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.

CAPITOL ATTRACTIONS IN ALBANY

IMG_2031After meeting with the Gov last Monday, I had a little time to kill. I spent some time admiring the glories of The War Room, a reception area on the second floor of the Capitol Building. The War Room has that name because it is decorated with murals dedicated to the various conflicts in which New Yorkers of European descent have engaged, between the founding of the Dutch colony and World War I. The murals, which were painted by William de Leftwich Dodge, are fairly amazing, in a comic book sort of way. I was pleasantly surprised to see my man Will Cushing kinda sorta honored. In one corner is a frieze that clearly shows the battle between the Monitor and the Merrimack, or CSS Virginia. Above the frieze, however, is the legend, Albemarle and Merrimack. I would like to have heard the arguments that got Cushing pushed in, or left out, of that honor.
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One floor down from the War Room is the Flag Room, a place where are stored the battle flags from the 150 or so New York Regiments that fought to preserve the Union. Most are sheathed to contain deterioration, but a few spectacular flags are on display.

SIX WHO FAILED

acwtscan0014_21For those of you who may have lain awake at night wondering “Geez, were there six men who could have prevented the Civil war from becoming a murderous army vs. army conflagration, please avail yourself of the opportunity to pick up the April issue of The Civil War Times, and read my article “Six Men Who Could Have Stopped the Civil War.” Yes, I’m talking about John Floyd, John McGowan and Isiah Greene, among others. This grew out of a talk I gave two years ago at Civil War Forum of Metropolitan New York, and I’m pretty pleased with the results. Thanks to Dana Shoaf for a nice edit.

IRONY AND THE TERRORIST

Nothing in John Brown’s life more became him than the way he took leave of it. One of the strangest and most challenging figures in American history, a combination of practical fiasco and undiminished confidence, Brown was a failed tanner, a failed farmer, and in narrow terms, a failed insurrectionist. As much as anybody, he put the blood in Bleeding Kansas; his activities there in the mid-1850s were crowned with the cold-blooded midnight murder and dismemberment at Pottawatomie Creek of four unarmed men who had the misfortune of having a different point of view than the country’s most driven abolitionist.

Brown was a terrorist in the cause of God’s will, no less than Mohammad Atta. Terror was the only thing he was good at, and murderous, bloody terror was what he intended to ignite when he and his platoon of twenty-one true believers seized the federal armory at Harper’s Ferry, Virginia, on October 16, 1859. The raid was a dismal botch, and within forty-eight hours, Brown and his men had been easily vanquished, ten of them killed in action. Brown himself was bludgeoned into unconsciousness in the final assault on his stronghold in the armory by a marine lieutenant named Israel Green, but only after had attempted to kill him with his sword. Hastily mustered the night before, Green had brought a light ceremonial sword instead of a battle sabre, and when he stabbed Brown, the blade bent in half. Had he successfully killed Brown, it is unlikely that the raid would have inflamed the country as it did, and the incident would eventually have become eclipsed in memory, overcome by other events.

Instead, Brown survived, and in ensuing six weeks, became a most eloquent champion of ending slavery. “I believe that to have interfered as I have done — as I have always freely admitted I have done — in behalf of His despised poor, was not wrong, but right,’’ said Brown at his trial. “ Now if it is deemed necessary that I should forfeit my life for the furtherance of the ends of justice, and mingle my blood further with the blood of my children and with the blood of millions in this slave country whose rights are disregarded by wicked, cruel, and unjust enactments– I submit; so let it be done!’’

Throughout the north, and in Europe as well, Brown’s noble attitude elevated him to the status of martyr, and stirred the anti-slavery feelings that in most of the population had been largely latent. Emerson and Thoreau applauded him, John Greenleaf Whittier celebrated him in poetry, and Victor Hugo honored him from abroad. “Living, he made life beautiful,” Louisa May Alcott wrote on the day he died, “Dying, made death divine.” Feelings were stirred in the South, too; the whites of the South were rightly alarmed that a blow had been struck, however ineptly, at their slaveocracy, and were entirely shocked that their northern cousins were far more sympathetic than outraged. Brown may have failed to incite a rebellion, but he had polarized the country, and made the continuation of a country half-slave and half-free an impossibility.

In his excellent new book Midnight Rising: John Brown and the Raid That Sparked the Civil War, Tony Horwitz has done a terrific job in explaining the raid and its effects. More than anything, he has restored Brown’s humanity. Long portrayed as a fiery-eyed zealot, Brown here is portrayed as a man defined by a willingness to act on his convictions. If slavery was immoral, then acting to end it could not be. Prior to his capture, Brown could be defined by all the things that he wasn’t—a successful farmer, a successful businessman, a shrewd strategist. After his capture, he became the thing he was at his core: a man who saw evil and could not countenance its continuation. Not two years after his execution, as his countrymen took arms against the slaveholder, they went into battle singing that his truth was marching on.

