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The American Civil War and the Continuum of History, Humanity, and War

Friends Of Padre Steve’s World,

Barbara Tuchman wrote:

“No one is so sure of his premises as the man who knows too little.”

Finite human beings find themselves bound by time and space, we live in the present, but not the present alone, but rather three worlds: one that is, one that was, and one that will be. The German historian Ernst Breisach wrote, “In theory we know these three worlds as separate concepts but we experience as inextricably linked and influencing each other in many ways. Every new and important discovery about the past changes how we think about the present and what we expect of the future; on the other hand every change in the conditions of the present and in the expectations of the future revises our perception of the past. In this complex context history is born ostensibly as reflection of the past; a reflection which is never isolated from the present and the future. History deals with human life as it “flows” through time.”

Richard Evans wrote something in the preface to his book The Third Reich in History and Memory that those who study military history often forget. He noted: “Military history, as this volume shows, can be illuminating in itself, but also needs to be situated in a larger economic and cultural context. Wherever we look, at decision-making at the top, or at the inventiveness and enterprise of second rank figures, wider contextual factors remained vital.” Thus while this work is an examination of the American Civil War it is important to understand the various issues that were formative for the men who directed and fought the battle, as well as the vast continuum of often distant and seemingly unrelated events that come together at one time in the lives of the participants in any historic event.

This is important and it goes to a broader view of history and education rather that many people are comfortable with. We live in an age where much of education, even higher educations has been transformed into training for a particular skill to gain, or with which to enter the workforce, rather than teaching us to think critically. The social sciences, the liberal arts, philosophy, history are often considered by politicians and business leaders as skills which do not help people get jobs and have been the subjects of cuts in many public university systems.

Andy Chan, Vice President for Personal and Career Development at Wake Forest University wrote: “The prevailing argument is that students should study or major in something “employable,” something that is directly correlated to a job in a high paying career field. This view is espoused by many parents and national leaders, including politicians on both sides of the aisle. Many have called for additional STEM majors as well as eliminating funding for “softer” disciplines.” Like it or not such efforts impact the serious study of history and minimize the exsposure of students in the STEM disciplines to the broader aspects of intellectual study that happen provide them with a moral, ethical, and historic foundation for their disciplines. Giles Lauren in his introduction to B. H. Liddell-Hart’s classic Why Don’t We Learn from History?, wrote:

“Education, no longer liberal, has largely become a question of training in a skill for gain rather than teaching us how to think so as to find our own way. ‘It is strange how people assume that no training is needed in the pursuit of truth.’ We must learn to test and judge the information that comes before us. After all: ‘Whoever habitually suppresses the truth … will produce a deformity from the womb of his thought.’”

Liddell-Hart expressed the importance of a wide view of history as well as the importance of being able to dig deep into particular aspects of it, bit of which are important if we want to come as close to the truth as we can. He wrote:
“The benefit of history depends, however, on a broad view. And that depends on a wide study of it. To dig deep into one patch is a valuable and necessary training. It is the only way to learn the method of historical research. But when digging deep, it is equally important to get one’s bearings by a wide survey. That is essential to appreciate the significance of what one finds, otherwise one is likely “to miss the forest for the trees.””

This can be a particular problem for those who write about specific aspects of the American Civil War, especially about particular battles, technical developments, or individuals. Many writers dig deep into a particular subject, but despite their good work, miss important aspects because they have not done the groundwork of trying to put those subjects into the broader historical, as well as sociological context.

One cannot understand the determination the determination of Robert E. Lee to maintain the offensive without understanding his devotion to Napoleon, or his view of the war and the battles his men fought without understanding and taking into account his view of Divine Providence which was a part of his religious experience. One cannot understand the dogged persistence of Joshua Chamberlain or Strong Vincent to hold Little Round Top, without understanding their patriotic idealism and the nearly spiritual significance of the Union to them. One cannot understand William Tecumseh Sherman without understanding the often cold realism that shaped his world view. The same is true for any of the men, and women, soldier or civilian, slave, or free, who had some part, great or small in the war.

Thus it is important when digging deep, to also attempt to understand the broader perspective of history, and how factors outside their direct military training and experience, such as culture, politics, economics, religion, sociology, ideology, life experience, and all of those factors shaped these men and their actions. By such means we get closer to the truth and by doing so avoid the myths which even after a century and a half, still clutter the works of many people who write about the Civil War.

Likewise, in order to understand the context of the battles of the Civil War, or for that matter the battles in any war, one has to understand the events, ever distant events which play a role in the battle. All too often those that delve into military history, or a particular battle see that as separate event, often disconnected from other historical events. But as historian Edward Steers Jr. correctly notes, history “does not exist in a series of isolated events like so many sound bites in a newscast. It is a continuum of seemingly unrelated and distant events that so often come together in one momentous collision of time.”

To explain this in a different way, let us look at the Battle of Gettysburg as a case in point, but needless to say that no-matter what battle we study there are other factors, that influence it. In the case of the Battle of Gettysburg events like Lincoln’s publication of the Emancipation Proclamation, are important, as it resets the political and diplomatic narrative of the war in a way that influences both domestic politics, and diplomacy.

Diplomacy is another aspect that must be considered, and the incompetence of Confederate diplomats was a major factor. These men were unsuccessful in bringing France or Great Britain into the war, nor could they persuade any European power to recognize the Confederacy. Both of these failures were brought about by their provincialism and by their lack of understanding of the domestic politics of France and England. Both nations had abolished slavery, banned the slave trade, and had populations that were overwhelmingly against slavery.

On the military front, the failures of the Confederate armies in the West to maintain their hold on the Mississippi River, played a crucial role in Robert E. Lee’s ill-advised decision to launch an invasion of Pennsylvania, as did the failing Confederate economy. None of these events can be disconnected from it without doing violence to the historical narrative and thereby misunderstanding why the battle was important.

Another element that must be connected in order to understand the American Civil War is the part that policy, strategy, war aims, as well as operational doctrine, tactics, and technology played in every campaign of the war. When we examine those dimensions of the war and of specific campaigns we go back to the human factor: the people whose ideas, character, and personalities, influenced the conduct of the war and how it was waged.

Finally, events such as the battles of Antietam, Chancellorsville, Gettysburg, Vicksburg, and Atlanta, or the Overland Campaign or Sherman’s March to the Sea cannot be looked at as a stand-alone events for their military value only. The clash at Gettysburg as the armies of the Confederacy battled the Army of the Potomac, and surged and then ebbed back from their “high water mark,” is important. What happened there influences the rest of the war. However, it does not take place in isolation from other battles and events. While the war would go on for nearly two more years, the Union victory at Gettysburg coupled with the victory of Grant at Vicksburg ensured that the Confederacy, no matter how hard it tried would not be able to gain its independence through military means. It was no longer the master of its fate, it needed the Northern “Peace” Democrats to successfully win the election of 1864, and it needed intervention from Europe, neither which was forthcoming.

Maybe even more importantly the story of the Civil War is its continued influence today. The American Civil War was America’s greatest crisis. It was a crisis that “has cast such a shadow over the relations between the North and the South that the nation’s identity and its subsequent history have been considerably influenced by it.” One cannot underestimate its importance, it was the completion of the American Revolution and the birth of a modern nation. The successes and failures, the victories and defeats, and the scars that remain resonate in American cultural, political, and social divide, be it in the minds and hearts of the descendants of freed slaves, Southerners weaned on the myth of the Lost Cause, or the progeny of the Irish and German immigrants who fought for a country where they were despised and discriminated against by the adherents of the anti-immigrant Know Nothing movement. The remains of three-quarters of a million Union and Confederate soldiers interred in cemeteries across the North and South, the monuments devoted to them in town squares, the preserved battlefields with their now silent cannon are a constant reminder of this war that made a nation.

