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9-08-2015, 00:05

Defeat and Victory

THE GENERATION that fought the Civil War spent the rest of its life trying to absorb the event, and to make sense of what it had done. It was the focal point of men's and women's lives, and as such it deserved, and received, a great deal of reflection. For those who had not participated directly, by virtue of age, condition, or gender, it was, obviously, something they had missed; for those who had taken part in it, and lived through it, it was the occasion of reminiscences and veterans' organizations. For the people of the war generation, and for the millions who came after them, it became a matter of commemoration. Gradually it assumed a centrality in the life of the nation, in the process of defining what the nation was and meant, a centrality that to a large extent it still holds. In almost any town in the eastern United States, the Civil War memorial takes pride of place, even over World War II and even allowing for changing tastes in memorials. The American Revolution, like the eighteenth century generally, seems too distant for any sense of immediate empathy, but the Civil War, with its totality of commitment, with its railroads and its masses of men and materiel, with both its ideology and its romanticism on the one hand, and its practical common sense on the other—Jeb Stuart the last cavalier, and Sam Grant in his baggy trousers and private's blouse—seems something assimilable, something that is still part of Americans even though it happened more than a century ago. There are reasons for this. Perhaps first among them, it was all America's war; it was fought right in the front yard, and all the casualties, on either side, were American. The costs of winning and losing both had to be debited to the same people. And those costs were tremendous. At the top of the list were the 620,000 men who died, in proportion approximately three Union soldiers for every two Confederates, 360,000 Union soldiers and about 260,000 Confederates. The latter number was about 5 percent of the white population of the Confederacy, and 25 percent of the white males of military age. The Federal deaths represent a smaller proportion of the larger Union resources. Other casualties, wounded, prisoners, and missing, are at the usual ratio of about three to one, so that means another million to a million and a half scarred by the war. Those, of course, are military figures, and leave out of consideration the hundreds of thousands of widows and orphans, and the numerous civilian deaths, almost all of the latter in the South, directly or indirectly attributable to the passage of armies and the devastation of war. Until well after the turn of the century, every town in eastern America had its war widows and its veterans who were missing an arm or a leg. Celebrating heroism, people often forget the hidden ongoing price of pain that ceases only with the death of the last maimed veteran or his widow. Such costs immediately provoke the question, Was it worth it? What result did the nation gain that compensated for the suffering of the war? The first response that comes to mind is that the question is simply impertinent, if answered only by those—scholars, Civil War buffs, visitors to historic parks—who did not have to pay such costs. Such people are in the position of Civil War re-enactors, who dress up in period costume and shoot each other with blank cartridges, then get together for a barbecue, sham actors in sham warfare. It is easy enough for the writer, sound in body and presumably in mind, to answer that, yes, the war was worth the suffering. Most people can endure other people's suffering with a good deal of equanimity. So the question should be, Did the people who fought, suffered, and lived through the war think it was worth it, and what did they think it meant? Judging by the memoirs they left behind, the answer is that they did think it was worth the effort and the cost, both on the national and the individual level. President Lincoln believed, as he repeatedly said, that the nation was undergoing "a new birth of freedom," that the United States was a noble experiment, and that men were fighting and dying so that "government of the people, by the people, for the people shall not perish from the earth." Those were noble and lofty aims, and in a nation still dominated by small communities and government of town meetings, they were less imprecise than perhaps they seem today. They were clear enough, anyway, to the Northern men who volunteered by their thousands to fight, and perhaps to die, for them, and to the families who supported and sustained them while they did it. To these men, the Federal Union, the life of the nation as a whole, was worth fighting to preserve. And they gradually came to understand, as indeed did the president himself, that that life, and that vision of what the United States was and meant, could not be sustained in a country in which some men were free and some were slave. If all men were not free, to achieve the natural limits of whatever talents nature or God had given them, then none were truly free. These were of course philosophical or theoretical constructs, and the constraints of daily living, of making a living, meant that such abstractions were seldom achieved in real life. Nonetheless, they were there as the underpinning of what life, individual and national, was all about. We tend, indeed, to think that the average man seldom even thinks in such abstract terms—but it was the average man who volunteered for the war, and fought it, and re-elected Abraham Lincoln to keep on fighting it. Government of, by, and for the people—old veterans insisted that when President Lincoln spoke that phrase he put the emphasis on "people"—also helps explain the importance of the war in American history, for it was an open-ended aim, not just of the war, but of the nation. One of the reasons the war occurred when it did was because Americans were involved in the process of redefining what "government" and what "people" meant, and one reason for continued discussion of the war, aside from its intrinsic interest, is that they are still doing so. No society is ever static, but few have spent as much time and effort in constant refinement of what society is at any given moment as have Americans. The role of government has constantly changed, and so has the vision of what constitutes the "people." In 1800 "people" meant adult white males possessing certain property qualifications; in I860 it meant adult white males; after the Civil War it was supposed to mean adult males, and eventually it meant adults; at the end of the twentieth century Americans are busily redefining who is an adult, and working on the concept of family and the protection of those who are not adults. Thus questions addressed in the war are questions still of vital interest to society, questions to which answers are still being sought, in the stteets, in the classrooms, and in the courtrooms of America. Northerners, or more fairly Union men, as there were many in the South who sympathized with and fought for the North, were fighting for the preservation of the Union and, as a necessary entailment, the demise of slavery. And by extension, they were fighting for this openended definition of what the United States was all about. What Confederates were fighting for was a different vision, and after the war was over, Southerners and Southern apologists spent a great deal of time and effort justifying