What Ulysses S. Grant would tell Trump about Robert E. Lee

Another look at the current magnifying glass on Lee, this one citing the quote I most often go to when discussing the topic.

I do have one bone to pick with the author, though – Grant’s actions do indicate that he had an abolitionist streak. His father in law was a wealthy slaveowner, and gifted Grant and Julia a slave when they married. At his lowest point, when he was broke and unable to make ends meet, he manumitted the slave, when an adult male would have brought in enough money on the open market to make Grant’s money woes disappear. Yet another facet with which to compare and contrast Lee’s mistreatment of Arlington’s slave population!

We already have a better way to look at Robert E. Lee. Not an angry way, but a just one.

In his memoir, Ulysses S. Grant, a general greater than Lee, described his feelings upon meeting Lee in April 1865 at Appomattox, as Lee surrendered his Army of Northern Virginia. Grant wrote, “I felt like anything rather than rejoicing at the downfall of a foe who had fought so long and valiantly, and had suffered so much for a cause, though that cause was, I believe, one of the worst for which a people ever fought, and one for which there was the least excuse.”

In one sentence, Grant manages to distinguish between Lee’s qualities as a general and the terrible cause — the destruction of the United States for the benefit of slavery — to which Lee put his talents.

Source: What Ulysses S. Grant would tell Trump about Robert E. Lee – The Washington Post

Testimony of Wesley Norris

There was a Reddit discussion about Robert E. Lee, whose birthday was celebrated by some yesterday. While I have the utmost respect for Lee as a military commander, and I have no doubt he’d have been an admirable man to work with or for, I cringe when I see people defending his choice to go with Virginia.

There’s a lot of mythology about the fact that Lee “didn’t like slavery” and that his entire motive lay in “defending his country”, but I finid those arguments as specious as the ones used to defend Thomas Jefferson. In short, both men were well heeled Virginians who made full use of their slaves to better their own lives while at best doing nothing to help their “property”, and at worst doing some pretty horrific things to another human being.

Here’s a first-person account by one of Lee’s slaves over the punishment Lee administered to him after he tried to run away.

We were immediately taken before Gen. Lee, who demanded the reason why we ran away; we frankly told him that we considered ourselves free; he then told us he would teach us a lesson we never would forget; he then ordered us to the barn, where, in his presence, we were tied firmly to posts by a Mr. Gwin, our overseer, who was ordered by Gen. Lee to strip us to the waist and give us fifty lashes each, excepting my sister, who received but twenty; we were accordingly stripped to the skin by the overseer, who, however, had sufficient humanity to decline whipping us; accordingly Dick Williams, a county constable, was called in, who gave us the number of lashes ordered; Gen. Lee, in the meantime, stood by, and frequently enjoined Williams to lay it on well, an injunction which he did not fail to heed; not satisfied with simply lacerating our naked flesh, Gen. Lee then ordered the overseer to thoroughly wash our backs with brine, which was done.

Source: Testimony of Wesley Norris. In NATIONAL ANTI-SLAVERY STANDARD (1866-04-14)

Book review: Marching Home

A new book deals with a subject I’ve been musing on lately: The effects of the war on the social life of postbellum America.  Millions of men coming home – some with severe physical and emotional scars – to a world that was profoundly changed.  This one sounds like a good read.

Jordan’s handling of civilian behavior toward Union veterans amounts to an unsparing indictment. Widespread callousness consigned former soldiers to “a living ‘republic of suffering.’ . . . Suspended between the dead and the living, the rest of their days were disturbed by memories of the war.” He allocates considerable attention to amputees and former prisoners of war. “Legions of men missing arms and legs,” he contends, posed a special problem for civilians because “throbbing stumps weeping a foul brew of pus and blood were hardly an advertisement for the kind of glorious, sanitized war the public wanted to remember.” Ex-prisoners suffered “enduring psychological injuries” and sought help from comrades who had shared their wartime nightmare. But “while ex-prisoner-of-war associations sustained prison survivors, they had scarcely moved the hearts and minds of the northern public. If anything, ex-prisoner meetings contributed to even greater public suspicion and scorn.” A reluctant nation did create a pension system (though many Americans came to view it “as a problem — not a paradigm”), and national and state soldiers’ homes assisted some of the poorest and least functional veterans.

Former soldiers offered one another empathy and help. They created the Grand Army of the Republic , the largest veterans’ organization and an increasingly powerful lobbying group, which Jordan describes as “one of the most significant social-welfare organizations of the nineteenth century.” They also wrote memoirs and unit histories, gathered at reunions, and erected monuments on battlefields and elsewhere — all to keep alive the memory of their sacrifice.

via Book review: Marching Home, by Brian Matthew Jordan – The Washington Post.