Many people pore over the accounts of the battles of the war, while the legions of devoted Civil War historians, re-enactors, military history buffs, and members of organizations such as the Sons of Confederate Veterans testify to the war’s continued hold on Americans and their fascination with it. The military struggle was important, but we always have to keep it in the context of why the war was fought and why so many of the issues that it was fought over remain issues today, as Ted Widmer noted; “What Lincoln called a “new birth of freedom” felt like a straitjacket to those who opposed it, and their legacy is still felt, in the many forms of opposition to the federal writ that we witness on a daily basis.”
It is important to understand how the war was fought, but it even more important to understand the relationship of how it was fought with why it was fought and in some ways is still being fought, as was evidenced by the vast numbers of Confederate battle flags proudly displayed outside of the historic Confederacy during much of the 2016 Presidential campaign.
Historian David Blight wrote:

“The boundaries of military history are fluid; they connect with a broader social, cultural, and political history in a myriad of ways. In the long run, the meanings embedded in those epic fights are what should command our greatest attention. The “war of ideas” as Douglass aptly called it, has never completely faded from our nation’s social condition or historical memory. Suppress it as we may, it still sits in our midst, an eternal postlude playing for all who deal seriously with America’s past and our enduring predicaments with race, pluralism and equality.”

The battles of the American Civil War are enshrined in American history and myth, and are woven deeply into the story of the nation. In this story the Battle of Gettysburg is often viewed different ways depending on one’s perspective. For many in the North the battle is viewed as a victory that helps brings an end to the institution of slavery, and with it freedom for enslaved African-Americans, and the preservation of the Union. In the South it is often part of the myth of the Noble Confederacy and the Lost Cause where the South was defeated by the Northern superiority in men and war making ability. At Gettysburg there is a certain irony that in the shadow of the cemetery where over 3,500 Union soldiers lay in hallowed repose and where Abraham Lincoln gave the Gettysburg Address that Confederate memorabilia vastly outsells that of the side that won the battle. People wearing t-shirts emblazoned with the image of the Confederate battle flag, and sayings like “I Will Not be Reconstructed” are bought at local gift shops, and their wearers parade past the graves of the Union soldiers who lie just a few hundred yards up the slope of West Cemetery Hill.

Yet in both cases, the truth is not so simple; in fact it is much more complex, and the truth is we are still in the process of learning from and interpreting the historical records of the events that led to the American Civil War, the war itself, and the aftermath. They are all connected and for that matter still influence Americans today more than any other era of our history. In fact James McPherson who is one of the nation’s preeminent scholars on the Civil War and Reconstruction wrote:

“I became convinced that I could not fully understand the issues of my own time unless I learned about their roots in the era of the Civil War: slavery and its abolition; the conflict between North and South; the struggle between state sovereignty and the federal government; the role of the government in social change and resistance to both government and social change. These issues are as salient and controversial today as they were in the 1960s, not to mention the 1860s.”

The prolific American military historian Russell Weigley wrote of how the war, and in particular how the Battle of Gettysburg changed the American Republic.
“The Great Civil War gave birth to a new and different American Republic, whose nature is to be discovered less in the Declaration of Independence than in the Address Delivered at the Dedication of the National Cemetery at Gettysburg. The powerful new Republic shaped by the bayonets of the Union Army of the Civil War wears a badge less benign aspect than the older, original American Republic. But it also carries a larger potential to do good for “the proposition that all men are created equal” both at home and around the world.”

Thus it is important for Americans to learn about the American Civil War, but not solely for its military significance, nor for clear-cut answers or solutions. The lessons go far deeper than that and span the spectrum of the world that we live in today. The fact is that “situations in history may resemble contemporary ones, but they are never exactly alike, and it is a foolish person who tries blindly to approach a purely historical solution to a contemporary problem. Wars resemble each other more than they resemble other human activities, but similarities can be exaggerated.”

British military historian Michael Howard warned, “the differences brought about between one war and another by social or technological changes are immense, and an unintelligent study of military history which does not take into account these changes may quite easily be more dangerous than no study at all. Like the statesman, the soldier has to steer between the dangers of repeating the errors of the past because his is ignorant that they have been made, and of remaining bound by theories deduced from past history although changes in conditions have rendered these theories obsolete.” The ideal that we reach for is to understand the battles of the American Civil War in context, which includes understanding what led to the war as well as the period of Reconstruction, and the post-Reconstruction era and the continued reverberations today.

The American Civil War determined much of the history that followed, not only in the United State, but around the world both in its military advances which transformed war into a mechanized conflict that continues to grow more deadly, and in terms of politics, and social development.

The lessons of this period go far beyond military and leadership lessons gained in studying the battles themselves. They go to our understanding of who we are as a people. They are social, religious, political, economic, diplomatic, and informational. From a strategist’s perspective they certainly help inform the modern policy maker of the DIME, the diplomatic, informational, military, and economic elements of national power, but they are even more than that; the period provides lessons that inform citizens as to the importance of liberty, responsibility, and the importance of both fighting for and defending the rights of the weak and the oppressed.

They also deal with the lives of people, and throughout this volume you will find biographical portraits of some of the key people woven into the story for without them, there really is no story. The one constant in human history are real human beings, some driven by passion, ideology, religion, wealth, or power. There are others who in their quest for knowledge discover things that change the world, invent machinery that alters history, and create weapons which make killing easier. There are men and women who fight for truth, and seek justice for the oppressed. There are the honest and the hucksters, those with character and those that are charlatans. Then to are those who live in fantasy words, cloud-cuckoo lands of unreality that cause them to believe in and pursue causes that can only end in tragedy for them and in many cases others, and finally there are the realists who recognize situations for what they are and are willing to do the hard thing, to speak truth and to act upon it.

All of these types of people can be found in this great war in what was undoubtedly a revolutionary age of change, an age which has influenced the life of this nation, our people, and the world for over a century and a half. Its ghosts haunt our laws and institutions, the sacrifices of soldiers, and the actions of men like Abraham Lincoln have inspired people in this country and around the world.
In writing this volume I attempt to draw lessons from the Civil War era and the people who helped create the world in which we live. Even so I try to do so without making the mistake of assuming that what we learn and know about them is immutable and thus not subject to change; for the past influences the present, even as the present and future will influence how we view and interpret the past.

Until tomorrow,

Peace,

Padre Steve+

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“Silence in the Face of Evil is Evil Itself” A Critique of Politeness and Civility When Confronting Injustice and Evil

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote the words “silence in the face of evil is evil itself.”

This is a very difficult article to write because truthfully I believe that civility and mutual respect should be an ideal that we as Americans should not retreat from, as John F. Kennedy noted:

“So let us begin a new remembering on both sides that civility is not a sign of weakness, and sincerity is always subject to proof. Let us never negotiate out of fear. But let us never fear to negotiate.”

I have written about that a number of times, the last being on November 22nd 2016 shortly after President Trump’s election and on the anniversary of Kennedy’s assassination. However, since that time I have seen the President lead a descent into depravity that I fully comprehended then, though I hoped for a different outcome.

The fact is that the President has in his words, deeds, and tweets destroyed any hope of our political divide being healed, or of Americans of different viewpoints being able to reconcile their differences anytime in the foreseeable future. He stokes the hatred and division almost on an hourly basis, and of course his opponents having become wise to him are rolling up their sleeves and fighting back.

Too me that is an unfortunate situation that might become a tragedy for the United States and the world, as Abraham Lincoln noted “a house divided against itself cannot stand.” To GOP Congressman Steve King of Iowa the sight and sound of Trump’s opponents is like “Harpers Ferry” and what comes next will be “Fort Sumter.” Since King proudly displays the Confederate Battle Flag in his office I know exactly what side of this fight that he is on.

