Cross-posting with elizabethhuhn.com. A blog about the recent Civil War-themed film The Beguiled:
In case you’ve been in a coma, you’ve heard about Hamilton: An American Musical by now. It’s a Broadway show that’s become a cultural phenomenon. First, let me get one important thing off my chest: it’s bloody brilliant. It is a work of genius that approaches a historical subject with real wisdom and insight, with humor and pathos (I think it’s impossible to have the one without the other). And yes, I am as obsessed as the next person with Hamilton. In fact, I have a rather possessive feeling about it, because it’s a piece of historical fiction and, well, I’m a historical fiction writer. Getting people psyched and enthusiastic about American history? Jesus Christ, yes please!
I saw Hamilton yesterday, and I was blown away (see what I did there?). I wasn’t fortunate enough to see Lin-Manuel Miranda or much of the original cast, but the entire show was spectacular. The audience was alive with shared enjoyment. It felt like everyone was holding their breaths, awaiting every moment they knew was coming, almost disbelieving that they were really there. A special once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. I thought I’d write up a blog because writing is what I do (albeit not with Hamiltonian prolificness).
As a writer and consumer of historical fiction in every medium, as soon as I decided that Hamilton was genius (for the record, that happened when I first heard King George informing his colonists that they’d be back), I started pondering why. Not why I was drawn to it, in spite of the fact that I’m not really a fan of musicals or hip-hop. That was pretty clear: it was about American history, and I do like music, and everyone was raving about how wonderful it was. No, what I was wondering was why it was so effective. What made it tick? What made it, as historical fiction, connect so profoundly with so many people?
A short answer was the language, which I mean to talk about later. But that wasn’t all of it, because the language and music are entirely anachronistic, with a few notable exceptions. Yet, in spite of the words being from the wrong era, they feel right. They seem to paint each historical person with an accurate light, according to what we know of their character. Why?
It took me a while to puzzle out the exact mechanism here, but I finally came up with this: subtext. Obviously, Jefferson didn’t run around chanting, “Never gonna be president now!”, but one imagines that that’s what he thought. And Washington almost certainly never said, “Can I be real a second, for just a milisecond?”, but one suspects that it was simmering in his mind. That’s the beauty of it: although the characters are singing to us aloud, what we’re hearing is the workings of their minds, the messages that were passed back and forth through body language, through shared history, through the subtle texture of diction and grammar that, at the remove of two hundred forty years, would elude most of us if it remained in its original form. Yet for the living, breathing people being represented, it was clear as day: there was much more going on than just spoken or written words.
That’s where music comes in. What’s being expressed is the subtle interplay that was never put into words. It functioned at a level below verbal language. So by bringing this to the surface, you can use whatever language can best express it to you audience, which is what music does best. For Lin-Manuel Miranda, this was the language of hip-hop and Broadway musicals.
Perhaps most telling as regards this particular theory: there are a few (mildly altered) direct quotations from the primary sources here. And if you pay attention, you notice that almost all these quotations are spoken, not sung. Think of the Reynolds Pamphlet, or Washington’s Farewell address, or when Washington says, “Are these the men with which I am to defend America?” These are spoken, or at most said in a singsong. We’re pulled out of the melody, setting these bits apart, which of course delineates what was said from what was thought (which in this case is sung).
Also, the most glaring “subtext” is the giddily bitchy King George, who struts in and reminds us that running through and above and below everything the Founding Fathers said and did was the real possibility of failure, and the reality that they were treading new ground.
Of course, Hamilton is genius for using the subtext to illuminate historical figures’ conflicts. But the actual use of language is genius as well. Miranda uses idiomatic English to perfection, brilliantly mixing touches of 18th century formality with the no-holds-barred language of a rap battle. It’s pretty extraordinary, to dip in and out of such disparate registers and dialects so freely and effectively.
As a historical novelist, I envy Miranda. Not only does he get to use music–which gives emotional cues and amplifies the meaning of the words–but he also is free to–or rather, freed himself to–use whatever words he wants, historical accuracy be damned. Because we’re being presented with subtext, and because frankly this is a musical, he can really let loose with all the linguistic skills at his fingertips (to great effect). The audience sees a stage and hears music and knows this is an interpretation.
