Streetwise Professor

July 13, 2020

The Emancipation Memorial–A Coda About Historical Context

Filed under: Civil War,History,Politics — cpirrong @ 7:04 pm

I regret to have forgotten an episode during Lincoln’s visit to Richmond in the immediate aftermath of the Confederate capital’s fall in April, 1865. It provides the backstory for the Emancipation Memorial which points out yet again that those who call for the Memorial’s destruction or removal are ignorant fools unfit to render judgment on the Memorial, the towering historical figure it depicts, or the events that it memorializes.

Specifically, on 4 April, 1865, a group of freed slaves, shouting “Glory Hallelujah!” mobbed Lincoln when he disembarked from the USS Malvern and strode the streets of the captured capital, still smoking from the fires set by the retreating Confederates the day before. Several of them knelt before him, some trying to kiss his feet, or the cuff of his pants. Lincoln replied:

“Don’t kneel to me.  You must kneel to God only and thank Him for your liberty.”*

That is is the scene depicted in the Memorial. A slave rising at Lincoln’s injunction not to kneel before him, or any man.

Thus, the Memorial does not symbolize subjugation of black people before the benevolent white father, as the iconoclasts claim. It depicts the exact opposite.

The Memorial therefore does what good public art should do–dramatize an historical event or personage (or, in this case, both) to make a powerful statement about time and place. And in this case, the statement is about liberation and the ending of a great historical “scourge,” which continued “until all the wealth piled by the bondsman’s two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword.”

It is an event that black artists of an earlier generation thought worthy of commemoration. In 1963, at the 100th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation, the State of Illinois commissioned black artist Gus Nall to create a commemorative painting. What did he paint? Not anything related directly to the Proclamation itself: he painted the meeting between the freed slaves and Lincoln on the streets of Richmond, 98 years before, not 100. This was not a moment of humiliation. It was a moment at which a promise was realized, and at which the promisor disclaimed fealty, rather than demanded it.

About these events, and the direct connection between them and the statue in Washington, the iconoclasts are both ignorant and apathetic–they don’t know, and they don’t care. Yet they are swollen with self-righteous belief in their unerring and forever unchallengeable judgment. In their relentless narcissistic presentism they denigrate not just Lincoln, but newly freed people of color. They think they know everything, and can judge everything and everyone, but they know nothing and are fit to judge nothing and no one.

Lincoln’s words, “with malice towards none, with charity towards all” fall on uncomprehending ears today. What we witness today is people seething with malice towards people and events for whom and about which they not have the slightest understanding, nor the smallest speck of human charity. They deserve no respect, and their demands deserve only scorn and rebuke. The nation should not kneel before this mob. I for one will not.

*The NYT described this event on its sesquicentennial in its “Disunion” series that recounted the events of the Civil War day by day. Will they ever do so in an uncritical (let alone laudatory) way in the future? I seriously doubt it.

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June 27, 2020

Narcissistic Presentist Bigotry Plus Radical Marxism–What Could Possibly Go Wrong?

Filed under: Civil War,History,Politics — cpirrong @ 6:52 pm

The most recent monument to face desecration and destruction is The Emancipation Memorial in Washington, DC. This was the site of a confrontation between raving lunatics dressed in black and a group of elderly black gentlemen who had assembled to protect the monument:

The ostensible objection to the Memorial is that portrays a black man in a demeaning, submissive pose at Abraham Lincoln’s feet. This was indeed true of the original design, but due to the objections of African Americans who had seen the design, it was changed to portray the subject rising, with head raised.

If you were a consistent leftist (I crack myself up sometimes) you would actually endorse this portrayal–after all, the incessant drumbeat we hear about slavery as the nation’s original sin and the root of all current evils is based on the very premise that blacks were beaten down, humiliated, and suppressed. In bondage, they were on their knees–literally and figuratively: and the statue portrays that. Emancipation–and remember, this is a monument to Emancipation–gave them the opportunity to rise up and stand like full human beings. But it was just the beginning. That is, the statue conveys powerfully that slavery subjugated black people, and that Emancipation was only the first step in a painful process of rising up to the status of full citizen and full person.

What about that does anyone–including a leftist–believe is untrue?

The monument was paid for by African Americans grateful to Abraham Lincoln, without whom, they realized, they would still be in bondage, and whom they recognized was martyred for his role in freeing them. The model for the rising black man was a former slave–is the modern left insinuating that he was an ignorant Uncle Tom for collaborating in a demeaning portrayal? The oration at the Memorial’s dedication was delivered by Frederick Douglas, who movingly and realistically described Lincoln’s not-John-Brown-like racial views, but who in the end celebrated Lincoln’s greatness, and expressed his gratitude–and impliedly the gratitude of other African Americans–for what Lincoln achieved despite his imperfections (which were largely the inheritance of his time and place). Was Frederick Douglas also a fool advancing the cause of white supremacy?

Note in the video in the tweet that one of the gentlemen that this mentally imbalanced woman is haranguing is clearly doing an historical impression of Frederick Douglas. I am sure that harridan has no clue.

Let’s be clear. This baying mob is not fit even to grovel at the feet of a moral and intellectual giant like Frederick Douglas, let alone assault those doing him homage, or attempting to destroy a monument to which Douglas paid homage on that very spot.

These attacks on the monument are, at best, narcissistic presentism run amok. And presentism is a malign form of bigotry, and in this case ironically deprives mid-19th century African Americans of agency and dignity.

