AN UNDESERVED MONUMENT, AN OVERDUE GOODBYE

When I was a boy, when I was very interested in the Civil War. I can’t say why, exactly, but at that time, it was an easy interest to feed. The centennial of the war had begun, and there was a constant flow of features in newspapers and magazines, .shows on television, and movies, and toy gun and toy soldiers and trading cards with gaudy, blood-splashed illustrations of battle carnage. My parents indulged my interest; we lived in Baltimore, and on many Sundays, we went on day trips to pretty nearly anyplace that had a cannon and a plaque: We visited Gettysburg, Antietam, Bull Run, Harper’s Ferry and Fredericksburg more than once. And certainly not for any influence from my parents or family or teachers, I was a fan—that’s the only word that works—of the rebels.

As best as I can discern, I attribute that attraction, in part, to art. In particular, two pieces of art.

One is a painting that appeared in Life magazine. The issue that appeared on January 6, 1961 was dedicated to the centennial, and one of the features was a portfolio of pantings and illustrations executed by contemporary artists of impressive moments in the war. Several paintings really made an impression on me, including a painting depicting the battle of New Market in 1864. For having looked at the painting a million times, it’s a shame that I do not know the artist. IN that battle, cadets from the Virginia Military Academy took the field and defeated the Yankee forces. Although I’m sure I could not have articulated my reasons at the time, I was strongly drawn to the painting. Now the reasons are easier to identify: the heroic flag bearer, the determined boys to his left and right with bayonet and sword, and the cackling triumphant ecstasy of the laughing boy with the bandaged head and unbuttoned blouse. In a war filled with beards, I’m sure their youth wordlessly appealed to my eight year old self.

The other piece of art is a monument to Generals Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson.

In Baltimore, there is a large park, called Wyman Park. It’s not literally in the physical center of town, but it does occupy a place of prestige; it sits amid a pretty brownstone neighborhood, and along its border sits such institutions as Johns Hopkins University, Union Memorial Hospital, and the Baltimore Museum of Art. In that park sat (until last week) a large impressive statue of Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson on horseback. Double equestrian statues are uncommon, and this one, sculpted by Laura Gardin Fraser, is really quite brilliant. It captures Lee and Jackson on the eve of the battle of Chancellorsville, their greatest triumph. Fraser did a great job depicting the generals’ roles: Lee is still, solid, calm, implacable, unyielding; Jackson is in motion, the thunderbolt ready to strike. Often when we had to venture to downtown Baltimore, my father would make it a point to drive along one edge of Wyman Park, so that we could pass the large, dramatic statue. Even before I really knew anything about the battle or the stakes, I knew those men must have done something heroic.

My emotional attraction for that statue has never entirely disappeared; I suppose it is some kind of learned response, but in later years I would always feel a frisson of excitement on those rare moments when I would see it. My feelings about Lee and Jackson, however, changed dramatically. Long ago I stopped viewing them as a heroes.

Both of these men had admirable qualities. Lee, dignified, dutiful, aristocratic, was a strong commander who took chances and delivered victories. As the confederacy’s fortunes ebbed, Lee became the essential man on whom the Confederacy’s viability depended. Long after the defeats mounted and the civilian authorities lost credibility, Lee’s integrity held the army together, and by 1864, the army was the confederacy. Jackson, too, inspired the south; a deeply religious Christian and dedicated family men, he used daring tactics to win improbable victories. At home and at war, he became a reflection of the way the south saw itself– gritty, unconquerable, blessed by God. But even as generals, the men were not perfect. Jackson did not perform well in the battles on the Peninsula, nor at Antietam. And long before ordering the disastrous charge at Gettysburg, Lee showed a penchant for frontal attacks which bled his men. After the war, both figured prominently in “what if. . ?” scenarios that envision paths to an eventual Confederate victory. It is nonsense. There was no chance of a different outcome. The South never had a chance to win the war, and the best efforts of Lee and Jackson only fed the fantasy that victory was possible. And on top of everything–and at the root of everything–they served an immoral cause and a dishonorable regime.

