Thursday, February 24, 2011

FROM THE WASTES OF TIME: THE CIVIL WAR The First Year Told By Those Who Lived It

7- Today, given that too many college students in the various colleges of the City University of New York have much difficulty figuring which came first, World War One or World War Two (and I am not putting you on) it is with some trepidation that I mention that in April begins the 150th anniversary of the Civil War with the remembering of the firing upon Fort Sumter.

2--I doubt many college students could make a list of three Civil War battles or even associate Lincoln in some way with the war. These students can go on at some length about the racist nature of American society since they will be reciting in a rather rote fashion the obsessions of their professors and like students in the former Soviet Empire they know what they have to do to get ahead: never argue, never question just repeat after me.

3--I am of an age that I do remember the 100th anniversary of the Civil War as I was working at Francis Bannerman Sons out in Blue Point and that company, you might know had long before bought up 90 % of the war surplus from the Spanish American War and still had in Blue Point and up in the castle on an island in the Hudson River a vast assortment of the necessary parts and other gear to outfit those who were now collecting the various weapons and accouterments. It was a great first job for a 16 year old. (for another day)

4—My own connection to the Civil War was via a picture on a great aunt’s wall in her apartment in Brooklyn where I was told of this man: a great-great uncle who had lost his army at Gettysburg fighting on the Union side. This aunt was from my mother’s side of the family and was a Whitney which lead to the family legend that Eli Whitney was a relative and as I learned incorporated the whole of the Civil War within his biography. Having invented the cotton gin he made cotton profitable and slavery necessary in the South but being cheated out of any profit from his invention went North where he perfected the process of interchangeable parts in the manufacturing of muskets thus giving the North the reason why they would win the Civil War: industrial might of an inexhaustible magnitude. Aunt Marie had met this man and remembered only the pinned-up empty sleeve of his suit jacket.

11--On my father’s side of the family, the Irish side--- was made complex because of the Draft Riots that occurred almost around the corner from where I am typing these lines: recent Irish immigrants unable to buy their way out of Mr. Lincoln’s draft rebelled against being forced to serve in an army that represented a country that saw them as agents of the Vatican. A country where there were plenty of places: dogs and Irish not allowed--- and why should they go off to die to free the coloured people? But the history knowing came only came later since my grandfather had been sent out of Ireland as a 12 year old boy to work as best he could and this was well after the Civil War. Ireland meant, really only a place you left. If you are 12 the history of a new place does not matter.

12--When I think back to reading the 100th anniversary celebration it seems that the war was described by Bruce Catton but which now when read is the sort of official version of Union triumphalism and was blessed by Life Magazine and who was to argue with that authority, then?

15--Times change. THE CIVIL WAR , A NARRATIVE by Shelby Foote was read. Twenty years of writing 3000 pages, one man---not an academic committee, not a gang of indentured student assistants--- the masterful opening as Foote delights in the genius of Lincoln’s calculating the necessity of getting the South to fire first…
Shelby Foote is America’s Edward Gibbon and he provides the grand narrative of the Civil War. There is no need for any other, probably.

15--AND there is great news RIGHT NOW from the Library of America: they have begun to publish a series of books made up of near contemporary writings based upon a chronological account of the war. With a great breadth of sources one hears the actual voices, remembering that this was the first war in which most of the soldiers on both sides were literate and many of them wrote letters home and these letters were preserved. The Library of America book: THE CIVIL WAR The First Year Told by Those Who Lived it. It is edited by three academics but excusing this I do wonder why one couldn’t have done the job but that would lead to the usual discussion of the decline of education…

34--Since I am writing this toward the end of February: one hundred and fifty years ago Jefferson Davis (February 18, 1861) is giving his Inaugural Address: We have entered upon the career of independence, and it must be inflexibly pursued…As a necessity, not a choice, we have resorted to the remedy of separation, and henceforth our energies …It is joyous in the midst of perilous times to look around upon a people united in heart…

16--Given my own predisposition I did skip ahead and read a letter from a surgeon ( Lunsford P. Yandell Jr) writing about what he saw at the Battle of Belmont in November of 1861: “The gun had exploded into a thousand atoms. One of the men had his right arm torn to pieces, and the ribs on that side pulpified, though the skin was not broken. He breathed half an hour. The other poor fellow received a piece of iron under the chin which passed up into the brain—the blood gushing from his nose and ears. He never breathed afterward…”

"As to the variety of expression depicted upon the faces of the corpses, of which I heard so much I saw nothing of it They all looked pretty much alike---as much alike as dead men from any other cause. Some had their eyes open, some closed, some had their mouths open, and others had them closed. There is a terrible sameness in the appearance of the dead men I have ever seen.

"My friend Captain Billy Jackson was shot in the hip while led a portion of the Russell’s brigade. I think he will recover. I am afraid Jimmy Walker (James’ son) will not recover. I think he is shot through the rectum.

19-- So to Shelby Foote where you can read his eloquent description of this minor battle of the Civil War, a battle that in no way changed the war, no way either shortened it lengthen it: just a brief moment of slaughter… but seen as one of the first steppings of Grant from the obscurity which had been his fate until…

17—The selections in THE CIVIL WAR THE FIRST YEAR TOLD BY THOSE WHO LIVED IT and only my poor typing skill prevents me from making a simple list of all the contributors to this wonderful book so you probably should go to the Library of American website and see for yourself. They do quote from a poem by Hermann Melville written after the Civil War as to his premonition of what as to be come. One line holds me:
The tempest bursting from the waste of Time.

18--Of course as I type I am nearly buried by the waste of time and in that waste I remember walking , six, seven years ago was it, with my wife and son and daughter across the field which Pickett send his men in 1863 at Gettysburg and here we were walking in the hot sun of a similar July and I was asking Lorcan could he imagine what it must have been like for young men not much older than his 12 years of age or his sisters 15 years… but he had not great defining sentence.. and the daughter and wife were there only because after you promised we were then going to the wholesale outlet mall built it seems on the side of a Confederate hospital but Lorcan did mention he would have taken shelter behind the one tree that we could see and I was asking but what about the other hundreds of men would they all lie up behind him, and his silence seems to have born some fruit as he has a remarkable narrative gift when writing on historical events but that is all off the subject which in some way is the problem of the Civil War: how to talk about it, about this something that happened and still resonates in our daily life even if unacknowledged, and that silence evident in all our modern major poets and save for Faulkner all out major prose writers…

20—THE CIVIL WAR THE FIRST YEAR TOLD BY THOSE WHO LIVED IT. What a wonderful title. Maybe someone will find a way to use it in imagination, but it has the practical value of putting the reader really there back then in the waste of time.

AFTER--And I should mention that Madison Smartt Bell has written a provocative novel based on the life of Nathan Bedford Forrest which Pantheon published two years ago, DEVIL’S DREAM. So it can be said that the Civil War still is news. The provocation comes from the fact that Forrest was an early supporter of the Ku Klux Klan but on the other hand Bell is probably the single most interesting writer at the moment in the US based on his more than 2000 page trilogy based on the life of Toussant L’Ouverture and other books now too many to mention… another day, then.