The fact is that he and many like him want bloodshed, they want Civil War, they want to remake the Union in a way that Jefferson Davis and his band of traitors failed to do. As a historian of the period with a book awaiting publication the fact is that in the end it comes down to the fact that King, many of the President’s supporters and quite probably the President himself are all White Supremacists. They want a full and complete return to White Man’s Rule and the subservience of all non-white races and non-Christian religions to it. They are the Know Nothings of the North and Slave Power Secessionists of the South rolled into one package of ignorance, incivility, and hatred.

I write often about comparisons of the attitudes and actions administration and its supporters to Nazi Germany, but truth be told there is a lot of dirty laundry in our own history that sheds light on Trump and his supporters.

The fact is that for nearly three decades the vast majority of Northerners were too polite to criticize the egregious actions of the Know Nothings in their midst or the Southern Slave Power Block that dominated the presidency, Congress, and the Supreme Court for the three decades prior to the War of the Rebellion, also known as the American Civil War, or the War Between the States. Honestly, I think that the term ascribed to it by many Union Veterans in the Grand Army of the Republic after the war, the “War of the Rebellion” is the best.

Those opposed to the Know Nothings and Slave Power Block were condemned as being rude, impolite, and worse. Some were physical assaulted. In 1856 Senator Charles Sumner was attacked by Representative Preston Brooks of South Carolina on the floor of the Senate for his speech against the Kansas Nebraska Act. Sumner was beaten until he was unconscious and Brooks’ heavy cane which he used to conduct the attack broke. Brooks continued to beat Sumner aided by Representative Lawrence Keitt also of South Carolina who brandishing a pistol threatened Senators coming to his aid. Sumner has proclaimed no threats of violence but only spoken the truth about the Act and those that supported it. So much for civility and now.

The scurrilous and overtly violent threats against minorities and civil rights advocates by conservatives, especially White Christian conservatives have continued unabated since from the ante-Bellum South and the Know Nothing North, through the War of the Rebellion, Reconstruction, Jim Crow, to the modern day. Whole political campaigns including that of George H.W. Bush run by Lee Atwater turned on the demonization of African Americans. The same is true regarding the Republican revolution led by Newt Gingrich in the 1990s, and again even more so from the time that Candidate Donald Trump descended to the lobby of Trump Tower in 2015 until now. The President proclaims that White Supremacists and Neo-Nazis are “very fine people.”

The President and many of his followers including administration officials like Stephen Miller set the tone while Presidential spokesperson Sarah Huckabee Sanders lies and denies the President’s words and vilifies anyone that dares to question her. So when she is asked to leave a restaurant, or when Miller or DHS Secretary Nielsen are shamed when trying to enter Mexican restaurants it makes makes my heart bleed. People who have no compassion, no sense of empathy and behave as sociopaths and then act the victim when the tables are turned only deserve scorn.

Their anti-immigrant and often blatantly racist tropes of the President, his administration, and his supporters on the Fox Propaganda Network, the Right Wing media, the Putrid Princes of the Captive Conservative Church, and his assorted sordid supporters should be condemned and opposed around the clock. If they are not then any of us who remain silent knowing the evil of these policies is as guilty as anyone that turned their backs on the Jews in Nazi Germany. The higher the office the greater the guilt and culpability.

That being said if had the chance to see any one of them in a public setting I would not resort to public shaming. I do not own a restaurant or business so I could not ask them to leave. However, that being said if any of them the President himself presented themselves to me at my chapel or any civilian church that I might be celebrating the Eucharist I would deny them communion which from a Christian point of view is “a fate worse than a fate worse than death.”

Bonhoeffer wrote:

“Christianity stands or falls with its revolutionary protest against violence, arbitrariness and pride of power and with its plea for the weak. Christians are doing too little to make these points clear rather than too much. Christendom adjusts itself far too easily to the worship of power. Christians should give more offense, shock the world far more, than they are doing now. Christian should take a stronger stand in favor of the weak rather than considering first the possible right of the strong.”

As for me I must tell the truth and protest against the violence and the arbitrary pride of power exhibited by the Trump administration and its supporters. I could not live with myself if I didn’t do so. Some might think this political and in some sense it is, but it is entirely based on my understanding of the Christian faith and the very premise of the founders of this country, that phrase in the Declaration of Independence that “all men are created equal and endowed by their creator with certain unalienable rights, among them being life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”

If need be I would die for that faith and that proposition and I will not be silent in the face of evil.

So until tomorrow,

Peace,

Padre Steve+

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The Offering We Bring: the Observance of Memorial Day

 

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Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

This is Memorial Day weekend and for the vast majority of Americans, even those who loudly claim to “support the troops” the weekend is little more than an opportunity to start the summer. There will be ball games and picnics, parties and concerts, as well as road trips, and some will even honor the military personnel that are currently serving; however, that is not why we observe Memorial Day.

Memorial Day is observed to honor the lives and sacrifice of those men and women who died in the service of the country. Its roots go back to May 1865 when newly freed Blacks in Charleston South Carolina took the time to honor the fallen Union soldiers by dedicating a cemetery to them. I’ll go back to that in a bit.

Frederick Douglass discussed the meaning of Memorial Day in 1884:

“Dark and sad will be the hour to this nation when it forgets to pay grateful homage to its greatest benefactors. The offering we bring to-day is due alike to the patriot soldiers dead and their noble comrades who still live; for, whether living or dead, whether in time or eternity, the loyal soldiers who imperiled all for country and freedom are one and inseparable.”

Memorial Day, at one time known as Decoration Day is one of our most sacred civil holidays that we observe in the United States, or at least it should be. It was a holiday born out of the shedding of the blood of about 750,000 American soldiers, from the North and the South in the Civil War, a singular event that still echoes in our history and in some sense defines who we are and it is important that we come to understand its meaning and history.

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The Racecourse Cemetery

The first observance of what we now know as Memorial Day is fascinating and it needs to be remembered. Frederick Douglass was absolutely right when he spoke the words that I began this article, and we need to remember the humble beginnings of this day which was first marked by recently freed slaves in Charleston South Carolina on May 1st 1865. They did so barely two weeks after Abraham Lincoln was assassinated and three weeks after Robert E. Lee surrendered the Army of Northern Virginia at Appomattox Court House.

The acrid smell of smoke of the last battles of the American Civil War was still lingering over many towns and cities in the South on May 1st 1865. Charleston, the hotbed of secession was particularly hard hit during the war. In 1861 Cadets of the Citadel and South Carolina militia forces began the war with the bombardment of Fort Sumter. Union Forces laid siege to the city in late 1863, a siege which ended with the city’s surrender to Union forces under the command of William Tecumseh Sherman on 18 February 1865. The day of the surrender was somewhat ironic. Charleston, the city most associated with the opening of the conflict surrendered to Union forces on the fourth anniversary of the inauguration of Jefferson Davis as President of the Confederacy. By the time of its surrender much of the city had been destroyed by Union siege artillery and naval forces.

As a Confederate stronghold Charleston had also been the home of three of the Prisoner of War Camps. One was located in the Charleston City Jail and the other at Castle Pinckney which had been one of the ante-bellum U.S. Army installations in the city. A third camp was erected on the site of the Washington Race Course and Jockey Club in 1864. This was an open air camp and Yale Historian David Blight wrote that “Union soldiers were kept in horrible conditions in the interior of the track; at least 257 died of exposure and disease and were hastily buried in a mass grave behind the grandstand.”

By the end of the war most of the white population of the city had left and most of those remaining were recently freed slaves. After their liberation and the city’s occupation by Federal forces, which included the famous 54th Massachusetts as well as the 20th, 35th and 104th US Colored Troops Regiments; about 28 recently liberated Black men went to work and properly reinterred the 257 Union dead on the raceway and built a high fence around it. They inscribed “Martyrs of the Race Course” on an arch above the cemetery entrance.