I never questioned why the statues were standing in Wyman Park. Baltimore long had the reputation as a northern city in a southern state, and that seems to be true. Certainly southern Maryland was always very southern. During the war itself, slavery was legal in Maryland, but there were more free blacks in Baltimore than slaves. And despite pro-souther sentiments, Maryland did not quite succeed in seceding. About 30,000 Maryland fought for the south; more than twice that number remained pro-union. The funds for the sculpture came from J. Henry Ferguson, the banker who organized the Colonial Trust Company. In his will, he left specific instructions for a monument to Lee and Jackson, his childhood heroes, which was gifted to the City of Baltimore. Ferguson died in 1928. Fraser began work on the sculpture in 1936; it was dedicated in 1948.

I don’t know enough about Ferguson to doubt his stated motives, nor to gauge his feelings about race or integration. But it is true that the statue’s commission and dedication coincides with a period when many confederate statues were erected throughout the United Stated, and particularly in the south. This sentiment, moreover, coincided with efforts to deny black aspirations and progress, and to support the cause of white supremacy.

In 2016, a plaque was placed in front of the statues which sought to provide some context. It pointed out that during the same period that this monument was installed, Baltimore City continued to enforce racial segregation housing ordinances and deed covenants, continued to support segregation policies in public spaces and programs, and unequally funded African American school budgets, infrastructure improvements, and public programs.

On August 16th, the statues were removed.

Long ago, St. Paul wrote to the Corinthians. “When I was a child,” he wrote, “I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I put aside childish things.”

And so goodbye to childish things. Good riddance.

A KIND WORD FOR DONALD TRUMP

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This week the President Trump made news when he began talking about ancient history. `‘I mean had Andrew Jackson been a little later you wouldn’t have had the Civil War, ” he said. `He was a very tough person, but he had a big heart. He was really angry that he saw what was happening with regard to the Civil War, he said, “There’s no reason for this.”

Apart from the blunderous clause in which Trump had Jackson, a newly minted corpse in 1845, angered about something that began in 1861, the president had a legitimate hypothetical point: had Jackson been president in 1860, the Civil War surely would not have happened as it did, and might not have happened at all.

jackson_secondIt is important to remember that the south did not secede in unison; the states split off one by one, with the last of them that left, Tennessee and North Carolina, not choosing to depart until after the shooting started. South Carolina, which led secession in December 1860, was always the most radical of the southern states, and most of the states–especially key states like Georgia and especially Virginia–were waiting to see how Washington reacted to South Carolina’s bold gesture. In the event, President Buchanan reacted weakly–he said that South Carolina had no right to secede, but that the federal government had no right to compel them to stay.

Thirty years earlier, during the Nullification Crisis, President jackson reacted much differently. Objecting to a high tariff, South Carolina declared it had the right to nullify any action of Congress. Jackson had no sympathy with that position. “There is nothing that I shudder at more than the idea of a separation of the Union. Should such an event ever happen, which I fervently pray God to avert, from that date I view our liberty gone.”

Responding forcefully, he reinforced the garrisons of Fort Moultrie and Castle Pinckney in Charleston harbor, sent two armed revenue cutters to Charleston harbor, and ordered General Winfield Scott to prepare for military operations. Like Lincoln three decades later, he said that federal forces must not initiate violence, but warned a South Carolina congressman that ‘if one drop of blood be shed there in defiance of the laws of the United States, I will hang the first man of them I can get my hands on to the first tree I can find.’ When South Carolina Senator Robert Hayne ventured, ‘I don’t believe he would really hang anybody, do you?’ Missouri Senator Thomas Hart Benton replied, ‘Few people have believed he would hang Arbuthnot and shoot Ambrister [two British subjects who aided the Seminoles] . . . I tell you, Hayne, when Jackson begins to talk about hanging, they can begin to look out for ropes!’ Jackson followed up these orders with a bill seeking Congressional authorization, and he got allies in Congress to lower the tariff to pacify the other southern states and keep South Carolina isolated. And so the crisis passed.

And so I think Trump was right: had Jackson been president, you would not have seen the war, at least not as it happened.

Trump also drew dismay when he added, ‘People don’t realize, you know, the Civil War, if you think about it, why? People don’t ask that question, but why was there the Civil War? Why could that one not have been worked out?’’

Good question, Mr. President! And for a good answer, you can’t beat And the War Came: Six Months That Tore America Apart. You’ll see how an slaveholders–radical, uncompromising, right wingers–manipulated their states into rebellion and war. It might strike a familiar note.

