SocraticGadfly: Needed: "Appomattox Day," or better, "You Lost Day"

April 09, 2015

Needed: "Appomattox Day," or better, "You Lost Day"

The New Republic sums the case up well, on the 150th anniversary of Robert E. Lee surrendering to Ulysses S. Grant at Appomattox.

First, given that a racist president susceptible to flattery via pretended groveling from his pre-war Southern "betters," Andrew Johnson, took Abraham Lincoln's already mild "rosewater policy" and gutted it, and then that the Supreme Court gutted the intent of the 14th Amendment from the 1870s through Plessy v. Ferguson, it's hard to believe at times that the South did, in fact, lose the Civil War. (Would Lincoln have done as much better with Reconstruction as some thing? I ask that in Part 1 of my sesquicentennial tribute to his death.)

But it did. And Brian Beutler is right. It should be a federal holiday, though there's less than zero chance of the current Congress making that so.

Per Beutler and a New York Times article he links, yes, we also ought to rename military installations named for Confederate generals, like Fort Hood here in Texas.

And, contra Tony Kushner and Steven Spielberg and their Lincoln movie, Lincoln was wrong. Maybe the Wade-Davis Act was too harsh, but Lincoln was too mild, and he refused to negotiate with Congress on this issue after his pocket veto of Wade-Davis. Would he, in the face of the rise of the Klan in 1866, gotten tougher? Well, he would have been tougher than Johnson, but would he have stopped downsizing the Army or even asked for more troops? Possibly not, and maybe, probably not.

For good alliteration of sorts, I've long said that Reconstruction might have worked with 200,000 bluecoats in the South for a generation rather than 20,000 for a decade.

Really, the U.S. South, without a little bit of an "iron heel," essentially promulgated its version of something like the Dolchstosslegende a half-century before General Ludendorff, Adolf Hitler and other right-wing nuts did in Weimer Germany. Beyond denying that the Civil War had been about slavery, the "Lost Cause" idea claimed that, due to various factors, it hadn't been a fair fight.

Anyway, Lee wasn't such a five-star general as the Lost Cause makes him out to be, despite even a Brit fawning over him in an awful book. He was often a poor strategist who refused to implement a semi-modern general staff for the Army of Northern Virginia. Nor was Stonewall Jackson Paul to Lee's Jesus, despite a Texas historian who isn't worth his reputation trying to claim that. (As for long marches, the Union Fifth Corps once marched 25 miles in a day to get in place for the start of Gettysburg.)

As far as Southern pre-war boasts of licking five Yankees?

Well, the US Census was conducted, per the Constitution, in 1860. You knew how much you were outnumbered. Well, you were wrong, even if you try to hide that fact in Lost Cause mythos and trailing clouds of glory.

Anyway, just like Hitler, et al, Southern leaders might have accepted the reality of "you lost" more had their been a bit more pain, as well as a bit more Reconstruction in general.

That said, the Congressional Radicals all needed to view freed slaves as human beings first, political tools second, or third. Some did have this view, but others did not. At the same time, non-Radicals in the GOP needed to get a bit more Radical. Also, outside of New England, blacks were still not just second-class citizens, but only semi-citizens in much of the North, and New England then (versus, say, South Boston today) was seemingly more enlightened precisely because there were so few blacks.

So, that part of Lincoln's Second Inaugural, lauded by me here, was partially correct. The North had its share of blame in the perpetuation of slavery — and the perpetuation of its profits, and even the push for increasing "efficiency," just like in Northern factories, as detailed in this book.

That said, Lincoln didn't go far enough. While the Second Inaugural wasn't meant to be a policy speech, nowhere before his death did he go beyond it to indicate that fair chunks of the North would need their own quasi-Reconstruction. Of course, some Radicals, and some modern historians, argue that part of that quasi-Reconstruction still may have needed to start at 1600 Pennsylvania, had Lincoln lived.

Yes, Lincoln had gotten past his colonization schemes. Yes, after listening to Frederick Douglass, he finally realized that the United States, not an African kingdom or another, was home for African-Americans. He even accepted that some of them had American ancestries older than his.

But, he still didn't understand — despite facts such as tiny, almost slave-free, Delaware having rejected graduated emancipation and Stephen Douglas' racism in 1858 — that many people in the Border States and the Old Northwest (not to mention the Irish of New York), hadn't evolved like he had over the previous four years.

And so, the failure to insist on a thoroughgoing Reconstruction — maybe not punitive, but more than "rosewater" — before his death wound up failing North and South alike.

This, though, is the bottom line. Much of what was "rosewater" was like giving an inch and the South taking a mile:

That lack of consensus was an ineluctable consequence of concerted postbellum efforts to sand down the seams reuniting the states. There was a real but inadequate constituency for crushing the Southern establishment after the Civil War, and reintegrating the country under an entirely different paradigm. Instead, the North enabled the South by giving it unusual influence over shaping the official mythology of the war. Yes, the South surrendered. The states ratified the 13th Amendment. The Union survived. These facts couldn’t be altered. But memorializing the rebellion as a tragedy of circumstance, or a bravely fought battle of principle—those narratives were adopted in part for the unspoken purpose of making the reunion stick. "You lost, we won, and we're all living in the USA," Talking Point Memo's Josh Marshall once wrote. "But we'll let you win in the battle of memory and valor and nostalgia."
Really, the U.S. South, with the "Lost Cause," was just living up to the "honor tradition" that led it to vapidly ingest the narratives of "Ivanhoe" and other Walter Scott novels, and otherwise claim to be Cavaliers, etc. These narratives were ready at hand to the South. (And, speaking of honor, and that book about the profits of slave capitalism? Southern "honor culture" hates nothing more than Southern-born whites writing about these things.)

Beyond that, as far as Southern "nobility"? It's easy to point a finger at Nathan Bedford Forrest and the slaughter of surrendered black soldiers at Fort Pillow in 1864. And, Southerners today probably wouldn't try to defend him. But, it's also easy to point a finger at Lee, watching wounded black soldiers at the end of the Battle of the Crater, during the 1864 Petersburg campaign, be bayoneted while he refused to intervene.

Beutler is right that a federal holiday for April 9 is unrealistic today.

But, we can rename those 10 forts, Fort Hood and others. "Fort Colin Powell" immediately comes to mind. We can stop federal dollars going to Confederate monuments. And, the rest of the nation in general can stoop kowtowing to Southern attitudes.

Beutler is kind enough to suggest "New Birth of Freedom Day" rather than either my straightforward or hard-core realism alternatives. But, I stand by his ideas — except, a bit, for making this part and parcel of American exceptionalism, which he hints at near the end.

And, while I've saluted Lincoln's Second Inaugural for questioning American exceptionalism, nascent at his time, and given an overall salute to the Lincoln movie, I stand by my caveats to that movie, too. Indeed, Lincoln was perhaps, like John Kennedy, lucky he died when he did. Unfortunately, he had the wrong Johnson as his vice president.

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