Monthly Archives: March 2016

Rebel Women

When I first started visiting Civil War historic sites I was mildly surprised that the United Daughters of the Confederacy (UDC) erected many of them. Since soldiers did the fighting I had expected that the Confederate Veterans, or their sons, would dominate the Southern  monument building. But over the years I’ve learned that Southern women were generally fiercely committed to the Confederacy.

Most recently I read a report to Congress on conditions in the Southern states after the war. The author was Benjamin Truman, who was a New Englander and an aide to Andrew Johnson during the war. He spent eight months in the South, visiting every former Confederate state except the Carolinas and Virginia. In his May 1866 report Benjamin wrote, “Over southern society…[women]…reign supreme and they are more embittered against those whom they deem to be the authors of all their calamities than are their brothers, sons, and husbands.” Certain war stories illustrate, or explain, the resentment.

For example, while Union Captain Julius Ochs was assigned to a unit guarding the St. Louis-to-Cincinnati railroad, his wife was caught trying to smuggle quinine in a baby carriage across an Ohio River bridge to Rebels in Kentucky. Somehow Captain Ochs got the charges dropped, but his wife’s dedication to the South persisted. After the war, she joined the UDC while her husband became a member of the Grand Army of the Republic, a Union veterans organization. Their eldest son, Adolph, became a Chattanooga, Tennessee, newspaperman. Shortly before the turn of the nineteenth to the twentieth century, Adolph bought a failing New York newspaper, added the slogan “All the News That’s Fit to Print” to its masthead, and launched the New York Times toward national prominence. At her funeral, Adolph’s mother had her coffin draped by a Confederate flag.

Phoebe Pember

Phoebe Pember

Phoebe Pember was in her late 30s and a widow when she was called from Georgia to be chief matron at one of the five divisions in Richmond’s Chimborazo hospital. Bye and bye a young convalescent soldier named Fisher became a staff favorite. One night a nurse rushed to tell Pember that something was wrong with Fisher:

Following the nurse to [Fisher’s] bed, and turning down the cover a small jet of blood spurted up. The sharp edge of a splintered bone must have severed an artery. I instantly put my finger on the small orifice and waited for the surgeon. He soon came—took a long look and shook his head…No earthly power could save him.

The hardest trial of my life lay before me; the necessity of telling a man in the prime of his life…that there was no hope for him.

“How long can I live?”

“Only as long as I keep my finger upon this artery.” A pause ensued. He broke the silence at last.

“You can let go—“

But I could not. Not if my own life trembled in the balance. Hot tears rushed to my eyes, a surging sound to my ears, and a deathly coldness to my lips. The pang of obeying him was spared me and for the first and only time in four years, I fainted away.

No words can do justice to the uncomplaining nature of the Southern soldier. Continue reading

Wikipedia Objectivity

With each passing year conventional books seem to become less important sources of public knowledge and opinion. Increasingly, Internet sites assume that role and none is more influential to the casual learner than the Wikipedia.

Theoretically a publicly-edited encyclopedia is self-correcting and includes the most comprehensive knowledge. It works well on non-controversial topics, but historical narratives are often conflicted with differing interpretations. As Napoleon asked rhetorically, “What is history but an agreed upon fable?” Many Civil War Wikipedia entries underscore his point.

Unfortunately, many such entries are locked. Two examples are Generals Grant and Lee. Only a priesthood of mostly pseudonymed editors can make corrections or add anything. Theoretically, anyone can prompt changes and additions by discussing them with the authorized contributors.

But based upon recent experience with a publicly editable entry for Andrew Johnson’s 1868 impeachment, I have my doubts. The Johnson impeachment contributors had an agenda, simplified to: Johnson Bad – Congress Good. Facts inconsistent with that agenda were generally missing.

350px-Andew_Johnson_impeachment_trial

Johnson was portrayed as dishonorably manipulating votes to keep the final tally short of the two-thirds majority needed to convict him. Ultimately, he was acquitted when the final 35-to-19 vote fell one short of conviction . Continue reading

Pat Conroy Tribute

A destiny that leads the English to the Dutch is strange enough; but one that leads from Epsom into Pennsylvania, and thence into the hills that shut in Altamont [Asheville] over the proud coral cry of the cock, and the soft stone smile of an angel, is touched by that dark miracle of chance which makes new magic in a dusty world.

Look Homeward, Angel
Thomas Wolfe (1900-1938)

For his first ten years as a writer Pat Conroy, who died last week in his South Carolina home at age 70, admitted that he was so influenced by Thomas Wolfe that the Wolfe estate could have sued him for plagiarism. The novels of both authors are basically autobiographical. Conroy, however, developed a style that reliably included the humor that Wolfe lacked. His last novel, South of Broad, provides an example while also showing the Wolfe influence.

It was the noonday hour, under a man-eating Charleston sun, the air so full of humidity it made me wish for a set of gills behind my earlobes. I walked into the main dining room of the Charleston Yacht Club for the luncheon my mother had ordered me to attend. The yacht club was plush but threadbare and in need of renovation. For me it carried the silent menace of enemy territory as I walked beneath the contemptuous stares of the club’s founders. Their faces scowled down at me, disfigured by the ineptitude of their portraitists. The artists of Charleston make the movers and shakers of the river-shaped city look like they needed both a good dentist and an effective laxative.

Ever since he was a boy, Conroy’s Georgia-born mother told him he was destined to be a writer, but not just any kind of writer. He was to author Southern novels. When he was a child she began the lengthy duty at bedtime of reading aloud to him her favorite example, Gone With the Wind. She bought countless copies, some to give away and others to replace those that fell apart in her hands after repeated readings. “To Southerners like my mother, Gone With the Wind was not just a book; it was an answer, a clenched fist raised to the North, an anthem of defiance.”

