As I think Gentle Reader will have divined by now, I am from the South. This fact causes me no shame. There are millions of people all over the world who disagree with me on that point. Being from the South is, in their book, inherently shameful, and people who aren’t ashamed of it should be doubly shamed. Or something. On the other hand, I’m not particularly cock-a-hoop about being from the South, either. It is neither more nor less than my home and the place, among several places in the world where I have felt at home, that happens to be the place where I most feel at home. I am entirely comfortable that there are thousands of other places where, given enough time, I could feel at home. Providence just happens to have set me down here.
Be all that as it may (as an old priest of mine used to say . . . and by the way, he was 178 years old when I knew him in the early 1970s, was very much Old Southern . . . and he had marched at Selma, a fact he never mentioned; we only found out years later from a third party source that he’d been there): I suspect that nearly every Southerner who ventures outside the South, or who has had close contact with non-Southerners — “Yankees” we call them, no matter where they’re from, sort of like Bavarians call everyone who isn’t from Bavaria a “Prussian” and the Amish refer to all outsiders irrespective of origin or ethnicity as “English” — shares as a common experience a number of accusations, nearly all centering on either (i) race, or (ii) what a certain generation of Charlestonians until recently referred to as the “late unpleasantness” (World War I was the “recent unpleasantness”).
Specifically, we are, so the Yankees, all secretly yearning for our lost power over the Coloreds, mourning the passing of the day when we could have any one of them who got “uppity” tied up and whipped or worse. And of course we’re “still fighting the war.” We hate Catholics, Jews, and any other outsiders. We’re either too stupid to wipe our sweat off our own sister’s ass after buggering her, or alternatively we’re so damned evil-genius clever that we manage to control the whole stinkin’ country with 22 U.S. Senators and a minority in the House of Representatives. And so forth.
Now, can you tool about the South and find people who meet some, most, or all of those descriptions? You bet you can. You can also — with the arguable exception of folks sporting an on-going fixation on “the war” — find them everywhere else you choose to look if you’ll be so kind as to open your eyes and ears and close your pie-hole for a moment or two. At least some of the people you’ll find in the South who are, so to speak, more Catholic than the pope on matters pertaining to either or both race or the war are what they know in West Virginia as “come-heres,” people who have moved south from other parts of the country.
All of which is to say: Whatever, guys. If that’s what you want to think, enjoy your ignorance.
April 9, 2015, is the 150th anniversary of General Lee’s surrender of the Army of Northern Virginia. By that time they were so beaten down that Grant had to cough up 25,000 rations to keep them from starving after the surrender. The men who finally ran them to ground, who had stood shoulder-to-shoulder in ranks a stone’s throw or closer apart and blazed away at them with .58-cal. rifled weapons (seriously: pace of 90 feet — 30 yards — and imagine someone pointing a rifle at you from that distance; the firing lines were that close or closer in numerous battles), receiving fire in return, seem to have thought fairly well of them. Not that the Army of the Potomac wasn’t over-joyed to have won; not that they entertained any illusions about the cause for which Lee’s men had fought so long and so hard. But they respected them, as only the mutual survivors of near-death experiences can.