50 YEARS AGO: THE FIRST BATTLE OF BULL RUN AT 100


Fifty years ago (fifty years ago tomorrow, to be precise), my mom and dad drove my brother and me from our home in Baltimore MD to Culpepper County, Virginia, about sixty miles away, for a centennial reenactment of the first Battle of Bull Run, which took place 150 years ago today. About 2000 reenactors restaged the first great battle of the war for about 70,000 spectators. It was an awfully hot day, about 100 degrees, and my dad declined to pay $4 each for grandstand seating, preferring to maneuver for a slice of shade. Northern newspapers criticized the event: “90 minutes of profuse feigned violence in scorching heat”, ludicrous restaging”, “a grisly pantomine” and a general chiding for staging such pageants while the scars of the war remained unhealed and great issues remained before the nation. True, true, very true. Nonetheless, we loved it!

My dad, Clem Malanowski, took these pictures. I believe his ambitions exceeded his equipment and his skill, but I like some of these shots quite a bit: the troop in the top photo, with the unfurled Stars and Bars and their gallant brigadier with his sword and the lovely crinolined ladies on the right (God, think of the sweat!); my brother Matt and me (wearing a Confederate cavalry hat with the left brim dashingly upturned, plus a canteen on a strap), posing with a Yankee reenactor; the spectators, who even from the back look all abuzz (the men’s straw hat industry has been clobbered by the universal appeal of the baseball cap); a rebel artilleryman, ramrodding something into the barrel of his Parrot gun; and the rather bulky statue of General Thomas Jackson, standing like a stone wall at the battle where he earned his name, in a cape that he doubtless did not wear during the battle 150 years ago today.

People may not realize, but many institutions and groups made special efforts to mark the centennial, not the least of which was Life magazine, which, with its visual eclat and dexterity, was still at its peak as an American institution. Life published a six part history of the war, the highlights of which were a series of fourteen full-page or double=page paintings of battles, which to my eight year-old mind, were some of the most stunning images I had ever seen. For the first Battle of Bull Run, the editors chose Stanley Meltzoff, an artist known primarily for his painting of fish and sport fishing. Meltzoff decided to depict the scene where a stampeded Union army ran into the gaggle of spectators who had come down to watch the splendid battle, resulting in clogged chaos on the Warrenton Turnpike. Meltzoff brilliantly assembled in one scene a group of individuals who in all likelihood did not run into one another, and created a thought-provoking, emotionally moving painting. From left, by the cannon: Alfred Waud, the noted Civil War artist, works at his sketch pad; a vivandiere mourns a dead soldier, while behind her another stands with a pistol, just to the right of William Howard Russell, the famous war correspondent of the London Times, looking through binoculars; at center, photographer Matthew Brady, in a white duster, who has lost his camera but found a sword, walks between two Zouaves; a drunken officer, reported to have been wearing two hats, is above a despondent young picnicker; at right, in the carrriage, Judge Daniel McCook, transporting the body of his son Charles, an 18 year-old private in an Ohio regiment. The 63 year-old judge had ridden with several congressmen to join the fight; by happenstance he met up Charles, who met his death later that day. here shown .

THE THIRD AMERICAN REPUBLIC

It will always be an impediment to any mellowing of my feelings towards Ronald Reagan to recall his visit to Philadelphia, Mississippi after becoming the Republican presidential nominee in 1980. Philadelphia was the place where the Civil Rights workers James Chaney, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner were murdered in 1964, and for Reagan, in his first appearance as the nominee, to visit Philadelphia and discuss states’ rights was a highly transparent code that conveyed the despicable message that those who still opposed the cause of integration would have a friend in the White House if Reagan was elected.

It was therefore good news to read the other week that Haley Barbour, the governor of Mississippi and man with, as The Economist says, “a record of racially insensitive remarks,” avoided the opportunity to keep talking code, at least as far as the origin of the Civil War goes. “Slavery was the primary, central cause of secession,” Barbour is quoted as saying. “Abolishing slavery was morally imperative and necessary, and it’s regrettable that it took the civil war to do that. But it did.” The Economist sugsts that Barbour might be speaking code for a new era: “Mr. Barbour wants to be president. His remarks not only directly refute the ancient argument that slavery was not the principle cause of the war; they showed that there is no longer political gain in pretending otherwise.”

Which makes me think that the issues that created the war and that infected the country’s politics for more than a century are at long last disappearing. In the Times Talk discussion I moderated, we played a clip of Shelby Foote contending that to understand Americans of the 20th century, you need to understand the Civil War. “It was the Crossroads of Our Being,” Foote said. I wondered if it was still true that to understand Americans of the 21st century, you need to understand the Civil War. Ken Burns and David Blight, who have thought about the Civil War far more than I, agreed with Foote, with Blight making the particularly sharp observation that just as the Civil War was the result of the failure of the first American Republic, the Civil Rights movement was the result of the failure of the second.

