Wednesday, July 3, 2013

Battle Anniversaries, and Our "Already/Not Yet"

One of Alexander Gardner's photos
of Confederate dead at Gettysburg
Faulkner famously wrote (in Requiem for a Nun), "The past is never dead. It's not even past." This quotation is often applied to our national fascination with our Civil War. This week is the 150th anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg and the Union victory at Vicksburg.

Like many Americans, I’ve visited the Gettysburg National Park. The first time was in 1969, when I was 12, and more recently in 2001. I’ve never visited Vicksburg, but I’ve known from childhood that a distant cousin, a young man named Frank Moore, was a casualty of that siege and is buried in our family cemetery in rural Illinois.

The other day, an online article’s title caught my eye: “The Banality of Butter: What Hannah Arendt Can Tell Us about Paula Deen” by Darin Strauss (The Atlantic Wire, July 1, 2013, Discussing the ongoing scandal of Deen---a food author and TV celebrity who years ago used a racial slur and now has apologized---Strauss discusses aspects of Southern culture in which Deen comes. One thing that caught my eye----putting into good words something that bothers me---concerns the legacy of the Civil War. Strauss writes:

“As Jamie Malanowski, a contributor to Times’s Disunion series, wrote in a recent Op-Ed: ‘The complex and not entirely complete process of reconciliation after the Civil War… served to whitewash [the history of the South].’ E.g., we still have U.S. Army bases named after the Confederate generals — men who in their treason against the U.S. government killed American soldiers. And it is still common in the South to frame the Civil war as a matter of States’ rights —though the Confederacy’s own Vice-President admitted ‘without doubt’ that slavery was the reason for secession and ‘cornerstone’ of the Confederacy — and to dismiss it as ‘the War of Northern Aggression.’ As Josh Marshall at Talking Points Memo puts it: ‘The two sides [have become] increasingly seen on equal terms… Two armies with equal valor, honor and history.’”

Books on display at "my" Barnes & Noble
in Ladue, MO
Strauss writes that he brings the Confederacy into the discussion of Deen, because a greater issue is our national failure to acknowledge the nature of the Confederacy, and the fact that "any society founded on the bondage of one's fellow man is rotten at its core." It's a painful failure to face; he writes, "...Ask yourself if a presidential candidate could say: 'the Confederacy was fully wrong and deserved to lose' and then expect to win the South. This, despite that every hour the Confederacy endured was an hour that people were tortured and separated from their families and made to suffer countless other daily horrors—large and small—that happen when one sells other people as chattel. And ask yourself if there’s not something in there that explains why lots of people aren’t only defending Deen, but seem confused that they even have to....”

Although it doesn’t address all the aspects of this "natural failure," I thought more about this topic as I reread this paragraph from Faulkner’s Intruder in the Dust: 

"For every Southern boy fourteen years old, not once but whenever he wants it, there is an instant when it’s still not yet two oclock on that July afternoon in 1863, the brigades are in position behind the rail fence, the guns are laid and ready in the woods and the furled flags are already loosened to break out and Pickett himself with his long oiled ringlets and his hat in one hand probably and his sword in the other looking up the hill waiting for Longstreet to give the word and its all in the balance, it hasn’t happened yet...and that moment doesn’t need even a fourteen-year old boy to think This time. Maybe this time with all this much to lose and all this much to gain: Pennsylvania, Maryland, the world, the golden dome of Washington itself to crown with desperate and unbelievable victory the desperate gamble, the cast made two years ago.”

That quotation is from a wonderful book, James M. McPherson’s Drawn with the Sword: Reflections on the American Civil War (Oxford, 1996) (p. 138). McPherson has written several books on the war including the renowned 1989 Battle Cry of Freedom. 

This anniversary week prompted me to look through some favorite histories that I used when I taught two courses, "The Life and Times of Lincoln" and "Buckeye Presidents," at the University of Akron. (Go Zips!) With good judgment and vast knowledge, McPherson addresses some of the issues of the romanticization of the southern cause---and also of General Lee, who is so key to Southern identity. Commenting on Allan T Nolan’s 1991 book, Lee Considered, McPherson agrees that the qualities of military leadership which Lee’s admirers revere have “romanticized some harsh realities” (p. 156). For instance, Grant lost as many men at Cold Harbor---7000 in under an hour---as Lee lost from “Pickett's charge” (also in under an hour), and Grant lost a much lower percentage of his troops at Cold Harbor than Lee did at Gettysburg. "Yet Picket’s charge has been celebrated in legend and history as the ultimate act of Southern honor and courage against the Yankee Goliath, while Cold Harbor symbolizes callous stupidity” (p. 156).

The genius and tragedy of Lee is central to the Southern story. "When Lee took command of the Army of Northern Virginia in June 1862, the Confederacy was on the verge of collapse,” writes McPherson, but “[w]ithin three months Lee’s offensives had taken the Confederacy off the floor at the count of nine and had driven Union forces onto the ropes. Without Lee the Confederacy might have died in 1862” (p. 158).

