Friday, May 23, 2014

Above Our Poor Power to Add or Detract

 Charleston, S.C., circa 1903

At a cemetery somewhere in Charleston, several young women examine the graves of Confederate soldiers who died in the Civil War, which had been over for quite some time, almost 40 years, when this picture was taken. By then every former rebel state was back in the Union, and Woodrow Wilson, who spent his childhood in Confederate Virginia, was a mere decade away from assuming the presidency. Yet as you can see from the above photo, the war was far from forgotten. At least not by these three women. The one kneeling on the left may be crying, but it's hard to tell. Indeed, maybe I shouldn't have used the word young to describe these three. The one on the right looks a bit older. Taller, anyway. Possibly she's the mother of the two on the left.

Now, I find the cause that the men buried in this cemetery gave their lives for to be morally repugnant. The Confederacy was about nothing more than the perpetuation of slavery. States rights, you say? I'm sorry but human rights trump states rights. Yet I don't begrudge the three women visiting, possibly grieving, over this place. All the men buried here had either wives, fiances, children, parents, brothers, sisters, grandparents, friends, and possibly more than friends that they dare not talk about. The three women look too young to have been wives. The one on the left could have been a daughter. Or they could have been complete strangers. The number of Confederate dead is said to have been around 258,000. The loss of so many young men may have still resonated 40 years later.

The Confederate soldiers for the most part weren't slaveholders. Indeed, poor whites may have been at something of a disadvantage in the Old South. How does one find a decent job when the blacks are doing all the work (albeit unwillingly) for free? So, then, why did so many poor whites fight and die to preserve slavery? They probably thought they were fighting for some other reason, like the aforementioned states rights. The politicians and the plantation owners propping them up told--warned!--all those poor whites that the damn Yankees wanted to come in and change their whole way of life. Given their destitution, you'd think they'd welcome such a change. But the damned that you know is better than the damned that you don't. The term wouldn't come into vogue until the 21st century, but these poor whites may have seen the Union army as an "existential threat."

Speaking of that Union army, though I find them to be on the acceptable side of the conflict, all the soldiers didn't necessarily find slavery to be morally repugnant. Historians will tell that Northerners were in fact divided about the issue. And even the ones against it were divided as whether to end it immediately (by force, I guess) or just keep it confined to the South, a kind of 19th century version of containment. Though he personally found slavery to be morally repugnant, Abraham Lincoln initially favored the latter. When he finally did issue the Emancipation Proclamation, it was as a tactical move, hoping that it would deprive the South of any international support it may have gotten by driving home the message the war was indeed about slavery (even if he previously had claimed it wasn't.)

So, if the Union soldiers weren't all fighting to end slavery, what else could have been motivating them? Well, the South was rebelling. That was treason. And they had attacked Fort Sumter, a artificial island run by the U.S. Army in Charleston Harbor, the same Charleston as in the above photo, though that was taken inland. In a way, you could say that the North was acting in self-defense. For different reasons you could say that about the South, too. Two sides fighting in self-defense. What a war.

It's also quite possible that the soldiers in the North and the South  had no idea what they were fighting for or had any strong feelings about it. That's more common than you might think, as wars are fought on the ground by people unaware of how history will categorize them, pigeonhole them, at some future date. But if the soldiers had no strong feelings about it, why were they even there? Well, they could have gotten in trouble if they weren't. Both the North and the South had a draft (I myself probably would enlist in a war fought over bubble gum if I thought jail was the only alternative.) 

Beyond that, however, I think the soldiers on both sides figured their respective leaders had their reasons. Good reasons, or they wouldn't have let such a terrible thing happen in the first place, right? We Americans like to bitch about government, yet nevertheless are quite willing to suspend our judgement, our skepticism, to give our politicians the benefit of a doubt, in matters of war and peace. We need to believe that they know what they're doing. If they don't, then that in itself could constitute an existential threat.

At any rate, until someone can convince me otherwise, I think the North was on the right side of that particular conflict, even if at the time everybody from Lincoln on down didn't always seem so sure themselves. 

What about the various other wars the United States has gotten itself into? Were they worth it?