what they had done and why they had done it. The most successful, and the most influential, of these apologia for the South was that produced by the Richmond journalist Edward A. Pollard. During the war he had been vociferously anti-Davis, and he had also written a four-volume history of the war as it was being fought. In 1866 he condensed this into a single volume, which he entitled The Lost Cause. The phrase "the Lost Cause" thus passed into Southern mythology, and for at least half a century provided the rationale for what Southerners had done. They had not broken up the Union to protect slavery, but to free themselves from an association they had willingly joined, and had in 1860-61 chosen to leave. In Pollard's view, and that of his Southern readers, the antebellum South represented all or at least the greater part of what was good, cultured, civilized, in America, a rural land of happy yeoman farms as envisaged by Thomas Jefferson. To avoid contamination by, and submergence in, the grasping, avaricious, money-driven world of the Yankee, Southerners had simply opted to leave, as was their right. They had then been prevented from doing so by the overwhelming might of the North, with its capitalists and its mercenaries, and thus Southern cavaliers, fighting gallantly to the end, had ultimately gone down before the crushing masses of lesser men mobilized by a heartless industrial machine society. This was of course an immensely one-sided view, but like all such, it had just enough verisimilitude in it that it could be accepted, especially by a people who felt themselves abused and mistreated by the oppressive Reconstruction policies imposed on the South in the decade after the war. The Lost Cause, that of honorable men and beautiful women and magnolia blossoms, with contented darkies humming the background music offstage, was the perfect Romantic picture of what the South had been, and what the war had been fought to preserve. Pollard's vision, and the emendations to it by a thousand preachers, editors, and novelists, achieved for the South after the war what Harriet Beecher Stowe and Uncle Tom's Cabin had done for the country before the war: both provided a false image, but an image men and women could embrace, act upon, live with. In this way, both sides could believe they had contended nobly for a worthy cause; they could all be Americans again. Those who supported the Union could believe that they had been right all along, and that they had vindicated themselves on the battlefield; in the trial by combat, God had indeed upheld the right. But former Confederates could believe that they too had been right, that their vision of America was a valid one, at least for its time, that it was worth testing in war, and they could even entertain the quite contradictory notions that they had both been right to fight, and that it was probably a good thing that they had lost. That required considerable mental or emotional agility, but human beings, as we all know now, are perfectly capable of believing mutually exclusive propositions. None of this adjustment happened in a vacuum, of course. Life went on, through the years of Reconstruction and on into the Gilded Age, as the country grew ever stronger, larger, richer, more powerful, an exuberant, ebullient America striding confidently toward the new century and the world stage. Under that progress, both Unionist and Confederate could convince themselves that they were, after all, winners in the great struggle of life. But there were losers. The proud and hopeful assertion that once the black man had a rifle on his shoulder and the letters "U.S." on his belt buckle, he would be a free man and considered the equal of white men proved a sham. Throughout the South, blacks were denied by clever manipulation of the political and legal system the rights they had been officially accorded by the victory of the Union and the laws of the federal government. Freed from legal slavery, they were kept in an economic and political peonage. White southerners actively promoted this, nonsoutherners at the very least passively agreed with it, and blacks themselves lacked the means, through education, economic circumstance, or social or political organization, to do anything about it. Slavery gave way to segregation, and for a century that was about as far as change went. It was not until after the Second World War that real change began. The passage of time eventually makes all men and women, black and white and everything else, equal, as Carl Sandburg said in Grass, and Walt Whitman, the great poet of the Civil War era, said in every- thing. So the young boys of the war went home to become middleaged, then old, men; the generals and colonels sat down to write their memoirs, and to prove that everyone had committed errors but they. Few were as honest as old Dick Ewell: "It took a great many mistakes to lose Gettysburg. I made most of them." Most were at pains to prove that someone else, or at least someone else's general, did this or that wrong. Jefferson Davis, eventually released from prison, settled in Mississippi, looking out over the Gulf Coast, and wrote his memoirs; here at last was the perfect venue, where he could argue with cool logic that he had never been wrong, that the Confederacy had never been wrong. So it went; Confederates discovered a devil, poor old General Longstreet, whom they accused of losing Gettysburg and the war, and a whole host of saints, Lee and Jackson at the head of the list. Union men did even better; they not only wrote memoirs, five of them went on to become presidents of the United States. The last of them was William McKinley, who during the war rose from private to major, was elected president in 1897, and died, ironically, from an assassin's bullet. Joshua Chamberlain, of Little Round Top, became governor of Maine. Oliver Wendell Holmes became a Justice of the Supreme Court, and lived until 1935, but the war remained the defining event of his life. Nathan Bedford Forrest, that incomparable cavalry leader, helped organize the Ku Klux Klan, and Oliver Howard, the unlucky one-armed general, became director of the Freedman's Bureau and had the country's first university for blacks named after him. Gouverneur Warren spent the rest of his life seeking exoneration for his relief from command, and got it just before he died in 1882. Ambrose Burnside died a senator; George Armstrong Custer, the boy general, died at the Little Bighorn. Joe Johnston was a pallbearer at William Tecumseh Sherman's funeral; he stood bareheaded in the rain, and died five weeks later from the chill he caught. The last of the chief Confederate generals, Longstreet, died in 1904; his young widow outlived him by fifty-eight years, and worked building bombers during the Second World War. So they passed from the scene, first the generals, then the older officers, and finally the young privates and drummer boys and buglers, no longer young at all, but old, old men in faded uniforms of the Grand Army of the Republic or the United Confederate Veterans, riding stiff and straight in automobiles in the parades in Bridgeport or Wilmington, while other young men marched off to other wars. The Grand Army of the Republic held its last meeting in 1949; sixteen men were still alive of all those thousands who had once worn blue fatigue jackets, and six attended the meeting. The United Confederate Veterans outlasted them; its last reunion, of three men, was held in 1951. Then they were gone, all Americans, all equal, all free at last.