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On May 1st over 10,000 Black Charlestonians gathered at the site to honor the fallen. Psalms, Scriptures and prayers were said, hymns were sung and many brought flowers. A parade of 2800 children covered the burial ground with flowers. They were followed by members of the Patriotic Association of Colored Men and the Mutual Aid Society. This society’s members provided relief supplies to Freedmen and provided aid to bury those Blacks who were too poor to afford burial. More citizens followed many laying flower bouquets on the graves. Children then led the singing of The Star Spangled Banner, America and Rally around the Flag. The Brigade composed of the 54th Massachusetts and the 35th and 104th Colored Regiments marched in honor of their fallen comrades. Following the formalities many remained behind for a picnic.

Other communities established their own Memorial Day observances in the years following the war, but the event in Charleston was the first. The first “Official” commemoration was on 30 May 1868 when Union General John Logan who headed the veteran’s organization called The Grand Army of the Republic appealed to communities to honor the dead by holding ceremonies and decorating the graves of the fallen.

In the South three different days served a similar purpose. In Virginia people commemorated the day on June 3rd, the birthday of Confederate President Jefferson Davis, the Carolinas marked the day on 10 May, the birthday of General Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson. In much of the Deep South the event was conducted April 26th, the anniversary of the surrender of General Joseph Johnson’s Army to General William Tecumseh Sherman. For many in the South, still attempting to come to grips with their defeat the day would become about “The Lost Cause” or “the defense of Liberty” or “States Rights” and the war was often referred to as the “War of Northern Aggression.”

The “Martyrs of the Racecourse” cemetery is no longer there. The site is now a park honoring the fascinatingly complex Confederate General and post-Reconstruction Governor of South Carolina Wade Hampton. An oval track remains in the park and is used to run or walk by the local population and cadets from the Citadel. Thankfully, at long last in 2010, one hundred and forty-five years after the dedication of that cemetery a marker was placed in that park commemorating the cemetery and the event that we now recognize as the first Memorial Day.

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African American Children saluting the Union Dead years later

The Union dead who had been so beautifully honored by the Black population were moved to the National Cemetery at Beaufort South Carolina by the 1880s. Some state that the reason for this was that the cemetery had fallen into neglect, and this may be the case, but the event and their memory conveniently erased from memory of Charlestonians.

I do not think that this would have happened had the people who had the bodies moved simply restored and maintained the cemetery. Had not historian David Blight found the documentation we probably still would not know of this touching act by former slaves who honored those that fought the battles, and gave their lives to win their freedom. Blight wrote in 2011 in the 1870s Charleston “had no place for the former slaves’ march on their masters’ racecourse.”

The African American population of Charleston understood the bonds of slavery and oppression. They understood the tyranny of prejudice in which they only counted as 3/5ths of a person. They understood and saw the suffering of those that were taken prisoner while attempting to liberate them from the tyranny of slavery. They stand as an example for us today.

But their suffering was not over. Within little more than a decade Blacks in the South would be subject to Jim Crow and again treated by many whites as something less than human. The struggle of they and their descendants against the tyranny of racial prejudice, discrimination and violence over the next 100 years would finally bear fruit in the Civil Rights movement, some of whose leaders, like the Reverend Doctor Martin Luther King Jr. would also become martyrs. Unfortunately that struggle is not over.

Frederick Douglass spoke to Union Veterans on Memorial Day 1878. His words, particularly in light of the war and the struggles of African Americans since and the understanding of what those who were enslaved understood liberation to be are most significant to our time. It was not merely a war based on sectionalism or even “States rights,” it was a war of ideas, a war of diametrically opposed ideologies. He said:

“But the sectional character of this war was merely accidental and its least significant feature. It was a war of ideas, a battle of principles and ideas which united one section and divided the other; a war between the old and new, slavery and freedom, barbarism and civilization; between a government based upon the broadest and grandest declaration of human rights the world ever heard or read, and another pretended government, based upon an open, bold and shocking denial of all rights, except the right of the strongest.”

Douglass’s words were powerful then and they resonate today as many of the same ideas that were the cause of the Civil War and were continued during Jim Crow are still alive. Unfortunately there are those in our society who labor daily to establish the “rights” of the strongest over the weak, the poor, the powerless and minorities of all kinds. Of course such actions, often wrapped in the flag, patriotism and buttressed with cherry picked quotes (many of which are fake, changed or taken out of context) from some of our founders are designed to re-establish the oligarchy of the power of the few, much like the men who owned the lives of the slaves and poor whites in the ante-bellum American South. Such actions do nothing but demean and trample the sacrifice of those who fought for freedom and the only remedy is to fight them with the full knowledge of truth.

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I do hope that today we will observe Memorial Day in a fitting manner. Let us honor those Americans who died that others might be free. Let us look back at what freedom actually means and not forget the sacrifices of those that gave, and still give their lives in the “last full measure of devotion to duty” that others might live. This is especially true in an era where the racial and religious hatred and prejudice of Southern Slave Power, and Northern Know Nothings, that enslaved African Americans, exterminated Native American, invaded and Mexico, and treated Irish, German, Asian, and other immigrants, Roman Catholics, and Jews as enemies is raising its head as White Supremacists take their cue from the President that such behavior is acceptable.

Take a moment on Monday at noon to pause what you are doing and go silent for at least one minute, and remember.

Peace

Padre Steve+

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Integrity, Truthfulness, Purity, and Singleness of Purpose: Winfield Scott Hancock and what the United States Needs Today

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Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

I visit Gettysburg a lot and I also write about it a lot. When I make those visits I am always humbled and learn something new. I only wish that most Americans and our leaders of both political parties as well as most media types and pundits could grasp what I experience on each visit to the “hallowed ground” of Gettysburg.

Quite honestly I do not think that the vast majority Americans regardless of their party affiliation or ideology  understand, appreciate or value in the slightest the sacrifices of the men who fought and in many cases died to preserve the Union at Gettysburg. Even among those who do I think that the object of their appreciation are the military aspects of the battle often taken in isolation, not the profound strategic dimensions of what this battle as well as the fall of Vicksburg in the west at the same time had on the war.

Nor do I think that they appreciate the massive political, ideological and social effects bought about by those Union victories in ending the war and how those effects redound to us today. This is especially true of the pundits, politicians and preachers, the “Trinity of Evil” as I call them whose shrill voices urge on divisions between our people; including some that call out for violence to maintain their groups social, economic or religious advantages over others. Quite a few even lament the fall of the South and the institution including the washed up rock and roll musician of the political right Ted Nugent who wrote in the Washington Times in July 2012: “I’m beginning to wonder if it would have been best had the South won the Civil War.” More recently when President Trump talked of the moral equivalence of the opposing sides at Charlottesville I was reminded of just how hateful and morally bankrupt such feelings are, I am sure that General Hancock would be appalled that an American President would make that kind of stand.

All of that concerns me as an American and a historian; because I realize how dangerous such historical ignorance and visceral propaganda is in the life of any nation. Thus when I go to Gettysburg, or for that matter any other battlefield of our American Civil War the sacrifices of those men and what they fought to maintain are again imprinted on my heart.

Abraham Lincoln eloquently noted about those soldiers who fought to turn back the Confederate tide at Gettysburg in his Gettysburg Address:

“But, in a larger sense, we can not dedicate — we can not consecrate — we can not hallow — this ground. The 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 that 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.”

While I am an idealist I am also a pragmatist. I respect the right of others, even those that disagree with things that I very much believe in and support. Like it or not the keystone of our governmental system is one of compromise. That being said having relatives that fought on both sides of the American Civil War that I am not a sectionalist. Nor am I a person that attempts to use the political system to ensure that others have to follow my religious beliefs or to enrich certain groups. The democracy that is part of our republic’s system of government is not a perfect system by any means. In fact as the great English Prime Minister Winston Churchill noted “democracy was the worst form of government except for all the others.”

