California’s Civil War

Hope everyone is having a pleasant Memorial Day and has spent a little time in thought about why we set aside this day.  President Obama decided to spend Memorial Day at the Abraham Lincoln National Cemetery in Illinois.  In the spirit of acknowledging sacred sites beyond Arlington National Cemetery here is a news article and video about the Hollywood Forever Cemetery in California.  Both the article and video feature UCLA historian, Joan Waugh, whose book on Grant and historical memory is a must read.  Enjoy.

Why I Don’t Live In the World of What Ifs

Last month I started reading Harry Turtledove’s Guns of the South.  While I was excited at the beginning my enthusiasm quickly waned to the point where I haven’t picked it up in about 3 weeks.  Perhaps I will get back to it over the summer, but it doesn’t look good.  I’ve never been enthusiastic about counterfactuals in Civil War history.  I find very little entertainment in their consideration.  While I agree that there may be an epistemological pay off when handled carefully, I suspect that most conversations about counterfactuals in the Civil War are more about freezing time for some selfish purpose than about serious historical understanding about cause and effect.  There is no better example of this than William Faulkner’s Intruder in the Dust:

For every Southern boy fourteen years old, not once but whenever he wants it, there is the instant when it’s still not yet two o’clock 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 it’s all in the balance, it hasn’t happened yet, it hasn’t even begun yet, it not only hasn’t begun yet but there is still time for it not to begin against that position and those circumstances which made more men than Garnett and Kemper and Armistead and Wilcox look grave yet it’s going to begin, we all know that, we have come too far with too much at stake 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….

Ulysses S. Grant also pointed out the problems with such an approach in his autobiography.  Here he reflects on the suggestion by some that Confederate Gen. A.S. Johnston’s death at Shiloh sealed their defeat. [Hat tip to Ta-Nehisi Coates]:

I do not question the personal courage of General Johnston, or his ability. But he did not win the distinction predicted for him by many of his friends. He did prove that as a general he was over-estimated. General Beauregard was next in rank to Johnston and succeeded to the command, which he retained to the close of the battle and during the subsequent retreat on Corinth, as well as in the siege of that place. His tactics have been severely criticised by Confederate writers, but I do not believe his fallen chief could have done any better under the circumstances. Some of these critics claim that Shiloh was won when Johnston fell, and that if he had not fallen the army under me would have been annihilated or captured.

Ifs defeated the Confederates at Shiloh. There is little doubt that we would have been disgracefully beaten IF all the shells and bullets fired by us had passed harmlessly over the enemy and IF all of theirs had taken effect. Commanding generals are liable to be killed during engagements; and the fact that when he was shot Johnston was leading a brigade to induce it to make a charge which had been repeatedly ordered, is evidence that there was neither the universal demoralization on our side nor the unbounded confidence on theirs which has been claimed. There was, in fact, no hour during the day when I doubted the eventual defeat of the enemy, although I was disappointed that reinforcements so near at hand did not arrive at an earlier hour.

While Grant was, no doubt, hoping to retain some credit for his victory at Shiloh he rightly points to the difficulty involved in identifying one single factor that explains a battle’s outcome.  It is worth noting that the most famous What Ifs are formulated from a perspective that lead to a Confederate victory.  Gettysburg, of course, looms large: What if Jackson had been at Gettysburg or Confederate General Ewell had advanced and taken Culp’s Hill on the evening of July 1, 1863.  We could just as easily formulate a counterfactual around a Union mistake or defeat to achieve the same end, but that doesn’t seem to have the same ring to it.  It’s as if the war was the Confederacy’s to win regardless of the broader sweep of events and the facts on the ground.  We are like children in the scene that Faulkner so eloquently sketches stretching the imagination to bring about a different outcome to a battle and possibly the war.

I don’t fantasize about Confederate victory.  I suspect that many people entertain these stories as a means to imagining the outcome that they wish had prevailed.  That fantasy may be quite common among Civil War enthusiasts, as Faulkner suggests, but it does not necessarily imply anything nefarious about the individual in question.

I have never been attracted to such stories and I suspect that this is why I am having trouble with the Turtledove book.  I guess I can’t imagine a Confederate victory without pondering the question of what would have happened to 4 million slaves as well as the rest of American history.  Since my understanding of the Civil War and its outcome is so wrapped up in the issue of slavery I don’t have the luxury of being able to distinguish between the two.  In the end I identify with the United States because it led to the end of slavery, even if the road to its eventual extinction was rocky and littered with moral landmines.  Without speculating much and given the goals of the Confederate government it is reasonable to conclude that a Confederate victory would have left millions of slaves in bondage.