TALKING IN TEXAS

photo 1Many thanks to the Civil War Roundtable of Austin, Texas, for inviting me to talk about Will Cushing at their meeting last Thursday. I had a great time: the talk went well, the crowd was large and friendly, and photo (55)photophoto-2they bought a lot of books. In addition, the group was very hospitable. They bought me dinner at one of the oldest and best Tex-Mex restaurants in town, Mel’s, with its marvelous fifties-era signage, and then put me up at the Hotel Ella, a swanky joint converted from a 1910 mansion owned by Goodall and Ella Wooten, which featured splendid columns and some very cool student art recovered from the art department of the University of Texas. Thanks David, Fred, Martha, and everyone else who helped show me a good time.

TALK TALK

manvil2Twice last week I ventured into the wilds of Orange County to speak about the marvelous Commander Will Cushing. On a sweltering Thursday evening I visited the quaint and scenic Museum Village in Monroe, where about a dozen hearty souls sat at picnic benches in an un-air conditioned structure to hear me go on. On Friday, about 20 of the residents of the Glen Arden Retirement community in Goshen joined me for a lunchtime talk. Providentially, Will Cushing again proved to be an entertaining subject. Many thanks to Michael Sosler at Museum Village and Dee Steeger at Glen Arden for inviting me, and to all the people who came to hear me speak. Happily, a great number of them bought books! Huzzah!

THE LOST CAUSE, AT LONG LAST LOST

635721224754624206-AP-Confederate-Flag.1This morning, South Carolina finally removed the Confederate flag from the grounds of its statehouse. At long last, he rebel flag has finally fallen. Not everywhere, of course. But to see it go down here, in the cradle of rebellion, means one thing: it has lost its power to enthrall and intimidate. The cause is lost, and irretrievably.

You can’t underestimate the power of a flag. We pledge allegiance not to the United States, but first to the flag, and only then to the republic for which it stands, an awfully curious construction when you think about it. We fight for flag and country, we capture the flag, the Giants win the pennant. “We stole countries with the cunning use of flags,’’ says the brilliant comedian Eddie Izzard, explaining how the British built an empire. “Just sail around the world and stick a flag in., [and say]”I claim India for Britain!” They’re going “You can’t claim us, we live here! Five hundred million of us!” “Do you have a flag …?’’ “We don’t need a bloody flag, it’s our country!” “No flag, no country, those are the rules that I’ve just made up. And I’m backing them up with this gun.’’ He may be underestimating the usefulness of that gun, but the point about the flag remains.

One hundred fifty years ago, the confederacy lost the civil war, but thanks to recalcitrance, clever public relations, and decades of state-sanctioned terrorism, it won the meaning of the war. In their minds, the south remained undefeated; they waged not a rebellion against the legitimate government but a war between states; they fought for freedom, not in support of slavery.

They did not fly the rebel battle flag that much then; they did not have to, at least not until after World War II, after Truman desegregated the armed forces and Eisenhower sent the 82nd Airborne to enforce the integration of the Little Rock schools and the Supreme Court declared an end to Separate but Equal. Only then did the confederate battle flag reappear, showing up on state houses and state flags. It did not return as a testimony to heritage or to the fallen soldiers of Shiloh and Chickamauga. It flew once again in defiance of democratic government, of constitutional law, of American principles of freedom and equality. But after the conflicts of the Civil Rights movement—one of the greatest triumphs of our history—the flag was once again fling on the losing side of history.

What did it mean that the confederate flag continued to fly? It meant that anyone who sympathized with any of its principles had a claim to legitimacy. He could claim to be part of a movement, a believer in a cause, the heir to a legacy worth protecting. A government was irrelevant, territory beside the point—if you have a flag, you have approval, you have an Us to stand with as you face up to the Them.

But now the flag has come down in South Carolina. It came down in the place that was always the home of the most fiery of the fire eaters, the first state to cite nullification, the first state to secede from the union, the first place where rebels fired on the flag of the United States. Going forward, there will always be diehards and dead enders who will never give up, but now they will be scattered and isolated. The moment the rebel flag was lowered, the confederacy no longer had any pretense to a home, to a heritage, to a place in American life.

