Thursday, July 2, 2015

Poetics of Gettysburg

Last week I referenced John Scalzi’s old blog posting on the confederate flag.

I said I laughed at Scalzi’s rebuttals to his fact-challenged detractors. Many of them commented as pathetically as South Africans commented back when we were trying to get them to stop their apartheid. As you may recall, the white Africans would say, “You Americans are racist too, just like us.” Scalzi’s commenters, supporting the confederacy, tried to say the U.S. was pro-slavery too. Scalzi made short work of such ignorance. “I didn’t say you were stupid, I said you were ignorant.” (Of the facts)

For this week’s post I’m excited.

I would like to offer my fellow North Americans, especially Canadians and Mexicans, a brief primer on the facts leading up to the forming of the C.S.A., Confederate States of America, and the resulting U.S. civil war.

As for folks in the middle of North America, best known as U.S. citizens, also known as Yankees, they may learn something too. How so? Easy: Believe it or not, when I was young, U.S. schoolchildren’s textbooks came in two editions: one for distribution in the U.S. south, and one for the U.S. north. I make no comment on whether this is still the case. Today Yankees of both north and south, from Maine to Mexico, are welcome to disagree with my primer. My version of the story comes not from either textbook, but from the British.

It all started when a bunch of colonies, thirteen to be exact, thought they would get together and draw up plans for “a more perfect union.” Their problem? If you ever took business management 101—in my case I took military leadership—then you know that for planning and running a company your goal needs to be as concise as possible, because you don’t want to wander. A little deviation at aiming the rifle can mean hitting barely the edge of the target down the line. Various secondary goals and considerations might seem to be a nice luxury, but in the real world, the only practical target to illuminate is the one at the end of a narrow laser.

The U.S. founding fathers were not pleased to have slavery in the southern coastal states, but their focus was on one target: Getting the union formed. They could always quarantine racial slavery to those original few states. And they did. People appreciated knowing that racial slavery was on its way to eventual extinction, would die out in the fullness of time.

But then someone invented a Frankenstein’s Monster... Or, if you lived in the south, you could call the monster a miracle: the Cotton Gin, an “industrial revolution” machine to separate fluffy cotton from the seeds. Now there could be big farms. Now slavery was an economic asset.

But never mind economics, owning human beings was still hard to defend, right? For southerners, in order to defend the indefensible, slavery had to become their religion. You could not be so much as elected dogcatcher unless you were known to be actively in favor of racial slavery. Not neutral, in favor. And the south acted to spread their religion. Which meant that not only was the quarantine broken, to produce cotton plantations inland, but they even extended slavery to landscapes where growing cotton was not feasible. As new states were added to the union, southern congressmen insisted that every second state had to be a “slave state.”

What if you took your property to a “free state” where slavery was not legal? You got to keep it. Or him. This became a fact after a dreadful court case where a man, a slave named Dred Scott, tried to go free of his master.

The religion gained ground. At first a slave could escape to the northern states, and be legally free, later he or she had to make it all the way to Canada.

One day a man saw manacled slaves on the Mississippi river, and angrily proclaimed, “If slavery isn’t wrong, nothing is!” That man was the gentle Abraham Lincoln. Years later he went on tour with Stephen Douglas, the two of them having a very famous series of debates on the question of slavery. I suppose they were addressing two sides of every free person’s mind.

This was before television, so of course there was a splendid turn out. On at least one occasion the debaters gave people time to walk home for supper and return, then they resumed the debate. In those days people had better attention spans.

Both men were famous; both were from the west. A western lady who eventually married Lincoln, Mary Todd, originally “set her cap” for Douglas, but he wouldn’t have her. It’s no wonder Douglas was Mary’s first choice: He was more cultured and respected than Lincoln; in fact, he too tried for the presidential nomination, but— During a debate he said that each newly formed state had the perfect right to vote for slavery, (audience: Yes, yes, of course,) just as they had the right to vote to be a “free state.” What? That was not the southern religion! With that statement poor Douglas “hung himself.”

Incidentally, Douglas was on the platform for Lincoln’s presidential inauguration. When Lincoln needed somewhere to put his stovepipe hat Douglas took it, moved back and said, “If I can’t be president, I can at least hold his hat.”   

One of Scalzi’s detractors claimed that experts said that slavery, even without the Union victory, would have been gone in another 40 years. That does not seem right to me, not given the writings of the time. I’m thinking of Lincoln’s speeches. In one of them he said if you saw a pile of lumber, with the ends labeled and notched, then you knew there was a plan for the planks to be assembled. He listed the notched planks, one by one; exposing southern plans to extend slavery to the entire U.S. of A. In another speech Lincoln included a resounding line. All his advisors were against it, but he went ahead, quoting the bible: “A house divided cannot stand…” meaning the U.S. must inevitably become all slave (states) or all free.

As Abraham Lincoln toured and debated he kept saying he respected property rights and the laws of the land, meaning: He wouldn’t abolish slavery. But the southerners wouldn’t believe him, no, not when they hated his guts for having the wrong religion. In fact, his name wasn’t even on many of the southern presidential ballots during the election.