Don’t take my word for it, Gentle Reader. The officer designated to take the surrender — Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain, hero of Little Round Top and who would, in the summer of 1914 become the last man to die of a battlefield wound from the Civil War — has left us his thoughts on the subject:
“The momentous meaning of this occasion impressed me deeply. I resolved to mark it by some token of recognition, which could be no other than a salute of arms. Well aware of the responsibility assumed, and of the criticisms that would follow, as the sequel proved, nothing of that kind could move me in the least. The act could be defended, if needful, by the suggestion that such a salute was not to the cause for which the flag of the Confederacy stood, but to its going down before the flag of the Union. My main reason, however, was one for which I sought no authority nor asked forgiveness. Before us in proud humiliation stood the embodiment of manhood: men whom neither toils and sufferings, nor the fact of death, nor disaster, nor hopelessness could bend from their resolve; standing before us now, thin, worn, and famished, but erect, and with eyes looking level into ours, waking memories that bound us together as no other bond;—was not such manhood to be welcomed back into a Union so tested and assured? Instructions had been given; and when the head of each division column comes opposite our group, our bugle sounds the signal and instantly our whole line from right to left, regiment by regiment in succession, gives the soldier’s salutation, from the “order arms” to the old “carry”—the marching salute. Gordon at the head of the column, riding with heavy spirit and downcast face, catches the sound of shifting arms, looks up, and, taking the meaning, wheels superbly, making with himself and his horse one uplifted figure, with profound salutation as he drops the point of his sword to the boot toe; then facing to his own command, gives word for his successive brigades to pass us with the same position of the manual,—honor answering honor. On our part not a sound of trumpet more, nor roll of drum; not a cheer, nor word nor whisper of vain-glorying, nor motion of man standing again at the order, but an awed stillness rather, and breath-holding, as if it were the passing of the dead!”
Thus the men who alone unquestionably earned the right to an opinion about the men they had fought. It is, however, precisely the respect angle of Chamberlain’s words which so galls the extreme left nowadays. Having won is not enough for TNR. Gentle Reader is of course entitled to come to his or her own smug opinions, 150 years after the fact, and without the stench of septic wounds or rotting human or horse flesh in the nostrils. But I do think that the men who did achieve the result, with their own flesh and their own wounds and privations, are entitled to be heard on the subject, even now, even today.
For a worthy example of today’s left-extremist sanctimony, we have The New Republic’s modest proposal to make April 9 a national holiday. And of course to remove from public view every name of every person who served in the Confederate armed forces, from buildings, parks, U.S. military installations, everything. Presumably acknowledging the existence of these people in any other context than to execrate their memory is not harmonious with the vision announced by Dear Leader, and so forth. The occasion for the article is a speech Dear Leader recently delivered on the 50th anniversary of the fighting at the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma (where my old priest was, and not as chaplain to the Democrat party, either). From the author:
“In the self-critical America of Obama’s imagination, more people would know about the Edmund Pettus bridge and its namesake. The bridge itself wouldn’t necessarily be renamed after Martin Luther King or John Lewis or another civil rights hero; because it is synonymous with racist violence, the bridge should bear Pettus’s name eternally, with the explicit intent of linking the sins of the Confederacy to the sins of Jim Crow. But Obama’s America would also reject the romantic reimagining of the Civil War, and thus, the myriad totems to the Confederacy and its leaders that pockmark the South, most of which don’t share the Pettus bridge’s incidental association with the struggle for civil rights.”
“Self-critical”? This is supposed to be a trait which the United States shows only in Dear Leader’s imagination. Similarly, perhaps, to the self-criticism of modern Iran. But really, is this author so ignorant of American cultural history? Well, yes, yes he is. We are a people who has agonized about our personal and collective sins, about what it means to be a free citizen, rather than a subject. We not only inherited the curse of slavery and nurtured it for another 90 years, but we also fought a vicious civil war to end it. We have spawned more anti-vice campaigns than you can say grace over, and from the Great Revival of the 1750s to Billy Sunday drawing crowds of thousands to be told what filthy sinners they were, we’ve demonstrated an unquenchable appetite for self-criticism. When we fought our first war for overseas expansion, there was tremendous and very public gnashing of teeth at the abandonment of our political identity as a country in it for something other than sordid gain, as detailed in Barbara Tuchman’s The Proud Tower. For over a century we drew back in horror at the thought of fighting on a European battlefield, only to get dragged in twice in a single generation to precisely that. After the first time around we agonized over what role, if any, America should have in the wider world. After the second war we got to confront an implacably hostile, murderous system of government, and we spent the next 45 years agonizing over how to fight this blood-soaked system without becoming like it ourselves.
No, when our learned author from The New Republic taxes us with a lack of “self-criticism,” he means that we fail properly to abase ourselves before the rest of the world. We don’t have to — we’ve got Dear Leader to do that for us. He’s gone trotting about the place apologizing for us enough to last several generations. [Aside: And what is it with left-extremists and “self-criticism”? Are they all really that transparently Maoists?]
