Wednesday, October 31, 2012

On History We Share

Recently, I went on a lovely jaunt south to Virginia, where I met up with Shirley and Veronica.  These ladies kindly played Tour Guide to me and I was able to add to my Civil War Battlefield Portfolio.  Poor Virginia!  Its woods are still scarred by soldiers' trenches, and the battles there evoked what is for me one of President Lincoln's most poignant quotes, "My god! What will the country say?"

My time at these sites made me thoughtful:  of history, of politics, of my childhood, and of perspective.  It sent me back into that impressive book Battle Cry of Freedom by James M. McPherson, which I will quote at length in this post.

When I was a kid growing up in NEO, my dad worked at the steel mill in our town, and my mom stayed home.  I had three siblings, and for family vacations, we did it on the cheap.  Lots of times we packed up and drove to Gettysburg, PA to impose on my Aunt Shirley and Uncle Dick and their three kids for a week or so.  They lived across the street from a huge battlefield marker and up the hill was another one.  Back then, townies also got into all the museums and everything for free, so for at least a few days, we'd steal the neighbor kids' identities, walk uptown, and do all the attractions. I loved the Jennie Wade house, the Electric Map, and one uncle even worked part time at the Lincoln Train Museum.  At first, the Gettysburg experience seemed to be all about battle strategies, weapons, casualties, generals, and maneuvers.  Sometime in the seventies (I think), that seemed to change.  It was suddenly all about Lincoln and the Union.  Maybe it was just me.  Maybe I grew up, or maybe my perspective changed.  But I remember that shift very palpably.  It didn't dampen my ardor for Gettysburg in the least:  I eagerly went on any car tour narrated by my aunt, hoping to glean more information to add to my expanding mythoi of the battlefield and its monuments.

In Virginia I was curious as to how a Southern State--the seat of the Confederacy--would present its history of the Civil War.  The Battles of Fredericksburg and Chancellorsville were both Confederate victories, despite their ultimate defeat.  In Virginia's Civil War History, Abraham Lincoln is the architect of destruction for some citizens' family trees.  Richmond, the capital, was a symbolic prize for the Union army, and its citizens knew it; they burned their own city to the ground as they fled before the bluecoats got there.  For much of the South near the end of the war, life had become an endurance test.  Federal troops were single-mindedly marching, taking provisions, doing anything to end the war, even if it meant brutal conditions for civilians.  If I were a Southerner, I would want some respect paid to that story.  It's a fine line to walk, I would imagine.

As is always my experience with our nation's National Park Service, there is a great reverence and honor for the battlefield sites and stories I visited in Virginia.  The focus there is very human and personal as the displays remind visitors of native Virginians who fought in the battles there, and whether they survived or gave their lives for their Cause.  Especially humbling and poignant is the Fredericksburg National Cemetery on Marye's Heights, the terraced ground in which rests over 15,000 Union dead, most of whom are unknown.

It is all so very, very sobering.  Abraham Lincoln was elected president on November 6, 1860.  On December 20, 1860, South Carolina became the first state to secede from the Union.  In relatively rapid succession followed states Mississippi, Florida, Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, Texas, Virginia, Arkansas, North Carolina, Tennessee; these went on, of course, to make up the Confederate States of America (CSA).

(Ironically, unless Virginia leans Democratic, it seems that these states will vote against a man from Illinois again.)

It's conventional wisdom that our country, highlighted by election year politics, is polarized.  We were divided into Red and Blue by election maps, 1% and 99% by a movement, and a host of other designations that, sometimes, we chose ourselves.  During the Civil War, we truly were a country divided.  Consider this, from author McPherson (859):

Before 1861 the two words "United States" were generally rendered as a plural noun:  "the United States are a republic." The war marked a transition of the United States to a singular noun.  The "Union" also became the nation, and Americans now rarely speak of  their Union except in an historical sense.  Lincon's wartime speeches betokened this transition.  In his first inaugural address he used the word "Union" twenty times and the word "nation" not once.  In his first message to Congress, on July 4, 1861, he used "Union" thirty-two times and "nation" three times.  In his letter to Horace Greeley of August 22, 1862, on the relationship of slavery to the war, Lincoln spoke of the Union eight times and of the nation not at all.  Little more than a year later, in his address at Gettysburg, the president did not refer to the "Union" at all but used the word "nation" five times to invoke a new birth of freedom and nationalism for the United States.