World War II. Worth it. Though it wasn't the precise reason the United States got involved, and the G.I.s doing the fighting didn't know about it until very late in the game, all it takes is a few minutes of film shot at Dachau to convince me of the rightness of that cause.

The Revolutionary War. True, King George III wasn't exactly Adolf Hitler, and modern-day Britain is more alike the United States than it is different (I'm told they even speak the same language as us) I still have to think it was worth it. Chalk it up to my dislike of royalty. The whole concept of royalty. I strongly feel that Arthur person should have run for office instead of pulling some stupid sword out of a stone. It also irks me when my fellow Americans show too much interest in royal affairs. Especially royal weddings. The fascination people here in the States showed for the nuptials of Charles and Diane, and then, a generation X later, William and Kate, makes me wonder if Benedict Arnold shouldn't replace George Washington on the dollar bill.

Besides, it's kind of hard to be against the Revolutionary War when I was born and raised in the very nation-state that resulted from it. To not give the Continental Congress the benefit of a doubt might yet invite another existential threat.

(A while back, I read about people who refuse to fill out 1040 tax forms on the grounds that the United States is an illegal country and that they're in fact citizens of Great Britain. If that's true, I think the U.K. equivalent of the IRS should get after them. They owe them some money.)

How about the War of 1812, the Mexican War, the Indian Wars, the Spanish-American War, World War I, Korea, Vietnam, Iraq I and II, and Afghanistan? Look, I don't want to start any arguments here, especially not with those of you who seem to believe there's an invisible ray emanating from the U.S. Constitution that magically prevents our leaders from ever going to war unless it's absolutely necessary. Can we at least agree that the soldiers and sailors fighting those wars assumed some good would come out of them, whether it actually did or not?

This Memorial Day weekend, let's once again remember all those who gave their lives to ensure that the rest of us remain free.

But let's also remember those who gave their lives for less exalted reasons. Who gave their lives for no good reason at all.

If you think about it, they may have made an even bigger sacrifice.


  1. Great post and it's not my job to judge a soldier who went to war. I leave that for the politicians. I think what adds to the confusion are what's called "war of choice" vs "necessary war? Also I think you may have a typo of "5,500 Confederate dead". It was way worse than that "The South lost 258,000 men–94,000 in battle and 164,000 to disease."
    I visited Gettysburg years ago and it blew my mind how many died in just one battle. I was so overcome with sorrow I will never visit another battlefield again. We have a debt we owe every veteran and we are very poor about repaying it.

    1. I entered the new number, Patricia. I seemed to have had a problems with numbers on this blog lately. Can't remember where I got the original number from. Possibly it was a combination of Union and Confederate deaths (in which case it still would have been a typo since that's not the point I was trying to make) and left out a zero. Just now I had trouble googling "Confederate dead", instead of statistics, I got a poem! I had to add "number" to the google, which did correspond with yours. Thanks.

  2. Interesting post, Kirk.

    - Jackie

  3. p.s. The code I had to punch in to prove I wasn't a spambot had 666 in the middle. That's kind of creepy.

    1. The Antichrist must have taken over the my blog. I'm going to have to send a strongly worded letter to mountain View, California.

  4. Interesting but sorta don't agree with you.
    I have lots to say about war (no) and our debt to every service person and animals who made it so I as a women can write this, go to school not have parts of my body cut away because some mullah said so or Shara's law.
    Burt going back o the civil war...

    I believe it was about states rights. I am a firm believer in States Rights. I live in the west and Washington is making a huge mess of our life.
    Yes the slavery issues came in later but in the beginning it was about the rights of the southern states to control their economy. State ability to nullify federal laws and yes slavery was an issue. It was much of the economics.
    Such a huge divide of what was going on economically in both regions. I think many of the typical south solider just wanted to keep the northern army (Sherman) from burning their homes and killing their families.
    Remember the north owned slaves too or owned the southern companies who had slaves. Many major northern families had holding in the south (slave trade) economics.
    One piece of of legislation was to reimbursed southern planters for giving up their slaves but it wasn't passed. That could have been the needed legislation.
    Slavery was abolished but the north established another kind of slavery with the industrial revolution. Workhouse, child labor, orphans, and families owning their souls to big business.

