Saturday, June 25, 2011

Robert E. Lee's Resignation from the U.S. Army

By the time the Civil War was starting, Robert E. Lee had served in the United States Army for about 25 years and had attained the rank of colonel. (The picture here is of Lee as a younger man in the U. S. Army.) He was a Unionist and did not agree with secession, but when his home state of Virginia voted to secede he was torn in two; he didn't support secession, but he could not fight against his home state and his own family. Lincoln offered him the post of field commander of the army, which he declined, and he decided to resign his commission. He hoped he would not have to fight at all, but Virginia named him commander of its army.

I read his letter of resignation from the Army, in which he expresses gratitude and his indebtedness to his superior officer. His feelings are muted by the formality of the letter, but it's easy to see something of what he felt.

Then there's his letter to his sister, Anne Marshall. Here, he's more personal and expresses something of his dilemma: "With all my devotion to the Union and the feeling of loyalty and duty of an American citizen, I have not been able to make up my mind to raise my hand against my relatives, my children, my home. I have therefore resigned my commission in the Army, and save in defense of my native State, with the sincere hope that my poor services may never be needed, I hope I may never be called on to draw my sword. I know you will blame me; but you must think as kindly of me as you can, and believe that I have endeavoured to do what I thought right."

I've never read anything about General Lee's life; I think I'm going to have to get to know him a little better.

Sunday, June 19, 2011

Henry Timrod: Ethnogenesis

Henry Timrod was a famous poet in the mid-19th century South; the Poetry Foundation calls him "after Poe, the most important Southern poet of the nineteenth century...he is not a major poet, but he is a significant minor poet." I'd never heard of him, but I don't know if that's because his strongly pro-Southern sentiment sank his reputation or because American literature is another area I'm not strong in. He was considered the unofficial poet laureate of the South.

"Ethnogenesis" was written upon the occasion of the First Southern Congress in February 1861 and was originally titled "Ode, on the Meeting of the Southern Congress." That extremely boring title does give you a clue about the poem: there are only a few kinds of odes, and this looks like a Pindaric ode, which means that it's a long poem with complex stanzas that don't have to match, which is composed to commemorate some heroic or highly emotional national event. A Pindaric ode may be a musical event with a chorus and dancers. So this poem ought to evoke triumph, national pride, and a general feeling of pageantry.

Timrod calls upon all the natural beauties of the South to celebrate its birth as a country. The cotton plant gets half a stanza to itself and is invoked as "the snow of Southern summers" to protect the land. Should the South be profaned by invasion, the very earth itself will rise up in self-defense to throw off the oppressing North's creed of avarice, while God will fight on the side of honor, purity, and the generosity of the South--which is destined to bless the whole world by giving work to the poor.

Most of Timrod's work sprang directly from the Civil War, and he died only a few years after it ended. I'm going to have to look further at his poetry. Meanwhile I'll quote the fourth and final stanza of "Ethnogenesis" here:

But let our fears -- if fears we have -- be still,
And turn us to the future! Could we climb
Some mighty Alp, and view the coming time,
The rapturous sight would fill

Our eyes with happy tears!

Not only for the glories which the years
Shall bring us; not for lands from sea to sea,
And wealth, and power, and peace, though these shall be;
But for the distant peoples we shall bless,
And the hushed murmurs of a world's distress:
For, to give labor to the poor,

The whole sad planet o'er,

And save from want and crime the humblest door,
Is one among the many ends for which

God makes us great and rich!
The hour perchance is not yet wholly ripe
When all shall own it, but the type
Whereby we shall be known in every land
Is that vast gulf which lips our Southern strand,
And through the cold, untempered ocean pours
Its genial streams, that far off Arctic shores
May sometimes catch upon the softened breeze
Strange tropic warmth and hints of summer seas.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Jefferson Davis' Inaugural Speech

Jefferson Davis was a senator for Mississippi and an influential man in Congress. I was surprised to find out that he was against secession; for a couple of years before the war he spoke in Northern and Southern states on behalf of keeping the Union together. Once his state seceded in January 1861, he spoke to the Senate urging peace. Davis was more pessimistic about the prospect of a war than most of his fellow Southern leaders were; he expected it to come and he was not hopeful about the South's ability to fight. He was evidently startled when representatives of the Confederate states elected him president, and he was unsure about his ability to lead. His first act was to send a commission to Washington in hopes of avoiding war, but the commission was refused.