A house divided against itself cannot stand.--A. Lincoln

The old federal republic in which the national government had rarely touched the average citizen except through the post office gave way to a more centralized polity that taxed the people directly and created an internal revenue bureau to collect these taxes, drafted men into the army, expanded the jurisdiction of federal courts, created a national currency and a national banking system, and established the first national agency for social welfare--the Freedmen's Bureau.

The legitimate object of government is to do for a community of people whatever they need to have done, but cannot do at all, or cannot so well do, for themselves, in their separate and individual capacities. In all that the people can individually do as well for themselves, government ought not to interfere. The desirable things which the individuals of a people cannot do, or cannot well do, for themselves, fall into two classes: those which have relation to wrongs, and those which have not.--A. Lincoln 

This change in the federal balance paralleled a radical shift of political power from South to North. During the first seventy-two years of the republic down to 1861 a slaveholding resident of one of the states that joined the Confederacy had been President of the United States for forty-nine of those years--more than two-thirds of the time.  In Congress, twenty-three of the thirty-six speakers of the House and twenty-four of the presidents pro tem of the Senate had been southerners. The Supreme Court always had a southern majority....After the war a century passed before a resident of an ex-Confederate state was elected president.  For half a century none of the speakers of the House or presidents pro tem of the Senate came from the South, and only five...justices...were southerners.

These figures symbolize a sharp and permanent change in the direction of American development....Thus when secessionists protested that they were acting to preserve traditional rights and values, they were correct....The South's concept of republicanism had not changed in three-quarters of a century; the North's had.  With complete sincerity the South fought to preserve its vision of the republic of the founding fathers--a government of limited powers that protected the rights of property and whose constituency comprised an independent gentry and yeomanry of the white race undisturbed by large cities,heartless factories, restless free workers, and class conflict. The accession to power of the Republican party, with its ideology of competitive, egalitarian, free-labor capitalism, was a signal to the South that the northern majority had turned irrevocably toward this frightening, revolutionary future.  Indeed, the Black Republican party appeared to the eyes of many southerners as "essentially a revolutionary party."...[I]nsisted Jefferson Davis during the Civil War, "We are resisting revolution....We are conservative." (860-1)

Be not deceived.  Revolutions do not go backward.--A. Lincoln


  1. I've been reading a lot of history lately ---about the Lincolns, Thomas Paine, Washington, the founding fathers and mothers. I was surprised at how divided we were in the early years of the country ---the Repulicans and Federalists hating each other.

    When Jefferson visited Martha Washington after her husband's death, she declared the visit the second most troubling event in her life after the loss of George.

    When Madison ran for president, newspapers reported that Dolly was being pimped out to gain votes for her husband. You can't get much nastier than that.

    Yet, in my 67-year lifetime I don't remember the Democrats and Republicans being as polarized and as unwilling to compromise as they are now.

    We certainly are a country divided. I guess we have been throughout our history, but the divide escalates from time to time.

  2. Sometimes I wonder if we'll go to Civil War again. It was easy to divide before, wasn't it? North vs. South? Now, it's more like a class issue, and there are poor people everywhere, and middle class people everywhere, and rich people everywhere.

    I am so touched by stories of the Civil War. As for so many others, my great-great-great grandfather died in the war, a loss that devastated the family and had repercussions for generations to come. His wife was pregnant when he died, and then she had to go to work in a factory, contracting a disease that ultimately killed her. So my great-great grandmother was raised by her grandmother and her great grandmother (who was born during the Revolutionary War). My grandma is still bitter about it, about losing her grandfather to free the slaves, though she conveniently ignores the family on the other side of the battle, who lost their lives to retain slavery. Ugh.

    I have a family document that says one of the ancestors in this line (the line of our lost soldier) was the first to diaper Horace Greeley, as his mother was unable to get to a doctor, and neighbors assisted her.

  3. Yesterday afternoon, my husband and I decided to take advantage of early voting here in Akron. We stood in line outside for a half hour in a chilly mist, and waited for another half hour inside the cramped board of elections building to get our ballots.

    It was one of the most profoundly rewarding voting experiences of my life! The crowd was a wonderful mix of the elderly (some considerably older than realprof and I), college age kids, and people of color. We were all patient, cheerful, and determined to vote. No one bailed out, no one electioneered for one side or the other. We commented on how much we hate the ads and the robocalls. When a deputy Sheriff noticed a young mother standing in line with her beautiful little boy, he ushered her into the building immediately. No one complained. In fact, we applauded him and thanked him for his courtesy.

    At our nation's earliest stirrings of democracy, the franchise was limited to white male property owners who belonged to the right Christian denomination. Only a fraction of the group yesterday would have qualified. "People died for this right". My husband said softly.