    I don't believe in any slavery north or south.
    I visited many Civil War Battle Fields. It is very sobering. The North almost lost the war till it expanded the slavery issue.

    cheers, parsnip

  5. Parsnip, when it comes to the wisdom of a state government vs the wisdom of a federal government, can't you just go by a state-by-state basis? You know, sometimes Washington is right, sometimes Phoenix is right. Suppose someone from Arizona becomes President and they pass something an Arizona governor disagrees with? You're going to have a quite a dilemma on your hands, unless you think Arizonians disagreeing with each other is an impossibility.

    And anyway, just because you don't like what someone in 21st century Washington DC is doing, why take it out on the Civil War, which happened in the 19th? I'm a registered Democrat, yet I have no problem with the notion that Abraham Lincoln, a Republican, was our greatest president (as well as greatest presidential speech writer.) I lose absolutely no sleep over it whatsoever.

    I do wish you could buy more with a five-dollar bill, but I don't blame Honest Abe for that.

  6. I don't know if I am taking out what someone in the 21st. century is doing on the Civil War.
    I thought I was answering your statement on the Civil War was only fought about slavery ? That was one issue.
    I understand about we as the states need to be united but I also believe that from state to state we all have different needs and problems. I am sure the needs of Ohio (?) industrial are so much different than Arizona water and crops.
    Also as a life long Democrat, I have no problem voteing across party lines.

    cheers, parsnip

  7. "I believe it was about states rights. I am a firm believer in States Rights. I live in the west and Washington is making a huge mess of our life."

    parsnip, the above statement is what led me to believe that you were linking whatever Washington DC is doing to the West at the present moment (which happens to be the 21st century) with the Civil War.

    I wrote "state-by-state" by mistake. I meant to say "case-by-case"

    I should explain my Abraham Lincoln remark better. I wasn't talking about voting across party lines (though there's nothing wrong with that) but that whatever I may think about the present-day Republican party doesn't cloud my view of what the party was like in the 1860s. I mention that because your views of present-day Washington DC struck me as clouding your views of the Civil War. If I'm wrong about that, I apologize.

    I don't believe the Civil War was fought solely over slavery. I think, as I said in my piece, that many saw the succession of Southern states as treason. I mean, c'mon, if people nowadays are shocked at the sight of an American flag being burned (as constitutional an act as that may be) wouldn't people back then be just as perturbed at states breaking away from the the Union, i.e. the United States of America? Succession was its own form of flag burning. A couple of years ago on your own blog, parsnip, you expressed shock at an anti-American piece of art created by a British artist that sat in a British museum. Well, I would say that states breaking away from the USA is a pretty anti-American statement. I don't have time to address your other reason as to why the Civil War happened, except to say I basically agree with those reasons. I just think slavery was the underlying reason, the most important reason, that the war happened.

    Thanks for commenting, parsnip. Don't be bashful about commenting again. In fact, I'm counting on it.

  8. The art piece was at fair and the only violence pieces where about America. I was trying to point out (very badly) the blinders of the artist. Concerning all the riots,(Brixton for one) all the soccer riots plus shooting of a mailman and several bystanders over three cities, just that month. I was trying to say that to point a finger only at America is quite anti American for the sake of his political views. Violence is violence no matter what language they speak.
    Yes the south was a economical based slave society but I do think there was a way to out of it.
    Plus as I said many of the north big business families had their hands in the slave economies along with the English, Dutch so on.
    But I agree with you on many points.
    Wrong is wrong and hypocrites (UK artist) is still hypocritical.
    But what do i know I just a little old lady living in a southwest border city who has had several micro mini (?) strokes (everyone has them) but it think they affected my ability to write coherent sentences. hahahahahahahahahaaaa

    cheers, parsnip

    cheers, parsnip

  9. OK, parsnip, fair enough point on the art piece. I only brought it up because you seemed rather upset about it at the time, and I thought it would be a useful analogy in explaining how someone who didn't feel strongly about slavery might nonetheless find Southern secession upsetting.