But let’s cut the bullshit. The attack on the Emancipation Memorial has fuck all to do with aesthetics, symbolism, or iconography. Those are just the rhetorical camouflage.

To reprise the theme of several past posts, tearing down this monument is just another act of a movement to tear down the entire nation, extirpate its history root and branch, and replace it with a Marxist paradise.

But don’t take my word for it. Take the word of the person who targeted the monument for destruction, one Glenn Foster:

Apropos my earlier post on our Schumpeter Moment, note that Foster attended Harvard. That’s what they “learn” there.

There are other examples–too many–of the fundamental nature of the movement. Here’s one:

Law enforcement officials had to respond to a large group of Black Lives Matters activists late on Friday night that stormed a Beverly Hills residential neighborhood chanting “Eat the rich!” and “Abolish capitalism now!”

I could go on. And on. And on.

At root, this is not about racial injustice, really. That issue is merely a wedge. Or better, an opiate being given to the masses to cloud their faculties and dull the pain of the radical surgery that these radicals have planned for them.

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June 24, 2020

What Were the Crimes of US Grant & Hans Heg? They Were Americans–and Fighting Against Slavery Does Not Expiate the Guilt

Filed under: Civil War,History,Politics — cpirrong @ 11:00 am

You’ve probably heard of Ulysses S. Grant. He arguably did more for African Americans than anyone in American history. It is highly doubtful that the United States of America would have prevailed against the Confederate States of America without Grant. His brilliant victories in the Western Theater (most notably Vicksburg and Chattanooga) knocked the props from under the Confederacy, and his relentless, grinding campaign in Virginia in 1864 and 1865 (and his orchestration of the overall Union effort in those years) accomplished what previous generals had failed to: smashing the Confederacy’s ability to resist.

As president, he pushed a vigorous Reconstruction policy, and was largely personally responsible for crushing the first incarnation of the KKK.

Grant has long been ranked among the worst presidents. Why? Because the history profession from the 1880s-1930s was dominated by Southerners who detested his Reconstruction policies. What better endorsement could one have?

You probably haven’t heard of Hans Heg. Heg was a Norwegian immigrant to Wisconsin. He was a fierce abolitionist, and early member of the Free Soil Party and then the Republican Party. He commanded the 15th Wisconsin Volunteer Infantry, and was mortally wounded with a gut shot in the woody abattoir at Chickamauga on 19 September, 1863. His brigade suffered almost 50 percent casualties in fighting Bushrod Johnson’s Tennessee brigade and James Robertson’s Texas Brigade.

I have walked the ground where Heg fought and died at least a dozen times. I have also read his moving letters.

Now Grant and Heg have something in common besides fighting to end slavery in the United States. Their statues (Grant’s in San Francisco, Heg’s in Madison, WI) have been toppled in the ongoing (and indeed intensifying) frenzied assault on public historical memorials, ostensibly to remove from our sight the glorification of slavery. Poor Colonel Heg’s bronze head was separated from his body and he was tossed into Lake Monona (which is where Otis Redding perished in a plane crash in 1967, by the way).

One’s first reaction might be to condemn the utter ignorance of those who assault the memorials of those who actually fought–and in Heg’s case, died horribly–to end slavery and bring freedom and justice to African Americans.

But I think that reaction is wrong. The indiscriminate nature of the assaults on memory are not the product of ignorance: they demonstrate with incredible clarity the true motivation and impetus behind this iconoclastic moment, and the beliefs of those who carry out these deeds. They believe that America is evil, that its history is a litany of sin, and its memory must be ripped up, root and branch. The message is: these figures are evil, regardless of what they did, or what side they fought on, because they are Americans who were revered by earlier generations of sinful Americans.

It is pointless to argue facts about the acts of Grant or Heg with these people. Those facts pale into insignificance in the face of the irredeemable sin of the United States of America.

Destroying the statues of Grant or Heg (or the threatened destruction of the Emancipation Monument) make this point far more forcefully than removing the statue of a Nathan Bedford Forrest. These acts show that these people believe that nothing you have done can redeem you. Your crime is that you were an American. Your good acts are not sufficient to expiate that guilt. Thus, I expect that monuments to such individuals will become a special target for future destruction.

To argue against these people is as futile as a lifelong Bolshevik pleading his devotion to the cause when facing one of Stalin’s NKVD executioners.

This is an irreconcilable conflict of visions, and an existential one. And if people of good will, normal Americans, don’t figure that out quickly, the consequences will be catastrophic. The time to fight back is now. And hopefully now is not too late.

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June 18, 2020

When Judging History, Remember Matthew, Not Marx

Filed under: Civil War,History,Politics — cpirrong @ 6:22 pm

A little less than 3 years ago, during the last spasm of nihilistic iconoclasm that wracked the United States, I wrote:

It is because of this loss of historical memory that I am averse to iconoclasm. I am also quite conscious that iconoclasm is itself almost always an assertion of political power, and as such can be as divisive as the erection of the icons was. A cycle of symbolism can sow discord, and generate much more heat than light. In a deeply divided country, we should be looking for ways to improve understanding and to provide fora for reconciliation, rather than to inflame divisions. Building the monuments was a way of showing who is on top: taking them down is a way of doing the same. But assertion of power relations exacerbates conflict and detracts from the advancement of true equality.

The Confederate monument controversy has also catalyzed tribalism, perhaps intentionally so, as this has definite political uses, most notably making it possible for the left to claim that the fringe mouth breathers who rallied to defend the monument are representative of all its political adversaries. It is also the last thing the increasingly tribal US needs at present.