Novel-writing is a different beast. You set down words on a page in a book, and people assume and expect it to be literally accurate. There’s no stage or music to draw attention to the fact that it is staged. There’s less leeway for novelists because, except for certain genres, your audience is expecting an accurate depiction of the world as it is–or was. Historical fiction in particular carries the expectation that the authors is presenting the real world, not a version of it. Take one look at the stage or cast for Hamilton, on the other hand, and you know that what we’re seeing is a version of the story.
So, yeah, I kind of wish I could get away with having an eighteenth-century character say “okay”, but then again . . . there are a million ways to say the same thing. A modern vernacular is effective, but it’s only one way to get that subtext across.
Pulls no punches.
One of the most striking things I noticed when watching the play last night was that the characters pull no punches. A disadvantage of having a great control of language is that you can lacerate other people with it. (I’m thinking of a story about Abraham Lincoln cutting down his political opponent so ruthlessly as a young man that he had to apologize for it later; not a naturally cruel man, he couldn’t really control his tongue at that point in his life.)
And here, Miranda is able to use language viciously. “Daddy’s calling.” “Call me son one more time!” “I’m not here for you.” These are cutting, cringe-inducing phrases. They work precisely because they’re so cutting. It feels like a lot of television and movies these days are afraid to use language as a tool, to really show how cruel people can be to one another with words. It takes a lot of wit to be that brutal, and a lot of wisdom to use it in the right places. One imagines that Miranda has to contain a lot of smart-ass remarks in real life.
There’s a hell of a lot of historical fiction out there, and a lot of it’s about the Revolutionary War. But the Federal period has been given short shrift. I’ve thought for a long time that it was a fascinating time, particularly the period around the creation of the Constitution. What these men were doing, and what they accomplished, is truly remarkable. From where we stand, it seems inevitable and immutable, but for them it must have felt like they were bumbling through a thicket in the dark.
It’s refreshing to have a piece of popular historical fiction address such a fraught time period with such thoughtfulness and devotion to historical accuracy. No, not everything is accurate, but within the framework of a Broadway musical, that would be impossible. What is shown is faithful to the historical record, and especially to the spirit of the record. No major events were changed or greatly rearranged. What was changed had particular narrative purposes. It’s clear Miranda respected the history and wanted to do his best to represent it onstage.
The most interesting and important part of Hamilton, though, isn’t even the history it gets right; it’s the approach it takes to history, the historiography. Anyone who studies history knows that how we understand the past alters with the present. Thomas Jefferson is a case in point. He’s undergone a lot of ups and downs in the eyes of the American public; currently, he seems to be on something of a downswing. It’s also important to recognize that there is a lot that we will simply never know, which Miranda clearly recognizes. Hell, there’s a whole song about how “no one else was in the room where it happened.” We’re reminded that, like Burr, we are on the outside looking in, that not even the people of the time necessarily knew all the details.
Then there’s the recurring theme of legacy: Who lives, who dies, who tells your story. Hamilton died relatively young, and his rivals ended up telling much of his story for him. Again, those familiar with history will know the importance of sources. Here on this blog, I’ve talked about Jeanne de La Motte’s memoirs. She’s not exactly a reliable source. She tended to make up stories from whole cloth. What’s interesting is that in her own time, she was listened to and believed, while the queen, who never directly addressed the suspicions that she stole the diamond necklace in question, was widely believed to be culpable. Yet, today, the reverse is believed.
What we leave to future generations will be interpreted and reinterpreted, and we have no control over any of it. That’s a caveat for consumers of history, as well as for those who believe they themselves are making history.
“Lafayette’s a smart man; he’ll be fine”; or Minor Miscues
While Miranda’s faithfulness to history is laudable, and his clear message about the nature of history itself is remarkably astute, there are a few historical inaccuracies that I would like to point out. There are others, but bear with me:
-Jefferson’s personality. Now, I enjoy the character of Jefferson, and I can see why he was written as he was. But, Thomas Jefferson considered himself a man of the people, and though he picked up some French habits while minister there, he didn’t dress flamboyantly, and he certainly wasn’t the type to strut around a cabinet meeting. He was a soft-spoken man who did not give public speeches and avoided conflict like the plague. He was unfailingly polite and charming. Rather a far cry from how he’s presented in the musical.