A Broken Regiment

The Smithsonian article I posted previously mentioned a new book that sounds fascinating: A Broken Regiment: The 16th Connecticut’s Civil War.  The author has researched one badly mauled regiment to gauge how its veterans did after the war. Predictably, they didn’t do too well.

At war’s end, the emotional toll on returning soldiers was often compounded by physical wounds and lingering ailments such as rheumatism, malaria and chronic diarrhea. While it’s impossible to put a number on this suffering, historian Lesley Gordon followed the men of a single unit, the 16th Connecticut regiment, from home to war and back again and found “the war had a very long and devastating reach.”

The men of the 16th had only just been mustered in 1862, and barely trained, when they were ordered into battle at Antietam, the bloodiest day of combat in U.S. history. The raw recruits rushed straight into a Confederate crossfire and then broke and ran, suffering 25 percent casualties within minutes. “We were murdered,” one soldier wrote.

In a later battle, almost all the men of the 16th were captured and sent to the notorious Confederate prison at Andersonville, where a third of them died from disease, exposure and starvation. Upon returning home, many of the survivors became invalids, emotionally numb, or abusive of family. Alfred Avery, traumatized at Antietam, was described as “more or less irrational as long as he lived.” William Hancock, who had gone off to war “a strong young man,” his sister wrote, returned so “broken in body and mind” that he didn’t know his own name. Wallace Woodford flailed in his sleep, dreaming that he was still searching for food at Andersonville. He perished at age 22, and was buried beneath a headstone that reads: “8 months a sufferer in Rebel prison; He came home to die.”


A Broken Regiment: The 16th Connecticut’s Civil War (Conflicting Words: New Dimensions of the American Civil War): Lesley J. Gordon: 9780807157305: Amazon.com: Books.

Civil War PTSD

The Smithsonian Magazine investigates post-traumatic stress disorder amongst Civil War vets.  The condition was not understood then, and as the article states, “had a long reach”; effects were felt on individuals, families and communities long after the firing ceased.

“We’ve tended to see soldiers in the 1860s as stoic and heroic—monuments to duty, honor and sacrifice,” says Lesley Gordon, editor of Civil War History, a leading academic journal that recently devoted a special issue to wartime trauma. “It’s taken a long time to recognize all the soldiers who came home broken by war, just as men and women do today.”

Counting these casualties and diagnosing their afflictions, however, present considerable challenges. The Civil War occurred in an era when modern psychiatric terms and understanding didn’t yet exist. Men who exhibited what today would be termed war-related anxieties were thought to have character flaws or underlying physical problems. For instance, constricted breath and palpitations—a condition called “soldier’s heart” or “irritable heart”—was blamed on exertion or knapsack straps drawn too tightly across soldiers’ chests.

via Did Civil War Soldiers Have PTSD? | History | Smithsonian.

The Smell of the Civil War

A short article from Smithsonian.com mentions an intriguing new book.  Given the subject, I’m guessing it will be a lot like the morose yet fascinating This Republic of Suffering.  I’ve added it to my wish list.

Caroline Hancock was 23 when she served as a nurse after the Battle of Gettysburg, in 1863. She found the smell of the decaying bodies so strong that “she viewed it as an oppressive, malignant force, capable of killing the wounded men who were forced to lie amid the corpses until the medical corps could reach them,” writes Rebecca Onion for Slate’s history blog, The Vault. Hancock’s account is published in a new book called The Smell of Battle, the Taste of Siege: A Sensory History of the Civil War, by Mark Smith, a history professor at the University of South Carolina.

via A Nurse Describes the Smell of the Civil War | Smart News | Smithsonian.

Podcast #13 – “Jus in Bello”

A tough slog at work has caused me to miss a few podcasts. With the daunting prospect of two due this week (I was hoping to post extras as the sesquicentennial anniversaries arrive) I thought I’d make a special effort to get today’s done: It’s the 150th anniversary of the Lieber Code, progenitor of the Geneva Convention!

The podcast can be downloaded here.

A Rebel’s Recollections

The Atlantic published an excerpt from A Rebel’s Recollections that provides an interesting, rambling take on the Upper South’s (specifically Virginia’s, in this case) reasons for entering the war.  In summary, the writer suggests they were bullied into it by the planter states, with some propaganda and misinformation thrown in for emphasis.