Today is like that. Only on steroids and meth.

Especially the part about iconoclasm being an assertion of political power. For that is the real driving force behind the current orgy of destruction–which is no longer limited to the US, but has spread around the world.

In the US, the hard left is hell-bent on imposing a Howard Zinn version of history on the entire country. A version in which the nation’s history is a litany of crimes, with no redeeming features or redeeming figures. For a nation such as that must be uprooted, destroyed, and then remade. The past must be erased–no, extirpated–in order to clear the way for a glorious utopian future.

Hence everything–everything–has to go. No historical figure is safe. The monument to the (black) 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry in Boston. The statue of abolitionist John Greenleaf Whittier in the town in California that bears his name. No one is pure enough to meet the standards of today’s Jacobins and Red Guardists.

The most commonly cited justification for this is “but slavery!” Where once upon a time people played Six Degrees From Kevin Bacon, we now play–or are forced to witness and assent to–Six Degrees From Slavery, in which lines are drawn from various figures or places to slavery. (Although not consistently–Kente cloth being an notable exception). If there is a connection within six degrees–into the furnace! And such connections inevitably exist in any nation or culture with a history of slavery. Which, as it happens, is every nation and culture. Meaning everything is at risk.

This has reached its most ludicrous (but not necessarily the ultimate in ludicrousness–there’s still time!) in campaigns against Penny Lane in Liverpool (allegedly, but not proved, to be named for a Mr. Penny who was involved in the slave trade in the distant past) and the University of Virginia logo, upon which the depictions of handles of crossed swords included a wavy pattern evocative of the Serpentine Walls at UVA–walls which, we are now told, “former President Thomas Jefferson designed . . . to muffle the sounds of slaves and hide them from public view.”

Color me skeptical. (Can I say that?) This is attributed to “historians.” I have looked fairly extensively to see which historians, and the basis for this conclusion, but to no avail. If someone can provide the documentation, I would be glad to evaluate it.

Building walls around universities is hardly a novelty. Creating cloistered spaces at universities or other scholastic institutions to isolate them from the intrusions of the outside world dates back to medieval times–visit a college at Oxford sometime. Or most monasteries.

But never mind, whatever the origins of the walls, they have long been recognized as architecturally distinctive (though they harken to English precedents). So the interest in and aesthetic value of the walls has existed and exists independent of whatever thought gave impetus to Jefferson to create them.

No, this seems like a classic Alinskyite effort intended to dragoon a public institution, and its craven administrators (don’t dare call them “leaders”) into genuflecting before the power of the radicals. They pick a target–the wall–freeze it, personalize it, polarize it.

And then they move on to the next target, because there is no limiting principle here. Again, the imposition of the Howard Zinn view of American history recognizes no limits: everyone and everything that preceded Year Zero is evil, and must be destroyed.

If an abstract representation of the Serpentine Wall is today considered an affront and offensive, how can the walls themselves be any less so? If you must eliminate the image, how can you possibly tolerate the real thing? In other words: how long before there is a call for the walls to be torn down, or a mob takes the job into its own hands?

The radicals will march from surrender to surrender. Given that they will never compromise, the line has to be drawn at no iconoclasm, period. Monuments are a testament to their time and place. Let them stand as such, and let our interpretation of those things change with the times and knowledge.

Quite interestingly, French President Emmanuel Macron, agrees, and forcefully so:

Would that there would be someone equally articulate taking such a strong stand here, or in the UK, or elsewhere in the Anglosphere. Bravo, M. le President.

This is about history, but it’s not only about history. It’s not even mainly about history. Orwell: “Who controls the past controls the future. Who controls the present controls the past.” The delegitimization of the American past (and the British past and the Western past (“decolonize your bookshelf”)) is just one part of a concerted campaign to delegitimize our institutions and our cultures, in order to replace them with those imagined in the radicals’ fevered brains.

The Jacobins brook no opposition and in fact demand complete subservience. It is not sufficient to say, reasonably enough, that black lives matter. No, it is necessary to endorse (or at the very least, not dare to criticize) Black Lives Matter, thereby giving your asset to its entire radical, Marxist, crypto-Marxist, divisive, and race-charged agenda. In this way, the radicals opportunistically use empathy and goodwill and shock at shocking events as a Trojan Horse to smuggle their extreme agenda inside America’s (metaphorical) walls–and inside your heads. And we know what happened to the Trojans when they accepted the Greek gift.

So call me Cassandra: beware of radicals bearing “gifts.”

Particularly narcissistic radicals, like those who dominate today. They cast judgment on everyone else, and everyone who went before. All fail to live up to their lofty standards. But they apparently assume that they are perfect, and no future people, radical or otherwise, will judge them.

They would be wise to heed Matthew 7:1-3:

Judge not, that ye be not judged. For with what judgment ye judge, ye shall be judged: and with what measure ye mete, it shall be measured to you

They should. But they won’t. Because the history that they so haughtily disdain shows they never do. So they must be fought. Hammer and tong.

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June 11, 2020

Will Miracles Never Cease? A Voice of Sanity–From Berkeley

Filed under: Civil War,History,Politics — cpirrong @ 5:54 pm

Here is a powerful “UC Berkeley History Professor’s Open Letter Against BLM, Police Brutality and Cultural Orthodoxy.” Let that sink in–a letter from a Berkeley history prof against “BLM . . . and Cultural Orthodoxy.”