I have additional news for our author: The Edmund Pettus Bridge gets just as much play in schoolbooks as the Civil War. And American students ignore both just as predictably.
“It’s unfathomable that anyone today would attempt to name a new military installation, or rename an old one, after a Confederate general. But at the time these bases were named, there wasn’t nearly as much of a consensus behind the argument that the Confederates committed treason against the United States in support of a war for slavery.
That lack of consensus was an ineluctable consequence of concerted postbellum efforts to sand down the seams reuniting the states. There was a real but inadequate constituency for crushing the Southern establishment after the Civil War, and reintegrating the country under an entirely different paradigm. Instead, the North enabled the South by giving it unusual influence over shaping the official mythology of the war. Yes, the South surrendered. The states ratified the 13th Amendment. The Union survived. These facts couldn’t be altered. But memorializing the rebellion as a tragedy of circumstance, or a bravely fought battle of principle—those narratives were adopted in part for the unspoken purpose of making the reunion stick.”
Other than the transparently bogus notion of the North somehow “giving [the South] unusual influence over shaping the official mythology of the war,” (I mean, was there a vote somewhere?) my principal quibble with the above quotation, and in fact the entire article, is that those who served in the Confederate armed forces were traitors. He’s perfectly correct, of course, that the war was, when you really pull all the onion layers back, a war to preserve slavery. Anyone who thinks that the South would have seceded in the absence of the slavery question is deluded.
On the other hand it was also a war about the fundamental nature of the union itself. It was slavery which made confronting that question unavoidable; no other issue penetrated so deeply into the fabric of the economy or the society that existed in the South. But 1860 wasn’t the first time the question had come up, either. The Hartford (that’s Hartford, Connecticut, I’ll remind the author) Convention during the War of 1812 was gathered for the specific purpose of discussing secession in response to the economic catastrophe that was that war. The nullification “crisis” of 1832, when South Carolina did no more than what Dear Leader has done — declare entire chunks of lawfully passed statutes of Congress to be nullities — certainly pointed the way to the issue.
This author’s characterization of the Southern military as “traitors” presupposes a settled answer to the question, “Is the union indissoluble?” There was and had never been any such thing. I defy anyone to point to any provision of the U.S. Constitution which addresses the subject of whether or under what circumstances a state may or may not leave the union. It sure as hell isn’t implicit in the very notion of a national government, either.
I’ll give the author a quick history refresher: In 1787 the United States consisted, with markedly few exceptions, of a narrow string of settlements along the coastal plain, with an enormous back-country populated by hostile aboriginals, and beyond that terra incognita. It wasn’t just some grandiloquent gesture that caused the Lewis and Clark Expedition to be named the Corps of Discovery. We really had no idea at all of what was on the far side of that river. For all we knew Prester John was lurking somewhere out there. Such “roads” as existed were stump-clogged mud bogs that were in the most literal terms a threat to the lives of all who traveled on them. Rivers ran free, meaning you floated downstream — there being no steam navigation, Best Beloved — until the next rapids, then unloaded your flat-boat and either portaged around them or, if they were too high, built yourself a new boat below the falls. A simple letter could take weeks to make it up or down the East Coast, even; heaven help you if you were at Harrodsburg in the Kentucky wilderness.
No one knew whether it was even physically possible to govern such a vastness, with such varying climate, topography, and ways of life, as a single nation of free and equal citizens. No one had ever tried it before. In part of his interviews for Ken Burns’s The Civil War, Shelby Foote, whose massive three-volume history of the war I’ve read (I never thought I could learn so much about the Red River campaign), he points out that the Southern states would never have ratified the U.S. Constitution 1787-88 if they had not thought they had every right to get out if they so chose. I have no reason to question that statement. [Aside: Surely someone has culled through the public statements, speeches, newspaper screeds, and so forth of the ratification process in the different states. I would be curious to discover whether and to what extent the specific question of dissolution was broached and hashed out.]