Davis delivered his Inaugural Address on February 18, 1861. In it, he naturally does not express his fears for the future of the South. He first speaks about the Declaration of Independence and claims its inalienable rights for the South, saying that Southerners are merely asserting their rights and repeating the actions of the Revolution now that the United States has ceased to merit their consent to be governed. Davis expresses hopes for the future of the new Confederacy, for peace and for free trade. Over and over, he repeats that the South wants a peaceful start as a new country, and that if there is a war it will be the North's fault. Otherwise, he emphasizes, nothing has changed; the Constitution stands as the governing document of the Confederacy and everything can go on as usual, if only the danger of war can be averted.

Now of course Davis had a perfectly good point about the Declaration of Independence. The majority of voting Southerners wanted to secede, and under the philosophy outlined in the Declaration, they could do so. But it's also easy to see how that idea can get very damaging very fast; if every state could leave the Union when it had a grievance, then it would not take long for the Union to fragment into a whole lot of small, weak countries--each of which would then be at economic and political disadvantage. And they would probably fight with each other as well; it would not have been difficult to end up like 19th-century Europe, with constant wars in one place or another. So I can see both Lincoln's and Davis' point of view.

Davis enlarges on the point by saying: "To increase the power, develop the resources, and promote the happiness of a confederacy, it is requisite that there should be so much of homogeneity that the welfare of every portion shall be the aim of the whole. Where this does not exist, antagonisms are engendered which must and should result in separation." Now this has been a popular idea at times, and it certainly appeals to many, especially oppressed minorities. But it also seems to me like a recipe for fragmentation, which leads to a lot of problems as well.

Thursday, June 9, 2011

The South's Economic Argument for Secession

New Orleans Daily Crescent published an editorial titled "Economic Reasons for Secession" on January 21, 1861. It expressed indignation that the North should be so rude as to object to secession, while the South would be quite happy to let the North secede ("as in common decency they ought to do seeing that they are so unhappy about the countenance the Union is supposed to give to the institution of slavery...").

The writer then explains the reasons that the North is so angry at the idea of secession: because although the South is constantly called uncivilized and barbaric and poor, it is in fact the source of most of the Union's wealth, and secession would deprive the North of the "rich feast upon which they have so long fed and fattened." Since Northerners are descended from Puritans, they have a "love of mean tyranny and cold-blooded, inexorable oppression."

I can quite understand Southerners' anger and defensiveness at the constant accusations of barbarity; no one enjoys being called names even if they're true. However, given that slavery actually was a barbaric institution, the bits about feeding off the wealth of others and cold-blooded, inexorable oppression are painfully ironic.

Monday, June 6, 2011

Should New York City secede from the Union?

Here's an odd little proposal I found. In January 1861, with civil war looming, the mayor of New York City made a speech suggesting that the city secede from the Union and become a free city, thus preserving its valuable trade links with both sides. Mayor Fernando Wood had built up quite a political machine for himself, which the Republican state legislature was always trying to break down, so he had little sympathy with the Union cause.

Mayor Wood argues that New York City has drawn residents from every part of the Union, and has commercial interests in every state. Not only that, but New York has sympathy with the South:

With our aggrieved brethren of the Slave States, we have friendly relations and a common sympathy. We have not participated in the warfare upon their constitutional rights or their domestic institutions. While other portions of our State have unfortunately been imbued with the fanatical spirit which actuates a portion of the people of New England, the city of New York has unfalteringly preserved the integrity of its principles of adherence to the compromises of the Constitution and the equal rights of the people of all the States. We have respected the local interests of every section, at no time oppressing, but all the while aiding in the development of the resources of the whole country. Our ships have penetrated to every clime, and so have New York capital, energy and enterprise found their way to every State, and, indeed, to almost every county and town of the American Union. If we have derived sustenance from the Union, so have we in return disseminated blessings for the common benefit of all. Therefore, New York has a right to expect, and should endeavor to preserve a continuance of uninterrupted intercourse with every section.

