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  • From Ancient Grudge

    Posted by Sgt. Mom on June 30th, 2013 (All posts by )

    (On the occasion of the upcoming 150th anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg and a number of news stories of the Civil War reenactment events going on all this week – an essay on the Civil War from my own archives.)

    “From ancient grudge break to new mutiny, Where civil blood makes civil hands unclean.”

    When I was deep in the midst of researching and writing the Adelsverein Trilogy, of course I wound up reading a great towering pile of books about the Civil War. I had to do that – even though my trilogy isn’t really about the Civil War, per se. It’s about the German settlements in mid-19th century Texas. But for the final volume, I had to put myself into the mind of a character who has come home from it all; weary, maimed and heartsick – to find upon arriving (on foot and with no fanfare) that everything has changed. His mother and stepfather are dead, his brothers and many friends have all fallen on various battlefields and his sister-in-law is a bitter last-stand Confederate. He isn’t fit enough to get work as a laborer, and being attainted as an ex-rebel soldier can’t do the work he was schooled for before the war began. This was all in the service of advancing my story of how great cattle baronies came to be established in Texas and in the West, after the war and before the spread of barbed wire, rail transport to practically every little town and several years of atrociously bad winters. So are legends born, but to me a close look at the real basis for the legends is totally fascinating and much more nuanced – the Civil War and the cattle ranching empires, both.

    Nuance; now that’s a forty-dollar word, usually used to imply a reaction that is a great deal more complex than one might think at first glance. At first glance the Civil War has only two sides, North and South, blue and grey, slavery and freedom, sectional agrarian interests against sectional industrial interests, rebels and… well, not. A closer look at it reveals as many sides as those dodecahedrons that they roll to determine Dungeons and Dragons outcomes. It was a long time brewing, and as far as historical pivot-points go, it’s about the most single significant one of the American 19th century. For it was a war which had a thousand faces, battlefronts and aspects.

    There was the War that split Border States like Kentucky and Virginia – which actually did split, so marked were the differences between the lowlands gentry and the hardscrabble mountaineers. There was the war between free-Soil settlers and pro-slavery factions in Missouri and in Kansas; Kansas which bled for years and contributed no small part to the split. There was even the war between factions of the Cherokee Indian nation, between classmates of various classes at West Point, between neighbors and yes, between members of families.

    How that must have broken the hearts of men like Sam Houston, who refused to take a loyalty oath to the Confederacy, and Winfield Scott, the old soldier who commanded the Federal Army at the start of the war. Scott’s officers’ commission had been signed by Thomas Jefferson: he and Houston had both fought bravely for a fledgling United States. Indeed, at the time of the Civil War, there were those living still who could remember the Revolution, even a bare handful of centenarians who had supposedly fought in it. For every Southern fireater like Edmund Ruffin and Preston Brooks (famous for beating a anti-slave politician to unconsciousness in the US Senate) and every Northern critic of so-called ‘Slave power” like William Lloyd Garrison and John Brown… and for every young spark on either side who could hardly wait to put on a uniform of whatever color, there must have been as many sober citizens who looked on the prospect of it all with dread and foreboding.

    There are memories, as was said of a certain English king, which “laid like lees in the bottom of men’s hearts and if the vessels were once stirred, it would rise.” So is it with the memory of the American Civil War. The last living veterans are long gone, the monuments grown with moss and half forgotten themselves; even some of the battlefields themselves are built-over, or overgrown. But still, the memories, the interest as well as the resentments linger, waiting for the slightest motion to stir them up. The Civil War is still very much with us. Consider books like Cold Mountain, The Killer Angels, and Gone With the Wind, and documentaries like Ken Burns The Civil War. Every weekend, somewhere across the United States there are re-enactor groups, putting on the blue or the grey and shooting black-powder blanks at each other.

