Hysteria, Democracy and Terrorism

By William F.B. Vodrey
The Cleveland Civil War Roundtable
Copyright © 2003, 2007, All Rights Reserved

On July 7, 1865, Mary E. Surratt was hanged in the Arsenal grounds at Washington’s Old Penitentiary Building, having been convicted of conspiracy in the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln. Also executed were Lewis Payne, George A. Atzerodt and David Herold. Mrs. Surratt’s execution was perhaps the most extreme example of how the American rule of law was put to the severest test – and in some ways failed – in the cauldron of the Civil War.

The execution of Mary Surratt, Lewis Payne, George Adzerodt and David Herold

President Lincoln took extraordinary measures to maintain order in the North during the war. He ordered the arrest of treasonous Maryland legislators, exiled the Copperhead leader Clement Vallandigham of Ohio, and widely suspended the writ of habeas corpus, even where Federal and state courts were open for business. Lincoln defended his actions, saying “Are all the laws but one to go unexecuted, and the government itself go to pieces, lest that one be violated?” The Lincoln administration claimed the right to take into military custody anyone who demonstrated “substantial and unmistakable complicity with those in armed rebellion,” and between 12,000 and 18,000 citizens were held without trial. Secretary of State William H. Seward relished his authority to arrest those whom he saw as enemies of the United States, telling a visitor, “If I tap that little bell, I can send you to a place where you will never hear the dogs bark.” In the case of Ex parte Merryman, Chief Justice Roger B. Taney ordered the release of such prisoners, but Lincoln ignored the order.

We now know that there were indeed some Confederate spies and plotters in the North, and many Copperhead sympathizers, but they never posed a threat remotely proportional to the Lincoln administration’s internal-security policies. With the benefit of hindsight, it’s clear that Lincoln badly erred, both legally and politically. The President did the best he could under very trying circumstances, but he overreached, and freedom suffered.

After Lincoln’s assassination, hysteria swept through the North. Coming so soon after Lee’s surrender at Appomattox, while Jefferson Davis and many top Confederate officials were still at large, John Wilkes Booth’s crime was thought by many to be a last murderous stab of the Richmond government-in-exile. Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton exercised virtually dictatorial power in the hours after Lincoln’s shooting, setting up a command post in the front parlor of the Petersen House, opposite Ford’s Theatre, even as Lincoln fought for life in a small back room. Stanton issued a flurry of orders, offering a reward for the capture of the Lincoln conspirators, and seeing to it that a military tribunal was established to try the conspirators when they were arrested.

Whether Mary Surratt should have been prosecuted before a military tribunal was ably debated at the Roundtable’s meeting in January 2003; I have grave doubts that she should have been. However, the evidence as to her guilt was certainly less than overwhelming. It’s quite possible that she would have been acquitted, or at least pardoned by the new President, in a less grief-stricken and vengeful time.

Mary Surratt was, to some degree, a victim of one of those periods of constitutional crisis that often follow a great national calamity. She found herself in a time, such as we are now in, when public opinion is at its most inflamed, and when constitutional rights and the rule of law – bedrock principles of American democracy – are seen by some as costly luxuries in the face of a mortal threat to the nation. After Ft. Sumter, Lincoln took actions which severely curtailed constitutional freedoms in the North. After World War I and widespread anarchists’ bombing attacks, hundreds of suspected radicals and revolutionaries were arrested or deported in the Palmer Raids, sometimes just because they “looked” like enemies of the state. After Pearl Harbor, many thousands of Japanese-Americans were herded into internment camps just because of their ethnic background, even though no charges of sabotage or spying were brought against them. After World War II, McCarthyism and anticommunist paranoia ruined many lives.