Powerful, but understandably–and sadly–anonymous. How many times have you been told we have to have a “conversation about race.” That’s a lie. Anybody saying that doesn’t want a conversation. They want to deliver a lecture. A monologue. And for you to listen, nodding in assent, preferably on your knees.

Here is a person who makes a sincere effort at having a thoughtful conversation, but knows that s/he cannot do so openly except at professional and personal peril.

You should read the entire thing, but I will highlight the most important point:

The claim that the difficulties that the black community faces are entirely causally explained by exogenous factors in the form of white systemic racism, white supremacy, and other forms of white discrimination remains a problematic hypothesis that should be vigorously challenged by historians. Instead, it is being treated as an axiomatic and actionable truth without serious consideration of its profound flaws, or its worrying implication of total black impotence. This hypothesis is transforming our institution and our culture, without any space for dissent outside of a tightly policed, narrow discourse.

Exactly right.

I will go further. The theory of systemic racism is quintessential pseudo-science, an unfalsifiable hypothesis, analogous to Marxism (“scientific socialism”). To which it can trace its roots, via the Frankfurt School in particular.

It has all the hallmarks of pseudo-science that Karl Popper identified decades ago. It purports to be a theory of everything. Those who propound this theory invoke it as an explanation of virtually every aspect of society and social relations. Moreover, those who dispute it are not joined factually or logically. Instead, their disagreement is taken as evidence of proof of the theory (“if you dispute the theory it proves how pervasive racism is and that you are a racist”) just as Marxism dismissed opponents as merely representing prevailing production relationships in society, or false class consciousness, or other such drivel. Opponents are guilty of Wrongthink, to be shouted down, ostracized, and marginalized–if they are lucky.

The last thing that its proponents want is that it “should be vigorously challenged by historians.” Or anybody else for that matter. Those who challenge the revealed truth are heretics, and must be treated accordingly.

Of course it is the current fashion in academia, and among the intelligentsia. But, as Orwell trenchantly said, “Some ideas are so stupid that only intellectuals believe them.”  My modification: “Some ideas are so malign that only intellectuals believe them.”

This has become a new secular religion, like Marxism. And like traditional religions, it has saints and heretics, and especially hell.

Because the theory is unfalsifiable, it is a fool’s errand to argue against it, factually or logically, at least to the people who propound it or claim to believe it. I know many people–smart people–who make gallant efforts to do so. Factually and logically they are persuasive. But attempting to falsify factually and logically an unfalsifiable and logically defective theory is futile, and only brings the furies down on your head. As the Berkeley history prof (an assistant prof, I’m guessing) clearly understands.

Further, note that when it comes to concrete policy choices and decisions, the game is rigged. If you buy into “systemic racism”, no mere reform of a police department or voting procedures or what have you is adequate. The frenzy unleashed on hapless Minneapolis Mayor Jacob Frey shows that. If you are not with the Jacobins 100 percent, you are an enemy.

Which means that the only prescription acceptable to those who actually believe this theory (or are smart enough to not believe it, but find it politically useful) is a complete revolution in our social relations, our economy, our government, and every institution public or private. No half measures are acceptable. No 99.9 percent measures are acceptable.

This in part explains the appeal of this theory to intellectuals and academics. They like all encompassing, gnostic theories and explanations. (See Thomas Sowell’s indispensable A Conflict of Visions for a trenchant analysis.) Intellectuals also fantasize about being in power, and deeply resent not having it.

The honest advocates of this theory will have no dispute with that: they forthrightly advocate a complete destruction and then reconstruction of society, from top to bottom. Because they think it is “systemically” rotten.

Because such attempts have always worked out great, right?

The iconoclasm and vandalism we are seeing is testament to the totalitarian, millenarian vision. Every monument has been desecrated (including a monument to black soldiers who fought in the Civil War) or is at risk of desecration, because it is the product of an evil past that lives on in an evil present. Year Zero calls!

The more than passing resemblance between the way that “conversations” are carried out today, and they were under the Red Guards in the Cultural Revolution, is further evidence. You must recant every wrongthought and embrace Newthink, or you will be destroyed.

The perversity of all this is too much. The consequences are utterly foreseeable, and dire. Most importantly, realization of only a trivial portion of this vision would hurt most the people whom are the supposed beneficiaries.

Case in point. The Chicago Police basically abandoned most neighborhoods in Chicago during the last weekend in May in the aftermath of the riots that wracked the city. Aldermen from minority wards were apoplectic. Even a hardcore leftist like Michael Pfleger were appalled:

“On Saturday and particularly Sunday, I heard people saying all over, ‘Hey, there’s no police anywhere, police ain’t doing nothing,’” Pfleger said.

“I sat and watched a store looted for over an hour,” he added. “No police came. I got in my car and drove around to some other places getting looted [and] didn’t see police anywhere.”

And on that weekend had the largest number of murders in Chicago’s recorded history. Given that history, that is a truly appalling statement.

Hopefully this episode is like the Ghost of Christmas Future, that will awaken people to where this is headed so that it can be stopped in its tracks. But hope is not a plan. This has to be fought, and the most important strategic move is to not fight this battle on the ground that the opponents choose–the pseudoscientific theory of systemic racism.