    An argument about the causes of it all tends to be just as noisy and inconclusive, and boils down to the academic version of the above. The participants agree on some combination of slavery (or its extension beyond the boundaries of certain limits), states’ rights and the competing economic interests which would favor a rural and agricultural region or an urban and industrial one. What are the proper proportion and combination of these causes? And was chattel slavery a root cause or merely a symptom?

    Whatever the answer, sentiment about slavery, or “the peculiar institution” hardened like crystals forming on a thread suspended in a sugar solution for some twenty or thirty years before the election of Abraham Lincoln in 1860. In a large part, that hardening of attitudes was driven, as such things usually are, by the extremists on either end of the great lump of relative indifference in the middle. At the time of the Revolution, one has the impression that chattel slavery in the American colonies was something of an embarrassment to the founding fathers. No less than the eminent Doctor Johnson had acidly pointed out the hypocrisy of those who owned slaves insisting on rights and freedom for themselves. For quite some decades it seemed that slavery was on the way out.

    Of course it cannot just slip out of mind, this war so savagely fought that lead minie-balls fell like hailstones and the dead went down in ranks, like so much wheat cut down by a scythe blade on battlefield after battlefield. Units had been recruited by localities; men and boys enlisted together with their friends and brothers, and went off in high spirits, commanded by officers chosen from among them. At any time over the following four years and in the space of an hour of hot fighting before some contested strong point, there went all or most of the men from some little town in Massachusetts and Ohio, Tennessee or Georgia. Call to mind the wrenching passage in Gone With the Wind, describing the arrival of casualty lists from Gettysburg, posted on the front windows of the newspaper office for the crowd of onlookers to read, and the heroine realizing that all of the young men whom she flirted and danced with, all the brothers of her friends and sons of her mothers’ friends . . . they are all gone. As an unreconstructed Yankee, GWTW usually moves me to throw it across the room. But Margaret Mitchell grew up listening to vivid stories from the older generation and that scene has the feel of something that really happened, and if not in Atlanta, then in hundreds of other places across the North and South.

    No wonder the memory of the Civil War is still so fresh, so terribly vivid in our minds. A cataclysm that all-encompassing, and passions for secession, for abolishing slavery, for free soil and a hundred other catch-phrases of the early 19th century . . . of course it will still reach out and touch us, with icy fingers, a not-quite clearly seen shadow, draped in ghostly shades of grey and blue.


    13 Responses to “From Ancient Grudge”

    1. David Foster Says:

      Connie Willis:

      “Because the Civil War isn’t over. Its images, dreamlike, stay with us—young boys lying face-down in cornfields and orchards, and Robert E. Lee on Traveller. And Lincoln, dead in the White House, and the sound of crying.

      The Civil War disturbs us, all these long years after, troubling our sleep. Like a cry for help, like a warning, like a dream. And we pore over it, trying to break the code, its meaning just out of reach.”

    2. John F Miller Says:

      “We don’t live in the past; the past lives in us.”
      –Thomas Sowell–

    3. Michael Kennedy Says:

      William T Sherman saw the coming tragedy and tried to tell his neighbors and friends in Louisiana that they were making a mistake. He was a very popular head of a college that became LSU. The board of the college begged him to stay but he saw that he could not.

      He later became the greatest general in American history before Patton and was hated by the South. Even so, his old opponent Joe Johnston, probably the South’s best general other than Lee, who was far inferior to Sherman in my opinion, Was a pallbearer at Sherman’s funeral. When one of his former aides remonstrated with him because of his age and health, he replied “Sherman would do it for me.” He died soon after from a cold he caught at the funeral.

    4. Subotai Bahadur Says:

      You touch on something that is ignored today as the past is locked in politically correct amber. I used to be one of those shooting black powder, as a member of the 1st Dragoons [US army in the west pre-Civil War] and with a fellow Dragoon used to also go do Civil War presentations at schools. I was a Confederate private, my friend was a Yankee SGT., and we would set up an encampment on the school grounds; each presenting Civil War military life from our view, and the why that we were there along with musket drill, tactics, and sometimes a bit of cannon fire [I was a Dragoon artilleryman and could sometimes borrow a 12 Lb. Mountain Howitzer].