Have we learned anything from these gross violations of the Constitution? I fear not. Since the monstrous terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, the Federal government has laid claim to sweeping new powers. The government has gone so far as to designate two U.S. citizens, Jose Padilla and Yaser Hamdi, as “enemy combatants,” asserting the power to hold them indefinitely, without charges and without access to counsel. This is a power found nowhere in the Constitution, breathtaking in its implications and, in my view, repugnant to American ideals of freedom and justice. However, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit (based in Richmond, ironically enough) upheld the government’s claim on January 8, the very day of our debate, and now the case is sure to go before the Supreme Court. No one wants terrorists to strike again, but we must be mindful of the Constitution that sets our nation apart from all others. As we fight the very real threat of terrorism, we should remember Benjamin Franklin’s warning: “They that give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety deserve neither liberty nor safety.”

Our rights are never more endangered than during a national crisis. Now more than ever, we must do all what we can to preserve, protect and defend the Constitution, that structure of ordered liberty that has seen us through so many crises: a civil war, a great depression, two world wars, a cold war. This nation will endure and prevail, if we each decide that it shall be so, and if we are true to the principles on which it was founded.

That’s the least we can do for ourselves, for our country, and for the memory of Mary Surratt – whether she was guilty or innocent.
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Related links:
The Surratt Pardon: History That Never Was
The Lincoln Conspiracy Trial (1865)
Lincoln’s Suspension of Habeas Corpus
Ex Parte Milligan Anniversary
Remembering 9/11

The Surratt Pardon: History That Never Was

By William F.B. Vodrey
The Cleveland Civil War Roundtable
Copyright © 2003, 2007, All Rights Reserved

Author’s Note: In reality, Mary E. Surratt was hanged on July 7, 1865 in the Arsenal grounds at Washington’s Old Penitentiary Building after being convicted of conspiracy in the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln.

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Related links:
Hysteria, Democracy and Terrorism
The Lincoln Conspiracy Trial (1865)

Churchill and the Civil War

By William F.B. Vodrey
The Cleveland Civil War Roundtable
Copyright © 2002, 2007, All Rights Reserved

Sir Winston S. Churchill remains, four decades after his death, perhaps the most admired Englishman of all time. His indomitable leadership as British prime minister during World War II and his close personal ties to both Roosevelt and Truman are still remembered here; less well-known is the fact that his mother, Jennie Jerome, was an American.

Churchill loved history throughout his life, and often wrote about it. When he was virtually exiled from the British government in the 1930s, he supported his family through his writing. He won the Nobel Prize for Literature for his four-volume A History of the English-Speaking Peoples, and it is from those books and several others that Churchill’s grandson, who bears the same name, has collected and edited Churchill’s writings on America. Churchill’s The Great Republic: A History of America (Random House 1999) is a sweeping overview of American history from Columbus’s voyages to the dawn of the Cold War.

Churchill was very interested in the Civil War. He took an extended coast-to-coast tour of the U.S. in late 1929, and visited Fredericksburg, Chancellorsville, Gettysburg, Spotsylvania, and the battlefields of the Seven Days campaign. He knew the war well, and once corrected FDR when the President mistakenly referred to the Battle of Gettysburg as having been fought in 1864. In “Old Battlefields of Virginia,” Churchill wrote that Virginia was “beaten down, trampled upon, disinherited, impoverished, riven asunder and flung aside while Northern wealth and power and progress strode on to empire. And yet it had to be. Hardly even would the adherents of the Lost Cause wish it otherwise.” At Spotsylvania, Churchill’s battlefield guide was a man who’d been just eight at the time of the battle, but still remembered its tumult and carnage. Churchill, always a glutton for military detail, was thrilled.

In “If Lee Had Not Won the Battle of Gettysburg,” Churchill spun a bizarre what-if tale in which Jeb Stuart’s cavalry wreaks havoc in the Union rear while Gen. Robert E. Lee’s troops are able to seize Little Round Top. The Army of the Potomac is routed. Lee captures Washington, D.C. and abolishes slavery throughout the South. Oh, sure. Even if Lee had wanted to, he was too much the obedient soldier to issue such an edict, which would have been strenuously opposed by his commander-in-chief, to say nothing of the Confederate Congress. Even so, it makes for an interesting – if utterly implausible – read.

