Chasing Smallwood — .28. Andersonville

[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.]

The process of talking to the other side progressed in increments. At least, that’s how it happened for me. First came guidance, then came “past lives” whenever they are really, then came this close connection with Joseph. And I suppose on my life’s calendar on the other side, February 9, 2006 is marked in red. That’s the day it moved up a step as you will see not in this post, but in the next one. But you need to have read this one (which is a continuation of this same session) to be prepared for that one.

[Thursday, February 9, 2006]

(12:50 p.m.) Joseph, you know that I am very interested in the Civil War material, but I feel others looking over our shoulder, and I know you know it. What is your aim in telling me all this, or would you rather not say?

It will emerge. It has been emerging, in fact. Some things are better seen than described. You don’t want the advertising to overwhelm the product.

All right, well I’m interested regardless of any ulterior motives. You know that. More, today?

Want to talk about Andersonville? [infamous Georgia prison in which many captured Union men died of starvation and abuse]

If you wish. Where did that come from? Did you visit the place?

It visited us. We saw a few of the boys who escaped there. You think of your concentration camp survivors, all skeletons and skin and not an ounce of fat on ‘em, and you’ll see the boys we saw. And how they got from Andersonville to the north of Georgia I’ll never know.

I’m surprised you didn’t send a detachment down to rescue the prisoners.

That would make a good war movie, where you do the impossible six times, but we couldn’t do it. You don’t just take a part of your army in hostile territory and send it off to be maybe overwhelmed by something you don’t know is there. While we all stuck together, nothing was going to come too near us, but if we’d have started to split off units, at some point we might have paid dearly for it, even that late in the game. Those boys was as far beyond our help as if they’d been in Texas. But don’t think it made our tempers any sweeter when we came to tearing up the place as we went by. Another thing, you know, the sooner we could end the war, the sooner we would free the boys that were still alive down there.

They hanged the commandant, I guess you know, the summer after the war. They didn’t hang Jeff Davis or any of his fighting men but they did hang that German for killing so many of our men, prisoners. Our war was a foretaste of your war – well, not quite yours, World War II – in so many ways, it’s funny really. I don’t mean humorous.

Concentration camps, you mean.

Well, what you used to call “modern war” in general, except your world seems to have got by that now and is in a different place. I don’t mean better, just different. But we had the first taste of stuff you got in both world wars. Machine guns, accurate cannon fire, aerial observation, fortifications that could take anything and everything that could be thrown at them, concentration camps, economic mobilization, technology as warfare – meaning railroads, steam ships, ironclads, torpedoes – not the kind you mean when you say torpedoes, more like mines – and we had huge, massive casualties, and a battle between two ways of life, and we had so much else that you got used to later.

I have thought it strange and touching that Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain died of his wounds [incurred in 1864] just a few days before World War I started. His time on the Petersburg front seemed to me like the trenches of World War I.

The trenches, and the suicidal attempts to storm fortifications when the rifles had so outstripped any defense from them.

So – Andersonville.

That’s pretty nearly all we need to say about it. It occurred to me, people ought to realize that sometimes the only way you can end the killing and the dying is to win, or lose, and not have it drag on and on. I count the responsibility of Jeff Davis and others very high in continuing the war after December ’64. They couldn’t bring themselves to face the facts, and a lot of boys died needlessly because the war went on into 1865. By December ’64 the confederacy was a few units west of the Mississippi, and Lee’s army huddled behind fortifications, and Joe Johnston waiting for Sherman’s army coming to beat it into the ground. There wasn’t any hope for foreign intervention, Lincoln had got re-elected – there wasn’t one hope for what was left except if God almighty had come down and taken over their armies, and if Lee couldn’t do it, God sure was smart enough not to try it. I suppose that is impious, but you see. They had no hope, realistic or unrealistic, and it was their duty to get the best peace they could. Instead, they sat and glowered, and they ran away, and they was damn lucky it was Lincoln and Grant dictating terms and not, say, Sumner and Butler. And then of course Lincoln goes and gets killed and the whole barrel was stove in. But it didn’t have to be that way! The rebs had tried it, and it didn’t come off, but they’d given it a hell of a try, and there isn’t disgrace in quitting when it is hopeless. But their slave-owner pride wouldn’t let them do the right thing for their people – because they didn’t care about their people! Just about their own class, and they were ruined anyway so who cared what else got pulled down.

You think that is harsh? Then you just do one of your thought experiments. Suppose Lee had been the head of the government instead of Davis. He’d have fought and scrapped like all get out, but when it was over, don’t you suppose he’d have admitted it was over?

That’s what he did do! By the time he laid down his arms at Appomattox he had more moral authority than the rest of that so-called government put together, and it was him that decided it, surrender instead of guerrilla warfare.

You know full well he went to see Grant in his dress uniform because he expected he was going to be a prisoner. The fact that he met generosity and goodwill don’t mean he had a right to expect it. I mean by that, it wouldn’t have been sensible to expect things to work out as well as they did – but he did the right thing anyway. He was willing to sacrifice himself to save his men any further “needless effusion of blood,” as Grant put it.

Why couldn’t Jeff Davis do that, who had the responsibility to do it? I’d say because Lee cared deeply about his men and Davis cared about an abstraction, or maybe a couple of abstractions – slavery and secession.

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