The Confederate battle flag has been much in the news over the past year, sadly brought to prominence by the massacre in a church by a racist. While it provoked some sensible soul searching and actions concerning the place of the flag in public life, it quickly went well beyond sense to a mindless iconoclastic frenzy. Because 2015 America.
For what they are worth, they've also prompted some thinking on my part about the banner and what it means to not just us moderns, but in the context of American history. Caveat lector: this is the first of two installments.
The battle flag of the 4th Virginia Infantry Regiment,
captured during the Battle of Spotsylvania in 1864.
Billy Yank and Johnny Reb at peace: Union and Confederate veterans
at the Fiftieth Anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg in 1913.
As a Michigander, the men and women of Dixie--of whatever coloration--would call me a Yankee. And, being Southerners, almost all of them would be polite about it. I can live with that--even if it lumps me in with New Englanders, a people who are (for me at least) a reliable source of raised eyebrows.
That said, I don't think of myself as a "northerner," and I suspect most of those who live north of the Mason-Dixon don't. As a Southern friend correctly pointed out, "north is a direction, but South is a place."
I'm a Midwesterner, and rather proud of that, despite having nothing whatsoever to do with my delivery to or placement within the region. The Midwest is indisputably a place, one with her own people. Most of the time, we Midwesterners are a common sense, friendly but sometimes almost stolid folk, inclined to pragmatism and possessing of relatively-long fuses. We have our foibles--anything that smacks of cosmopolitan foolishness is avoided, and we tend to regard the world beyond the Appalachians and Great Plains as a source of annoyance more than anything else. And the rest of the planet? God gave us the Atlantic and Pacific as moats for a reason. Though I will say that sometimes those foibles are bugs with an upside, so to speak.
But at our best, we have a sense of history and rootedness that serves us well.
However, there's one subject where the Midwest is melded into "North" and "North" becomes a place--discussions of the Civil War. Also known as the War Between the States, the War of Northern Aggression, the War for the Union or--my personal favorite: the Late Unpleasantness.
Part of out Midwestern historical sense is a remembrance of the Civil War, and our great rememberer is the late Bruce Catton (in the same sense that the late Shelby Foote is the great rememberer for the South). In truth, the Midwest was "the West" in the War, and our forefathers rallied to Old Glory in huge numbers. In Michigan, 23 percent of the male population wore the blue, and 1 in 6 of those died.
Michiganders fought every major campaign, and were responsible for catching Jeff Davis after the War ended. We remember them in monuments and highways studding our State. As a youngster, once I started reading about the War, I was hooked, and it shows no signs of letting up yet. My family went to Gettysburg when I was ten. I even picked up a Confederate battle flag during my visit. My children will have no such opportunity, however.
Nevertheless, I'll treasure that visit to hallowed ground until I die or grow senile.
The latter of which, at the rate things are going cognition-wise, will probably be sometime next month. Anyway.
That interest will never die because the War is a source of endless fascination for anyone who studies it seriously. The historical figures become people you know and eventually come to regard as acquaintances, mentors and perhaps even, in an odd way, friends. Ones whose honor and decency you feel compelled to defend, and whose full humanity you argue even as you have to acknowledge their sins. Frankly, if you ever want to hear the next best thing to a Talmudic disputation, sit in on a debate over the decision-making or actions of Civil War General X in Battle Y or Campaign Z. The feathers puff up and the arguments fly almost as thick as the bullets at the actual battle.
For this Midwesterner, that includes even--nay, especially--those from below the Mason-Dixon Line.
To be sure, my chief heroes from the American Iliad are Lincoln, Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain (see--I can like New Englanders!) and George Henry Thomas--Unionists all, but only one of them a Midwesterner.
Lincoln has undergone apotheosis, which is unfortunate, because the flawed man is far more interesting--and brilliant--than the flawless bronze effigy. If nothing else, he shows what the Midwesterner (by way of Kentucky) has within him.
Chamberlain was someone only America could have produced: a genteel classics scholar turned warrior who never flinched from the Cause even though it threatened his marriage. And he earned his immortality on July 2, 1863, saving the nation at the far left of the Union line at Gettysburg with a bayonet counterattack.
And then there is the Other Virginian--almost anonymous--George Henry Thomas. Unlike his compatriot, Robert Edward Lee, he chose the Union, and the North recognized his genius, belatedly, grudgingly and incompletely. The nation still fails--utterly and inexcusably--to honor his sacrifices and memory of the Rock of Chickamauga and Sledge of Nashville. In fact, we have done a grave disservice to the sacrifices of the free Southerners who fought for the Union during the war--at least 100,000 fought for the United States, a fact usually remembered not at all.
Three men of the Union--what about that "especially," Yankee?
Bless your heart, 'n' all.
Fair point. Thus, I proffer the following three men in gray:
For starters, there's this man for whom Texas' Fort Hood is named: the incomparably heroic and tragic John Bell Hood. He never lacked courage, being grievously wounded twice while leading his men from the front. His left arm was maimed at Gettysburg and he lost his right leg above the knee at Chickamauga, the two bloodiest battles of the war.
As a brigade and division commander, he has no critics. He led those units almost flawlessly. However, it is a commonplace that Hood was a victim of the Peter Principle, his promotion to command an army being beyond his abilities--and perhaps even murder for the men he led.
But I would argue otherwise, at least as far as the Atlanta campaign is concerned. A look at the record shows he had decisive victories slip from his grasp on multiple occasions. Fighting Sherman, he was more unlucky than anything else, hobbled by bad timing and worse subordinates. Even afterwards, he had the chance to destroy the bulk of a Yankee army at Spring Hill, but for nearly inexplicable reasons, his commanders missed their chance.