In his nonfiction writing on the Civil War, Churchill largely reflected the conventional wisdom of his times. He admired Lee and Jackson, criticized Grant for butchery, and thought Union victory was virtually inevitable. I was most surprised by his defense of Gen. George B. McClellan. Churchill believed that McClellan got “ill treatment” from the Lincoln administration, and that he was held to impossibly high expectations after assuming command. Churchill didn’t seem to understand that McClellan was largely responsible for these unrealistic expectations in the first place, and he wrote little about McClellan’s obvious arrogance, lack of fighting will, and contempt for President Lincoln. Still, for a trans-Atlantic view of American history by a masterful writer, I recommend Churchill’s book.
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The Great Republic: A History of America by Winston Churchill

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Blue and Gray on the Silver Screen

By William F.B. Vodrey
The Cleveland Civil War Roundtable
Copyright © 2010, All Rights Reserved

Michael Kraus, curator of the Pittsburgh Soldiers & Sailors Monument and Museum, offered a very interesting and original program at the Roundtable’s October 14 meeting. He spoke about the Civil War on film, and his own involvement in the productions of Gettysburg and Cold Mountain. Hollywood turned to the Civil War as a dramatic topic very early on, with dozens of movies (most of them very short) being made about the war annually by the 1920s. Kraus discussed how Lost Cause mythology took early root on the Silver Screen, with both Birth of a Nation and Gone with the Wind sympathetically reflecting it. (He was intrigued afterwards when I told him that a 10-year-old Martin Luther King Jr. had sung with the Ebenezer Baptist Church choir at the segregated premiere of GWTW in Atlanta in 1939.)

He said he usually has only a few weeks’ notice when a production company needs his help as a consultant. He got involved in Gettysburg, for instance, on very short notice. The 1993 Turner Entertainment film was originally called by the Michael Shaara novel’s name of The Killer Angels, but studio research showed that the title confused potential audiences, so it was changed. Much of the movie was filmed on Pennsylvanian countryside near Gettysburg that was very similar to the battlefield itself, but Pickett’s Charge was filmed on the actual hallowed ground. (The on-set rumor was that Ted Turner used his White House contacts to get an order for the Park Service, with great reluctance, to let them film there). The scene of Gen. Robert E. Lee riding along the lines and being cheered by his men was completely spontaneous, with cameras rushed in to capture it. Kraus said that actor Martin Sheen, as Lee, was a little taken aback – if not scared – by how loud and excited the troops were.

Tom Berenger as James Longstreet in Gettysburg

With a laugh, Kraus wisely offered no defense of Tom Berenger’s beard as Gen. James Longstreet, and said by the time he and other historical consultants had been brought on board, too much footage had already been shot of the actor in the terrible beard to redo it. Berenger also hated his big floppy hat so much that he took it off whenever he could. Kraus showed slides of the same horse being ridden by several different actors (including himself when he appeared as an extra in either blue and gray, as needed). The movie horses were all old and tired, he said, and had to be spurred hard to get them to go anywhere; on the plus side, they were not bothered by simulated explosions and gunfire. There were also fake equine and human corpses that would be loaded on trailers and strewn about the set each morning, then picked up again at the end of the day’s shooting. One of Kraus’s jobs, he joked, was keeping the pudgier reenactors away from the cameras except in long shots; canny troops came to realize that if they stood near a flag they had a better chance of making it onscreen.

Cold Mountain, based on the best-selling novel by Charles Frazier and released by Miramax in 2003, was filmed in Romania, as the director decided there was not enough of North Carolina left unspoiled to portray the state in the 1860s. It was also much cheaper to film in the impoverished European country. A replica Petersburg Crater was dug, larger than the original, but on screen it looks about right, he thinks. Local craftsmen built many of the props and painted the regimental flags, including one which spelled “Pennsylvania” with an extra “n.” Much to Kraus’s delight, it was a replica of the flag of a regiment in which one of his ancestors had served. The hundreds of troops, both Union and Confederate, were actually Romanian Army soldiers. They would be marched out from a nearby barracks every morning, sing the Romanian national anthem, and then be turned over to the production company for the day.