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November 28, 2019

America is Exceptional, and Its Foreign Policy Failures Stem From Americans’ Failure to Acknowledge That Fact

Filed under: Civil War,History,Military,Politics — cpirrong @ 1:47 pm

When reading Allen Guelzo’s review of Elizabeth Varon’s narrative history of the Civil War, Armies of Deliverance, this jumped out at me:

What will redeem even this quibbling is the significance of the basic trope around which Varon builds her narrative. It is Varon’s fundamental belief that Northerners entered into—and stayed in—the Civil War out of the conviction that they were rescuing the deluded Southern white masses from the tyranny of Southern slaveholders. Northerners saw the Confederacy as a vast kidnapping by these elites, who had turned the slaveholding states into a closed economic system approximating what Karl Marx called “feudal socialism.”
By overthrowing this slaveholder coup d’etat, and by destroying the yoke of slavery for both white and black, the way would be opened to redeem the South, through opening its doors to “free labor”—to open markets, competitive wage contracts and, in a word, capitalism. “What a commercial world this State of Virginia should be,” marveled a Union army surgeon in 1862. With the overthrow of the slave oligarchs, insisted Henry Ward Beecher, “Schools will multiply. Books and papers will spread. Churches will bless every hamlet.”
Confidence that Northern victory would bring this deliverance in its train motivated the constant refrain in Northern writing that the war was aimed only at the oligarchs, and that poor whites and freed slaves would flock eagerly to the banner of Unionism. Hence the joyful predictions that, sooner or later, a latent Southern Unionism would rise from its repressed well; hence, also, Lincoln’s attempt to negotiate a generous amnesty and Reconstruction policy. Varon acknowledges that other historians have recognized the attraction of “the deluded-masses theory,” but virtually all of them limit its influence to the early months of the war, before the stiffening of Southern resistance led Northerners to embrace instead a “hard war” of conquest and subjugation. Varon sees no such evaporation. To the contrary, she demonstrates the “deliverance” idea’s persistence, marshalling evidence from Edward Everett’s 1863 Gettysburg oration (the “other” Gettysburg address) to soldier diaries to newspaper pronouncements—all the way to Lincoln’s last cabinet meeting on April 14, 1865.
The painful irony of this conviction was that Southerners—and not just the oligarchs—simply did not share it. They repudiated the accusation of oligarchy and instead stressed Southern white solidarity, a solidarity fired by the sufferings they endured during the war. The end of the conflict left Southern whites militarily defeated, but even more defiant in their loss—and more contemptuous of Yankee missionary efforts to convert them to free labor—than they had been in 1861. And from this refusal springs the bitter fruit of Reconstruction.

During the nadir of the American experience in Iraq, I often drew parallels with Reconstruction. One major parallel was that utter military defeat was a necessary, but by no means sufficient, condition to bring a vanquished region to heel. Conquering a populace is much harder than defeating armies.

The other major parallel is related to Varon’s interpretation of Northern thinking about the implications of victory. Per Varon, Northerners believed they were liberating oppressed masses from a small ruling class, and that the subjugation of that class would make the oppressed Southerners, black and white alike, into stereotypical Yankees who would adopt Yankee institutions and ways. In 2003, Americans (especially the neoconservatives) believed that the US was liberating oppressed Iraqis from a small (Sunni) ruling class, and that once liberated, (mainly Shia) Iraqis would adopt American (Western) values and institutions, and we could ride off into the sunset, like the Lone Ranger.

The happy visions of 1865 Northerners and 2003 Americans soon crashed into the reality that white Southerners and Iraqis didn’t want to become Yankees. The underlying reality here is that culture goes deep, culture is extremely particularist, and most of the world doesn’t share universalist American (Yankee) pretensions. Indeed, Civil War and Reconstruction demonstrate that at one time many Americans didn’t share such universalist pretensions.

If you look at many of the myriad debacles of what passes for American statecraft (e.g., the Wilsonian failure post-1918, Vietnam), they can be traced to a similar source: the American failure to understand the immense power of civilizational and cultural identity, and the concomitant belief that if given the chance–if “liberated”–everyone everywhere would become Americans.

Ironically, these beliefs have proved utterly resistant to repeated and decisive empirical refutation. Indeed, the near hysterical (well, maybe not so near) reaction to Trump in particular, and various strains of “nationalism” generally, among the establishment/government class demonstrates that they are still in thrall to such beliefs.

The ongoing impeachment farce is the most pathetic manifestation of this. Trump’s instinctual distrust of a corrupt and dysfunctional Ukraine clashes with the most deeply held convictions of The Interagency, AKA, the establishment Blob, which still pursues the chimeras that enticed Civil War-era Yankees and Iraq War-era policy elites. This time it will work! Trust us on this! Pay no attention to the sad litany of failures! We can make Sovoks into Yankees!

In a weird way, this is why I am an American exceptionalist, in the literal meaning of that term. I believe that the United States is largely an exception that proves the rule. America’s repeated attempts to make its very historically contingent institutions, culture, and development the universal rule are doomed to failure because they founder on the very historically contingent institutions, cultures, and developments of those it presumes to change.

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October 22, 2019

Chickamauga Connections

Filed under: Civil War — cpirrong @ 6:38 pm

The weekend before last I traveled to northern Georgia to visit the Chickamauga and Chattanooga battlefields. They are among my favorites. Chickamauga was the first battlefield preserved by the federal government (in 1890). This early action, plus the fact that the area was economically marginal, meant that virtually the entire field is preserved. It is well-marked. I quibble with some of the market placements (especially at Snodgrass Hill and Horseshoe Ridge, where I agree with Archibald Gracie rather than the original Battlefield Commission), but the battle was incredibly complex and confusing so no definitive interpretation is possible.

