Toni Morrison’s Civil War

Macon paused and let the smile come on.  He had not said any of this for years.  Had not even reminisced much about it recently.  When he was first married he used to talk about Lincoln’s Heaven to Ruth.  Sitting on the porch swing in the dark, he would re-create the land that was to have been his.  Or when he was just starting out in the business of buying houses, he would lounge around the barbershop and swap stories with the men there.  But for years he hadn’t had that kind of time, or interest.  But now he was doing it again, with his son, and every detail of that land was clear in his mind: the well, the apple orchard, President Lincoln; her foal, Mary Todd; Ulysses S. Grant, their cow; General Lee, their hog.  That was the way he knew what history he remembered.  His father couldn’t read, couldn’t write; knew only what he saw and heard tell of.  But he had etched in Macon’s mind certain historical figures, and as a boy in school, Macon thought of the personalities of his horse, his hog, when he read about these people.  His father may called their plow horse President Lincoln as a joke, but Macon always thought of Lincoln with fondness since he had loved him first as a strong, steady, gentle, and obedient horse.  He even liked General Lee, for one spring they slaughtered him and ate the best pork outside Virginia, "from the butt to the smoked ham to the ribs to the sausage to the jowl to the feet to the tail to the head cheese"–for eight months.  And there was cracklin in November.

"General Lee was all right by me," he told Milkman, smiling.  "Finest general I ever knew.  "Even his balls was tasty.  Circe made up the best pot of maws she ever cooked.  Huh!  I’d forgotten that woman’s name.  That was it, Circe.  Worked at a big farm some white people owned in Danville, Pennsylvania.  Funny how things get away from you.  For years you can’t remember nothing.  Then just like that, it all comes back to you.  Had a dog run, they did.  That was the big sport back then.  Dog races.  White people did love their dogs.  Kill a nigger and comb their hair at the same time.  But I’ve seen grown white men cry about their dogs."

From Song of Solomon (pp. 51-52)

Thanks To Annette McLeod, Dana Priest, Anne Hull, and C-SPAN: Democracy in Action

This morning I watched on C-SPAN as Annette McLeod testified in front of a House Committee investigating conditions at Walter Reed Army Medical Center.  The investigation is the result of the fallout surrounding the Washington Post article written by Dana Priest and Anne Hull.  Ms. McLeod is the wife of Cpl. Wendell McLeod who was severely wounded in Iraq.  She testified along with two wounded veterans on the various problems and challenges confronting the staff at Walter Reed.  I applaud Annette McLeod for her courage and ability to maintain her composure as she shared what is by all accounts an emotionally draining experience that has perhaps been exacerbated by the inadequacies at Walter Reed.  This president has made a farce of the concept of national sacrifice.  The only people who have truly sacrificed are the men and women fighting in Iraq along with their families back home.  To think that their physical and psychological wounds have not been met with the best of what this country can offer in medical care is frightening and sad.

I applaud Dana Priest and Anne Hull for their investigative piece and I do hope that they are rewarded with a Pulitzer Prize.  This is newspaper reporting at its best.  Finally, thanks to C-SPAN for giving those interested access to the workings of our government without the distracting commentary of political pundits and other interested parties.

Barnes and Noble v. Borders

My wife and I spent part of the weekend in Washington, D.C. before we had to cut our trip short owing to a severe cold that I caught on Friday.  Any trip to Washington must include a stop at one of the major bookstore chains.  Here in Charlottesville we have a Barnes and Noble, but given that this is a university town you would assume that this particular branch would have a deep selection of books in most subject areas.  That is not the case at all.  The Civil War section is absolutely pathetic as are most other areas of history.  I enjoy bookstores, especially the chance to spend some time browsing through different titles.  You can find anything on Amazon, but there is still something to being able to hold a book and flip through its pages. 

Our first stop was the B&N on M Street in Georgetown.  I thought they would have a much better selection compared with C-Ville; too my dismay the selection was even worse.  In fact their entire U.S. History selection was a disappointment and I was able to walk through it in less than 5 minutes.  That night we walked over the Borders on L and 17th Street after dinner.  The difference is night and day.  I tend to read university press books so it was nice to see a selection of recent titles from most of the presses.  I found and purchased Brian Dirck’s new edited collection Lincoln Emancipated: The President and the Politics of Race (Northern Illinois University Press, 2007).  [I recently heard Philip S. Paludan give a talk at the Univeristy of Virginia where he touched on the topic of his contribution to the collection.]  In short, the selection is much deeper.  Better yet they divide U.S. History into sections, including Colonial/Revolution, Civil War, Nineteenth Century and Modern History.  I don’t know how you explain the difference in selection.  Perhaps buyers are more focused on a given area and have the opportunity to ensure that each section is well stocked.  Whatever the case I miss not having this selection in my hometown. 

I should come clean and say that I’ve known about this difference in selection for quite some time.  Back in the mid-1990s I worked for a Borders store in Rockville, Maryland.  It’s a large store and the selection is excellent.  At the time I managed the magazine section so I was not involved with the stocking or ordering of books.  It was a great place to work at the time, and it was here where I fell in love with Civil War history.  I ran a Civil War book club that met once a month and typically included the historian whose book we were discussing  Guests included Craig Symonds and Kevin C. Ruffner.  I also organized a one-day Civil War book signing that included Brian Pohanka, James Kegel, Ed Fischel, William Matter, Greg Clemmer, Craig Symonds and others.  It was a lot of fun.

Remembering The War At The Turn Of The Twentieth Century

Address of Gen. E. Porter Alexander Delivered on Alumni Day, West Point Military Academy Centennial, June 9, 1902

“There resulted many years of bitterness and estrangement between the sections, retarding the growth of national spirit and yielding but slowly, even to the great daily object-lesson of the development of our country. But at last, in the fullness of time, the stars in their courses have taken up the work. As in 1865 one wicked hand retarded our unification by the murder of Lincoln, so in 1898 another assassin, equally wicked and equally stupid, by the blowing up of the Maine, has given us a common cause and made us at last and indeed a nation, in the front rank of the world’s work of civilization, with its greatest problems committed to our care.”

Savannah Morning News, March 6, 1907 (Excerpt from Gen. Floyd King’s Address to the March meeting of the Confederate Veterans Association on Jubal Early and the Valley Campaign)

“You fought comrades, and you suffered Confederates, in the cause of the white man—for the upholding and the maintenance of the dignity and supremacy of the white man; for the preservation and the purity of the white race. That cause still lives, and will live forever. As long as there is a white man on earth; as long as the eternal God rules the universe and dwells in the heavens, that cause, your cause, will live. ‘Tis true the federal government is saved, and I pray it may ever remain. But under the government, and those of the states by the decree of God, the cause of the white man must and shall be fought to a final and eternal triumph.”

An Important Lee Exhibit

Many of my readers who find much of what I have to say about Robert E. Lee to be offensive may be surprised to learn that he is in my mind the second most interesting figure from the Civil War.  I’ve read at least 10 major biographies about Lee, including the 3-volume set by Douglas Southall Freeman.  It remains my favorite biography of Lee even thought it is dated in certain respects.  In the end, however, few know Lee better than Freeman.  Discerning readers are no doubt able to distinguish between my thoughts concerning how many have chosen to remember Lee as opposed to those who approach the subject with a sincere interest in analytical history.  The bicentennial of Lee’s birth has given us a great deal of fluff, but little serious public history. 

An exception to this is the work being done at Washington and Lee University which explores Lee’s role as educator.  There are a number of interesting exhibitions, lectures, and publications associated with this project that will surely enrich our understanding of this important period in Lee’s life as well as the life of the college.