Thus I appreciate military men who maintain their oath to the nation in times of great conflict not abandoning it to support causes that they know are wrong because the people of their state, or interest group seek to divide that Union. Winfield Scott Hancock was one of those kind of men, as was George Meade, and John Buford, all of whom played key roles in defeating the Confederates at Gettysburg.

Hancock, who earned the title “Hancock the Superb” was the commander of the Union Second Corps at Gettysburg. Upon the death of John Reynolds early on the first day of battle Hancock was appointed by George Meade as commander of the Federal Left Wing, in effect becoming Meade’s deputy commander for the rest of the battle. He was seriously wounded as Pickett’s Charge came to its bloody end at “the Angle” even as his dear friend Confederate General Lewis Armistead lay mortally wounded a few hundred yards away.

Hancock is an interesting character. He was from Pennsylvania but was a Democrat. He was not a Republican like Lincoln. Hancock was not a political ideologue but was since he was a Democrat he was suspect by leaders in the party establishments of both parties; Republicans for being a Democrat, and Democrats for serving under Lincoln. As such he never was given independent command of an Army but remained the beloved commander of the Union Second Corps.

As the nation split and friends went their separate ways Hancock gave some advice to his best friend, Lewis Armistead and their commander, Brigadier General Albert Sidney Johnston who were preparing to leave the Union in early 1861. In response to the states rights arguments of his friends he made himself clear. He fully believed in the principal of states rights, but he could not compromise his faithfulness to the Union. He told his friends as they departed company on their way to their destinies during the Civil War:

“I shall not fight upon the principle of state-rights, but for the Union, whole and undivided.” 

During the war Hancock served with distinction. At Gettysburg he was influential in determining the choice of the Union defense, in helping to repel the Rebel attacks on July 2nd 1863 and the final repulse of Pickett’s Charge where he was severely wounded and his friend Armistead died. After he recovered from his wounds he continued to lead Second Corps until the end of the war. Ulysses Grant wrote of him:

“Hancock stands the most conspicuous figure of all the general officers who did not exercise a separate command. He commanded a corps longer than any other one, and his name was never mentioned as having committed in battle a blunder for which he was responsible. He was a man of very conspicuous personal appearance…. His genial disposition made him friends, and his personal courage and his presence with his command in the thickest of the fight won for him the confidence of troops serving under him. No matter how hard the fight, the 2d corps always felt that their commander was looking after them.”

After the war Hancock supervised the execution of those convicted of the assassination of Abraham Lincoln. Following that duty he served in various postings in the occupied South and attempted to mitigate some of the actions of those bent on vengeance against African Americans as well as others who tried to exploit the defeated Confederates for political or economic gain. His balanced attempt at justice was not appreciated by many people in the North or the South.

In 1880 Hancock ran for President and lost a narrow election to James A. Garfield. After his unsuccessful campaign he returned to the Army and died at the age of 61 in 1886 at his headquarters from complications from diabetes.

In death was praised by political supporters and opponents alike. Former President Rutherford B. Hayes wrote:

“if when we make up our estimate of a public man, conspicuous both as a soldier and in civil life, we are to think first and chiefly of his manhood, his integrity, his purity, his singleness of purpose, and his unselfish devotion to duty, we can truthfully say of Hancock that he was through and through pure gold.” 

Another political opponent Republican General Francis A. Walker lamented not supporting Hancock in 1880 after the great corruption that engulfed the country during “Gilded Age” of the “Robber Barons” the 1880s. Walker wrote in 1893:

“Although I did not vote for General Hancock, I am strongly disposed to believe that one of the best things the nation has lost in recent years has been the example and the influence of that chivalric, stately, and splendid gentleman in the White House. Perhaps much which both parties now recognize as having been unfortunate and mischievous during the past thirteen years would have been avoided had General Hancock been elected.”

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I have stood by the monument to this fine man on East Cemetery Hill at Gettysburg many times. Each time I am struck by the bravery, courage and integrity of that remarkable man. Regardless of party affiliation I wish that we had more leaders like him today.

Peace

Padre Steve+

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Filed under civil war, Gettysburg, History, Military, Political Commentary

Controversy and Glory: Dan Sickles Part Six

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Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

I am taking a break for the past week or so to read and reflect. As such I am re-posting some articles from my Gettysburg text dealing with a man that I consider one of the most fascinating , salacious, scandalous, heroic, and incredible figures ever to grace and disgrace American history, Congressman, and Civil War General Daniel E. Sickles.

I hope that you enjoy,

Peace

Padre Steve+

LongstreetJ_main

Lieutenant General James Longstreet C.S.A.

President John F. Kennedy paraphrased the words of the Roman Emperor Tacitus after the failed Bay of Pigs invasion, Kennedy told a journalist, “victory has 100 fathers and defeat is an orphan.” The problem in doing a proper analysis of Longstreet’s assault is the fact that many of the men involved on both sides made the battle personal, issuing scathing denunciations of one another, fudging the facts to their advantage, and by making the fight political a political football in the South and in the North.

The Confederate attacks had been badly directed and uncoordinated. In the end though McLaws’ and Hood’s divisions had succeeded in thrashing Sickles’ Third Corps in the exposed salient they were unsuccessful at breaking the Federal line. The disjointed nature of their attacks and the lack of active command and control by Lee and Longstreet had much to do with the outcome. Lee’s presence was needed on the south end of the Confederate line, but he left Longstreet to his own devices.

There was much blame to go around on the Confederate side, Longstreet placed much of the blame for the defeat on Lee, which earned him the everlasting enmity of many Confederates. But Lee’s Warhorse also met with criticism, especially for his performance on July 2nd 1863. Some of the most withering came not years later, but in the days following the battle. The harshest came from Lafayette McLaws, his old friend, who had been a favorite of Longstreet. McLaws blamed his corps commander for the defeat, writing his wife, “I think that the attack was unnecessary and the whole plan of battle a very bad one. Genl Longstreet is to blame for not reconnoitering the ground and for persisting in ordering the assault when his errors were discovered. During the engagement he was very excited [,] giving contrary orders to every one, and exceedingly overbearing. I consider him a humbug – a man of small capacity, very obstinate, not at all chivalrous, exceedingly conceited, and totally selfish….” [1]

One of Longstreet’s biographers wrote “Longstreet’s performance during the morning deserves criticism…. Had he attended to the details that were his responsibility and not allowed his disagreement with Lee to affect his judgment and effort, the afternoon assault would have begun sooner, but not several hours earlier.” [2] That historian believes that had Sickles not moved forward that Longstreet’s attack, even if made earlier would have met success, something echoed by Porter Alexander who wrote, “There seems no doubt that Longstreet’s attack on the 2nd been materially sooner, we would have gained a decided victory.” [3]

Casualties were heavy on both sides but the attack had failed and it had failed because of senior leadership of Lee and his corps commanders. Had Lee “duplicated the active role taken by his counterpart, George Meade, the outcome might have been different.” [4] But this too is speculation born of perfect 20/20 hindsight. One of Lee’s biographer’s wrote “Longstreet was disgruntled, Ewell was inept and Hill was unwell.” [5] To make matters worse, throughout the day, Robert E. Lee did not assert himself and even his most devoted biographer Douglas Southall Freeman would write that on July 2nd 1863 “the Army of Northern Virginia was without a commander.” [6]

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Major General George Meade U.S. Army

On the Federal side most of the controversy has to do with Sickles’ decision to move the Third Corps forward from Cemetery Hill to the Peach Orchard and so it is appropriate to close this chapter discussing Dan Sickles. The matter has been a long subject of controversy, especially because of the way that Sickles politicized his actions in the press and in the Congressional hearings that followed. Many generals on both sides blundered at Gettysburg.