      My character was deliberately from the western part of Virginia, specifically because slavery was not the issue there because it was hardscrabble country where families could barely feed themselves, let along slaves. “Private Caudill” enlisted because of an early war raid [thoroughly documented] by Union Cavalry general Pleasanton on western Virginia. At a time when civilians were generally spared attack, he prefigured Sherman mixed with Attila the Hun. He and his troops mixed robbery and arson with rape and murder.

      “Private Caudill” joined because his home and family had been attacked by what claimed to be his government.

      I made a point in my presentations of offering varying motivations for both sides, and the varying constitutional interpretations of the time. Most of the students [and teachers] had never heard of the Hartford Convention and the attempt by the New England states to secede in 1815. Or the concept of sovereign states. Or the fact that the South paid most of the taxes collected by the Federal government, and the fight over slave -v- free states was also a proxy fight over who got to spend that money.

      The dodecahedron dice is a good metaphor. Things are never as simple as whatever-the-accepted-wisdom-is for motivations. People will make their personal choices based on any number of factors, logical or otherwise. And for each one of them, the chain of decisions is unique. And each decision is irrevocable and limits the options for future decisions.

      And in crisis times like the Civil War, and in our more modern times; the chain of decisions distills down to only 3 choices. Pick one side, pick the other, or try to stay out of it and risk being attacked by both sides.

      And from that distillation comes the amber.

      Subotai Bahadur

    5. Michael Kennedy Says:

      There were very few rapes in Sherman’s army and he hung those who were caught. His men were instructed to avoid damaging private homes although the “bummers” were allowed to take food stuffs and animals. THey burned Atlanta but only the government buildings.

    6. Subotai Bahadur Says:

      Michael Kennedy Says:
      June 30th, 2013 at 12:44 pm

      That is why I said “mixed with Attila the Hun”. Sherman’s goal was to make the South feel the suffering of war, but not to make literal war on the civilian population.

      Subotai Bahadur

    7. Michael Kennedy Says:

      Yes, he wanted them to feel the impotence because he felt they, the civilians and especially the women, were encouraging the troops and urging them to fight. He believed that the morale would drop as the troops learned their homes were being attacked.

      His great achievement was to change the style of war to maneuver battle. VD Hanson has an excellent book on Epaminondas, Sherman and Patton called The Soul of Battle. Patton was a great fan and student of Epaminondas and Sherman. Both Sherman and Patton had far fewer casualties than other generals of their time. Sherman, especially, was loved by his troops and Patton, while a bit off-putting in style, is the only general whose troops referred to when asked what unit they were in.

      In my opinion, after reading a lot of books, Sherman and Patton were the greatest American generals with the possible exception of Washington.

    8. VXXC Says:

      “Pick one side, pick the other, or try to stay out of it and risk being attacked by both sides.”

      Total War should not be the default.

      Perhaps the more moral course is to at last reject the levee en masse and total war, and NOT force people to take sides? Neutral is an Honorable course.

      That’s really a more historical norm, wars of peoples are a cycle we’ve been in, we’re due for a more limited cycle.

      We also should not let extremists on crusade [ahem, Progs] control issues.

    9. Gringo Says:

      I recently read Bruce Catton’s This Hallowed Ground, a history of the Civil War written admittedly from the Union perspective. One point he made, which I didn’t realize, is that Sherman’s march through Georgia and Grant’s taking of Vicksburg were not the only instances of Union armies living off the land. Catton points out that Union armies also lived off the land in Tennessee. Which reminds me of some tapes my grandmother made some 30 years ago. Among the stories on her tapes is the anger a Tennessee relative felt about Union soldiers expropriating some comestibles from the family farm. I had better revisit those tapes, as I haven’t listened to them in years and years.

