Chasing Smallwood — .22. We Didn’t Expect the War

Chasing Smallwood

[A book with four interlocking 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.]

.22. We Didn’t Expect the War

[Saturday, January 28, 2006]

(8:10 p.m.) All right. Set pieces? I can hear a few of them. Gettysburg, Fredericksburg. Shiloh and the west, to Chattanooga? Slow-trot Thomas and Hood? The march to the sea? North Carolina? Or do you have other things in mind?

Other things, mostly. How could I give you a description of battles? You’d die of nerve strain, wondering if the detail would check out. But I can give you other things of value, and I will.

I told you, we didn’t expect the war. We looked at it as a conspiracy – a long-running conspiracy but still, nothing much more than a plot – among the few families that ran southern society. You’ve learned what a jumble Virginian genealogy is, with cross-connection on cross-connection. That’s what the other southern states would have been, only they didn’t stay together long enough. Virginia was 250 years old when the war came, just as Mr. Lincoln said, “the bondsman’s 250 years of unrequited toil.” But Mississippi and Alabama, say, weren’t but 50 years old at the most! Their old and venerable traditions weren’t much older than the generation that saw it crumble – or, say, their parents, anyway. They talk about the Old South and they like to make out that it is the oldest part of the country and the northwest the latecomers. But that’s about as accurate as anything else they said, trying to find any straw anywhere to prop themselves up, and slavery with them.

Just look at the history of it! When we got freedom from England, what of the future confederacy was there? Virginia. The Carolinas. Georgia. Mary land if you want to count it too.

There wasn’t any other Old South! Kentucky was a county of Virginia with a few thousand people. Tennessee, the same in connection with North Carolina. Where were the other states? Florida was Spanish. Mississippi, Alabama, was Indian. Louisiana was French and then Spanish. Arkansas [ARE-Kansas] and Texas were empty and didn’t belong to us anyway. Missouri was Spanish. So where was your old south? I’ll tell you where – it was Virginia, mostly, and Charleston, South Carolina. You find me any more old south, anywhere. North Carolina didn’t have any harbors to amount to anything, so its piedmont country got filled in, by way of Pennsylvania and the Shenandoah Valley, long before the rest of it. Georgia was a howling wilderness, and Maryland was up next to Pennsylvania, which meant it had cross-currents in its society and its economy, that Charleston never did.

That’s why it was so important for these upstarts that they get Virginia! That, and Tredegar Iron Works. But mostly if Virginia had stayed in the union – if it had been a model of a slave-holding state staying loyal, with the prestige that only Virginia had – well, the confederacy’d have fallen in a heap, quicker than Jack Frost. That’s one thing Mr. Lincoln was playing for, I think – trying to find a way to keep Virginia in. If he’d succeeded at that – well, hell, if he’d kept Virginia in, he’d have had Bobby Lee at the head of the army, for one thing! – I don’t think the rebellion would have lasted the year. But if it had stayed in, there’s no way the country could have abolished slavery. It just couldn’t have happened, so maybe it all came out for the best after all. Sure spilled a lot of blood this way, though.

But I was saying, we didn’t expect an actual war. We thought we were going to assemble a very big posse and round up some influential trouble-makers and that would be the end of the military aspect and then it would be a matter of dealing with the political aftermath. In the spring of 1861, I think you could say a lot of us were thinking this was going to be another Shay’s Rebellion. We never dreamed it was going to be – as one of your historians said – our 1848.

That’s why all that “on to Richmond” stuff before Bull Run, and all the suspicion of the army, and the political interferences with it afterwards. We were still thinking, “what’s the hold-up?” as you say. We didn’t see it as a conflict between two armies, but between our army, that we had always known, and this jacked-up comic opera army representing the slave power that had a stranglehold on the south’s politics and its economy. We couldn’t quite picture people that weren’t slave owners fighting for the right of these very same slave owners to continue to run everything the way they pleased, for their own benefit and nobody else’s. We didn’t understand yet what forces we were playing with. We didn’t realize, for one thing, what 50 years of lies had done to people’s ideas about the rest of the country and about what the world thought of slavery, and what the outside world was becoming in the age of steam.