There are family connections here. My GGGF, George Immel, fought with the 92nd Ohio at Chickamauga and the assault on Missionary Ridge. (The 92nd was in Turchin’s brigade, which along with Harker’s, Croxton’s and Vandeveer’s turned in the best performance of any Union brigades in the battle.) My GGM’s brothers fought in the 46th Ohio in the assault on Tunnel Hill at Chattanooga. Here’s yours truly at the Napoleons placed to market the position of Key’s Arkansas Battery, which the 46th and the other regiments of Corse’s brigade, Ewing’s division, Sherman’s corps, attacked on 25 November, 1863:

I hit most of the major important points at Chickamauga, but having been there on the order of a dozen times, I expanded my horizons a bit this trip. I followed the route of Thomas’ 14th Corps over Lookout Mountain, into McClemore’s Cove, and then to Crawfish Spring.

Crawfish Spring is currently the site of the town of Chickamauga. The Spring (pictured below) was the site of a Union hospital during the battle, and also a vital source of water:

Across from the Spring is the massive Gordon Mansion, which was a Union headquarters prior to the battle:

The mansion is particularly impressive, when compared to the hardscrabble cabins (like the Brotherton, Kelly, and Snodgrass houses) that most local folk lived in. Talk about your inequality of wealth!

Walking around the spring and the mansion, I learned some interesting facts. One is that a slave of the Gordon family who buried the dead at Chickamauga (I get the image of Morgan Freeman in Glory), Mark Thrash, remained in the area until his death, reputedly at the age of 122 years, 357 days (making him the oldest man in the world at the time, reputedly).

The other story is even more fascinating. I went to the monument of the 88th Illinois, “The Second Board of Trade Regiment”

but didn’t expect another Chicago Board of Trade connection;

Specifically, the area around Crawfish Springs was a training camp (Camp Lytle, later renamed Camp Thomas) during the Spanish-American War. (Ironically, the 88th Illinois was in Lytle’s brigade, and the monument is on the lower slope of Lytle Hill). Sanitation was horrible, and recruits were dropping like flies from typhoid and dysentery. A Chicago philanthropist, Mary T. Leiter, heard of the disaster, and paid $10,000 to buy the Park Hotel near the springs and convert it to a hospital.

Mary Leiter was the wife of Levi Leiter, the financial/business brain behind Marshall Fields. Her son, Joseph, became a notorious speculator on the CBOT. His massive failed attempt to corner the wheat market in 1897-1898 was the inspiration for Frank Norris’ novel, The Pit: A Story of Chicago. Hence the CBOT connection.

Levi had to pay $5 million to bail out his son after the corner collapsed–and that’s when $5 mil was a helluva lot of money. This would have been a few months before Joe’s mom popped a mere $10k for a hotel/hospital.

One of Leiter’s daughters (Mary Victoria) was famous in her own right, marrying Lord Curzon and becoming the Vicereine of India before her premature death at age 36.

Quite a fascinating story, and an unexpected place to find it.

All in all, a trip filled with connections, personal and professional.

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November 30, 2018

The Most Tragic Day of a Tragic War

Filed under: Civil War,History,Military — cpirrong @ 9:19 pm
The American Civil War was an extremely grim conflict from first to last, but few–if any–days of that war were as grim as 30 November, 1864.  On that bleak day, John Bell Hood launched his Confederate Army of Tennessee in an assault over 1.5 miles of open ground against a larger force of steely Union veterans behind strong entrenchments.  The result was predictable–to all but Hood, apparently: an epic slaughter of some of the finest infantry of that or any war.

The battle is known–to the extent it is known, which is too little–for the deaths of six Confederate generals, namely Cleburne (not of Texas, but for whom a town in the state is named because a brigade of Texans served under his command), Carter, Granbury (of Texas, and commander of that Texas brigade, for whom a Lone Star town is named), Strahl, Gist, and Adams.  Seven other brigade or division commanders were wounded.   No other battle took such a toll on general officers.

Officer casualties at Franklin were horrible, but the carnage in the ranks was almost as bad.  Many excellent formations were nearly obliterated.

Case in point: the storied Missouri Brigade.  Arguably the best combat unit in the western theater, and arguably of the entire war, the brigade went into the battle with 696 men, of whom 419 (over 60 percent) were rendered hors du combat.  53 out of 56 officers–think about that for a minute, 95 percent–went down.  Although a pathetic remnant of the brigade tramped on to Nashville, to participate in the defeat there, for all intents and purposes the finest unit in the Army of Tennessee was wrecked beyond repair.

In some respects it is invidious to single out a particular brigade: virtually every Confederate formation was ravaged.

Virtually nowhere did the Confederates penetrate the Union entrenchments. General Adams made it literally half-way: he attempted to leap his horse over the rampart, only to have his horse–and himself–riddled by bullets in the attempt.  Adams was found dead on his horse, which had its forelegs on the Union side of the parapet, and the hind legs on the Confederate side.

The one exception was in Cleburne’s and Brown’s sector near the Cotton Gin and Carter House.  A blunder had resulted in two small Federal brigades (Conrad’s and Lane’s) of Wagner’s IV Corps division remaining several hundred yards in front of the main Union line, holding a thinly-manned rudimentary set of earthworks.  These men were overwhelmed by the assault of the two Confederate divisions and they broke for the rear, as sensible men will.   A cry went up from the Confederate lines: “Shoot them in the back! Follow them into the works!” And they did.  The defenders of the main line were hesitant to fire because Lane’s and Conrad’s men were in the way, and thus the Confederates were largely spared from the withering volleys that stopped their comrades on their right and left in their tracks, allowing Cleburne’s and Brown’s men to surge over the works.