One can speculate that had Sickles remained in the position dictated by Meade that the Confederate assault might have gone down to an even more disastrous defeat. That being said the line that Sickles would have occupied with his 10,600 troops was long and he could not have held it in great strength, even Little Round Top would have been lightly occupied, and Meade might not have been forced to reexamine his line. It is fully possible that “had Longstreet attacked there with the same headlong fury, it is possible that the Confederates would have broken through not merely into Sickles’ rear, but into the entire Union rear and that disaster would have been the result.” [7] However, Sickles, even though he thought he was justified, was wrong in not informing Meade of the move, and leaving his army commander ignorant of the position of his left.

Sickles action, though an error, was something that could have been rationally addressed by him and Meade long before the Confederate attack began. Had the two men “worked in tandem – that is had the line taken by the Third Corps been shared by the Fifth, and had command matters been resolved and fallback plans established – Longstreet’s troops would have been hard pressed to achieve any of their goals.” [8] One historian put the matter of Sickles’s decision and the subsequent controversies into perspective:

“The entire episode has been clouded since 1863 by issues of politics and personality that hinder unbiased analysis. It is time to put aside such extraneous issues. When Sickles’s scandalous prewar behavior, postwar bombast, and special pleading are discounted and the case is considered solely on its merits, the results of the Third Corps advance speak for themselves. Dan Sickles was not perfect on July 2, 1862, but neither was he the military buffoon so often portray.” [9]

In his after action report Meade criticized Sickles and did so again before the Congressional Committee on the Conduct of the War, that latter in regard to comments made by Sickles and his supporters both to the committee and in the press. Meade not only had to deal with the diversions created by Sickles, he also had the real problem of Abraham Lincoln’s disappointment with his failure to catch and destroy the Army of Northern Virginia before it escaped across the Potomac. Dan Sickles did not have to worry about that, and “he could play the role that politicians play best: critic and second guesser.” [10]With the press on his side the former disgraced Congressman was now a one legged war hero, and Sickles attempted to use his redemption and status of a hero “to have Meade removed from command in disgrace.” [11] Many generals on both sides blundered at Gettysburg. Had Sickles taken the high road after the battle rather than attempting to torpedo the name and reputation of George Meade, his action might have provoked less controversy, and “Dan Sickles the historical figure has paid a permanent price for this, overshadowing the laudable work he did as an early force in establishing the Gettysburg National Memorial Park.” [12]

That was most unfortunate, for it has poisoned the discussion of the battle for over 150 years. Unlike Lee, Meade was constantly leading from the front on this long and brutal afternoon. Meade fought a magnificent defensive battle and recovered from the surprise of Sickles movement even as Sickles and his soldiers fought hard greatly impeded the Confederate plan. Sickles was praised in the press and even by long term enemies such as George Templeton Strong, who wrote, “I suppose Sickles… with his one leg, among our best volunteer officers. His recuperative powers are certainly wonderful. Four years ago he was a ruined man in every sense, a pariah whom to know was discreditable.” [13]

“The whole damned field is my memorial”

The Excelsior Brigade Monument at Gettysburg

But the continuing controversy which always seemed to swirl around him prevented him from being honored on the battlefield where he lost his leg. Alone of all the Union Corps commanders at Gettysburg Sickles has no memorial on the battlefield. When asked about the lack of a monument, Sickles, in his typical manner is reported to have said that “The whole damned field is my memorial.” [14]Despite the controversy surrounding his life, and those that swirled in the fighting and refighting of the Battle of Gettysburg, in true fashion Dan Sickles went on to further glory and scandal. Ulysses Grant never allowed him to command troops in the field, Sickles commanded the Military Department of South Carolina, the Department of the Carolinas, and the Department of the South, where was a strong proponent of Reconstruction. Teresa died of tuberculosis in 1866

He was retired as a Major General in the Regular Army in 1869 and went on to serve as Minister to Spain where he carried on an affair with the deposed Queen Isabella, a nymphomaniac who long before she ever Sickles had conducted a myriad of high profile affairs. The affair with the former queen was open and offensive to many people, but neither seemed to mind. In a sense they were kindred spirits. A Paris newspaper dubbed the one-legged General “the Yankee King of Spain.” [15]The affair with Isabella eventually burned itself out and Sickles married Senorita Caroline de Creagh, the daughter of a Spanish Minister, who bore him two children. To do this he converted to Roman Catholicism, something that he had never done when Teresa was alive. After his service in Spain was ended Sickles remained in Paris for four years, where he was widely admired and “received the office of Commander of the Legion of Honor.” [16]

Though a Democrat he supported Republican Presidential candidates Ulysses S. Grant and Rutherford Hayes, the latter against a long time Democratic rival from New York. As he got older Gettysburg became an increasing part of his life and in 1892 he ran for Congress in order to spearhead efforts to preserve the battlefield. He was elected and it was in large part due to his efforts that what we now know as the Gettysburg National Military Park exists. In 1893, Sickles met James Longstreet at a Gathering in Gettysburg, and the two men became lifelong friends. Since the war both men had been refighting the battle and the controversies that hung over their decisions that July 2nd like a pall. Longstreet, for his actions on the battlefield, and his decision to become a Republican and serve in the post-war Reconstruction efforts was a pariah in much of the South. That “unpopularity was painful to him, and he was glad to find a sympathetic ally in Sickles. Each of the two generals agreed that the other had moved with blameless skill that day,” [17] and both would defend the other in the succeeding years. As the continuing battle of Gettysburg was fought in the press and in histories written by various participants, Longstreet wrote of Sickles, “I believe it is now conceded that the advanced position at the peach orchard, taken by your Corps and under your orders, saved that battlefield for the Union cause.” [18]

Sickles was awarded the Medal of Honor in 1897, the citation stating, “Displayed most conspicuous gallantry on the field vigorously contesting the advance of the enemy and continuing to encourage his troops after being himself severely wounded.”

Sickles long to outlived George Meade who died in 1872 and all of the other Corps commanders of the Army of the Potomac, not to mention most of his friends and enemies. His father George Sickles died in 1887 leaving Dan an estate of nearly five million dollars. His daughter by Teresa, Laura, whose life had been so scarred by the events of 1859 died alone and estranged from her father. In 1896, disgusted by the nomination of William Jennings Bryant as the Democratic Presidential nominee, the one-legged Sickles went to work with his old Gettysburg comrade, the one-armed Oliver Otis Howard to campaign for the Republican William McKinley. They were quite a pair, the religious Howard, and the libertine Sickles, but they helped McKinley defeat Bryant, and McKinley remained grateful to them until his death by an assassin’s bullet.

In 1913 he attended the fiftieth anniversary ceremonies at Gettysburg where he watched the white haired survivors of Pickett’s Charge hobble across the wide battlefield into the arms of their former opponents on Cemetery Ridge. Helen Longstreet, James Longstreet’s second wife and widow quoted the words of a poet named Horatio King, for the event for a southern newspaper.