However, right after Spring Hill you can make the charge of incompetence stick. Sending his men in a charge at the Battle of Franklin against Federal breastworks across a mile of ground without artillery support was murder, and nothing but. I still cringe when I read about the brave Confederates making that impossible charge...it's heartbreaking. And...they almost pulled it off, breaking through the Federal center only to be repulsed by a hot-headed Union commander who had defied orders to place his soldiers in the right place at the right time.
Say what you will about the courageous Confederates making Pickett's Charge, but the men of the Army of the Tennessee were incomparably more heroic at Franklin. And they paid a much higher price.
The Federals still retreated after Franklin, and Hood followed. Only to be crushed by Thomas two weeks later at Nashville. Hood was then was relieved of his command.
He survived the war, but his courage failed to win him the heart of the woman he doggedly courted, Sally Preston. He eventually married, but his maimed condition probably contributed to him succumbing to yellow fever in 1879 at the young age of 48, six days after his wife Anna. Their ten surviving orphaned children were adopted out to several families, and a Texas association of Hood's veterans helped with financial support of the orphans.
Patrick Ronayne Cleburne was an Irish immigrant and veteran of the British Army who came to America and settled in Arkansas in 1854. Despite this being the high-tide of nativism, he was embraced by the residents. Well, most of them: Cleburne survived an assassination attempt by a member of the anti-immigrant Know-Nothings in 1856 (yes, the sentiments were that ugly). He became a lawyer (no one is perfect) and respected member of the community. Thus, he gladly stood with his Arkansas neighbors when the secession crisis hit. Cleburne was certainly the finest division commander for the Confederacy in the War--stopping William Sherman cold during the Battle of Chattanooga and performing superbly elsewhere. Cleburne should have risen to higher command--except that he advocated emancipating and arming slaves to help with the war effort. Even as the Confederacy died in the spring of 1865, such proposals were controversial--even when made by Jefferson Davis, and even when freedom was entirely conditional upon the slaveholder's written consent. Companies of black Confederate soldiers started forming in late March 1865, but Richmond fell before any saw action.
Before that, a mere low-ranker general making a more radical proposal was an act of career suicide. And it provoked no small blinkered pique on the part of those who hated the proposal: the Army of Tennessee was starved of competent corps commanders during the War, and Cleburne would have fit the bill perfectly. Fortunately for the Union, bigoted fear prevailed.
Thus, brave Cleburne stayed at the division level, and died in the horrific slaughter at aforementioned Battle of Franklin on November 30, 1864, leading his men in futile attacks against Union breastworks, at the even-younger age of 36. He was one of six Confederate generals killed that day, and John McGavock had the grim honor of having five of their bodies (including Cleburne's) laid out on his porch after the battle.
Last, but hardly least, is Marse Robert himself, General Robert E. Lee. Like Lincoln, Lee too has undergone something like deification, due in no small part to the classic and exhaustively-researched biography by Douglas Southall Freeman. But even without a classic biography, Lee would be impossible to gloss over lightly. A bona-fide American hero before the War, most know that Lee was offered--and declined--the command of the United States Army before the War started. Being a slaveholder who seemed to genuinely dislike the institution in the abstract (to me, quite similar views to those held by the late Henry Clay, who freed all of his slaves upon his death), he loved his Virginia too much to fight her.
Despite being one of "Those People Over There," it is impossible for me to read of Lee's tactical exploits without admiration--Chancellorsville especially being the masterwork of a Great Captain.
And at the war's end, he spared the not-quite reunited nation the horror of guerilla warfare, for which we should continue to be grateful:
“Then, General,” [Lee] reasoned further, “you and I as Christian men have no right to consider only how this would affect us. We must consider its effect on the country as a whole. Already it is demoralized by the four years of war. If I took your advice, the men would be without rations and under no control of officers. They would be compelled to rob and steal in order to live. They would become mere bands of marauders, and the enemy’s cavalry would pursue them and overrun many sections they may never have occasion to visit. We would bring on a state of affairs it would take the country years to recover from. And, as for myself, you young fellows might go bushwhacking, but the only dignified course for me would be to go to General Grant and surrender myself and take the consequences of my acts.”
As an aside, it must be noted that Confederate General Joseph Johnston also refused to disperse his army to engage in guerilla warfare--and he had direct orders from Jefferson Davis to do so. Of course, it probably didn't hurt that Johnston and Davis loathed each other, but Johnston deserves considerable credit for his role in ending the war. Others also leap to mind: Mary Boykin Chesnut, John C. Breckenridge, John B. Gordon, Richard Rowland Kirkland (a/k/a "the Angel of Marye's Heights")...the list is near-enough endless.
So, when I see the Confederate battle flag, I see the charge at Franklin, the humanity of men like Cleburne, Hood, Lee and Johnston. I see the willingness of beaten Americans to live with the verdict of the battlefield and to exhort their fellow Southerners to also reconcile. To me, the virtues of the men who marched underneath that banner are what leap to mind first. Such virtues allowed the country to reunite--to heal and become one nation. That it did so, and so quickly, is nothing short of astounding. By 1898, the former Confederacy leapt to the call to arms in the Spanish-American War, with one of its Generals literally leading a charge under the Stars and Stripes in Cuba.
But that's not the only way the banner can be viewed--and is. For that, I will have another post.