Although proud of his involvement in these two films, Kraus thinks Glory is still the best Civil War movie yet made. He said he knows of no Civil War-themed movies now definitely on a production track. Manhunt, based on the James L. Swanson book about the Lincoln assassination and Booth’s escape, has been in the works for awhile, with Harrison Ford rumored to be starring. Kraus has heard that there’s been some location scouting for it in the Washington, D.C. area. (Wikipedia.org now suggests it might become an HBO miniseries.) He also said Steven Spielberg’s project, which was to star Liam Neeson and Sally Field as the President and Mrs. Lincoln, seems to be stalled, at least for the moment.
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Editor’s note: The Steven Spielberg project mentioned in the article was eventually completed and became the movie Lincoln.

Remembering 9/11

By William F.B. Vodrey
The Cleveland Civil War Roundtable
Copyright © 2013, All Rights Reserved

Editor’s Note: The Roundtable’s September 2013 meeting was held on the twelfth anniversary of the horrific events of 9/11/2001. Past president William Vodrey opened our meeting that night with the commemoration below.

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On this day in 2001, the United States was attacked by religious fanatics who struck at some of the most visible symbols of American commerce, military strength and self-government. In doing so, the terrorists remorselessly killed thousands – men, women and children – whose only crime was being in the wrong place at the wrong time.

As we mourn, we should recall that not only Americans were killed on September 11, 2001. The citizens of more than 30 other countries died on that terrible day, some of whom, in a grim and tragic irony, were Muslim, just as the terrorists professed to be. The dead of the World Trade Center, the Pentagon and the four hijacked jets, whatever their faith, creed or national origin, were slain by a handful of evil men whose hatred of this nation was as virulent as it was blind, and who somehow, perversely, believed that mass murder would open the gates of Heaven to them.

We must never forget what happened on September 11, just as we must never forget this nation’s abiding promise of freedom. Despite their boasts, the terrorists have not won. They cannot – and will not – win. The United States remains a beacon of hope to the world, and rightly so. We are a nation where natural ability, hard work and respect for the law may carry one to the very limits of the imagination, and where religious liberty is fiercely protected. Our country is not perfect, and never will be; but we each have the opportunity and the obligation, as our ancestors had before us, to improve that which we were given, and to leave it better still for those yet to come.

Now our country is fighting terrorism, at home and abroad. In doing so, we should remember Benjamin Franklin’s words: “They that give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety deserve neither liberty nor safety.” Now more than ever, we must do all we can to preserve, protect and defend the Constitution, that structure of ordered liberty that has seen us through so many crises: a civil war, a great depression, two world wars, a cold war. We have seen America’s promise extended even to those excluded at the founding of our country, and to those who have come here from far away. We have seen our starry flag planted on the Moon and carried beyond our Solar System and to the darkest depths of the sea. This nation will endure and prevail, if we each decide that it shall, and if we are true to the principles on which it was founded.

Buildings, planes and property may be destroyed – people may be slain – but the ideals which the terrorists attacked, the ideals which define us as a nation and which still make the American example so appealing around the world, can never be destroyed. Those ideals are strong, they are timeless, and they are indestructible.

Human beings are capable of unimaginable barbarism, or transcendent good. Human hands may build either concentration camps or cathedrals. We may create bombs or books. We may save lives, or take them. We may, in coming years, dig a shallow grave for humanity, or venture forth together, to the stars. We each face this choice, in ways both large and small, in our daily lives, as a nation, and as a world.
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Related link:
Hysteria, Democracy and Terrorism

Gettysburg 2013

By William F.B. Vodrey
The Cleveland Civil War Roundtable
Copyright © 2013, All Rights Reserved

Author’s note: I recently again took part in the Straight Dope (straightdope.com) Poetry Sweatshop. Participants are given one hour to write a poem that includes three randomly-provided words. The words provided this year were: “present,” “passing,” and “completer.”

