mississippi’s past, present and future. I thoroughly loved to sit and listen to their exchanges. The budding friendship with David Sansing brought me into contact with other friends of Willie including Charles Henry, Ed Perry, Glynn Griffing, Richard Howorth and Will Lewis.
Sansing could at once dispense biting social commentary on Mississippi’s sins in the arena of civil rights, income and resource disparities, and political stances taken against one’s own economic interests, but he never did that in a mean or condescending way. His love for his home state never wavered or waned.
During my days teaching at Ole Miss in the 1990s, I looked forward to encounters with Dr. Sansing in Oxford. He was always encouraging to me about my own writing and we enjoyed talking politics. He was a gentle, intelligent man with a wonderful sense of humor.
But over the last 20 years, our most reliable interactions would be at the Neshoba County Fair. He and then-Ole Miss Chancellor Dan Jones would come by the cabin and we would renew our conversations as if there had been no absence.
In 2012, Sansing and Jones spent much of their fairgrounds visit with me sharing their plans to take part in “Mississippi Day at Antietam” at the Antietam National Battlefield at Sharpsburg, Maryland. The 11thMississippi Infantry Regiment was to be honored with a memorial dedication inspired by the Mississippi Memorial Association.
More than a decade earlier, the MMA placed a monument at the Gettysburg National Military Park in honor of the regiment. I had long admired Sansing’s writings about the poignant history of Company A of the 11th Mississippi Infantry Regiment in the Confederate Army, the vaunted “University Greys.” The “University Greys” were Ole Miss students who withdrew from college to fight for the South in the Civil War.
While the “Greys” fought with the Army of Northern Virginia in many notable and important Civil War battles — First Manassas, Second Manassas, Gaines’ Mill, Sharpsburg, Gettysburg, the Wilderness, Talley’s Mill, Spotsylvania Courthouse, Bethesda Church, Petersburg and Hatcher’s Run — it was during Pickett’s Charge on Cemetery Ridge at Gettysburg that the “Greys” became legendary figures.
Antietam was the single bloodiest day of battle in American history. On Sept. 17, 1862, an estimated 23,000 soldiers were killed, wounded or missing after 12 hours of fighting, including the 11thMississippi Infantry Regiment.
Sansing was supremely dedicated to the cause of racial reconciliation and civil rights for all. His words and actions over a lifetime proved it. But he never wavered from criticism of his lifelong dedication to paying respects to those Mississippians who fought in the Civil War.