Why, then, the reader doubtless asks, if this was the temper of the Virginians, did Virginia secede after all? I answer, because circumstances ultimately so placed the Virginians that they could not, without cowardice and dishonor, do otherwise; and the Virginians are brave men and honorable ones. They believed, as I have said, in the abstract right of any State to secede at will. Indeed, this right was to them as wholly unquestioned and unquestionable as is the right of the States to establish free schools, or to do any other thing pertaining to local self-government. The question of the correctness or incorrectness of the doctrine is not now to the purpose. The Virginians, almost without an exception, believed and had always believed it absolutely, and believing it, they held of necessity that the general government had no right, legal or moral, to coerce a seceding State; and so, when the President called upon Virginia for her quota of troops with which to compel the return of the seceding States, she could not possibly obey without doing that which her people believed to be an outrage upon the rights of sister commonwealths, for which, as they held, there was no warrant in law or equity.

She heartily condemned the secession of South Carolina and the rest as unnecessary, ill-advised, and dangerous; but their secession did not concern her except as a looker-on, and she had not only refused to be a partaker in it, but had also felt a good deal of indignation against the men who were thus endangering the peace of the land. When she was called upon to assist in reducing these States to submission, however, she could no longer remain a spectator. She must furnish the troops, and so assist in doing that which she believed to be utterly wrong, or she must herself withdraw from the Union. The question was thus narrowed down to this: Should Virginia seek safety in dishonor, or should she meet destruction in doing that which she believed to be right? Such a question was not long to be debated. Two days after the proclamation was published Virginia seceded, not because she wanted to secede, – not because she believed it wise, – but because, as she understood the matter, the only other course open to her would have been cowardly and dishonorable.

I have always taken issue with the Southern Cause (capital C) – it’s difficult, as a modern-day moderate, to understand why anyone could offer themselves up to “die of a theory” (stealing a quote from Jefferson Davis).  This bitter paragraph, and that brutal last line, is an excellent summation of my own thoughts:

With all its horrors and in spite of the wretchedness it has wrought, this war of ours, in some of its aspects at least, begins to look like a very ridiculous affair, now that we are getting too far away from it to hear the rattle of the musketry; and I have a mind, in this chapter, to review one of its most ridiculous phases, to wit, its beginning. We all remember Mr. Webster’s pithy putting of the case with regard to our forefathers of a hundred years ago: “They went to war against a preamble. They fought seven years against a declaration. They poured out their treasures and their blood like water, in a contest in opposition to an assertion.” Now it seems to me that something very much like this might be said of the Southerners, and particularly of the Virginians, without whose pluck and pith there could have been no war at all worth writing or talking about. They made war upon a catch-word, and fought until they were hopelessly ruined for the sake of an abstraction. 
via A Rebel’s Recollections (Part 1) – George Cary Eggleston – The Atlantic.

The Toll on the Southern Psyche

I am afraid there will be a good many hearts pierced in this war that will have no bulletmark to show. – Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr., “My Hunt after ‘The Captain'”

I blogged lately about the visible legacy of the war – the amputees whose physical scars were easily seen and understood. Less easy to process was the less visible legacy – the psychological damage that was caused to men who’d seen so much blood, pain and death.  This article discusses how this mental trauma was an underdocumented, widespread problem in the postbellum South.

The pressures of war in the 19th century is an area that historically has seen little study. Most historians began to note the mental stress of war during World War I, when troops were said to be shell shocked. And any notion of post-traumatic stress disorder did not come along until the Vietnam War. The first look at this trend came less than 20 years ago, with Eric Dean’s book “Shook Over Hell,” a treatment of PTSD in the Civil War.

Sommerville said that a study of asylum records, diaries and newspapers of the day reveal “a virtual epidemic of emotional and psychiatric trauma among Confederate soldiers and veterans.”

via Civil War took toll on Southern psyche – The Post and Courier.

Civil War PTSD

The psychological fallout of the war is a facet I haven’t studied enough. Drew Gilpin Faust illuminated some of this as it related to death, but the PTSD trauma cases in the post-bellum era aren’t as well documented.  This little article implies that there are scholars making inroads. I can’t wait to add some new books to my wish list!

“But there was at least this term, ‘soldier’s heart,’ which was the idea that these people weren’t the same as they used to be,” Gabriel said.

A student of Gabriel who was a double major in psychology and history wrote a paper on the subject several years ago.

The paper outlined cases of soldiers being put in insane asylums.

“There was also this belief that, if they prayed and focused on positive things, that they could be rehabilitated, but that was very hit and miss,” Gabriel said.

via During Civil War they called it ‘soldier’s heart’.