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Gettysburg 2013

Soldiers National Monument in the National Cemetery at Gettysburg

Here in the present, awestruck, we tread this hallowed ground,

but so do those who fought and died here, a century and a half ago;

Yankee and rebel, but still Americans, and even now no less than we,

passing us on the trails, dust on their boots, glancing down to see

their names etched on row upon row of graves, a last link to mortality.

Look! there, onward, the serried ranks of the gallant dead

and above, the hum of the locusts and the murmuring of the wind

through the lofty heights of history-crowned trees

‘neath a brilliant Pennsylvania sun, fiery witness to all wars;

but it knows that there is something about this place,

something incalculable, invaluable

The serried ranks of the gallant dead

Green fields, gray stones, and enduring memories of the fallen

the men, both blue-clad and grey, who fought here for three days,

struggling to define what this broad land was,

what it might be, what it would be today

no mere alliance, no pact, but a republic, once riven but now,

for all its faults, indivisible, a more perfect union, their sacrifice our birthright,

a promise fulfilled, a people freed, a nation redeemed under that starry flag,

a completer domain of liberty for all who now flock to see these hills,

but my friends, can you not see those soldiers,

and know that their task is now our own?

Child of the 60s

By Paul Burkholder
The Cleveland Civil War Roundtable
Copyright © 2012, All Rights Reserved

I was born the same year as the Cleveland Civil War Roundtable (1956), which means I grew up in the 1960’s. As I reflect on the 60’s, I marvel at the density of events. From 1963-68, we experienced the assassinations of JFK, RFK and MLK, Malcolm X, Medgar Evers, and three freedom riders in Mississippi, not to mention the less tragic murder of George Lincoln Rockwell, founder of the American Nazi Party. Assassination was a common political recourse in 1960’s America.

We had riots breaking out in many of our cities. I know the ‘66 Hough riots here in Cleveland were terrible, but in Detroit, where I grew up, the ‘67 riots were even worse. They raged for five days and order was restored only after President Johnson sent in 5,000 troopers from the 82nd Airborne to join the 8,000 National Guardsmen already deployed by Michigan Governor George Romney (Mitt’s dad). 13,000 armed military personnel patrolled the streets of America’s fifth largest city. Hard to believe, but it happened.

The Detroit riots, 1967

Meanwhile, the Cold War raged on, sparking wars and near wars around the globe. The Cuban Missile Crisis pushed us to the brink in ‘62 as did the uprising in Czechoslovakia in ‘68. We seemed constantly on the edge of Armageddon. I remember in elementary school having nuclear attack drills with the same regularity as fire drills. Each night throughout the decade, the Vietnam War was broadcast into America’s living rooms in full color, allowing folks back home to experience the Tet Offensive, the My Lai massacre, the bombing of the North, and the Cambodian incursion in a way American civilians had not experienced war since, well, the Civil War. Late in the decade, college campuses across the country became scenes of almost constant turmoil with bombings, riots and near riots; my recollection is that there was a general belief that there really just might be a revolution.

The Vietnam War

As backdrop to this unrest and uncertainty, we had NASA launching men into space every few months. Consider this timeline: Following the launch pad fire in January ‘67 that killed astronauts Gus Grissom, Ed White, and Roger Chaffee, the Apollo program was grounded while engineers worked to figure out and fix what happened. Less than 18 months later, in October ‘68, NASA launched the first manned Apollo mission into space, Apollo 7, followed in rapid succession by Apollos 8, 9, and 10, culminating with Apollo 11’s moon landing in July ‘69. That’s 5 manned space missions in 9 months – the last one putting a man on the moon.

Apollo 11 on the Moon

Believe it or not, what got me thinking about the denseness of the 1960’s was reading about the even greater denseness of the 1860’s in the many sesquicentennial timelines crossing my desk. What an incredibly dense and complex stage of history Abraham Lincoln led this country through. Even without the accelerant of instantaneous electronic communications, events in 1861 were moving at breakneck speed. At this time 150 years ago, one of the many balls being juggled by Lincoln was the threat of European intervention on the side of the Confederacy, in particular England and/or France. That pressure peaked in the 10 months from November 1861 through September 1862 and only ended with the repulse of Lee’s northern invasion at Antietam.