The other difficulty that I have in playing with such counterfactuals has to do with my own sense of nationalism and love for country.  I find it strange to have to continually respond to critics who take me for some kind of “Lincoln lover” or partisan for the Union cause.  I am not descended from anyone who was alive in this country in the 1860s and as many of you know I came to an interest in the war relatively late.  In other words, there is nothing at stake for me in vindicating the cause of my ancestor or community.  Actually, it’s my own sense of connection to this country as a citizen that prevents me from playing around much with fantasies of Confederate victory.  My impatience with such counterfactuals has everything to do with my own identity as an American and a lingering belief that the right side won that war even if the moral principles dividing the two were not always transparent.  I’ve always found it kind of strange that people who go out of their way to declare their loyalty to this country find it so easy to imagine and even wish for a Confederate victory.  There is something contradictory about this.

That’s about it.  I’ll let you know if I ever finish the Turtledove book.

“It Is a Sad Day Indeed For All Of Us Who Love the South”

Civil War memory is indeed a very strange landscape. Up until today I would have said that the once widely held view that slavery was benign and that the slaves themselves remained loyal throughout the war reflects its most absurd side.  However, the folks over at Richard Williams’s site have somehow managed to trump even that.

In response to a short post marking the anniversary of the surrender of the Army of Norther Virginia at Appomattox on April 9, 1865 one reader had this to say:

It is a sad day indeed for all of us who love the South.  This was followed by a response from Williams: “Yeah, me too.”

Apparently, that caught the attention of my good friend and fellow historian, Mark Snell, who posted the following in response:

Why is it sad that the killing ended? Why is it a sad day that the institution of slavery was coming to an end? Why is it sad that this date signaled the beginning of a new era, one that would make the United States the strongest and richest country in the world–with some of the ex-Confederate states in the forefront of that economy today? Can someone explain this “sense of sadness” to me?

Williams offers the following response:

That’s a legitimate question, but please don’t put words in anyone’s mouth. No one laments the end of slavery – at least not anyone I know. That’s absurd. Moreover, it was Lee who did not want to see the killing continue. Grant is the one who seemed to be willing to continue to supply an endless supply of human cannon fodder.

The sense of sadness to which I’m referring was eloquently expressed by none other than General Grant:

“My own feelings, which had been quite jubilant on receipt of Lee’s letter, were sad and depressed. I felt like anything rather than rejoicing at the downfall of a foe who had fought so long and so valiantly and had suffered so much for a cause.”

First, no one put words into Williams’s mouth.  Mark was simply asking how anyone in their right mind could consider it to be a sad day given that it brought slavery that much closer to being finally extinguished. More to the point, it brought the slaughter to an end.  How could it possibly be a sad day?  Even stranger is the reference to Grant as somehow wishing to continue the violence.  Williams provides no evidence whatsoever for this ridiculous claim.  I guess somehow we are to believe that Grant had an easier time ordering young men into battle and to their deaths.  Of course, the only way one could get away with such a claim is if he ignored the entire Seven Days’ Campaign, Chancellorsville, and Gettysburg – to name just a few. That’s not a criticism of Lee.  After all, they were both generals trying to win battles and bring about victory.

Mark offered a follow-up to Williams’s response, but unfortunately it was rejected without explanation.  It’s difficult to understand why:

I didn’t put words in anyone’s mouth. I simply asked some very legitimate questions, and I still haven’t gotten a legitimate response to them. The only reason Lee surrendered when he did was because he had no choice. He was cut off from retreat and had no chance of linking up with Joe Johnston. Your assertion that Grant wanted to continue to supply cannon fodder is illogical: if he wanted to continue the war, he could have refused Lee’s surrender. That makes about as much sense as saying that the South had a vast unused manpower pool–all those black Confederates–that could have been employed to further prosecute the war. Grant’s feeling of depression concerning his defeated foe is quite understandable. After all, weren’t they all Americans? But to use Grant’s memoirs to validate your point tells me nothing about Mr. Simons’ remark that today ‘is a sad day indeed for all of us who love the South,’ nor does it explain your apparent agreement with it. I love the South, and I’m sure a lot of black Southerners do too, but I doubt if they see today as a ‘sad day.’

Thanks for allowing me to comment.

Well, so much for all the silly accusations about how the “liberal elite” stifle the free exchange of ideas.  For the life of me I can’t think of a better example of pure nostalgic bullshit.

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