Gettysburg was, of course, one of several battles where Lee nearly won the war on the South’s terms---by wearing down the North rather than conquering the North or its armies. McPherson lists these battles: Seven Days, Second Manassas and Antietam, Chancellorsville and Gettysburg, and the Wilderness-Petersburg campaign (p. 156). But with the Confederate losses at Gettysburg and Vicksburg, the war reached a crucial turning point; while Northern morale had been very low after Chancellorsville, but after the first week of July 1863, the Southern morale began to waiver and, eventually, to be lost. (See his essay, “Why did the Conferderacy lose?”) In turn, Gettysburg and Vicksburg not only empowered the North but also bolstered the cause of Emancipation, about which Northerners were still angrily divided during the first half of 1863 (p. 203).

“Without Lee the Confederacy might have died in 1862,” but if it had, writes McPherson, “slavery would have survived; the South would have suffered only limited death and destruction. Lee’s victories prolonged the war until it destroyed slavery, the plantation economy, the wealth and infrastructure of the region, and virtually everything else the Confederacy stood for. That was the profound irony of Lee’s military genius” (p. 158).

I took down another favorite book containing Arthur C. Danto’s 1987 article, “Gettysburg." This essay is well worth reading and thinking about; it is a skillful analysis of several topics: the battle itself, the nature of weaponry and military tactics, the battle's legacy (was Gettysburg more like the Trojan War, as Gore Vidal suggested, or the epic conflicts in the Bhagavad Gita and Mahabharata?), and also a criticism of the nature of the historical interpretation at the Gettysburg park.(1)

Danto notes that Gettysburg had no particular importance as a location. For instance, it did not lie along crucial roads. Lee’s army had entered Pennsylvania and once they moved toward Gettysburg, that little town's countryside happened to become a suitable place for the two armies to encounter one another. But as the battle commenced and continued, a central, horrible fact about the Civil War became very stark: the superior fire power available in 1861-1865 contrasted tragically to the outdated tactics of war employed. According to Danto, helmets reduced World War I injuries by 75%; but soldiers in the American Civil War considered it more honorable to wear their “jaunty caps” rather than such protective armor (which, after all, even ancient armies employed). Thus, the Gettysburg casualties were horrendous: about 51,000, over 7000 of which were outright deaths. The Confederate wagon train of wounded was 17 miles long. And yet, the light of glory continues to be reflected upon Lee and the Southern cause thanks in part to those emblems of honor----the shining sword and the soldier’s cap---which were useless against 1860s rifles and shells.

Danto praises Longstreet for having a better plan than Lee at Gettysburg: to move the Confederate army to the Union army’s left, that is, between the Union forces and Washington, and then to wait for a Union attack which, even if it didn’t happen, would give the Confederate army a position to march toward Washington. But Lee hoped to gain a very significant victory, which by July 3 was planned as an attack on Meade’s center via artillery bombardment prior to a massed charge. But the artillery fire against Meade’s forces aimed too high, landing behind the Union army. Meanwhile, the Union army ceased fire to conserve ammunition. Consequently, Lee---having no information about the build-up of Union forces behind the ridge---mistook Union silence for incapacity, and thus the tragedy of the July 3 charge. I read elsewhere that Pickett never forgave Lee for ordering the charge.

Not to leave out Vicksburg: the full campaign, which finally ended July 4, 1863, claimed over 10,000 Union casualties and over 9000 Confederate casualties, plus nearly 30,000 Confederates surrendered.

I’m not a southerner, but I do know what it’s like to feel tremendous loyalty and devotion to a native place (for me, Fayette County, Illinois).(2) So when I feel frustrated about the sentiments about which Strauss writes, I try to use my own experience of place and identity in order to understand a little of the Southern sentiment. (Plus, one of my best friends is a South Carolinian who has written well about his roots.)

On the other hand, what Malanowski (above) called “the complex and not entirely complete process of reconciliation after the Civil War” is a good issue to ponder during these sesquicentennial years. In his Second Inaugural, Lincoln suggested that the war was an atonement of shed blood for the sin of American slavery. But although the war itself finally ended, we are obviously still dealing with its legacy in numerous ways. To borrow another theological term, the atonement of the Civil War, analogous to the atonement of Christ, has an “already/not yet” quality: the blood has been shed and slavery removed, but the final reconciliation---a country that has fully addressed the core sin of racism---is something toward which we look, in prayer and hope. Perhaps our continuing national fascination with the war---and the directions our country took in its aftermath---will help lead us in healing directions.

(Today's New York Times has a good piece, "Why the Civil War Still Matters": )


(1) Published in Grand Street (Spring 1987) and reprinted in Annie Dillard, ed., The Best American Essays, 1988 (Ticknor & Fields, 1988), 99-116.

2. As soon as I declare my loyalty to my home county, I have to stop and remember that that land was originally Native American land, and my own relatives were instrumental in driving out Native Americans from Illinois in the 1820s and 1830s. I also have to acknowledge that the county had a very strong pro-Confederacy leaning during the war, and that my ancestors who settled Fayette County were descendants of slave owners. It’s better to stand up and acknowledge racist legacies where they exist, when though it might unsettle one’s love of place.

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