-Jefferson in France. This one really gets to me. In the musical, Hamilton calls out Jefferson for not fighting in the war because he was off in France. But Jefferson became minister to France after the war. During the war, it was John Adams and Ben Franklin who were in Paris. If you recall, Jefferson penned a little thing called the Declaration of Independence in 1776, so he was in the new United States during the thick of things. In fact, he narrowly escaped being taken prisoner when Redcoats arrived and drove him and his family from Monticello in the middle of the night. He was governor of Virginia during the war. So while he didn’t command troops in the field like Hamilton did, he was very much a part of the war. He wasn’t off getting high with the French (and if he were, so what? someone had to wine and dine them to keep their support).
-“Lafayette’s a smart man, he’ll be fine.” Sigh. No, not really, unless you count being imprisoned for many years to be “fine.” Lafayette was caught up in the madness of the France’s own Revolution after he returned home from the American one, and though he tried to roll with the ever-changing tide, it eventually caught up to him. He was frankly lucky to survive.
Those are the ones that really bug me. There are smaller ones (like the fact that Alexander and Eliza Hamilton had eight children), but often there are clear narrative reasons for them (what on earth would one do with all those children?).
Everything else about Hamilton is basically pure magic. The show was amazing, and if I had another pile of cash to throw down, you bet I’d go see it again. If you are the oddball who hasn’t listened to Hamilton yet, please do so. Now.
So, I’m finally getting around to putting down some thoughts about the final episode of season 1 of Mercy Street, the PBS drama about a Civil War hospital in Alexandria (I already recapped episode 1, episodes 2-3, and episodes 4-5).
We left off with the hospital preparing itself for a visit from the president and First Lady. The Knights of the Golden Circle are preparing for the visit, too, but they don’t want to welcome the Lincolns. They want to blow them and the entire hospital to Kingdom Come.
We start with a bit of drama about Doctor Foster being promoted. Doctor Hale and Nurse Hastings have been conniving all along to get rid of that terrible, no good, very bad, clearly-more-talented-and-therefore-unbearable Doctor Foster. I found it all a bit unnecessary. Also unnecessary was the scene a bit later where Nurse Hastings gets so drunk that she’s literally falling all over herself. It seemed pretty far from the conniving, fake-it-’til-you-make-it-even-if-you-are-less-skilled attitude she’s shown previously. Continue reading
Most people know the tune from The Battle Hymn of the Republic, even if they only know the words of the chorus (“Glory, glory, hallelujah! Glory, glory, hallelujah! Glory, glory, hallelujah, his truth is marching on”) or the first line of the first verse (“Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord”). Even those who know the song might not realize that it’s a Civil War-era song with heavy meaning in relation to the war and American history in general.
The version of the song most remembered today, The Battle Hymn of the Republic, was not the first version by any means. During the Civil War, the earlier song “John Brown’s body” was probably better-known and more popular. It turns out that in 1861, in a Massachusetts battalion (the 2nd Infantry Battalion), there was a man named John Brown. Now, of course, the famous John Brown–the one who dragged five proslavery men from their homes in Kansas and hacked them to death with the help of his many sons, and the one who had tried and failed to take over Harper’s Ferry and start a massive slave uprising across the South–had been executed in 1859. Then, as now, soldiers liked to rib one another. The men in John Brown’s battalion started saying things like, “You can’t be John Brown; John Brown’s dead and in the grave!” Before long, they were putting their jokes to the tune of a camp-meeting song called, “Oh Brother!”. The “Glory, hallelujah!” chorus was retained, but the verses were changed to, “John Brown’s body lies a-moldering in the grave, his soul is marching on.” The soldier John Brown was of course the “soul” that was literally “marching” on.
The song caught on quickly. The silly genius of the refrain is that, when the battalion marched along belting out the song about John Brown, everyone assumed it was the John Brown they were singing about. Many Northerners approved of old John Brown’s mission and even his methods, and they took to the song.
This happened early in the war, and it was still early in the war when Julia Ward Howe, a young woman with strong religious beliefs, was in Washington City with her husband and a preacher friend ans saw the troops being reviewed on Upton Hill. Howe watched the spectacle and heard “John Brown’s Body” being sung by the soldiers. Her friend the Reverend suggested that she should put some more pious (read “more tasteful”) lyrics to the song.
