Emmett Kilpatrick. He was one of those Wilcox County Kilpatricks, and if that is not enough to identify him, then you ain’t from down there, so what does it matter?
Well, it matters because Emmett Kilpatrick’s life, centered around events that made him a veteran, is one of the most interesting stories I have ever come across in my years of coming across interesting stories.
Born in 1890 into a wealthy and politically connected Black Belt family, he received an education befitting a cultured Southern gentleman, and at an early age he revealed a facility for languages. Knowing that “cultured Southern gentleman” was not a particularly profitable occupation, he turned to the law, was admitted to the bar and settled down to practice in Camden. There he followed newspaper accounts of the war in Europe.
When the United States entered what had become World War I, Kilpatrick enlisted. Sent to France, his fluency in French kept him out of combat, for his language skills made him far more valuable as a translator than he would have been in the trenches. Eventually, this ability put him on the team that negotiated the Treaty of Versailles.
That done, Kilpatrick could have returned to Camden to live the life of the Black Belt gentry — but he didn’t.
Instead, he stayed in France, worked for a while at the U.S. Embassy in Paris and then, finding life there dull, headed east to Russia, where various groups were fighting against the Bolsheviks. There he briefly served in the Lithuanian Army before signing on with the Red Cross. But instead of distributing food to people caught in the ongoing civil war, he was taken prisoner by the Reds. It was October 1920.
Apparently not knowing what to do with this American, his captors transferred him to Moscow, where the young man (he was only 26) languished in what he later described as a “loathsome cell.”
But not for long.
News got back to Alabama and eventually caught the attention of Bibb Graves, aspiring politician and adjutant general of the Alabama National Guard. Never one to miss an opportunity to make headlines, Graves demanded that the United States declare war on Russia or at least on whichever faction had Kilpatrick in custody, and (this is the part I love) he vowed that if Washington was too weak-kneed to do the job, he would take the Alabama Guard and lead the invasion himself.
Just how Graves would accomplish this was left to the imagination, but there was a lot of imagination going around. Throughout the state, newspaper headlines screamed the challenge. The Mobile Register editorialized its support — since Mobile would be the expedition’s natural embarkation point, one cannot dismiss the city’s economic interest in the undertaking.
Meanwhile, more rational (and less politically ambitious) men sought a diplomatic solution. One was found and Kilpatrick was released.
Returning to Camden and a hero’s welcome, he practiced law for a while and later moved to Uniontown, where he tried his hand at politics. His run for the state Legislature was successful because (he later related) “there were only two Republicans in Uniontown and all the rest were Democrats and my adherents.”
Education, however was his real love. He taught, was briefly superintendent of Uniontown schools, and then left to pursue advanced degrees from Johns Hopkins and the University of Paris. He returned to teach romance languages at the University of South Carolina, but Alabama was home, so home he came.
After short stints at some of the state normal schools (including the one that is now Jacksonville State University), he took a post at what was then Troy State. Except for time spent in the service during World War II, he headed the English department there until he retired in 1961.
In the years between the wars and after, Kilpatrick was a fixture on the state lecture circuit, where he told of his time spent in the Moscow prison and spoke passionately against what one writer called “bolshevism, socialism and every other ‘ism’” but Americanism. He carried with him a piece of black bread, to show what he lived on in captivity.
Ever the adventurer, in 1950 he took time off to participate in a two-month automobile race across Africa — from the Mediterranean to Cape Town.
After retiring he returned to Camden, where he was a popular member of local society. He never married, but his circle of friends included most of the leading ladies of the town. When he died in 1968, many of his lady-friends served as honorary pallbearers.
At his request, a copy of Shakespeare’s Sonnets was buried with him.
What a life.
Harvey H. (“Hardy”) Jackson is retired as Eminent Scholar in History from Jacksonville State University. He is a columnist and editorial writer for The Star. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org.