Two Views of the Civil War and Reconstruction

So You Think Your Life Was Wasted — Part Three (8)

This is a continuation of the very productive sessions I had one day in March, four years ago. This particular conversation took place at first with Claude Bowers, whose book The Tragic Era dealt with Reconstruction from a position of total sympathy with the white South of the day, then with Joseph Smallwood, perhaps a past life, who was one of the Union soldiers who counted the destruction of slavery among the results that mitigated the terrible suffering and dislocation that war caused.

Thursday March 9, 2006

(6:30 p.m.) I don’t mean to quarrel, Mr. Bowers, but the final taste your book leaves in my mouth is one of partisanship. All the nobility on one side, rascality the only motive on the other side. It is overdone, and ultimately doesn’t wash. This book looks to have been written at least in part for partisan purposes, not as a testimonial. It is somewhere between history, journalism, and propaganda.

Say that is so, it will not find itself alone on the shelf! As I said, books are written to be tools or weapons, not as monuments.

Well, I think it might have had a longer life had it been balanced.

And with the Republicans still in charge of the national government – which in context meant the manufacturing and financial interests of whom the Republican Party was the wholly owned subsidiary – where was the corresponding fairness that would have balanced the picture? Does it occur to you, sometimes excess balances excess, and moderation does not.

Evidently my place is not in politics.

Nor in warfare, and this is no slight upon you. The world has a crying need for gentle souls who shrink from landing blows for fear of the damage and pain they would thereby inflict. What do you think it was that was killing Lincoln right along, before the assassination plot succeeded? He would not hurt a fly, and yet he was placed so that by his inaction he would cause more hurt than his action, yet his entire being revolted against the necessity.

Surely it is less hurtful to shade a picture than to starve a nation of workmen, and women, and children.

I understand what you are saying. It amounts to “this is war.” But I agree with Eric Severeid, I think it was, who said “the chief cause of problems is solutions.” So the chief cause of outrages is revenge. Yet I can see your point too.

The ability to see many sides of an issue is valuable and can be of great use to a people. But it is not a characteristic of political leadership.

Okay, enough of this. I am glad to have read your book, and I suppose it is a corrective to Joseph’s views, somewhat. Joseph?

Well, it is right, the point you made about one-sided-ness. To read that book you’d think night-riders were a social club, and Southern Gentlemen were the flower of chivalry protecting hearth and home and all that. And they believed it, I have no doubt. They believed it before the war, and during the war, and after the war. That is their myth, you know, their symbol. But it don’t entirely explain the massacres of captured colored troops during the war, and the wonderful graciousness of the flower of southern womanhood like the one that emptied a chamber pot from a second floor window onto the head of a union officer walking down the street in New Orleans in 1862.

It don’t seem to account for lynchings and beatings from the rise of the Ku Klux Klan on past the time Bowers was writing his book. And it most certainly don’t take into account the reason we were down there in the first place – beyond restoring the Union, I mean – which was slavery. Slavery, slavery, slavery, and they can deny it, or paper it over, but the fact remains. That is what the war was over and that is what they lost it on.

And – here’s my point – how is it that all those outrages and insults by blacks to whites weren’t balanced somewhat by generations of insults and outrages by whites to blacks? The answer is simple if you are able to entertain it: It is that the white people of the south said to themselves “That’s over, this is a new day” – and forgot what they’d been doing not ten years earlier, and had fought four years for the right to keep on doing! It is just what Carl Jung was talking about earlier today: they put it out of their mind and locked the door, and they were surprised that people kept busting the door open!

Blacks weren’t happy darkies content to keep tilling the fields? Didn’t think they had to work now they were free? Figured they ought to be able to be full members of society now they weren’t slaves any more? Didn’t understand anything about taxes and spending or anything but got themselves elected anyway? All of that had to be northern agitators – carpetbaggers and scalawags and corrupt politicians, because otherwise the suspicion might have snuck in that the negroes hadn’t really enjoyed slavery all that much, and hadn’t forgotten!

I didn’t see in Bowers’ book (reading over your shoulder, if you please) anything about the white folks came south to teach the black folk how to read, and how to make a living. Nothing about any possible good that anybody in the north might intend. It was all the innocent outraged suffering white people. Well, he wasn’t lying but he wasn’t telling the whole truth either. And of course I know better than to expect very honest politics. The stuff he says about the crooks and hirelings is probably pretty nearly true, it’s just, he leaves out so much else that properly is part of the story!

Now I want to say just one thing more. Give a moment to think about how Jefferson Davis and his crew failed his people, because they didn’t see themselves responsible to them in the way Lincoln was responsible to his people. They saw themselves more as taking care of the government than as representing the common people. And you want to see the proof?

Robert E. Lee surrendered his army and made the best terms for them he could, even though he didn’t know what to expect and thought he would be imprisoned, maybe executed. Joe Johnston did the same.

Davis did not surrender his government; he fled. He gave the people of Richmond not one hour’s notice that the government was leaving – he skedaddled; without a by-your-leave he was gone. If he had surrendered, it would have had an effect. And even if he had been tried and executed he would thereby have helped his people, for he would to some degree have drawn the lighting. And this don’t even touch the question of why he didn’t negotiate a surrender when he still have something to negotiate with! That’s foolishness, but running instead of surrendering was failure. All right, I expect we have exhausted the patience of anybody reading this.

Thanks, Joseph. It’s a pleasure to talk to a Lincoln man!

I know you’re sort of joking but your readers may not.

They’ll figure it out.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *