Chasing Smallwood –12. They Fired on the Flag!

[Wednesdays, I am posting pieces of Chasing Smallwood, an early book now out of print. This is a book about four interconnected themes:

  • how to communicate with the dead;
  • the life of a 19th-century American;
  • the massive task facing us today, and

the physical world’s place in the scheme of things.]

.12. They Fired on the Flag!

12:40 p.m. We’re racing something to get all this on the record, Joseph, aren’t we? What?

Things move. You don’t want them to move past the point where you can do something about them, or – by definition, as you and the other guys always say – you missed your chance. It’s time to clean up my story so that you can absorb what my telling it is teaching you about the process – because there’s more to come and it ain’t just history lessons.

Higher hurdles, you mean?

More advanced practice, let’s say that. Just as this would have been unimaginable for you – that is, you doing it – just a few years ago, so other things are in store, and they aren’t that far away, and you need to get a move on, as you say. We’d say you need to shove off.

All right, I don’t need to say more about how we felt about the causes of the war. You understand the things behind the little I’ve said and you can spell it out any time. We had nothing against the people of the South and we never dreamed of invading them and overturning their world, right up until we were doing it. But we couldn’t let the Union go and that meant invading or lose the war. And we never would have freed the slaves, having no idea what to do about them, but first the contraband situation and then the need for black soldiers came, and how are you going to disarm your soldiers and tell them they’ve got to be slaves again, or watch slavery go on as if nothing had happened? It all stemmed from secession, and secession stemmed from the South feeling outnumbered, and the South being outnumbered – isolated – in the federal government stemmed from mounting outrage against attempts to expand slavery. Those attempts came because the few slaveholders who ran everything saw that they had to expand or stagnate and die – and where would they have been then?

All right, enough of that. When the war broke out I was up with the Indians in Minnesota. I’d spent most of the winter up there. I sort of had a wife there, in fact, and I spent a lot of time up there. Lots of men had Indian wives only when they were with the Indians, and white wives when they were with the whites. The Indians understood it and didn’t care about the white wife if the Indian wife was treated right. I never had a white wife. Yellow Slipper was enough for me.

[Interruption.]

I had voted in the Presidential election, for Abraham Lincoln, of course, and then I’d gone north while I still could. You couldn’t go up-river by boat in November, but I got up on horseback all right. I didn’t have enough trading goods to make it worthwhile, but I wasn’t up there for trading purposes anyway. I remember going up-country being filled with relief and satisfaction. We’d got a man in that office at last! Not weak, stupid, compromised Buchanan, or any of the succession of nonentities we’d had for twenty years, slave holders or pledged to slave holders. Franklin Pierce!

It shows how little we see ahead of ourselves. I thought, we’ve got Lincoln in, now maybe they’ll stop all this pushing, pushing, pushing. I thought things would maybe go quiet again, and the South would stop trying to overturn the limits on slavery, and the ultra abolitionists like John Brown would see that we could contain things by the ballot instead of the bullet.

[Typing this, it occurs to me to say that Joseph is of course aware that John Brown was by then more than a year in his grave. He said, and meant, like John Brown. This, in case someone reading this might make the mistaken inference.]

Well, you know what happened. South Carolina – Damn them! They were always at the heart of any such devilment – South Carolina seceded, and six states followed and – everybody waited in a state of suspended animation, you’d say. Nobody knew just how to feel about it. First it was, “good riddance!” but then we started to have second thoughts. If the Union could be broken up whenever anybody wanted to, what was it? And yet on the other hand the Declaration said that any people had the right to rise up when they felt they were being oppressed. I tell you, it was a puzzle figuring out what would be the right thing to do.

I say “we” but like I say, I was up with my family in northern Minnesota, so I only learned about this later, comparing experiences.

I think the whole country was perplexed for a while. We’d got rid of the worst trouble-makers; maybe we ought to just be glad of it? But we still had eight slave states in the Union. What were we to do about them? And what were they do to about being caught between the Union they belonged to and this new Southern union they could belong to?

And looking at it just economically, what was the West going to do if this new confederacy had the mouth of the big river? All our goods went down the Mississippi or up the Ohio. Yes the railroads had come in by now but nothing’s cheaper than barges and ships for moving grain. For a few weeks there, the businessmen and the farmers – that is, the government [of various western states] – wondered if they could get along with Confederates holding New Orleans. We’d gotten along when the Spanish had it, but there weren’t anybody in the upper west then, hardly. What if they started charging loading taxes and all, and shot the cost of doing business sky-high?

None of this reached me. I didn’t get any news from the time I went up-country until mid-April when I got it all in one dose. They’d fired on the flag!

Now, I know that don’t seem to make much sense to you. The states had seceded, so they considered themselves a foreign country now, so of course they were going to want the remains of the Union out of there. They’d taken the post offices and the armories and every other vestige of federal presence, now here were these two forts left, and one of them a bone in the throat for South Carolina, right in Charleston harbor.

Well, it would be South Carolina, wouldn’t it? In a way it’s satisfying; the damned hot-heads brought it on, they started the explosion, and they brought it all down on their heads. You see, they fired on the flag! Overnight – not even overnight, in the minute they heard it, men all across the North were furious. One minute they were puzzled, trying to figure out how they ought to feel about the whole secession business – the next minute it was war!

I don’t say it makes logical sense. It don’t. But it made emotional sense, and that’s what counted. In one move, these men became traitors and their new country was in the same class as the British. They fired on the flag! And there would be the very devil to pay. I don’t say I reacted any different. I didn’t know the fellow very well who brought me the news; he wasn’t looking for me, particularly, he was just riding far and wide – not the only one, either, saying we had a war on our hands.

I told my family goodbye. It took me two days of feeling around it, but I decided I’d better be a part of this, if they needed me. Maybe they wouldn’t – I was moving on 40, and war is a young man’s game – but maybe they would, and something stubborn within me said I’d better go. I left my family going on to May, 1861.

Might have took my time. They didn’t want me; they had more volunteers – younger volunteers – than they could equip. By then Virginia and North Carolina and Tennessee and Arkansas had gone out too, but people were thinking it would be a short war still. In fact, we were hard put to it to think of it as a “war” at all. To us it looked like a handful of politicians had maneuvered ten million people into something they didn’t really want or understand, and we figured if we just brought a real army against them, the whole house of cards would collapse.

Maybe it would have, too, if we’d had an army left! If the army had been as loyal as the navy, maybe it would have been over that year. Funny how things work, because if we’d succeeded in 1861 slavery would have still been in place. Probably would have stopped its expansion, anyway, so it still might have done some good.

But the army was rotten with slavery men, had been for 30 years. So when their states went out, they went out – and there went a good part of our officer corps, trained and fed at our expense all those years. And what was worse in the short run was the guns and powder that had been deliberately sent south, lost to us too.

Anyway, they didn’t want me as a soldier and they figured on a short war of one long campaign, and the whole thing over by the fall. Which is just how it worked out – I don’t think.

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