I see him on that famous field,

The bravest of the brave,

Where Longstreet’s legions strove to drive

The Third Corps to its grave

The fight was bloody, fierce and long,

And Sickles’ name shall stay

Forever in the hall of fame

As he who saved the day [19]

While Helen Longstreet’s claim that Sickles was “forever in the hall of fame” is a tad farfetched, there is no doubt that scoundrel had found redemption. When Sickles died in 1914 at the age of 94, his funeral was held at Saint Patrick’s Cathedral in New York and he was buried at Arlington National Cemetery, with full military honors, his flag-draped casket carried on an artillery caisson accompanied by a rider-less horse and artillery salutes. His funeral, in a military cemetery among other soldiers was “proof that he was no longer an attorney, politician, or even the murderer of Barton Key,” [20] he was a soldier. His tombstone simply reads:

Daniel E. Sickles

Medal of Honor

Maj. Gen. U.S. Army

May 3 1914

sickles grave

The New York Times made a comment that no one, be they an admirer or enemy could deny. “He was a truly adventurous spirit.” [21]

Notes

[1] Ibid. Oeffinger A Soldier’s General p.197

[2] Ibid. Wert General James Longstreet p.279

[3] Ibid. Alexander Fighting for the Confederacy p.278

[4] Ibid. Wert General James Longstreet p.279

[5] Taylor, John M. Duty Faithfully Performed: Robert E Lee and His CriticsBrassey’s, Dulles VA 1999 p.149

[6] Freeman, Douglas S. R.E. Lee volume 3 Charles Scribner’s Sons, New York 1935 p.150

[7] Ibid. Swanberg Sickles the Incredible p.235

[8] Ibid. Trudeau Gettysburg, the Testing of Courage p.421

[9] Robertson, William Glenn The Peach Orchard Revisited: Daniel E. Sickles and the Third Corps on July 2, 1863 in The Second Day at Gettysburg: Essays on Confederate and Union Leadership edited by Gary W. Gallagher, The Kent State University Press, Kent Ohio and London, 1993 p.56

[10] Ibid. Hessler Sickles at Gettysburg p. 244

[11] Ibid. Swanberg Sickles the Incredible p.235

[12] Ibid. Hessler Sickles at Gettysburg p. 401

[13] Ibid. Hessler Sickles at Gettysburg pp.244-245

[14] Ibid. Swanberg Sickles the Incredible p.390

[15] Ibid. Swanberg Sickles the Incredible p.321

[16] Ibid. Keneally American Scoundrel p.339

[17] Ibid. Swanberg Sickles the Incredible p.367

[18] Ibid. Keneally American Scoundrel p.341

[19] Ibid. Keneally American Scoundrel p.353

[20] Ibid. Hessler Sickles at Gettysburg p. 385

[21] Ibid. Swanberg Sickles the Incredible p.390

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Déjà Vu All Over Again: Are We Sleepwalking into 2018?

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Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

The late great Yogi Berra once said “Déjà vu all over again, and as I wrap up the year and reflect on a number of things, I keep thinking about how much history can teach us about our own time, should we just pay attention to it. I have been continuing to do research and work on my future book “Mine Eyes Have Seen the Glory: Race, Religion, Ideology, and Politics in the Civil War Era” as well as my Gettysburg and Civil War text, and that continues to lead me to pure gold in the pursuit for truth, historical truth that is as relevant today as it was when it happened over a century and a half ago. Likewise I have increased my study of totalitarian leaders and movements as well as the military, political, social, and economic effects of entering into unadvised, aggressive wars.

The former, that is studying and writing about the Civil War era is something that I have been doing for a few years, but the latter: the study of authoritarian leaders and of ill advised wars of aggression is something that I have renewed beginning in 2016 with the emergence of Donald Trump, his followers, and the rapid decline of the Republican Party as anything other than a shill for the extremely wealthy and a convenient cover for white nationalists and other assorted enemies of the American Constitution and ideals forged over a period of more than two centuries of conflict and compromise, as well as assorted attempts to help the country meet those ideals in order to form “a more perfect Union.”

Sadly, the same issues that dominated America in the 1840s, 1850s, and 1860s and later following Reconstruction still dominate so much of our social, political and religious debate. Whether it is the voting franchise which many on the political right seek to restrict, the rights of women, blacks and other minorities, immigrants and the LGBT community, to any semblance of political, economic equality or social justice very little has changed. Not only that there are some political, media and religious leaders who argue for the unabashed imperialism of Manifest Destiny and American Exceptionalism.

As it was then, much of this can be laid squarely at the feet of Evangelical Protestant and other conservative Christian leaders. A century and a half ago men who claimed to be Christian leaders led the efforts to support slavery, discriminate against women, persecute gays and promote imperialistic policies that would have embarrassed the founders of the United States. After the defeat of the Confederacy most of the same people used the same theology to disenfranchise and discriminate against African Americans through Jim Crow laws, as well as discriminate against minorities, women and gays all the while claiming to be the victims of persecution.

Before the Civil War many Protestant ministers, intellectuals, and theologians, not only Southerners, but men like “Princeton’s venerable theologian Charles B. Hodge – supported the institution of slavery on biblical grounds, often dismissing abolitionists as liberal progressives who did not take the Bible seriously.”  This leaves a troubling question over those who claim to oppose other issues on supposedly Biblical grounds. Conservative Anglican theologian Alistair McGrath asks, “Might not the same mistakes be made all over again, this time over another issue?”

But moving on from the issues of economic inequity, intolerance for minorities, and racism that still permeate there is the very real threat of war. When I speak about war I do not mean the never ending small wars of empire that the United States has been involved with since September 11th 2001, I mean massive, destructive, and bloody wars the likes that have not been seen since the Second World War. Unfortunately the leaders of nations, especially President Trump and Kim Jong Un seem to be a prisoners of their preconceived ideas and are sleepwalking into war, each acting as if the forces of destiny were controlling them and placing, as Christopher Clark wrote in his book about the outbreak of the First World War The Sleepwalkers:

“Here again is the tendency we can discern in the reasoning of so many of the actors in this crisis, to perceive oneself as operating under irresistible external constraints while placing the responsibility for deciding between peace and war firmly on the shoulders of the opponent.” 

As I watch events unfold and comment just how real that I believe the the threat of war is I am often met with disbelief. I really want to be wrong but I don’t think that I am, and the possibility that Trump, Kim Jong Un, or another actor whether intentionally or unintentionally bringing about such a war is all too real, and all of them are too blind to the horror that they will unleash. Clark wrote:

“the protagonists of 1914 were sleepwalkers, watchful but unseeing, haunted by dreams, yet blind to the reality of the horror they were about to bring into the world.”

The question is will we learn from history or make the same mistakes all over again? That is something to ask ourselves as we leave 2017 behind and enter 2018, a year that promises to be tumultuous and eventful, but which the history of is yet to be written. The That my friends is important, and why all of us must be engaged and not remain silent, there is too much at stake.

As a side note I want to I thank all of those who subscribe to this site, as well as those who follow my writings through Twitter or Facebook. The fact that so many people are doing this humbles me, thank you.

Until tomorrow,

Peace

Padre Steve+

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Filed under History, Loose thoughts and musings, News and current events, Political Commentary, Religion

The Day Freedom Died: The Colfax Massacre

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

One hundred and forty-four years ago today one of the worst acts of terrorism against Americans by Americans was conducted by members of the White Leagues, a violent white supremacist group in Louisiana. This is from one of my Civil war texts and it is something not to forget in an age where violence against racial and religious minorities is again raising its head.

Have a good day,

Peace

Padre Steve+

The violence against Southern blacks escalated in the wake of the passage of the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments and with the increasing number of blacks being elected to office in some Southern states during the elections of 1872. In Louisiana a Federal court ruled in favor of Republican Reconstruction candidates following a Democrat campaign to interfere with the vote, which included attacks on polling sites and the theft of ballot boxes. As a result the Louisiana Democrats “established a shadow government and organized paramilitary unit known as the White League to intimidate and attack black and white Republicans.” [1]

The White League in Louisiana was particularly brutal in its use of violence. The worst massacre committed by the White League occurred Easter Sunday 1873 when it massacred blacks in Colfax, Louisiana. Colfax was an isolated nondescript hamlet about three hundred fifty miles northwest of New Orleans. It sat on the grounds of a former plantation whose owner, William Calhoun, who worked with the former slaves who were now freedmen. The town itself “composed of only a few hundred white and black votes” [2] was located in the newly established Grant Parish. The “parish totaled about 4,500, of whom about 2,400 were Negroes living on the lowlands along the east bank of the Red.” [3] Between 1869 and 1873 the town and the parish were the scene of numerous violent incidents and following the 1872 elections, the whites of the parish were out for blood.