That night, November 14, 1861, Julia Ward Howe woke up in the middle of the night in her room at Willard’s Hotel (it’s still there–quite a historical location) and, apparently in a fit of inspiration, wrote out a poem of five stanzas to go to the tune of “John Brown’s Body.”
And what words she wrote! The more you examine the words, the more apocalyptic they seem. We start off with a bang, with the “coming of the Lord”, which is of course a reference to the Second Coming, also known as, well, the Apocalypse. Then we have the grapes of wrath–God is angry–and His “righteous sentence”. A trumpet sounds; the serpent is crushed under the heel; hearts are “sifted” at the “judgment seat”. Very pointedly, Howe writes that, “As He died to make men holy, let us die to make men free.”
I know that in some performances, this line is changed to “let us live to make men free”. But I really don’t like that. First of all, those aren’t the words the Julia Ward Howe wrote. She did not write them because (secondly) she was not being figurative; she was writing about a real war and real men who were really dying. When she writes about the camps and watch fires, they are literal. What she was seeing was an earthly manifestation of God’s will. To change the word “die” to “live” absolutely derogates the deaths of the many men and women who died for this nation and for freedom, as far as I’m concerned. And what exactly does it mean to “live to make men free”, anyway? It’s pretty weak. Saying nice things is never going to be enough. Action and sometimes death are necessary to preserve freedom.
Backing up a step, we might ask, why the (melo)dramatic, apocalyptic tone? When you think about the times Howe was living in, it becomes clearer. When she wrote the words, the war had only just begun, yet it was already taking on dimensions that were breathtakingly different from any war that had come before. The Battle of Shiloh, just a few months after Howe wrote the words of the Battle Hymn, had more casualties than all previous American wars combined, in one battle. Shiloh was just the beginning. The slaughter went on for four years. The pace of war was different from previous wars, with rifled guns and powerful artillery and trains and the telegraph; and there were unimaginable numbers of casualties to go along with the new technologies. This must have been very unsettling for the people of the time. It might well have seemed like the End really was nigh.
The lyrics aren’t actually about the Apocalypse, though. That language is rhetorical (and would have been very familiar to a culture that was drenched in the Bible). The point was to elevate the cause–the soldiers were fighting God’s war. It was a fight for freedom, and in this case, Howe certainly meant freedom for slaves (she was an abolitionist). So early in the war, not many others would have shared Howe’s vision of the war, so it’s a bit astonishing just how thunderous her views are. For her–as Lincoln later echoed in his Second Inaugural–the war was ordained by God, though she saw it less as just recompense for wrongs and more as a smiting of the sinful Confederates by the divinely-backed Federals. Same basic idea, though: this was beyond just a struggle over territory between two sections. This was a struggle between good and evil. Hence, in Howe’s mind, the apocalyptic tone was entirely apt.
Since the Civil War, the tune has remained very popular, sometimes being spruced up with new lyrics for new causes (such as “Solidarity Forever” to support workers’ rights). It’s also been played at patriotic events of all kinds, notably after the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks. It was even played at Winston’s Churchill’s funeral.
It also happens to by mt favorite patriotic song:
For more about The Battle Hymn of the Republic, I suggest The Battle Hymn of the Republic: A Biography of the Song That Marches On (Oxford University Press; 2013) by John Stauffer and Benjamin Soskis. The Wikipedia page also has some great “further reading” ideas.
Sometimes, small details trip you up, especially when you’re writing historical fiction. You might find that the story demands a certain esoteric fact. You know all about this, that, and the other thing, but what you really need to know is the color of a particular bottle or the name of a very specific medicine: something super detailed but super important to the story.
You can either go hunting for the detail, or you can write around it.
As I wrote what I affectionately call The Prequel (even though its working title is The Cotton Wars and has been for a while now), I had a blast writing about the feud between the Daniels brothers. At one point, the price of cotton (by the bale, to be sold to factories) becomes important. Suffice it to say that Charles has a particular reason for wanting to sell his cotton harvest at a particular price, so he discusses it with his overseer-and-factor. He asks what the usual price is, then what the highest and lowest prices might be. But I didn’t have the least idea what the price of a cotton bale might have been in 1830. I could have cut out this discussion, or written around the numbers, but the scene was important and wouldn’t have the same impact without the numbers. So, as a place-holder, I plugged in my best guess–around a hundred dollars per bale–and told myself I would fact-check later.