But only for a short while.  Wagner’s third brigade, under Emerson Opdyke (which contained the 2d Board of Trade regiment, the 88th Illinois, by the way), launched a frenzied counterattack that resulted in hand-to-hand fighting around the Carter House (which stands today, along with outbuildings that still exhibit hundreds of bullet holes).  Supported by troops that had been driven from the works (including the 1st Board of Trade Regiment, AKA the 72nd Illinois), Opdyke drove back the Confederates.

But not far.  The rebels congregated in the ditch on the outside of the Union lines.  Because that was the safest place: to recross the field would have been suicidal.

For the next several hours, in the darkness of the late-autumn day, the contending forces slaughtered each other at point-blank range.  General Strahl was shot handing loaded muskets to his men.  Carried to the rear, he was shot in the neck and fatally wounded in the field beyond the ditch.  Men would thrust their muskets over the parapet one-handed, and discharge them into the seething mass on the other side.  Soldiers launched bayoneted rifles like spears into the masses on the other side of the line. Some became frenzied, and jumped on top of the works, only to be shot down.  By late in the evening, the ditch in front of the works was a crawling mass of wounded men, intermixed with the dead.

There is nothing like it in the Civil War.  Pickett’s Charge was similar in terms of numbers, and ground crossed, and ultimate result, but when the Confederates were repulsed, they withdrew.  That fight did not drag on for hours at point-blank range.  The carnage at Franklin did.

In the end, exhaustion caused the fight to ebb away, just as the lives of hundreds of men were ebbing away.  The Union army had bought the time to rebuild the bridges over the Harpeth River necessary to continue their retreat to Nashville, and stole away in the night.  The Confederates were too tired, and too bloodied, even to notice, let alone to try to stop them.

This was truly one of the great tragedies of a War full of them.  In a conflict full of futile and pointless assaults, Franklin stands out for futility and pointlessness.  The Union army ended up exactly where it would have if the battle had never been fought.  But a third of the 23,000 Confederates who made the assault were killed (around 1750) or wounded (5500).  The casualty rates were even higher in Cleburne’s and Brown’s divisions.  60 of 100 regimental commanders went down.

The Federals suffered about 2400 casualties, of whom 1100 (primarily in Conrad’s and Lane’s brigades)  were captured.  Only battles like Fredericksburg or Cold Harbor resulted in a similar disproportionate loss on the contending sides.

So why did this tragedy occur?  It clearly is the responsibility of one man: John Bell Hood.  I agree with (the General’s distant relation) Stephen Hood’s debunking of Wiley Sword’s claim that Hood’s judgment was warped by his reliance on laudanum to ease the pain of his horrific wounds (an arm crippled at Gettysburg, a leg lost almost at the hip at Chickamauga).   Accounts make it clear that Hood was outraged that his subordinates had let the Union army escape a trap at Spring Hill (to the south of Franklin), and this almost certainly dominated his thinking and made an attack seem to be the only option.  It has also been argued that Hood wanted to punish his army for its failure at Spring Hill, but I tend to doubt this interpretation.  He was mad (“as wrathy as a rattlesnake” in the words of one witness) at seeing what he considered to be a Jacksonian stroke come to naught, almost certainly exhausted, and predisposed to aggressiveness.  A deadly combination for the hardy and valiant men under his command.

Franklin illustrates like few battles the incredible deadliness of veteran soldiers by that stage of the war.  Whereas the brutal losses of the Overland and Petersburg campaigns had made Army of the Potomac regiments shadows of their former selves, re-manned with draftees with dubious combat effectiveness (as illustrated by battles like Ream’s Station), western Union regiments had seen extensive combat experience, but still had a strong core of veteran soldiers.

The Army of Tennessee had suffered in battle after battle (Perryville, Stones River, Chickamauga, the battles around Atlanta) but although these losses led to shrunken ranks, those who remained were lethally effective and brave beyond measure.  Veterans that they were, they were certainly under no illusions about their prospects as they stepped off from Winstead Hill for the long trudge to the Union lines at Franklin.  But forlorn hope or no, they attacked with a will.  Awesome is the only word for it.

Unfortunately, the field where these men underwent their agonies is largely unpreserved.  All of the trenches are gone.  The site of the climax of the battle around the Cotton Gin was scarred by a Domino’s Pizza for years.  Fortunately, preservationists have acquired that property, razed the structures, and have created a small park there, including a monument to Cleburne.  The Carter House exists, and preservationists are painstakingly buying property around it in an attempt to create a larger commemorative space.  But most of the Union line to the right and left was covered by pleasant suburban houses years ago.

Carnton Plantation, where the bodies of 4 of the slain generals were laid out after the battle, is still exists.  A Confederate cemetery is located on the grounds–one of the largest at any Civil War battlefield.  The fields around Carnton, where the Confederate right stepped off, are undeveloped, but the target of their assault is suburbia.

Although you can’t experience Franklin in the same way as you can Antietam, or Chickamauga, or Shiloh, or Gettysburg, perhaps that’s for the best.  Bucolic scenes with granite monuments cannot possibly convey the experience of those men who were sacrificed without prospect or purpose 154 years ago today.