But I guess here is where I depart from my learned new friends. It is true that much political argument takes place with language from the Civil War–states’ rights, big government–but I don’t think the polity actually thinks that way. The government is out of touch with the people. The massive success of the civil rights movement, the liberation of minority groups, women, gays and so on, has really changed the nation. we are all Martin Luther King Jr.‘s children now, even Haley Barbour, and when the third republic fails, it will be because we could not reconcile King’s view of freedom with Reagan’s, at least as it applied to economics.

Here’s a prediction, one whose accuracy I am sure I won’t be around to verify: there won’t be a civil war bicentennial commemoration, any more than there will be a War of 1812 commemoration next year. The issues will be gone.

THE RIDICULOUS RON PAUL

Appearing on the Alex Jones Show on April 5th, Texas Rep. Ron Paul said he will make a final decision within a month on whether he will run for president in the 2012 election. Earlier his son, Senator Rand Paul of Kentucky, told Politico he believes his father will run. “I get every indication from looking at his schedule and hearing what he’s doing that I think he probably will.”

I can’t say that I have paid very much attention to Paul, registering him as a n iconoclastic libertarian with unrealistic though not necessarily always incorrect views of things like the Fed. Here is a clip I recently came across that gives me more insight into his thought processes. And what they show me is that he’s daft.

Like a drunken driver who is weaving from guardrail to guardrail, Paul occasionally manages to stray into an accurate position. I don’t have a problem with someone arguing that the Civil War was a calamity, or that 600,000 deaths is prima facie evidence that the system and the leaders failed and that another course of action might have been better; or even that slavery might have ended without benefit of war.

However, when Paul says “Lincoln should never have gone to war [because] there were better ways tog et rid of slavery,” he seems ignorant of the facts. Lincoln did not go to war to end slavery; he went to war to end the slaveholders’ rebellion and restore the seceded states to the union, and even then, he only went to war after the southern states, individually and collectively, seceded, seized federal property including forts and armories, and fired on Fort Sumter.

Second, the war may have been horrible, but it certainly wasn’t senseless, not from either point of view.

Third, when he says Lincoln went to war to “enhance and get rid of the original intent of the Republic,” he is speaking nonsense. The Civil War represented a disagreement between two sides, two cultures, two philosophies about what the original intent of the Republic was. It’s true, Lincoln’s side favored a role for the executive and the central government that was larger than the other side favored, but both sides viewed that they were honoring original intent. And Paul’s side lost.

Fourth, Paul’s idea that the federal government could have bought the slaves and freed them is unrealistic. First, the plan was suggested and tried in Delaware, and it never went anywhere. Second, buying four million slaves would have been hugely expensive; there is no evidence that there was any political will to do that. Third, it takes two to make a sale, and the South didn’t want to make a sale. Slaveholders liked their way of life, and seceded and launched a war not merely to preserve it, but to enlarge it.

Two minutes tells me that Ron Paul cannot be trusted about anything he says.

MY CIVIL WAR CENTENNIAL

I had a great Civil War Centennial. I was eight years old in 1961, and my parents took our family on trips to Gettysburg and Antietam and Manassas. I had blue and gray toy soldiers, and Civil War trading cards, and I watched Johnny Shiloh and Johnny Yuma. From this, a life-long interest was born.

Recently I read Troubled Commemoration, an excellent account of the Civil War Centennial by Robert J. Cook, and I learned that I had experienced exactly what the centennial organizers envisioned: an event that promoted tourism and commercial enterprise and, oh yeah, taught a little bit of history as well.

I also learned that people besides me also had a good centennial. Segregationists, for example, were able to turn the centennial of the war into a celebration of the Confederacy. Flying the Confederate battle flag, they used secession as an origination myth for the never-defeated cause of states’ rights, which was the philosophical underpinning of the racist laws and practices they defended.

Another group that had a good centennial were cold warriors, who were able to argue that the America that now led the Free World had its roots in a civil war that left us more unified, and more deeply committed to the defense of global freedom — a perfect metaphor for the former antagonists of World War II who were now standing together against communism in western Europe. As for which side held the moral high ground in 1861, the cold warriors were agnostic.

Others didn’t have such a good centennial. When the national Civil War Commission scheduled its first assembly in Charleston in April 1961, Madaline Williams, an African-American member of New Jersey’s Civil War Centennial Commission, was told that she wouldn’t be able to stay with the rest of the delegation at the segregated hotel where the events were being held. Several northern delegations threatened to boycott the event, but the hotel management did not relent, and no state or city officials intervened. “We are surprised that a colored woman would not want to stay at a hotel for colored people,’’ wrote one newspaper. Finally the Kennedy administration stepped in and moved the event to a naval base in Charleston, where facilities were integrated.