Many moons later, I still had those numbers bolded as a reminder to myself to check them. I kept putting it off because I thought it would be a hard nut to crack. But this past weekend, I was reading a guide to Philadelphia (as some additional research for The Prequel) and found mention of the cost of storing cotton. This got my interest piqued, like a bloodhound on a scent. So I began to poke around Google Books, searching for “cotton” and “Savannah” (which is the port to which my characters, living on the Sea Islands, would have sent their cotton to be sold and shipped to factories in the North or in England).
And lo! I found what I was looking for: cotton prices! I was ecstatic.
What I found was in Niles’ Weekly Register, a newspaper that contained all sorts of shipping news from around the country and the world. There are fascinating details about ships being burned and confiscated, of prices of corn (and other commodities) rising and falling, and shipments of hats etc. coming into port.
The first bit of information I found was about a ship confiscated in 1814, during the War of 1812. It was a very helpful start: The ship Victory was captured, including 464 bales of cotton at 300 pounds each, worth some
$41,760 (according to the article). Doing the math, that meant $90 per bale and $.30 per pound. This, however, was some fifteen years before my story, so I kept looking.
From April 1826, I found two helpful bits: At Charleston, upland cotton bound for Liverpool would “not bear more than eleven cents per lb.” Keeping in mind that the cotton in my story would be the finest Sea Island cotton, the above means about $33 per bale. The second bit of information was that in New Orleans, the price was “from 8 cents ordinary, to 14 ‘fine'”, meaning that even the best cotton was selling for perhaps $42 per bale.
I had to ask myself, how could cotton be worth twice as much in 1814 as in 1826? I think this might have to do with the note in the 1814 article: the price they give is for cotton “clear of duties”. Meaning, this is before taxation. The two numbers I got from 1826 might be after duties. The writer of Niles’ Review reckoned
that the duty on the entire cargo of the ship (including indigo, coffee, and wood) would be about $18,000, so no small sum. I *believe* that is the solution here, though I’m still slightly uncertain. I’m guessing that it could partly be explained by natural fluctuations in prices. There is also the fact that the prices cited in 1826 were clearly not the good Sea Island stuff.
Another issue is the size of a bale of cotton. You’ll notice that I based my calculations on a bale of 300 pounds. Today, a standard bale is 500 pounds, but (no surprise) things weren’t as standard in the early 1800’s. The usual bale, apparently, was closer to 300 or 400 pounds, as evidenced by the statement above in Niles’ Review whereby the bales of cotton are reckoned at 300 pounds.
So, I had what I needed to put (accurate) words (or numbers) into my characters’ mouths. A bale of good cotton would be somewhere around $75 a bale, going with the number that’s closer to my date. For the best stuff, let’s say $100, for the rotten stuff, $50. These are rough numbers, based partly on the numbers above and partly on the fact that Sea Island cotton was better quality and worth much more than other cotton.
I wasn’t far off in my original guesses, especially given the slightly high number I found from 1814: I put the price of a bale of cotton at around $100 per bale.
So, that my friends, is a “day in the life” of a historical fiction writer…
One hundred and fifty two years ago today, Abraham Lincoln stood on a podium at a newly created national cemetery for those killed in the battle that had taken place four months earlier, in July. It was the largest battle to have ever taken place on Americansoil, fought over three days and ending with over 50,000 casualties. His “few appropriate remarks” became some of the best-known words in the English language.
Then, the question was what these men had died for. Union? The Constitution? Freedom (and if so, whose)? One-hundred-fifty-two years later, people are still asking those questions and debating the root causes and the consequences of this momentous war.
When the Civil War began, most Northerners would have probably told you they were fighting for the Union. By the end of the war, most–though hardly all–might have said they were fighting for freedom. I bet that all the black soldiers would have said they fought for freedom–freedom for [all] the slaves. I’m sure all the black women wanted the same thing, though they couldn’t fight for it.