    While I have felt disheartened by the divisiveness of this campaign season, I came home yesterday afternoon more warmed than chilled by democracy in action.

  4. fauxprof--Thank you for relating your story here in comments. I much appreciate it.

    I always feel an uplift when I vote, and I have never missed an election. Your last paragraph says it perfectly.

    Retired now, I am happily taking advantage of early voting, for which I am so grateful. But even before that, our local polling place was always a nice mix of neighbors who take the time spent in long lines to catch up with each other and chat about other things. I hope it is always thus.

    j.@jj--You have a rich trove of family history available to you, and I am jealous. My father's side, from Croatia, are unknown to me entirely. He was not clannish, and as a result, I have nothing. His mother was very keen on becoming a complete American when she came to this country, so she discouraged a lot of Old Country ways. He, born here, did not even know the language of their homeland.

    My mom's side, American-born, doesn't seem too wrapped up in genealogy. My grandmother was eminently practical, all about the here-and-now, and I guess she didn't think much of that was useful.

    Like you, I am very touched by the Civil War and its stories. It is so very human to me. No wonder Walt Whitman was moved by it and inspired by the generation of the time, and me by his poems.

    CJ--I revisited Dolly and Martha when I struggled through Cokie Roberts' book "Ladies of Liberty". (Aside: Have you read it? It left me cold and frustrated by its style. I thought it was terrible.) Certainly women in politics have had it rough a lot longer than recent campaigns, both here and elsewhere. (Look at Cleopatra!) I would offer that the constant media exposure and subsequent public scrutiny makes it more obvious today.

    The country is terribly divided, but I wonder how much of it is exacerbated by this constant media machine. There is more commonality among the citizens than not, I would bet. And I am not advocating a silent media or a mushy media. I want to be informed.

    But I do not want to be led.

    As far as Washington and those we sent there to do Our Work: I wish they would shut the fuck up and do it. I have very strong opinions and beliefs, but I don't let them get in the way of moving forward when something important needs to be done or if someone needs my help. How simple IS that? Can't they apply that same principle that I, and I'm sure, you do?

  5. A very thought-provoking post. I do think that a lot of the division is caused, or at least exacerbated, by the media, especially since the media reaches us through so many formats nowadays. I also think the media has the ability to foment the rise of extremist groups like never before. When you add to the mix those who have unlimited financial resources to make their megalomaniac voices heard... it can turn into something quite frightening.

    What would Lincoln say of the union today? Possibly, "My God! What were they thinking?" Or perhaps, if he were standing in a line of voters today, he would look at the modern day demographic, chat with the voters and say, "This is the 'state of union' that I hoped to achieve."

  6. Nance, this post almost leaves me at a loss for words. You convey so much with your words. The three of us had a fantastic visit together, but honestly, I haven't quite gotten over our visits to the battlefields (and their visitor's centers that chronicled all so well) or Chatham. "So very, very sobering" is right. There's info that you shared that I didn't know about ... the transition from the use of "union" to "nation." In retrospect, I can see that happened, but really was not aware of the deliberate transition. Thanks for your perspective. I really appreciate the comments, too. The divisiveness saddens me; no more accurately it tires me. Sometimes I don't see it when expected and other times I see it when not expected, related to north and south or other subjects close at hand. We have more in common than we do not if we look to the good of our country. Sounds cliche, but I truly believe it.

    Thanks for this post, Nancy. Another excellent piece of writing from you.


  7. Shirley--Welcome back to comments! I love when a post brings readers back to the fold, like this one has you and CJ.

    Oh, THIS: "We have more in common than we do not if we look to the good of our country." How very Lincoln-esque is your philosophy here.

    The problem continues to be--and this is what our National Park Service does so well by contrast--that the "leaders" in D.C. have forgotten the human face of the country. They have focused too much on ideology and not enough on PEOPLE. It is no accident that a founding document of our country starts out "We the People".

    Thank you for your kind words. Like you, I am always deeply affected by visits to historical sites because of their stories and their great significance. They remind me of the Walt Whitman line of poetry: "I am large, I contain multitudes". We really are the sum total of all who have come before us, in some manner or other. Their sacrifice formed the foundation of a moment or more in our lives. We cannot help but feel the import.