The Lost Cause has at long last been lost.

THAT WAS THE VERY LIBERAL WEEK THAT WAS


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Sometimes it seems as though weeks go by without nary an event worth introducing into conversation. And then sometimes news–and not merely news, but huge historical events–come rolling in like thunder. One such period occurred during the last week in June. On Monday the 22nd, responding to the murder days before of nine people who were worshipping in the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston by a confederate fanboy Dylann Roof, South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley called for the removal of the confederate flag from the statehouse grounds. “We are not going to allow this symbol to divide us any longer,” she said. “The fact that people are choosing to use it as a sign of hate is something we cannot stand.”This in turn inspired further rollbacks: the state of Alabama pulled down the rebel flag, the city of Memphis voted to relocate the tomb of the racist terrorist Nathan Bedford Forrest, the states of Maryland and Virginia stopped issuing license plates with the rebel flag on it, and the state of Kentucky removed a statue of native son Jefferson Davis from the rotunda of the capitol. Then, on Thursday,  the Florida Supreme Court threw out five egregiously drawn election districts, hopefully beginning the process of rolling back on systematic gerrymandering. Also on Thursday, the Supreme Court for a second time approved Obamacare, refusing to chase some sloppy writing as an excuse to undermine the legislative process. The next day, bu a 5-4 margin, the Court legalized gay marriage across the country, calling it a fundamental right. “No union is more profound than marriage,” wrote Justice Anthony Kennedy, `for it embodies the highest ideals of love, fidelity, devotion, sacrifice and family, In forming a marital union, two people become something greater than they once were. Their hope,” Kennedy is not to be condemned to live in loneliness, excluded from one of civilization’s oldest institutions. They ask for equal dignity in the eyes of the law. The Constitution grants them that right.”

“Today is some of the darkest 24 hours in our nation’s history,” said Senator Ted Cruz.  I say hoorah.

DISUNION DRAWS TO A CLOSE

disunion-logoIn the spring of 2010, I walked into The New York Times and proposed that the paper blog the Civil War. Out of that grew the Disunion series, which from October 30, 2010 until last week did just that–wote about the war, in matters great and small, generally corresponding to the events of that day 150 years before. Before the series ended nearly 1000 posts later, literally dozens of contributors, famous historians and civilian researchers alike, combined to cover the war.”`Disunion’ has been like no other intellectual or journalistic enterprise I’m aware of: a sustained five-year conversation among dozens of historians (academic and not) representing every specialty and viewpoint,” wrote historian and series contributor Adam Goodheart. “It was a conversation that included an even broader and more diverse public around the world. It brought leading scholars and laypeople together in ways that I think have never been equaled. It truly serves as a model for those in many other fields who aspire to be “public intellectuals” , not to mention enduring as a resource for educators, students, and scholars. Just a remarkable achievement.”   Much credit and thanks belongs to the Times, especially editors Clay Risen and Geeorge Kalogerakis. To conclude the series, the Times assembled –in their words–“an all-star cast of Disunion contributors and friends: David Blight, Ken Burns, Adam Goodheart and Jamie Malanowski”–to respond to readers’ questions. Here is that discussion, in which I was very proud to have participated.

 

MILLBROOK ROCKS!

mildMany thanks to Sam Falk and all the folks at the Millbrook Literary Festival who invited me to participate at yesterday’s event. It was a beautiful day, I met a lot of interesting people, I sold a lot of books, and I got to participate in a lively panel hosted by Shaun Boyce, and featuring me and my fellow history book writers, John and Richard Polhemus, authors of Stark: The Life and Wars of John Stark, and Jack Kelly, author of book Band of Giants,  All in all, I had a terrific time. (Above from left: Richard Polhemus, Falk, me, Boyce.)

LINCOLN DEPOT

cwdepot)I was very pleased to be invited by Paul Martin (below) and The Lincoln Depot Museum to help open  the 2015 season with event held in partnership with the Lincoln Society in Peekskill to mark the 150th anniversary of the day President cwpaulLincoln’s funeral train paused in Peekskill enroute to internment at Springfield, Illinois.We had an excellent crowd in an impressive facility. I debuted my talk “Abraham Lincoln, Outlaw Hero.” I had a great time, and I’m very grateful to have been invited.