The Civil War was a reckoning for the sin of slavery, and a long-overdue one. It was the crisis point following several decades of unrest. And yet, it wasn’t necessarily evident to the people in the moment that this was a massive turning point. Sure, wars are always major events, but as Lincoln later said, both sides expected the war to have “a result less fundamental and astounding” than what it did. He was not the first to see that the war would become not just a war for union but for freedom, but he did see it by November of 1863. Though the Gettysburg is couched in heroic, transcendental terms, it isn’t too difficult to surmise what is meant by “the great cause”. Those who wanted to could comfortably interpret the cause as union, but this requires a kind of willful misreading (though it isn’t a reading that the politician Lincoln probably would have discouraged).
The clearest indication of this is the invocation of the Declaration of Independence. You know, the line about all men being created equal. For four-score-and-seven years, that promise had been hanging there, ringing with great possibility that was left unfulfilled (what Marin Luther King called a “blank check”). Lincoln was, again, not the first to see the almost limitless potential in that simple phrase, but he crystalized it into a pithy, moving, two-minutes speech:
Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth, on this continent, a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.
Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived, and so dedicated, can long endure. We are met on a great battle-field of that war. We have come to dedicate a portion of that field, as a final resting-place for those who here gave their lives, that that nation might live. It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this.
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 here 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.
It’s been said that we see the Declaration of Independence now the way that Abraham Lincoln wanted us to see it. He re-interpreted the meaning of the Declaration, challenging America to take it at face value–all men are created equal. In the decades before the war, it wasn’t read that way at all. It was read as meaning “white men”, or at least “most white men”. And besides, the Constitution was seen as the founding document. The Gettysburg Address recast the founding itself and articulated a new-old purpose for the United States: equality. We see the founding now through the prism of the Gettysburg Address. And all of that in 272 words.
There’s been a hell of a lot of talk lately about the Confederate flag–that is, the Confederate battle flag, which actually wasn’t the official flag of the Confederacy. [Some later versions of the Confederate national flag incorporated the Army of Northern Virginia’s square battle flag, the one we’re all familiar with. A different flag is referred to in the song The Bonnie Blue Flag.]
Just today, the governor of South Caroline signed a bill to take down the Confederate flag from their state house. Other states have removed it from their state buildings and license plates. An article from the Washington Post has an overview of what’s been happening:
The reason for this is pretty clear: the murder last month of nine people at a black church by a young white supremacist. The rationale is clear, too: the Confederate battle flag is a symbol of hate for some and pain for those who have been victims of that hate.
And that makes all the sense in the world. In fact, I believe that state buildings have no business flying the Confederate battle flag. The Confederacy is dead. Slavery is dead. Segregation is dead.
I do fear, though, that what’s been lost in the litany of places from where the flag has now been removed–the Gettysburg gift shop, for one!–is discussion of the issues at stake. I have heard a lot of calls for removal of the flag, and almost no one talking about why, and more importantly about the bigger issues of race in America and how we got to this point.
The most insidious truth of the Civil War is that while the Union won the war, the Confederacy, in many ways, won the peace. For a hundred years, African Americans didn’t have the same rights as whites in this country: in many places, they couldn’t eat at some restaurants or use certain bathrooms. Things have changed for the better. Yet even today, even among educated people, and in sometimes very subtle ways, the Confederate version of events, the so-called “Lost Cause” version, remains with us.
Let me give two recent examples. I was at Appomattox, watching a reenactment of the surrender of Robert E. Lee to Ulysses S.Grant. Confederate reenactors stacked their arms in the same spot where, exactly 150 years earlier, Lee’s troops had stacked their arms, which had been put to use against the Federal government for the prior four years. And as I stood there, a very chatty boy of about nine or ten years, said, “I always forget who won. Who was it again? Oh yeah, that’s right. It was a tie, wasn’t it?” Maybe he was simply mistaken. He was young, after all. But he seemed to me old enough to know who had won the Civil War. And we were, after all, watching at that very moment a representation of the Confederates losing to the Yankees. Something about the way the boy said it, too, made me think that someone–his parents?–had told him the war had been a “tie.” Now, I didn’t think it was my place to grab the boy, look him in the eye, and set him straight. Apparently, neither did his parents, who weren’t standing far off.