    Ortizzle--It is provocative to imagine President Lincoln observing the electorate today! I went with Rick for moral support as he stood in line to early vote yesterday. We arrived about 30 minutes early, and there were already 80 people in line, standing in the 40 degree temperatures with a cold wind. The crowd was a real mix of our county--very blue collar, multi-racial, all ages. Lots of UAW members and lots of moms with little kids. Very quiet crowd, very polite, no electioneering except for a man offering a flier of Democratic candidates on a sample ballot, very low-key. Not surprisingly, a lot of people took one (we have a lot of judges on this ballot, and their party affiliation is not allowed to be posted). NEO is big auto manufacturing country, esp. our county. The line went fast once the place opened. We were there about an hour and 15 minutes. But the line had grown, reaching halfway around the block, so it was going to be a big day. In Cleveland, they said the lines were much longer, with 3-4 hour waits at some places. But they had entertainment and some places had grills set up with burgers and hot dogs! Wow.

    But back to Lincoln. He was a very smart politician and very patient, too. But he knew how to craft a compromise while wielding the power of his Office. It is a delicate balance, obviously. His willingness to get in there and get his hands dirty was a great asset.

    I'm sure if he saw the shape of the electorate today, women, non-whites, immigrants, young people, and the level of engagement, he would be very approving. Seeing lines of people waiting to cast votes, even before Election Day, would make him happy, I'm sure.

  8. I just finished reading "Gone With the Wind", so the timing of your post is fortuitous. We saw a PBS special a while back about Margaret Mitchell and she seemed such an interesting and complex woman, very ahead of her time, so I bought the book.

    The story is so very well written, and I liked the characters a LOT, but at the end of the day it was just extremely sad, especially in light of today's politics. Yes, the civil rights movement has made huge strides, and women can vote and own property, but moneygrubbers and politicians are still exactly the same. To a man (or woman), they all remind me of the seagulls from "Finding Nemo": Mine!! Mine!! Mine!! Mine!! They're all about who can line whose pockets the fastest with the "mostest" and promoting their own mindset as the only mindset that’s acceptable—the common good be damned. I don’t believe in wealth re-distribution (what nonsense that is) but I do believe in keeping some semblance of order, having a fair judiciary, promoting equality under the law, and taking care of those who truly can’t take care of themselves, and keeping common sense in mind while doing so. That mindset wasn’t there in the Civil War and certainly isn’t evident today. It’s the main reason I avoid politics completely, as almost everyone involved in the field, including and especially the media, is an unqualified idiot, and I suffer from extreme idiot intolerance.

  9. LaFF--I count "Gone with the Wind" among my favorite books and reread it every June. It's not perfect, but its characters are rich and it is, as you say, well-written.

    Your summary of What You Believe For Government is succinct and, I think, generally what most would say they want for a federal government's purview. And that taps into the irony of the quotes I pulled from MacPherson's book for this post. The republican party NOW claims to not want pretty much anything from the federal government, yet under Pres. Lincoln, who was its first true republican president since it was a new party, created the income tax, the draft, expanded the powers of the judiciary, created the Federal banking system and a national currency, and created a national social welfare agency. And the last paragraphs speak for themselves.

    I, as you know, suffer fools grudgingly, if at all. But I will be damned if I will sit there mutely and allow them to make policy for me.

    Now that I am entrenched in my Retirement, I need the mental exercise every now and then to retain my sharpness, so I get some calisthenics in from hollering about The Politics. It cannot be helped; I was raised on it. ;)

    You are by far not alone in your disillusionment. In today's Cleveland Plain Dealer, there are several Letters to the Editor from people who explain cogently their decision not to vote.

    Our democracy, far from a fait accompli, continues to be a process. A really messy one that got even sloppier and uglier, thanks to the Supreme Court and big money. And here in Ohio, it's a brawl to which we have front row seats.

    I don't blame you for deciding to step outside for some fresh air every once in a while.

  10. Very interesting and now another book to add to the list! I think there will be more heard about the Civil War, in the same way that we've seen and heard more about WWI. I think it quietly informs us how to transition a period of social/economic/political change much like the one we are seeing now with an evolving global economy and an industrial society giving way to a technological one. Aside from war, how did people do it?
    But, in Ohio, and especially Hamilton County it's best to keep those crazy left-wing musings to myself!

  11. dbso--There you are! Welcome back to Brainstorms. Social revolution, political revolution, economical revolution--it's easy to mark those transitions in hindsight when there is no cataclysmic event such as war. Good point. In regard to our era, certainly we can point to the mortgage crisis, the collapse of banks and the market's ensuing slide, and then the bailouts and other government safety nets. Perhaps the only small quibble I have is with your characterization of it "quietly" informing us. History, I believe, speaks loudly and clearly. Sadly, we are often either deaf or in denial, refusing to listen to its counsel.


Oh, thank you for joining the fray!

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