This dangerous period began with the US Navy’s arrest in international waters of Confederate envoys James Mason and John Slidell on board the British mail steamer, Trent. News of the illegal seizure cheered Union supporters at home, but enraged both Queen Victoria and England’s Parliament. The situation quickly escalated into a near state of war forcing Lincoln to walk a paper-thin line between confrontation and capitulation. “One war at a time,” Lincoln is famously quoted as saying when instructing Secretary of State William Seward to quietly release the Confederate envoys and end the impasse. (Read more on the Trent Affair.)

Dense, complex times, indeed. Makes what we’re going through now seem kind of mild by comparison, don’t you think?

So Long, Farewell…

By Paul Burkholder
The Cleveland Civil War Roundtable
Copyright © 2012, All Rights Reserved

Editor’s note: This article was originally published in The Charger in May 2012. It was the final President’s Message of Paul Burkholder’s Presidency.

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Our May meeting ends my term as president of the Roundtable.

I suspect I was like many future Roundtable presidents when, four years ago, Jon Thompson and Mel Maurer approached me about serving as treasurer/vice president/president. I really wanted nothing to do with it and immediately started scheming on polite ways to say “no,” such as: “I’m too busy!” “Public speaking makes me violently ill!” “I’m too involved at church!” “I gave at the office!” “The dog ate my homework!”

Jon and Mel, of course, would have none of it. They played the classic good cop, bad cop routine on me. Mel would sidle up to me at meetings and say something like, “Hey, Paul, have you given any more thought to this presidency thing? I’m only asking again because Jon’s been pressing me about it and, honestly, I don’t think I can control him much longer. He just gets so crazy, I mean, you know how he is. I just wouldn’t want anything bad to happen, you know, because I like you a lot.” I would look over Mel’s shoulder and see Jon glaring at me from across the room with a faint, threatening smile on his face. (OK, I might be making large parts of this up.)

As persuasive as that all was, it was actually Dick Crews who got me over the hump. Dick also approached me during this time and just said, “Hey, I hear you’re considering jumping on the presidential track. You gotta do this. It’s the most fun you’ll ever have. The year I served as president was my best year in the Roundtable!”

I have to tell you that Dick was spot on with his comments. I have had a blast serving as Roundtable president. Just as Dick suggested, it has been my best year in the Roundtable. Yes, it involved some work, but far less than I anticipated. And the amount of help I was both offered and received was far, far more than I anticipated. I was the beneficiary of the experience and insight of many people; Dan Zeiser and Dave Carrino, in particular, were continual sources of guidance, brawn, ideas, and inspiration. To everyone who showed me how it’s done, I say thank you.

I’d also like to thank Chris Fortunato, Mel Maurer, and William Vodrey once again for creating and performing “The Last Lincoln-Douglas Debate” at our March meeting. I saw up close the substantial commitment of time and effort required to research, write, and produce such a play. The results, however, justified the effort; their “debate” was terrific.

Lastly, I’d like to thank you, the members of the Roundtable, first, for allowing me to serve in this role and, second, for making the Cleveland Civil War Roundtable what it is. It is both a pleasure and privilege to meet with such a smart, friendly, well-read group each month and share our common interest in history, books, and politics. It’s just good fun and I love it.