Therefore, the city should seriously consider seceding from the Union and becoming an independent free city, able to trade with everyone. Wood strongly resents the perceived injustices the city has been laboring under, and claims that the rest of the state lives only to plunder New York's riches. (In those days before income tax, the Union depended on tariffs for tax income, and New York City was the main source of that money; if the city had seceded, it would have been a financial disaster for Washington DC.) He feels no obligation to the rest of the Union:

When Disunion has become a fixed and certain fact, why may not New York disrupt the bands which bind her to a venal and corrupt master – to a people and a party that have plundered her revenues, attempted to ruin her and a party that have plundered her revenues, attempted to ruin her commerce, taken away the power of self—government, and destroyed the Confederacy of which she was the proud Empire City? Amid the gloom which the present and prospective condition of things must cast over the country, New York, as a Free City, may shed the only light and hope of a future reconstruction of our once blessed Confederacy.

What an interesting idea! It actually had quite a lot of support in New York City, which was a bastion of anti-Republican and pro-Southern feeling. Merchants were terribly worried about losing Southern business, and workers feared that their jobs would disappear if freed slaves arrived, willing to work for less. But once the war actually started, New York citizens turned right around to support the Union, much to the fury of Southerners hoping for the city's support.

So Mayor Wood did not get his wish, but neither did he have to worry about losing income. The North's industrial expansion during the war provided New York City with plenty of business after all.

Saturday, June 4, 2011

The Government's Right to Self-Defence

As Americans got ready to go to war, James Russell Lowell--the editor of the Atlantic Monthly magazine--wrote essay after essay on critical issues. "The Government's Right to Self-Defence" appeared in the February 1861 issue (which is not the one pictured here). In it, Lowell argued that the North had to defend the principle of majority rule, which the South had violated.

Lowell castigates President Buchanan for indecision and lack of action. It seems that everyone was angry at Buchanan for his refusal to act, which I can understand; the president's insistence on acting only according to the law was an excellent principle, but the country was in a situation that had not been properly provided for in the law. I'm not sure that Buchanan's ideals can really be called indecision, but that's what it looked like, and it's landed him on a lot of "Worst President" lists.

Lowell argues that the Southern states have shown their true autocratic colors by threatening secession. He says that as long as things were going their way, they were happy to endorse the idea of majority rule, but as soon as that stopped, they threw a tantrum and wanted to quit:

It cannot be too distinctly stated or too often repeated that the discontent of South Carolina is not one to be allayed by any concessions which the free states can make with dignity or even safety. It is something more radical and of longer standing than distrust of the motives or probable policy of the Republican Party. It is neither more nor less than a disbelief in the very principles on which our government is founded. So long as they practically retained the government of the country, and could use its power and patronage to their own advantage, the plotters were willing to wait; but the moment they lost that control, by the breaking up of the Democratic Party, and saw that their chance of ever regaining it was hopeless, they declared openly the principles on which they have all along been secretly acting.

Denying the constitutionality of special protection to any other species of property or branch of industry, and in 1832 threatening to break up the Union unless their theory of the Constitution in this respect were admitted, they went into the late presidential contest with a claim for extraordinary protection to a certain kind of property already the only one endowed with special privileges and immunities. Defeated overwhelmingly before the people, they now question the right of the majority to govern, except on their terms, and threaten violence in the hope of extorting from the fears of the free states what they failed to obtain from their conscience and settled convictions of duty. Their quarrel is not with the Republican Party but with the theory of democracy. ...

His conclusion is that the Republic is far too important to give up without a struggle, and that war is justified because secession is, itself, an act of aggression against the Union.

And lastly--don't you love Lowell's beard?