      I was born of a Northern father and a Southern mother. On my mother’s side, a Colonel and son of the wealthiest slaveholder in the county – according to family lore [courthouse was later burned down, so no existing records]- was killed in the war. Also Confederate foot soldiers. On my father’s side, there were foot soldiers in the Union army, and also a follower of John Brown who was killed at Harper’s Ferry.

      My mother never told me about her slaveholder great-grandfather. I found about about him from my grandmother. While my grandmother was quite open about her opposition to the Civil Rights bill when I was a teenager, I didn’t find out about the slaveholders in the family tree until I was in my twenties. I suspect she was too ashamed of it to mention it when I was younger- or didn’t want to provoke a quarrel. I suspect shame was why my mother didn’t mention it to me.

      Regarding families being split by the Civil War, Mrs. Lincoln had Kentucky kin who fought – and died- for the Confederacy. She also had a relative visit her at the White House during the war- which didn’t go over well with the Radical Republicans.

      Given the sentiments on both sides, the war was inevitable. In retrospect, knowing the carnage that resulted from the war, the South would probably have accepted the 1860 Republican platform- no expansion PERIOD of slavery outside the South, with the end of slavery some time in the future- with compensation paid by the federal government.[For those who claim that slavery would have soon become uneconomic, it should be pointed out that cotton harvesting didn’t get mechanized until after WW2.] But there is no hindsight in history.

      I find the “states’ rights” claim for the South seceding to be laughable, as the South was more than willing to trample on the state’s rights of the North to reclaim fugitive slaves.

      Yes, the Civil War is still with us. At least it is still with some of us.

    10. tyouth Says:

      I find the “states’ rights” claim for the South seceding to be laughable, as the South was more than willing to trample on the state’s rights of the North to reclaim fugitive slaves.

      Not logical…’re saying condition A doesn’t hold because an unrelated condition B doesn’t hold.

    11. tyouth Says:

      Just by the way, it seems to me that perhaps a republic has an optimum size. After a certain point the governmental mechanisms which work well for 50 or, say 100, million people may not work well for 300 or 400 millions. The governed become too remote (not to say estranged) from the government. We could well benefit from some balkanization.

    12. Subotai Bahadur Says:

      Gringo Says:
      July 1st, 2013 at 12:38 pm

      A couple of points, if I may.

      Given the sentiments on both sides, the war was inevitable. In retrospect, knowing the carnage that resulted from the war, the South would probably have accepted the 1860 Republican platform- no expansion PERIOD of slavery outside the South, with the end of slavery some time in the future- with compensation paid by the federal government.[For those who claim that slavery would have soon become uneconomic, it should be pointed out that cotton harvesting didn’t get mechanized until after WW2.] But there is no hindsight in history.

      From time immemorial, campaign promises or their equivalents have been worth less than the air used to utter them. As far as what the South was looking for as a future after the election of 1860; it went far beyond having Lincoln as president, and they knew it. Look at the Congress.

      House of Representatives:

      Democrat: 45 (24.9%) [These became the Confederate government]
      Republican: 108 (59.7%)
      Unionist: 28 (15.5%) [even more radical than the Republicans]

      In the House, the Southern states might as well not even show up because there was more than a veto proof majority against the South on ANY issue.


      The Senate was somewhat more complex, because of a high number of vacancies; but the numbers ended up

      Democrat: 13
      Republican: 30
      Unionist: 7
      Vacant: 20

      Once again, veto proof on any issue.

      The South knew that they would lose every vote on every issue in both Houses. They would be punitively “Reconstructed” with no possibility of resistance. Staying in was the equivalent to absolute submission. And there were more issues than slavery. Racism was not the only mover for secession.

      I find the “states’ rights” claim for the South seceding to be laughable, as the South was more than willing to trample on the state’s rights of the North to reclaim fugitive slaves.