Ed Bearss

For our final meeting of the year, we welcome the great Ed Bearss, without question the most famous, highly regarded living Civil War historian. His appearance at our May meeting, by the way, provides a good example of the kind of help a Roundtable president receives. Here’s the story: I’m on Lisa Kempfer’s 2010 field trip, standing outside the Museum of the Shenandoah in Winchester, Virginia, and the aforementioned Dick Crews asks me, “So, what speakers have you lined up for next year?” I run through my not yet complete program schedule and express to Dick that I’m hoping to still add at least one big name speaker – “You know, someone like Ken Burns or Doris Kearns Goodwin or James McPherson or Ed Bearss,” I say. Dick immediately responds, “You want Ed Bearss? I can get you Ed Bearss. He’s a friend of mine!” To make a long story short, I take Dick up on his offer and as a result, we all get to enjoy Ed Bearss at our May meeting. And what did landing Ed Bearss cost me in time and effort? Nothing! Dick did all the work!

Like they say, it takes a village.

When Legend Becomes Fact

By Paul Burkholder
The Cleveland Civil War Roundtable
Copyright © 2012, All Rights Reserved

I think the historiography of the Civil War – the story of how the Civil War history was created and handed down to us – is as interesting as any other aspect of the Civil War. There may be other instances when the history of a war was written by the losers of the conflict, but I’m not aware of one. That, of course, is exactly what happened with the American Civil War; its history, as Americans have been taught it for the last 145 years, was largely written, framed and colored by veterans of the Confederacy and those sympathetic to its cause.

Lee was a genius. Grant was a butcher and a drunk. The war was fought over tariffs and states’ rights. All the good West Pointers went south and all the crummy ones went north. The Union won on an overwhelming superiority of numbers, wealth and materiel. The fact that in that previous sentence I used the word “Union” instead of “United States of America” is itself a telling indicator of how much the Confederate view of the war has become our historical view of the war. Why wouldn’t I, or anyone, say “United States of America” in that context? Why, in all of our history books, is the side that had its seat of government in Washington never referred to as the “United States of America” or “American,” but always as “Union” or “Northern” or “Yankee”? We similarly never read about the Civil War exploits of the U.S. Army or the U.S. Navy. Why do we not use these terms? Why do we say “Union” instead of “United States“?

Conversely, while the term “Rebels” or “Rebs” is sometimes used to refer to Southern forces in the Civil War literature, “Confederates,” “CSA,” and “Confederate States of America” (in addition to “Southern”) are used far more commonly and almost always when the formal actions of the Southern government and its military are being described.

Why? Why, with our language, do we choose to elevate one side while reducing the other?

The answer, of course, is to soften the hard, unpleasant facts of the war, who waged it, and why. These unpleasant facts include things like the fact that the “states’ right” that the Southern states seceded and fought for was the right to own slaves; the fact that that the noble cavaliers of the Confederacy committed treason when they took up arms against the United States of America, particularly those veterans of the pre-war regular army who broke their loyalty oaths to do it; the fact that Robert E. Lee’s two Northern invasions were horrible failures that nearly destroyed his army and that, at Gettysburg in particular, Lee’s failed tactics and personal miscalculations contributed more to his army’s defeat than the mistakes of subordinates (i.e., Hill, Ewell, Early, Stuart, and Longstreet who typically shoulder the blame); the fact that Ulysses S. Grant’s record as a butcher was exceeded by, of all people, Lee, whose casualty rates over the last 18 months of the war were substantially higher than Grant’s. Why, after 150 years, are we STILL misrepresenting and arguing over these points? What is our emotional stake in the answers?

I’ve recently read two excellent books on the topic of the creation of (false) Civil War history. The first, The Myth of the Lost Cause and Civil War History, is a collection of essays by nine different historians edited by Gary Gallagher and Alan Nolan. The nine essays cover multiple aspects of the Lost Cause myth, the most interesting one being the role that Jubal Early, his widow, and Confederate heritage groups played in the creation and propagation of the Civil War history we all learned growing up and that’s still largely taught in our schools today.

John Bachelder

The other book, These Honored Dead: How The Story Of Gettysburg Shaped American Memory, by Thomas Desjardin explores and debunks whole chunks of the Gettysburg story we know, love, and retell. The central character in Desjardin’s book is John Bachelder, a portrait and landscape artist who, remarkably, managed to fashion a career for himself as the preeminent Gettysburg historian of the 19th century based on one, after-the-battle topographic map he drew-up to make some money. Many aspects of the Gettysburg story that are today retold as history were, in fact, created by Bachelder to promote himself and his work. It was Bachelder, for example, who not only coined the terms “copse of trees” and “high-water mark of the Confederacy,” but who also singlehandedly decided the significance of both in the Gettysburg story.