What I do know is this much: The man who had commanded the army of liberation, and who had been president of the Constitutional Convention, in which latter capacity he would have been present for pretty much every session, would have received the committee reports, would have listened to the delegates chewing things over among themselves not only on the floor but in lodgings afterward, or during walks in the evening, and of course as the Universally Acknowledged Disinterested Player would have been the natural person to vent one’s own thoughts to . . . he found the subject of secession sufficiently significant that he specifically addressed it in his Farewell Address, and at length.
Mind you, Washington’s Farewell was not a speech but an open letter to the American people. Not being extemporaneous, every word in it — and everything not said about the subjects covered in it — would have been the product of hours of earnest reflection. The Farewell was his political valedictory; he never expected to step before the national public again. Whatever he was going to say to the nation that he, as much as any man alive, had birthed, was in his letter to his people. Whatever he left out he had to have assumed would be forever left unsaid. Let’s hear it from the Father of His Country:
“The unity of government which constitutes you one people is also now dear to you. It is justly so, for it is a main pillar in the edifice of your real independence, the support of your tranquility at home, your peace abroad; of your safety; of your prosperity; of that very liberty which you so highly prize. But as it is easy to foresee that, from different causes and from different quarters, much pains will be taken, many artifices employed to weaken in your minds the conviction of this truth; as this is the point in your political fortress against which the batteries of internal and external enemies will be most constantly and actively (though often covertly and insidiously) directed, it is of infinite moment that you should properly estimate the immense value of your national union to your collective and individual happiness; that you should cherish a cordial, habitual, and immovable attachment to it; accustoming yourselves to think and speak of it as of the palladium of your political safety and prosperity; watching for its preservation with jealous anxiety; discountenancing whatever may suggest even a suspicion that it can in any event be abandoned; and indignantly frowning upon the first dawning of every attempt to alienate any portion of our country from the rest, or to enfeeble the sacred ties which now link together the various parts.”
That is his opening paragraph on the subject of the union. He spends the next paragraphs dwelling upon the mutual advantages of union, in commerce, in liberty within, in freedom from subjugation from without. Washington recognizes two groups of considerations for solicitude for the union, what he calls “sympathy” and “interest,” with oddly enough the self-interest angle receiving most of his attention.
I’ll also point out, in relation to the question of whether a permanent union were even possible, Washington observes:
“These considerations speak a persuasive language to every reflecting and virtuous mind, and exhibit the continuance of the Union as a primary object of patriotic desire. Is there a doubt whether a common government can embrace so large a sphere? Let experience solve it. To listen to mere speculation in such a case were criminal. We are authorized to hope that a proper organization of the whole with the auxiliary agency of governments for the respective subdivisions, will afford a happy issue to the experiment. It is well worth a fair and full experiment.”
A “full and fair experiment”; it was certainly that. Our TNR writer would tar with the brush of treason those who eventually considered that the experiment had been unsuccessful.
But the one thing that Washington, in the eight consecutive paragraphs which he devotes to the subject of the union and why it deserved to be, had to be preserved against enemies within and without, there is one assertion he never makes. He never, not once, states that the Constitution created an indissoluble union and that as a point of law the individual states surrendered their right to go their separate ways. With all the other reasons of sympathy and interest that Washington laid out for the cause of union, with an eloquence latter-day politicians would do well to study (I watched some of Rand Paul’s recent announcement of his candidacy for president, and it sounded like a collection of one-liner sound bites), he never even skirts with the point-blank conversation-ending claim that the Constitution itself forbids it.
Don’t get me wrong. I think the South ought to have lost the war, if only for the reason it was fighting to preserve a monstrosity. I think it is a good thing that the South did lose the war, and not only because by losing the war slavery vanished from our part of the world. I do suggest, however, that the most important outcome of the war was achieving a final, literally-sealed-in-blood resolution of the most basic of all questions about the nature of the union. Had the answer gone the other way, then the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments would have been dead letters from their adoption, because they wouldn’t have applied in the seceded Confederacy in any event, and because if anyone up North had tried to enforce them (or any other civil rights legislation), then you would have had states splintering and re-configuring until all you had was something that looked an awful lot like Germany after the Treaty of Westfalen in 1648.
