Chasing Smallwood .44. Evil

[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.]

.44. Evil

[Monday, February 27, 2006]

From Savannah we came up through South Carolina and there I came across evil where I didn’t suspect it. It was lucky for me – or lucky for both of us? – that I had experienced an angel at Gettysburg. South Carolina was the heart of the whole rebellion. It was the families that ran the state that had cost us thousands of our own acquaintances and literally hundreds of friends each by that time. How we set out to tear that place to shreds!

But you already know what I’m going to have you write, here. You can’t ever find the right person to take revenge on. And the part of us that wanted revenge was somehow part of the same thing that had caused the war, and even somehow had caused slavery.

How can you fight for freedom and the union by tearing up some old woman’s fences and shooting her cow and stealing her chickens? How can you strike at evil by doing evil? But how else can you do it?

No, that ain’t rightly saying what I mean. Let’s try it again. It is one thing to tear up a fence because it is war and that is part of destroying the enemy’s ability to keep fighting. You know they quote Uncle Billy as saying “war is all hell.” It’s true, and there ain’t any use sugar-coating it. It is going to be cruel and destructive and it ain’t ever going to be anything else. So soldiers burning fence rails and killing livestock, they’re just being soldiers and nothing wrong with it within the war in general, I mean. Both sides did it when they could.

That’s one thing. But when you do the same things – the very same things – but you’re doing it out of hatred in you – then you might as well go shoot yourself, for all you are doing is feeding the evil inside you. Well, unless it sickens you and you turn from it. That happens too.

I learned, in South Carolina, what you Frank have known for a good while – maybe you could call it a feedback situation. Your presence sort of stayed as a memory and it stopped me from enjoying hating, and it showed me what I was doing and why I was doing it. And my knowing it changed you too. Good job all around.

I didn’t expect to find myself doing evil. What we had been doing all through Georgia was hard, cruel, but it was war, and not evil at least in me, for I did not hate those people. It was when we came to South Carolina that I had to face it that I had evil in me too, and it was up to me to keep it down. Of course religion tells you that, but I was more a Transcendentalist than anything else, and I didn’t really believe in evil, in a way. Well, that’s a funny thing to say, isn’t it, given that I knew that everything about slavery stank of the devil. Maybe I just didn’t believe we all had evil in us. That’s a nice comforting thing to think, if you don’t look too close.

Well, South Carolina taught me that you can strike against evil – for I believed then and believe now that that is why so many men died in the federal army, to strike against evil – but you can’t find it and you wind up striking at people, and they’re mostly just people like yourself. And what’s worse, when you strike at people, thinking you’re striking at evil, you’re bringing it up in yourself, losing ground every minute. It’s a humbling thing.

When I think of the slavers who brought it all on I think two ways. First I think, damn them! And then I think – but damn it, it wasn’t them as much as the thing behind them, and you can’t ever get at that. If war could strike at evil and not hit people it would be a happier world.

All right, so, through South Carolina and into North Carolina and ready for maybe one last battle with Joe Johnston because even though it didn’t make any sense for him to keep fighting, hell it didn’t make sense for Lee to keep fighting but it hadn’t stopped him. But with Lee gone and Hood long gone and Johnston gone – what did the rebellion have left? So we had the taste in our mouth, that April, and we figured we couldn’t be beat by any army on earth, and certainly not Joe Johnston, although he was a damned good general, give him that.

Hearing that Lincoln had been killed

Well then we came to the worst day of my life. They pulled in all the men and when the camp was totally sealed they let us know that Abraham Lincoln had been killed.

We cried. These were men who had fought four years, many of ‘em, and seen men killed all around ‘em. Anybody was alive after three or four big battles, why you just figured it was by divine providence. Death by shooting wasn’t any stranger to any of us – and you had men weeping tears for our leader killed. For he had brought us through, you see, and we trusted him. We knew he cared about us and was doing his best for us, and they’d gone and killed him for no reason at all when it was almost over.

We cried, but there was a terrible anger there, too. It was good that they had sealed us away from the population, and it was good that Joe Johnston surrendered instead of fighting or even running. It would have been an ugly thing, and even officers that wanted to stop it wouldn’t have been able to, probably. It would have been awful.

But, oh, the desolation! That awful helpless feeling, the senselessness of it. I know it don’t seem to make sense, one more killing with 600,000 dead, plenty of ‘em senseless – but in that like everything else it was like he experienced what we experienced. His cherished little boy died early in the war and we all knew he felt. And that is how families all over felt as they were getting the news that their cherished sons were gone. He had to keep sending them out to fight and die, but we knew he felt it. And now with the war near over, they killed him, and it was killing something in us too.

It is damned lucky for Lee’s men that they surrendered a week before Lincoln was killed instead of a week after. And it is damned lucky for Johnston that he surrendered to Sherman who was all bark and no bite when it came to hating, and Sherman got himself into trouble for giving the same lenient terms that Grant had. If Lincoln had been alive, probably they would have adjusted the terms some, but Sherman wouldn’t have got into trouble. With Lincoln killed, though, there came a terrible spirit of malignity. It is a good thing it wore off.

That’s enough for now.

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