The creation of the historical record that we so enjoy studying is a fascinating story in its own right, as fascinating as the original story the historical record purports to tell. I think the process by which we come to believe what we believe says as much about us as what we actually claim to believe.

At the end of the movie western The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, Senator Ransom Stoddard (played by Jimmy Stewart), who built a long, successful political career on being the man who killed the notorious outlaw Liberty Valance (Lee Marvin), reveals to a group of reporters that it was, in fact, his friend, the late Tom Doniphon (John Wayne) who shot Valance. The reporters care not a whit about this important bit of truth, telling Stoddard as they dejectedly walk away, “Senator, when the legend becomes fact, print the legend.”

I sometimes wonder if it’s legend with which we history buffs are so enthralled and not history.
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Cleveland’s Civil War Roundtable Takes an Excursion into Fiction

By Karen R. Long
Cleveland Plain Dealer Book Editor
Originally Published: Monday, September 19, 2011
Copyright © 2010 Cleveland Live, Inc.

Editor’s note: The novelist Robert Olmstead spoke to the Cleveland Civil War Roundtable at its September 2011 meeting. In attendance that night, at the invitation of CCWRT member William Vodrey, was Cleveland Plain Dealer Book Editor, Karen Long. This piece was published in the Plain Dealer the following Sunday.

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Robert Olmstead

Roughly 60 history buffs submitted to the allure of fiction Wednesday evening, and it made for a delightful night. Over a dinner of chicken, red potatoes and broccoli, the 479th meeting of the Cleveland Civil War Roundtable assembled at Judson Manor to hear novelist Robert Olmstead.

He teaches at Ohio Wesleyan University and is justly celebrated for his slender, evocative novel Coal Black Horse. It tells of a 14-year-old boy, Robey Childs, sent by his mother to bring his father home from the field of battle.

Olmstead was slated to speak on “Experiencing the Civil War.” When he reached the lectern, he stood mute and still for a long minute. Then, without so much as clearing his throat, the professor read aloud from the first chapter of Coal Black Horse.

Robey’s mother has had a premonition, and she tells her boy he must find the man before July. The book opens on May 10, 1863. The battle of Gettysburg began July 1, a date long memorized by everyone gathered for the Roundtable.

Olmstead read slowly:

He was not to give up his horse under any circumstances whatsoever and if he was confronted by any man, he was to say he was a courier and he was to say it fast and be in a hurry and otherwise stay hush and learn what he needed to know by listening, as he was doing right now. She then told him that there was a terror that men bring to the earth, to its water and air and to its soil, and he would meet these men on his journey and that his father was one of these men, and then she paused and studied a minute, and then she told him, without judgment, that someday he too might become one of these men.

The room was rapt. I had read these lines after the novel published in 2007, but the experience of hearing them, in the cadence of their creator, offered more meaning, and more intimacy.

A Roundtable member asked where Robey began his quest, if Olmstead had a particular town in mind, or if he had left it purposely obscure. In early drafts, Olmstead said, he had supplied all such specificity.

“I spent five years writing Coal Black Horse, and five years unwriting it,” he said. “I began pulling back on that stuff, and the manuscript would lift a little bit, and I’d pull back more, and it would lift a little bit more.”

This would have struck a chord with Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, the French aviator who wrote The Little Prince. He observed that “a designer knows he has achieved perfection not when there is nothing left to add, but when there is nothing left to take away.”

In The Red Badge of Courage, Stephen Crane also left much murky about his youthful private, Henry Fleming.

Too often, those who love reading history can be dismissive of the merits of fiction. Congratulations to the Cleveland Civil War Roundtable for its sophistication, and its memorable night.
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