As storm clouds gathered, before the election, before the war, a young northerner, a former U.S. army officer, was the commandant at a southern military boys school. He was welcome at the local dinner parties—he couldn’t help being from the north—and everybody told him, to put it in modern words: “If Lincoln is elected president, we’re out of here.” They re-e-eally didn’t trust “Honest Abe” not to free the slaves. The officer wrote away to his brother, a senator in Washington, and informed him of these facts. I think of that young officer whenever people such as Scalzi’s detractors try to say the war was for “freedom” not slavery. (Scalzi debunks this ignorance by quoting confederate leaders at the founding of the C.S.A.) Yes, well, after the first few thousand boys had died in battle, how would you dare tell their mothers they died for anything but freedom?

As storm clouds rumbled the man left the school, went north, rejoined the army as an officer—and later had a nervous breakdown. Good thing we didn’t have such an intrusive media back in those days, because his military service would have been over. But he had a second chance; he rejoined the troops. Today we know him as General Grant’s trusted right hand: General William Tecumseh Sherman, of the “march through Georgia” fame, the first man to say, “War is hell.”

When the shooting began Lincoln focused on preserving the union. This wasn’t only management 101: There was a serious chance of the slave owning Border States defecting to the confederacy, and taking their military manpower with them. Lincoln cried out to those who pressured him to instantly free the slaves: “There are fifty thousand bayonets in Kentucky!”

Today, like Scalzi, I have no use for people who say the confederacy stood for “State’s rights.” In defense of their traitorous belief in breaking away to form a confederacy, the southerners had to convince themselves that thirteen sovereign Colony-States had joined together to form the union. That view, whether valid or crazy, is now in the dustbin of history; Lincoln’s view has prevailed: The U.S. Constitution was for the people. The union was formed not of the colonies, but of the people. The union endures to this day.

The Gettysburgh Adress
Besides the joy of memorizing poetry, I have one speech, equally rewarding, also memorized. It’s so short that when Canadian college acting students have to do a monologue, they aren’t allowed to do this one. A beautiful, poetic piece.

There had been a terrible battle over a vast field, bodies hastily buried. Later they were reburied in a fenced off portion of the field. At the time Lincoln was still not very respected. And so, for the official opening of the cemetery, “they” asked Lincoln to come and give only “a few appropriate remarks.” The greatest orator of the time was asked to give a long speech, where he explained in detail the Battle of Gettysburg. They almost didn’t even ask Lincoln to come speak, but after all, he was president.

Incidentally, I don’t know if Lincoln’s own family respected him either; certainly the wife, Mrs. Lincoln, was a harridan—how bad was she? Mrs. Grant wouldn’t let the Grants attend that stage play with the Lincolns. This probably saved General Grant’s life. (You may have heard that lame joke: “But other than that, Mrs. Lincoln, how did you enjoy the play?”)

What bothers me is the disputed story—let’s hope it’s not true—that Lincoln’s son, from shame, burned many of Lincoln’s letters and papers. I could just spit. To me, the sympathetic man who wrote a letter to Mrs. Bixby, read aloud in the movie Saving Private Ryan, was a master writer.

As I said, the president wrote his own speeches. Here is how Lincoln addressed the people on that day. See if you can say it out loud without sadness:

Fourscore and seven years ago our fathers brought forth upon this continent a new nation, conceived in liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.

Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation, so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure. We are met upon a great battlefield of that war. We have come to dedicate a portion of that field, as the final resting place of those who here gave their lives that that nation might live. It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this. But, in a larger sense, we cannot dedicate, we cannot consecrate, we cannot hallow this ground. Those brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note, nor long remember, what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here.

It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us—that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to the cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion—that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain—that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom—and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.

Sean Crawford
“Whether any (such) nation can …endure” When the U.S. was born, democracy was seen in Europe as “a noble experiment” and many predicted it must fail, for the common people, it was believed, could not govern themselves.
When the people showed that they would not be unified, the European governments favored the confederacy. Only the union naval blockade, and threat of retaliation, prevented rich Europeans from buying confederate cotton, and conducting trade, during the war. In fairness, though, I must report having read that common European textile factory workers, despite their need for cotton, supported the north.

My archives:
Lincoln's opinion on faces is mentioned at the start of Poetics of Face Lines, February 2015.
Lincoln is the subject of Poetics For Abe Lincoln, January 2015.

 ~The president does not, in peacetime, have the right to make major changes to the U.S. constitution. The founding fathers deliberately made checks and balances and second readings so that change would long, drawn out process. However, in wartime, as commander in chief, Lincoln could do certain things, such as suspend the legal right to  habeas corpus (to have the body) that no one else could. He could even free the slaves, if he could claim it was war related. And it was, of course, since as long as the strife of slavery remained, a cause of future war remained. 

~“His name was not even on many southern ballots.” is from Lincoln on Leadership by Donald T. Phillips.

~More democratic silliness: I dimly recall reading once, but I can’t find it just now on the Internet, that the infamous boll weevil could have been kept out of the U.S. if politicians had been willing to infringe on freedom by declaring a fifty mile cotton-free zone along the Mexican border. They talked about it, but couldn’t bring themselves to act before the weevil advanced. In fairness to those losers, modern folks didn’t act to keep killer bees from passing a Central American choke point, and the Australians didn’t build their big rabbit proof fence in time to spare Eastern Australia.

~Must history repeat? If we can’t teach civilians that war is hell, then maybe we could stress the value of cooperation:
If the south (of Korea) ever goes communist it will be have to be from the north propagating persuasion, not violence. Here is a Youtube music video, for “Marching Through Georgia” that, besides traditional instrumentals, includes a bit of a Korean language version and some rock music …all as background to photographs of the civil war and cooperation in the free world.

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