    Yes, there were Northerners who profited from slavery. And, at the risk of giving you another analogy, I'm, um, going to give you another analogy. A decade or so ago someone wrote a book accusing IBM, an American company, or aiding and abetting the Holocaust by selling Nazi Germany counting machines (or early computers) that made the crunching of numbers for such a large endeavor possible. If that somehow makes the United States hypocritical, so be it. I'm still glad Hitler was defeated.

    I tried not to give the impression in my post that the sides that won the three conflicts I mention were pure of heart. Yes, it was all very nuanced, nuances that I think made it more difficult for the soldiers and sailors fighting those conflicts, seeing as they had to deal with nuance-free bullets and bombs.

    Was there a way out of the Civil War? Sure. The South could not have fired at Fort Sumter, and the North could not have responded to the South firing at Fort Sumter. That didn't happen.

    As for your mini-strokes affecting your ability to write coherent sentences, I read things on the Internet all the time written by people younger and healthier than you, parsnip, that are just as incoherent. I think the problem is people tend to confuse writing with talking. If you ever heard me talk, I would come across as incoherent. I don't when I write (at least not to the same degree) because I simply re-read what I wrote, and if doesn't make sense, change it. Unfortunately, that doesn't work when it comes to talking. Once that incoherence slips out of your mouth, it's impossible to retrieve it.

    Remember, you're writing this on a computer, not a typewriter. It's not like you have to pull out a piece of paper and stick another one in every time you want to change something. It's very easy to change what you want to say, yet so few people writing online seem to realize that.

    Anyway, you can't be all that incoherent, parsnip. Most of the time I can figure out the gist of what you're trying to say.

  10. I should have re-read my comment more carefully. I'm already finding a bunch of typos!

    1. Welcome to my world ! hahahahahahahahaha

  11. Kirk, sorry to comment on this a few weeks after it appeared.This morning I read with interest your post and your back-and-forth with angry parsnip.

    I'm with you that human rights trump states' rights. That is exactly what is happening right now with the issue of same-sex marriage. Will states secede from the Union over that? Some would probably like to. But like to or not, we're all stuck together. After all, how would a jigsaw puzzle with 48 contiguous states look if one or more of the states seceded? It disturbs my sense of design to even consider such a possibility. No, we need to stick together and accept that society and its needs change over time, especially when we consider those all-important human rights and also human dignity, and not making big holes in our country's maps.

    Slaves had neither rights nor dignity. This question has been asked before, but even without a war between the states, how long would slavery have lasted until it died of natural causes? Maybe another twenty years? Forty? No one knows because the war did happen and slavery didn't die a natural death. What happened when emancipation was declared was the absolute horror of Jim Crow laws lasting for a hundred years after the war was ended. States rights be damned...continued repression of a whole group of human beings, whether held in actual or virtual slavery, is absolutely wrong.

    As I write this Iraq is erupting into its own civil war, but fought by religious groups. I don't know who is nuttier, states rightists or religious zealots, but when it comes to arguments they both like to pull out the shootin' arns and start settling their differences with bullets and bombs. And I believe that country's current problems have something to do with us lying our way into invading them over 10 years ago.

    Anyway, thanks for your well thought out essay.

    1. Postino, there's an argument to be made that the Civil War wasn't worth all the bloodshed, that slavery would have ended anyway, as it was economically unsound. I didn't feel parsnip was making that particular argument (I'm risking another back-and-forth here.) Rather, she seems to feel that, becausee of the civil war, states no longer have rights (there's some people sitting on Ohio's Death Row whom I'm sure would disagree with her about that) I'm not a historian, but I suspect the economic unsoundness of slavery is what CAUSED the Civil War. Remember, the main dispute in the decades leading up to it wasn't the abolition of slavery but whether it would expand to the new territories. Cotton had depleted the South's soil, and plantation owners needed somewhere else to set up shop. Lincoln was against that so the South rebelled. How THAT was going to further the cause of expanding slavery to the new territories is hard to understand. The rebellion was irrational and illogical, and, thus, I believe, inevitable. The South was rebelling against economics. Against the worldwide opinion that slavery was wrong. Had the North not responded to Fort Sumter, I think there something else would have happened because the South was simply not thinking straight.

      Have to run. Thanks for commenting, postino.