The incident reminded me that for some people in this country, as Faulkner said, “not once but whenever he [or she] wants it, there is the instant when it’s still not yet two o’clock on that July afternoon in 1863.” The reference is to Pickett’s Charge, the “turning point” of the Battle of Gettysburg, which was a turning point in the war. This means, that for some, the war isn’t really over yet because they still carry a very old resentment against what they see as a different way of life. It also reminded me of the importance of history education.
Another incident, less striking but indicative nonetheless, was a discussion I had with someone I know. I respect him greatly and think of him as knowledgeable about history. I was discussing my trip to Savannah and mentioned the great fire that destroyed a lot of the city in the latter half of the nineteenth century. He said, “And there was also that other thing.” I was puzzled for a moment until I realized he meant the Civil War, especially Sherman’s March to the Sea. I was almost certain that Sherman had spared Savannah, and that the Southern version of the events made Sherman a Yankee devil of destruction all out of proportions with reality. I didn’t want to say something wrong at that moment, so I went back and double-checked to be sure I wasn’t imagining things, but yes, Sherman spared Savannah. There are several version of why, but basically it was because Savannah capitulated.
So, here was a very intelligent, educated person whose perception of the past had been colored, without his really knowing it, by the mythology of the Lost Cause. There is a Southern vision of Georgia in flames–not all that far from the truth–and the Gone With the Wind image of Atlanta burning to the ground (in reality, largely the Confederates’ own doing). So he assumed that Savannah was put to the torch. But it wasn’t.
The most noxious lies are that the war wasn’t about slavery at all, and that the South didn’t lose because of moral and structural failures but because of the North’s superior manpower and materiel. That, by the way, was Robert E. Lee’s assessment of why the South lost, in his farewell address to his men. I strongly disagree with both points.
First, and let me be utterly frank, the war was about slavery, top to bottom, beginning to end. It was only after the war that survivors and apologists began to insist that it was “states’ rights” that caused the war. Of course, that’s nonsense. First of all, all you need to do is look at any documents of the time that explain the reasoning for secession. For example, there’s the Texas declaration of secession which flatly declares that their new nation is founded on the basic truth that blacks are an inferior race that must be enslaved. Or read the Cornerstone Speech of Alexander H. Stephens, the Vice President of the Confederacy: “Our new government is founded upon exactly the opposite idea; its foundations are laid, its corner-stone rests, upon the great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery, subordination to the superior race, is his natural and normal condition.”
How much clearer does it have to be?
What about states’ rights? That, actually, was an explanation that gained traction after the war rather than before or during the war. It came from people–Southerners–looking back retroactively. Slavery was dead by then, and Southerners wanted to pretend that the discredited “peculiar institution” hadn’t really been the root of the problem. They judged their Northern audience and decided that a states’ rights argument would advance their desire to be readmitted fully to the Union and to regain all their political rights. Of course, the idea of “states’ rights” begs the question (posed by a character in a novella I wrote): The right to do what? After the war, the question is: the political right to do what? The answer to the first is obvious: Southerners wanted states’ rights so they could perpetuate and maybe spread slavery. After the war, they wanted to return to political power so they could put the freed blacks into the same servile role as before the war but without the title of “slave”. As Lincoln might have said, it was the right of the wolf to eat the lamb. (Said Lincoln: “The shepherd drives the wolf from the sheep’s throat, for which the sheep thanks the shepherd as a liberator, while the wolf denounces him for the same act as the destroyer of liberty, especially as the sheep was a black one.”)
The second point is equally disconcerting. Lee and others have argued that the South didn’t lose because their cause was unjust or because they lacked bravery, but because of an accident of geography that made the North more prosperous and populous. As if it weren’t the inherently stultifying effect of slavery that caused the South to be far less developed than the North. As if it were accidental that the North was able to supply its troops while the South starved. As if the North threw its men into a meat grinder for which any lump of flesh was as good as the next, while one Southern soldier was worth ten Northern soldiers. As if maybe God were sleeping when he failed to give them the victory they deserved.
Of course, it’s frustrating that these ideas are still hanging around. It’s terrifying that racism still lives and that the Confederate battle flag is used as a symbol of hatred. This should spur a lot of discussion about why racism persists. There should be more discussion about the myths and culture that led that flag to become a symbol of hate. The flag itself is just a flag. In the zeal to tear it down, it’s important to remember that removing the symbol doesn’t remove the thing it stands for.