What would the world look like now, had there been only an impotent United States in 1917? In the spring of 1918 — right about this time of year, in fact — all that stood between the Kaiser’s troops and Paris was a thin line of green American troops. They held, just barely. That Britain and France had lasted even that long was only because of the behemoth American economy which could churn out war material in truly mountainous quantities. Germany would have won the war, in 1918 if not sooner. True, we’d have been spared the second round of the conflict, but what would a European continent dominated by an authoritarian Germany have looked like? What luck would Germany have had against the Soviet Union, if they had got into it as they did in 1941, only with no British Empire and United States to back-stop the Soviets? It’s widely known that the Red Army and its supplies rode in Dodge trucks; what’s less known is that the foot soldiers marched in American-made felt boots. Even less known is that the famous T-34 tank was an adaptation of an off-the-shelf design by an American; would that design have existed?
Brown v. Board of Education — assuming Kansas were still in the union at that point in any event — would have been a dead letter. There would be no Civil Rights Act of 1964. No Title IX. No Social Security. No Medicare. No food stamps.
There would be, in short, almost nothing that either the left-extremists or American patriots hold dear, had the result of the Civil War been that the union is dissoluble, that the experiment failed, that government of the people, by the people, and for the people was to perish from the earth.
But in 1860, as leaders north and south had to make up their minds where to stand, none of the answers were known. Robert E. Lee is merely the most famous example of someone who didn’t jump ship until his own state voted to leave the union. Had he been in it for the express purpose of preserving slavery, it is not unreasonable to expect that he would have placed his services at the disposal of the slave-mongers much sooner. But he didn’t. As Shelby Foote also points out in his interviews for Ken Burns, when Lee referred to “my country,” he was referring not to the Confederacy or to the United States, but to Virginia . . . and in doing so he was merely following a convention that was not at all that uncommon at the time.
I’m not, in fact, at all averse to the notion of making April 9 a formal observance nation-wide. Can’t say I’m all that interested in the expense of making it a federal holiday (add up the payroll expenses of one day’s pay for the civilian government and that’s what you give away, per national holiday), but it would not at all be inappropriate for us to celebrate the defeat of the Confederacy. What I don’t agree with our Learned Author at TNR about is why the occasion is worthy of celebration. He wants to observe it to spit on the graves of the men who marched in front of General Chamberlain that day. I want to observe it because what April 9 marked was the opening steps in the healing process from a Civil War.
You see, Civil Wars don’t have to end like ours did, with the defeated side laying down its arms and the combatants going home, to be left in peace so long as they never raised their hands against the victors again. Ours nearly didn’t end that way, either. Jefferson Davis sure as hell wasn’t interested in that; General Lee received counsel to disperse his troops as guerillas. But after Lee and Grant (and remember, this was only a few days after Grant, Sherman, and Lincoln had met at City Point and discussed precisely this issue) determined it would not so end, the war in fact stopped. There were no more burning cities or farms. Cattle were not slaughtered and the owners left to starve over the winter. Even in the depths of the war specifically on the civilian underpinnings of the war, during Sherman’s march, there was no rapine, no hanging of random victims. For all of its outrage, Southern Womanhood was never outraged, not even in places like Clarksville where the occupation was especially hostile and long-lasting.
Contrast the Russian civil war of 1918-22. Vast swathes of the Russian landscape were reduced to howling, starving, blood-soaked wilderness. Both sides knew there was to be no mercy for the vanquished, or their families or their homes. And so both sides fought accordingly. Is that how our TNR writer wishes our Civil War had been fought, how he thinks it should have ended? In Solzhenitsyn’s chapter on the beginnings of the Gulag, on the Solovetski Islands in the early 1920s, he tells of a young man, scarcely older than a boy, who when he was arrested gave as his “profession” the answer, “machine-gunner.” What kind of society do you imagine gets built with those stones?