White leaders in Grant Parish “retaliated by unleashing a reign of terror in rural districts, forcing blacks to flee to Colfax for protection.” [4] The blacks of parish fled to the courthouse seeking protection from a violent white mob following the brutal murder of a black farmer and his family on the outskirts of town. The people of Colfax, protected by just a few armed black militiamen and citizens deputized by the sheriff took shelter in the courthouse knowing an attack by the White Supremacists was coming.  As the White League force assembled one of its leaders told his men what the day was about. He said, “Boys, this is a struggle for white supremacy….There are one hundred-sixty-five of us to go into Colfax this morning. God only knows who will come out. Those who do will probably be prosecuted for treason, and the punishment for treason is death.” [5] The attack by over 150 heavily armed men of the White League, most of whom were former Confederate soldiers, killed at least seventy-one and possibly as many as three-hundred blacks. Most of the victims were killed as they tried to surrender. The people, protected by just a few armed men were butchered or burned alive by the armed terrorist marauders. It was “the bloodiest peacetime massacre in nineteenth-century America.” [6]

The instigators of the attack claimed that they acted in self-defense. They claimed that “armed Negroes, stirred up by white Radical Republicans, seized the courthouse, throwing out the rightful officeholders: the white judge and sheriff” and they claimed that the blacks had openly proclaimed “their intention to kill all the white men, they boasted they would use white women to breed a new race.” [7] The claims were completely fabricated, after sending veteran former army officers who were serving in the Secret Service to investigate, the U.S. Attorney for Louisiana, J.R. Beckwith sent an urgent telegram to the Attorney General:

“The Democrats (White) of Grant Parish attempted to oust the incumbent parish officers by force and failed, the sheriff protecting the officers with a colored posse. Several days afterward recruits from other parishes, to the number of 300, came to the assistance of the assailants, when they demanded the surrender of the colored people. This was refused. An attack was made and the Negroes were driven into the courthouse. The courthouse was fired and the Negroes slaughtered as they left the burning building, after resistance ceased. Sixty-five Negroes terribly mutilated were found dead near the ruins of the courthouse. Thirty, known to have been taken prisoners, are said to have been shot after the surrender, and thrown into the river. Two of the assailants were wounded. The slaughter is greater than the riot of 1866 in this city. Will send report by mail.” [8]

Federal authorities arrested nine white men in the wake of the massacre and after two trials in which white majority juries were afraid to go against public opinion, three were “convicted of violating the Enforcement Act of 1871.” [9] None were convicted of murder despite the overwhelming evidence against them and even the lesser convictions enraged the White Supremacists in Louisiana who had employed the best lawyers possible and provided them and the defendants with unlimited financial backing. Assisted by the ruling of Supreme Court Associate Justice Joseph Bradley, who had a long history of neglecting Southern racism, white Democrats appealed the convictions to the Supreme Court.

The attack, and the court cases which followed, notably the judgment of the Supreme Court in United States v. Cruickshank which dealt with the appeal of the men responsible for the Colfax Massacre led to a “narrowing of Federal law enforcement authority” and were “milestones on the road to a “solid” Democratic South.” [10] The decision of the court in United States v. Cruikshank was particularly perverse in its interpretation of constitutional rights and protections. The court ruled in favor of the terrorists and declared that “the right of the black victims at Colfax to assemble hand not been guaranteed because they were neither petitioning Congress nor protesting a federal law. Assembling for any other cause was not protected.” [11] The Cruikshank decision amounted to a Supreme Court endorsement of violence against blacks, and made it “impossible for the federal government to prosecute crimes against blacks unless they were perpetrated by a state and unless it could prove a racial motive unequivocally.” [12] Northern politicians and newspapers, reeling under the effects of the stock market crash of 1873, which had denounced the massacre just a year before now ran from the story and from support of African Americans. A Republican office holder wrote, “The truth is, our people are tired out with this worn cry of ‘Southern outrages…. Hard times and heavy taxes make them wish the ‘nigger,’ the ‘everlasting nigger,’ were in hell or Africa.” [13] Racism and race hatred was not exclusively the parlance of the South.

In the wake of Justice Bradley’s reversal of the Colfax convictions whites in Grant Parish engaged in brutal reprisals against blacks, leading to many murders and lynching’s, crimes which law enforcement, even that favorable to the rights of African Americans were afraid to prosecute for fear of their own lives. Louisiana’s Republican Governor, William Pitt Kellogg wrote Attorney General Williams blaming the violence on Bradley’s ruling, which he wrote, “was regarded as establishing the principle that hereafter no white man could be punished for killing a negro, and as virtually wiping the Ku Klux laws of the statute books.” He added that with the Army leaving the state that his government and other Reconstruction governments would fall, “if Louisiana goes,” Kellogg wrote, “Mississippi will inevitably follow and, that end attained, all the results of the war so far as the colored people are concerned will be neutralized, all the reconstruction acts of Congress will be of no more value than so much waste paper and the colored people, though free in name, will be practically remitted back to servitude.” [14] Governor Kellogg could not have been more correct.

In the years that followed many of the men involved in the massacre and other murders before and after were hailed as heroes, some, including the leader of the attackers, Christopher Columbus Nash were again appointed to office in Colfax and Grant Parish and blacks were reminded every day of just what they had lost. On April 13th 1921 the men who committed the massacre were honored with a memorial in the Colfax cemetery honoring them as “Heroes… who fell in the Colfax Riot fighting for White Supremacy.” In 1951 the State of Louisiana Department of Commerce and Industry dedicated a marker outside the Courthouse which read: “On the site occurred the Colfax Riot in which three White men and 150 Negroes were slain, this event on April 13, 1873 marked the end of Carpetbag misrule in the South.” [15] That marker still stands, there is no marker commemorating the victims.

Other massacres followed across the South, aimed at both blacks and their white Republican allies. In Louisiana the White League had some 14,000 men under arms, in many cases drilling as military units led by former Confederate officers. A White League detachment southwest of Shreveport “forced six white Republicans to resign their office on pain of death – and then brutally murdered them after they had resigned.” [16] This became known as the Coushatta Massacre and it was a watershed because for the first time the White League targeted whites as well as African Americans. The violence, now protected by the courts ensured that neither would last long in the post-Reconstruction South and that the freedom of African Americans in those states would amount to a cruel illusion.

In 1875, President Ulysses S. Grant including comments about the Colfax massacre and the subsequent court decisions in his message to Congress. Grant was angry and wrote: “Fierce denunciations ring through the country about office-holding and election matters in Louisiana…while every one of the Colfax miscreants goes unwhipped of justice, and no way can be found in this boasted land of civilization and Christianity to punish the perpetrators of this bloody and monstrous crime.” [17] President Grant, the man who so wanted to help African Americans attain the full measure of freedom, was unable to do more as the Congress and Courts took sides with the Southern insurgents.

Notes

[1] Ibid. Foner Forever Free p.151

[2] Ibid. Langguth After Lincoln p.312

[3] Ibid. Lane The Day Freedom Died p.42

[4] Ibid. Goldfield America Aflame p.493

[5] Ibid. Lane The Day Freedom Died p.91

[6] Ibid. Goldfield America Aflame p.493

[7] Ibid. Lane The Day Freedom Died p.11

[8] Ibid. Lane The Day Freedom Died p.22

[9] Ibid. Goldfield America Aflame p.494

[10] Ibid. Lane The Day Freedom Died p.251

[11] Ibid. Langguth After Lincoln p.314

[12] Ibid. Goldfield American Aflame p.494

[13] Ibid. Lane The Day Freedom Died p.213

[14] Ibid. Lane The Day Freedom Died p.217

[15] Ibid. Lane The Day Freedom Died pp.261-262

[16] Ibid. McPherson The War that Forged a Nation p. 185

[17] Ibid. Lane The Day Freedom Died p.228

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