Well, so we had Bull Run and we got whipped, and it was a terrific shock. We – the army! – got whipped by a bunch of rebels! How could that be? Treason within our army? Maybe – God knows we’d seen enough to it, years and years of it bearing fruit all in one bitter winter and spring. But Bull Run wasn’t so bad in the long run. One of the rebs said later that they’d been worse demoralized by the victory than the north was by the defeat, and there’s probably something to that: There ain’t anything concentrates your mind like a good whipping, and nothing makes you more lazy and stupid than a big win that you think is just the natural result of your own superiority. Anyway, we got whipped at Bull Run, but anybody could see, once they got the whole story, that as much as anything it was that our boys were green. So were the rebs, but there wasn’t any Bobby Lee legend to make them especially fearsome, and they hadn’t yet built up their reputation as A1 fighting men. What I’m saying is, we could see we were going to have to build up and do it again, and maybe take it all a little more serious, but what wasn’t clear and didn’t get made clear by Bull Run is that this was going to be a stiff fight and a long one.

Shiloh showed us that.

Up until Shiloh, things was going pretty good in the West. In fact, they weren’t going so bad anywhere if you look just at the facts and not at our own expectations. Kentucky was ours, Mary land was ours, Missouri was mostly ours. They’d all been saved from the wreckage. Grant had been clearing the Tennessee River, and it looked like he’d be down in Mississippi and Alabama before too long. It looked pretty much like the army in Virginia was the main thing we had to worry about. And if we could clear the boards around it, Virginia couldn’t stand alone very long. In a way that’s what finally happened, as you know. We cleared out the Mississippi valley, went down through Georgia and started up at her from the south. But that was a whole mountain of corpses later. In 1861 nobody – nobody, even old far-seeing Sherman – was imagining anything like the number of men were going to get killed over this. Sherman said we’d need 300,000 men to end the rebellion and everybody thought he was crazy. Even he didn’t guess that twice that many men were going to get killed before it was over. And that by the way is what he figured he was doing in Georgia three years later, something you don’t generally understand. He said he was going to give ‘em memories that would stop them from thinking rebellion a good long way into the future.

Grant was proceeding down through Tennessee, moving up the Tennessee River that more or less paralleled the Mississippi but as you know had the advantage of flowing north, so that any gunboats that might get put out of action by gunfire or mechanical accident would drift back behind our own lines, not over to the enemy’s territory. Plus, once he’d got past Forts Henry and Donelson, he had the river pretty well cleared: It wasn’t like the Mississippi where they were going to have to clear out post after post, although as it turned out that was just a matter of time, being as we had a navy and we had the navy men, and the rebels didn’t.

You know the story of Shiloh. Grant was maybe a little overconfident, and maybe the troops weren’t as careful as they should have been. I can’t say; I wasn’t there. But there was a terrific hell of a battle, and if it wasn’t for those cool old boys, Sherman and Grant, we could have lost big. But you know the story of Uncle Billy coming up on Grant that night and saying, “Grant, we’ve had a hell of a time today,” and Grant saying, “Yep. Whip ‘em tomorrow, though.” And sure enough they did – with the help of Don Carlos Buell’s last-minute-Charlie appearance in the middle of the night, coming upriver just in time. My point here though is that Grant himself later said, Shiloh is when he knew we were in for a long fight. Them southern boys just came in like thunder, and they kept coming on all day, and if anybody after that day thought that southerners that didn’t own slaves weren’t liable to fight like the devil anyway, they just weren’t wanting to know. Anybody wanted to know, knew.

Here’s what I’m going to do, Joseph. I’ll find some short history, and study up on the way it went and you can continue without my worrying about is the order of things right, and all.

Wrong way to go about it. It’s bad enough what you already know – though, come to think about it, I suppose it is like my showing you on the map so you could get the lay of the land and have one thing less to worry over. But don’t do more than get the sequence. If you do that, set it down for your possible readers too so we’re all at the same place when I start in again.

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