Nor did the Emancipation Proclamation have a particularly great centennial. Political leaders in the south made it clear that this great moral landmark had no business being mixed up with a commemoration of the Civil War. So the proclamation had its own ceremony, one that put it in a Cold War context. It was cast as pivotal moment in the cause of global freedom, as something more meaningful in 1962 to Third World people who were emerging from colonialism and who had to choose between east and west, than to black Americans who were fighting for their civil rights. No African-American speakers were even part of the program until Thurgood Marshall, then a judge on the U.S. Court of Appeals, was added at the last minute. A late scheduling conflict prevented President Kennedy from attending.

The only comfort that comes from reading Cook’s book is the realization that thanks to the struggles of so many of our fellow citizens, we live in a much better country today. But 50 years later, as we enter the sesquicentennial of the Civil War, we must realize that for those of us who care about history and this particular event, work still remains to be done. There remains a basic ignorance about the Civil War, an ignorance that fosters myths and fabrications, and deforms our understanding of ourselves.

For example, when asked about the cause of the war, far too many people will say that there were many reasons. Slavery was one; states rights, tariffs and northern aggression were others. This is sad, because when you read the words spoken by the leaders of the rebellion, when you read their secession ordinances, there is only one reason: slavery — the preservation of slavery, the extension of slavery, the expansion of slavery.

Six hundred thousand Americans did not die for anything as nebulous as states rights or tariffs. They died because slaveholders wanted to preserve their human property and expand their slaveholding empire, and they were willing to demolish the union and bring tragedy to nearly every family in this land in order to protect their right to own human beings.

And still some people ignore the facts. Last December, 400 people attended a Secession Ball in Charleston; a spokesman said that slavery was an abomination, but that they were honoring people who stood up for their freedom.

In January, Congress began its session by reading the Constitution, but omitted the part where slaves were counted as three-fifths of a person. Later, Rep. Michele Bachman said that when people came to America, “It didn’t matter the color of their skin, it didn’t matter their language, it didn’t matter their economic status. … Once you got here, we were all the same. Isn’t that remarkable?’’

What would be remarkable, what would make this a great sesquicentennial, is if people stopped entertaining delusions about the terrible origins of this terrible war.

(This piece appeared today in The New York Times.)

TALKING IS BETTER THAN FIGHTING. . .

. . .although talking about fighting might be best of all. I had a great time last night moderating a TimesTalk discussion at, natch, The New York Times, on the subject of Disunion and the Civil War. I had an excellent panel to work with–Adam Goodheart, a Disunion series mainstay and author of a new book entitled 1861; the historian and author David Blight of Yale, whose easy erudition was remarkably impressive; and Ken Burns, the peerless documentary film maker, who was incisive and perceptive and commanding. All I had to do was to remember to keep passing the ball. The nearly full house seemed to enjoy the event very much. I have to say I was especially impressed with David’s comments about how America’s insistence on the idea of progress and of its own exceptionalism has created an interpretation of the Civil War as something that resolved issues and that sprung us into a glorious future, and which has prevented us from understanding the war as a terrible tragedy. He said something to effect that the Civil War marked the end of the first American republic, which failed and had to be replaced; and the the civil rights movements marked the end of the second American republic, which had been created by the Civil War, and which failed and had to be replaced. Kind of a brilliant assessment. Afterwards, we went to a restaurant called 441/2 on 10th Avenue, to help Adam celebrate the publication of his book. The food was good and the company delightful. A really great evening. (Top: Adam, me, Clay Risen of the Times, David, Ken, and my pal George Kalogerakis of the Times. Along the left: George and Clay; Timeswomen Snigdha Koirala of exotic Nepal and Whitney Dangerfield of exotic West Virginia; historian and Disunion contributor Ted Widmer toasts Adam.)

LEXINGTON, CAVALRY AND HORSE

Our visit to Lexington wasn’t all college services, matriculation, basketball, and Wildcat tchotckes. As it turns out, a fortuitous left hand turn plopped us into the middle of beautiful, charming Historic Lexington, where we saw the home of John Hunt Morgan, the Thunderbolt of the Confederacy, one of rebeldom’s dashing, glamorous, gallant, and ultimately ineffectual cavalry officers (above left), as well as the post-war home of John Breckinridge (above right), who was James Buchanan‘s Vice President, the man who finished second to Abraham Lincoln in the 1860 election, and, once the war broke out, a Confederate general. How the anti-slavery, pro-union Breckinridge, who lived in this home until his death in 1871, ended up with the confederates in a question worth investigating at a later time. After indulging in these surprise Civil War edifices, Cara and I visited the Kentucky Horse Park, which is a pretty impressive momument to horseracing and horsebreeding. I would be happy if Cara gets to spend some time there over these next few years learning some inside ropes.