Contrast the Roman civil wars, with their proscriptions and thousands of necks chopped through. Remind me, O TNR writer, how the Roman republic came through that experience. Perhaps our TNR writer would prefer to see the United States enjoy something along the lines of the Taiping Rebellion, with its tens of millions of dead and devastation of enormous areas of the country; hell, we know (from his fondness for “self-criticism”) what he thinks about the Chinese experience of the first half of the 20th Century. War lords and dead peasants by the million, interspersed with foreign subjugation. Closer to our own day, and therefore even less excusable to be found in TNR‘s cocoon of ignorance, are the ructions in the former Yugoslavia.
Here, I’ll go ahead and pose a challenge to TNR‘s advocacy of a scorched-earth ending to the American Civil War: Point to me one single instance in all of recorded human history where a civil war that ended as this buffoon wishes ours had ended — with the losing side not merely defeated but “crushed,” an outcome not sufficiently dear to enough hearts, as this writer moans — produced as a result of having so ended a regime of peace, justice, or prosperity for the most downtrodden of society. Does this goof-ball really think that the recently freed slaves or their descendants would have been better off in a South that looked like Tambov in 1922? or the Mongolia of Roman von Ungern-Sternberg? or Kosovo in the early 1990s? or China in the years of the Reds’ consolidation of their power after 1949?
I’m not trying to excuse the legalized oppression of Black America that descended on the South for the century after the war. There’s no excuse for it. It didn’t have to be that way. But it wasn’t that way just in the South. Let’s hear it from the U.S. Supreme Court, the Heart of Atlanta Motel case —
“This testimony included the fact that our people have become increasingly mobile, with millions of people of all races traveling from State to State; that Negroes in particular have been the subject of discrimination in transient accommodations, having to travel great distances to secure the same; that often they have been unable to obtain accommodations, and have had to call upon friends to put them up overnight, S.Rep. No. 872, supra, at 14-22, and that these conditions had become so acute as to require the listing of available lodging for Negroes in a special guidebook which was itself “dramatic testimony to the difficulties” Negroes encounter in travel. Senate Commerce Committee Hearings, supra, at 692-694. These exclusionary practices were found to be nationwide, the Under Secretary of Commerce testifying that there is “no question that this discrimination in the North still exists to a large degree” and in the West and Midwest as well. Id. at 735, 744. This testimony indicated a qualitative, as well as quantitative, effect on interstate travel by Negroes. The former was the obvious impairment of the Negro traveler’s pleasure and convenience that resulted when he continually was uncertain of finding lodging. As for the latter, there was evidence that this uncertainty stemming from racial discrimination had the effect of discouraging travel on the part of a substantial portion of the Negro community. Id. at 744.”
Jim Crow as a legal system may have been peculiar to the South, but Jim Crow as a way of doing business was nation-wide, as the testimony cited by the court amply demonstrates. Does our TNR author really think that those practices would have been less widely spread, or more gentle, in the aftermath of a civil war ending as he wishes ours had?
Alt-history is always fraught with peril, because you’re by definition discussing something that did not happen. I’ll say this much, though: I am entirely convinced that for all of the failures of the post-war United States, north or south, adequately to deal with dumping several million largely illiterate, unskilled, destitute people who had to learn the most basic survival skills as free citizens into the socio-political mix, and for all the outrages committed against them and their descendants over the next century, the fact that, 50 years after the march at the Edmund Pettus Bridge we have made the progress we have (or had made until Dear Leader came long to poison the wells all over again, purely for partisan political advantage) is largely because of, not in spite of, how the Civil War was ended, beginning on April 9, 1865.
And for that reason I’m all in favor of making it a day of national thanksgiving and remembrance.
As far as the Southern combatants being traitors whose very names are or should be unpronounceable in polite society? I suggest TNR-boy needs to get sent for some re-education, and maybe self-criticism, in a struggle session. Just like Chairman Mao would have decreed.