But Conroy’s reactions to the novel and to the South were conflicted. He loved them both, but was pained by their flaws. His sentiments were closer to those of former South Carolinian James Petigru who said upon learning of the state’s secession in 1860, “South Carolina is too small to be a republic and too large to be an insane asylum.”

Consequently, after his graduation from The Citadel Conroy took a job in 1969 teaching grades five through eight on South Carolina’s coastal Daufuskie Island near the mouth of the Savannah River. The residents were almost entirely African-American. Due to the island’s isolation they had developed their own culture, termed Gullah, which corrupted certain English pronunciations. Conroy became Conrac. Aside from the owner of the solitary general store, the only other white residents were two California youths on a temporary academic assignment to study Gullah culture. They refused to speak to Conroy because he was a white Southerner.

Conroy quickly learned that despite four to seven years of schooling his students had almost no education. They did not know the names of the country they lived in or the ocean whose waves washed upon their beach. Since few knew how to swim, nearly every island family was touched by a death-by-drowning. Conroy concluded it would be impossible to teach the students by the book. Instead he taught them what he could, including how to swim and play football, in his own way. Consequently, he was fired.

In response he wrote a book about the experience. Titled The Water is Wide, it was his first book that was not self-published. Like Wolfe’s Look Homeward, Angel, it was written while he was still in his twenties. It was even made into the 1974 movie, Conrac, staring Jon Voight when Conroy was not yet thirty. The entire movie is available on YouTube in the link above.

Except for his cookbook, I have read all of Pat’s books. I draw my final thought for him  from the last line of Conrac.

May the river be good to you in the crossing.

Alex Haley and Margaret Mitchell

When British author Mary Hoffman was a young lady 39 years ago her perception of the Plantation South was transformed by the TV miniseries, Roots. Last year she wrote, “The effect…was huge. Electrifying…up until then the only thing any of us knew about America’s deep-south was based on the film Gone With the Wind.

Roots was released as a non-fiction book forty years ago in 1976 and the novel Gone With the Wind forty years before that. Like Hoffman, many of the original book reviews proclaimed Roots as a long overdue antitoxin to the plantation myth of Gone With the Wind. Margaret Mitchell’s story, they argued, dominated Civil War memory and needed to be replaced by a valid narrative that disclosed the evils Southern society. Mitchell’s, they emphasized, was a fictional story whereas Haley’s was based on factual genealogical research. Therefore, Haley’s accounts of the deliberate amputation a runaway-prone ancestor’s foot and the rape of another, the critics assumed, were more accurate representations of Southern slavery.

If Ms. Hoffman experience was a  typical example, Gone With the Wind’s dominance of Civil War memory between 1936 and 1976 was probably no more influential than Root’s dominance from 1976 to 2016. Each had its forty year season in the sun. Since 2016 is the eightieth and fortieth anniversaries of Gone With the Wind and Roots, respectively, now is a good time to review the research of each author.

Henning_Alex_Haley_Historic_Marker

Margaret Mitchell’s research began in childhood when she was hearing stories as early as 1905, which was forty years after the Civil War ended. Many of those who lived through the period were in their fifties and sixties at the time. When working for the Atlanta Constitution in the 1920s, among her favorite assignments was interviewing aged citizens for the newspaper’s Sunday magazine. While at the newspaper Mitchell earned a reputation for thoroughness and accuracy.

Upon publication, many reviewers praised her novel’s realism. The chief New York Times critic wrote that her book was, “The best Civil War novel that has yet been written…an extraordinary blend of romantic and realistic treatment.” Stephen Vincent Benet added, “Miss Mitchell…knows…the little distinctions that make for authenticity.” She was most proud of the accuracy endorsements received from historians such as Douglas Southall Freeman and Henry Steele Commager, among others.

Alex Haley’s Roots was on the New York Times non-fiction bestseller list for nearly a year but even months before it dropped from the list Haley was accused of plagiarism. Far from being an account of Haley’s ancestors, a white Jewish author claimed that Roots was largely derived from his 1967 novel, The African. A year later Haley paid the author $650,000 in an out-of-court settlement and acknowledged that some passages in Roots were copied from The African.

In later years historians and genealogists discovered numerous and serious errors in Haley’s research. Some directly contradict his stories. There is no confirmation that the original African ancestor ever existed, nor could others coming later in the ancestral chain be participants in the story as Haley tells it. Putative playmates were not children at the same time. There is no record that the ancestor Haley says was raped ever lived. He has her being born eight years after her supposed father actually died. The white man accused of raping her was not born into a poor family as Haley reports. The error list goes on and on.

The falsehoods are sufficiently large and numerous that at least one historian suggests that Haley’s Pulitzer Prize should be posthumously revoked.

Historical facts may be cited to support either the Mitchell or Haley interpretation. Consistent with Haley’s viewpoint, the Confederacy’s Vice President, Alexander Stephens stated bluntly, “The African-American is inferior to the white man.” But less than a year after the war ended he expressed a view consistent with the Mitchell narrative when he told the Georgia legislature:

Ample…protection should be secured to [ex-slaves] so that they may stand equal before the law, in the possession and enjoyment of all rights of person, liberty, and property. Many considerations claim this at your hands. Among these [is] their fidelity in times past. They cultivated your fields, ministered to your personal wants…nursed and reared your children, and even in the hour of peril they were in the main true to you and yours. To them we owe a debt of gratitude as well as acts of kindness.

It is probable that there is authenticity in both Roots and Gone With the Wind. The accepted narrative, however, depends upon the era and is likely—as Napoleon averred—an agreed upon fable.

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