      “States Rights” is something that goes far beyond the issue of slavery. It strikes to the very nature of what became the United States. Was it from the beginning a unitary state where the states yielded total sovereignty from 1787? Or was it an employment contract wherein an association of sovereign states retained their sovereignty but in effect hired a “Federal government” as their employee to do certain carefully designed tasks within carefully defined limits and by carefully defined means. One can see strong evidence of the latter interpretation in the actions of the New England states during the War of 1812.

      In 1814-1815 the economic collapse caused by the British blockade motivated the governments of the New England states to respond to a call from Governor Strong of Massachusetts for a convention to discuss future actions. Twenty six delegates representing the governments of MASS., NH, VT, CONN, and RI met at Hartford, Conn.

      They ended with a resolution to the Federal government demanding an immediate end to the war and changes to the Constitution that would give the New England states a veto on any future decisions to declare war. The alternative to granting this was secession.

      The delegation carrying the resolution, fortunately for the New England states, arrived in Washington as the news of the Treaty of Ghent arrived. Realizing that the Federal army would have nothing to do but march north and ruin the New Englanders’ day; they fled home without delivering it.

      But this is not the act of a governing class that believed that they were not sovereign.

      I also have in my possession the second oldest book in my collection. It is a textbook on Constitutional Law, published by Harvard University in 1850. It says states can secede.

      The events of 1861-1865 forever settled the matter that states cannot leave the Union by peaceful political means. But at the time of Southern secession, it was considered an extreme but valid option.

      The issue of the relationship between the states and the Federal government still is in play. The pesky 9th and 10th Amendments would seem to preclude direct Federal control of our lives. However, with the recently revealed practice of the Federal government to regard the first 10 Amendments as options grantable or revocable to persons and classes at the pleasure of the administration, we may find the issue moot.

      Subotai Bahadur

    13. Gringo Says:

      Subotai Bahadur

      House of Representatives:Democrat: 45 (24.9%) [These became the Confederate government]
      Republican: 108 (59.7%)
      Unionist: 28 (15.5%) [even more radical than the Republicans]
      In the House, the Southern states might as well not even show up because there was more than a veto proof majority against the South on ANY issue.

      There are three problems with your interpretation of the data. First, the 45 Democrat Party members of the House of Representatives are from states that stayed in the Union, NOT from states that formed the Confederacy.
      Second, the so-called “veto-proof majority” against the South arose from the South vacating Congress. If you include the 58 seats in the House of Representatives that the seceding states vacated, the Republican percentage is 45.1% [108/239]- a considerable drop from 59.7% in the Congress that the South vacated. The Republicans actually lost 6 seats in the 1860 elections.
      Third, the Unionists were NOT “even more radical than the Republicans.” Of the 28 Unionists in the House of Representatives, we find that 25 of them were from slave owning states.

      Delaware 1
      Kentucky 9
      Maryland 6
      Missouri 1
      Tennessee 3
      Virginia 5

      Far from being “even more radical than the Republicans,” Unionists were substantially LESS radical than the Republicans. The Wiki gives a succinct definition:

      Unionist was a political label adopted at various times in the United States by opponents of secession. It was used primarily by Southerners who did not want to affiliate with the Republicans, or wished to win over anti-secession Democrats.

      The South was facing 45.7% Republicans in the House of Representatives. It basically took its ball and went home, because it saw that its previous dominance of Congress and the Executive was at an end.

      In the House, the Southern states might as well not even show up because there was more than a veto proof majority against the South on ANY issue

      “Veto-proof” only if you take your ball and go home. Forty five percent Republicans with full attendance from the South, coupled with Democrats and Unionists mostly from slave owning states, in no way whatsoever constitutes a veto-proof majority. Read up on Copperheads.

      IMHO, had the South tried to secede in 1850, it would have had a better chance of succeeding. In the decade between 1850 and 1860, the growth of railroads and the vast increase in the Midwest’s agriculture production, coupled with the increase in the North’s industrial production during this time, showed that the North was pulling away from the South. The South knew this difference would exacerbate with time.

      This is all for now.

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