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November 23, 2018

The Looming War on Thanksgiving

Filed under: Civil War,History,Politics — cpirrong @ 12:47 pm
Attacking Columbus day? Confederate monuments? Old news!  The new hotness is attacking Thanksgiving.  Yes, the criticism can best be characterized as a swell today, but after long experience of observing the dynamics of these things, I expect that it will become a tidal wave next year, or the year after.

The grounds of the attack: it is a racist celebration.  Here is one particularly angry example of the criticism, but it differs from other things I’ve read and heard more in atmospherics than substance:

Nobody but Americans celebrates Thanksgiving. It is reserved by history and the intent of “the founders” as the supremely white American holiday, the most ghoulish event on the national calendar. No Halloween of the imagination can rival the exterminationist reality that was the genesis, and remains the legacy, of the American Thanksgiving. It is the most loathsome, humanity-insulting day of the year – a pure glorification of racist barbarity.

We at [Black Commentator] are thankful that the day grows nearer when the almost four centuries-old abomination will be deprived of its reason for being: white supremacy. Then we may all eat and drink in peace and gratitude for the blessings of humanity’s deliverance from the rule of evil men.

Thanksgiving is much more than a lie – if it were that simple, an historical correction of the record of events in 1600s Massachusetts would suffice to purge the “flaw” in the national mythology. But Thanksgiving is not just a twisted fable, and the mythology it nurtures is itself inherently evil. The real-life events – subsequently revised – were perfectly understood at the time as the first, definitive triumphs of the genocidal European project in New England. The near-erasure of Native Americans in Massachusetts and, soon thereafter, from most of the remainder of the northern English colonial seaboard was the true mission of the Pilgrim enterprise – Act One of the American Dream.  African Slavery commenced contemporaneously – an overlapping and ultimately inseparable Act Two. The last Act in the American drama must be the “root and branch” eradication of all vestiges of Act One and Two – America’s seminal crimes and formative projects. Thanksgiving as presently celebrated – that is, as a national political event – is an affront to civilization.

In a nutshell: Thanksgiving is a uniquely American holiday.  America is uniquely evil.  Therefore, in the coming Year Zero, Thanksgiving must be expunged, “root and branch.”

I will agree that Thanksgiving is a uniquely American holiday.   Everything after–appalling tripe.

First, to say that “[t]he near-erasure of Native Americans in Massachusetts and, soon thereafter, from most of the remainder of the northern English colonial seaboard was the true mission of the Pilgrim enterprise” is a lie and a libel.  Few things of that era are as well documented as the genesis of the voyage of the Mayflower, and the intent of those who sailed on it across storm tossed seas to an exceedingly uncertain shore.  The Puritans were people of intense religious feeling, suffering from intense religious persecution in their native England.  Decamping first to Leiden in the Dutch Republic, they decided to establish a New Jerusalem in a land outside of the control of the secular and religious authorities who persecuted them.

This was an inwardly-directed, insular, and arguably cultish group that was obsessed with inner salvation and communal adherence to strict religious principles.  It was the antithesis of a band of imperial adventurers and would-be conquerors: such a label might apply to the settlers of Jamestown, but not Plymouth.  There was not a Cortez among them.  They wanted to be left alone to pursue their vision of religious perfection.  Further, their settlement was founded based on a rather democratic and egalitarian document, the Mayflower Compact.

As a small band clinging to a precarious foothold, they posed little threat to Native Americans and intended to pose no such threat.   The initial relations with local tribes were mainly friendly.  Interestingly, competing tribes sought to cultivate their support in inter-tribal struggles.

As it turned out, their initial communitarian (bordering on communist) ideals turned out to be utterly impractical, with common property and communal labor leading to near obliteration by starvation.  The first Thanksgiving was a celebration of survival.  A genuine gesture from a sincerely religious people.

Being quicker learners than modern-day socialists, they jettisoned their Bible-inspired economic model, embraced private property and private labor, and within a few years of landing were becoming increasingly prosperous. During this period, relations with the native peoples were largely peaceful.

Continued religious persecution in England led other dissenters to leave their homeland for the New World.   Eventually the population growth, and the somewhat different ethos of these latter day Puritans, led to conflict with native tribes.  This culminated in the mid-1630s with the outbreak of the Pequot War.  But even that conflict is impossible to represent honestly as a conflict between grasping Europeans and persecuted natives.  Instead, it grew out of inter-tribal conflict, and in particular the aggressive imperialism–there’s really not a better word for it–of the Pequots.  In this war, the Puritan settlers were basically another tribe, but one with greater military capacity.

The Pequot War culminated in the Mystic Massacre.  Notably the Puritan attackers of the Pequot’s Mistick Fort were joined by Indian allies (the Mohegans and Narragansetts).  The attack against the fortification was almost a disaster, and in their desperation to escape the attackers set fires that spread, eventually consuming most of the fort and killing most of the Pequots trapped in it.

Like all history, this history is complicated.  Attempting to jam it into simplistic narratives intended to advance present-day political agendas necessarily does great violence to the truth, and leads to bitterness and conflict rather than understanding.

To make the Puritans emblematic of every American transgression does violence to the truth.  In particular, to tar them with the stick of slavery is particularly wrong.*  Moreover, to celebrate their laudable accomplishments, and their humble appreciation of God’s sparing them, does not excuse them or their followers from their failures and sin.

The modern holiday also attempts to appeal to the better angels of our nature (to quote Lincoln).  Consider Washington’s Thanksgiving proclamation:

Whereas it is the duty of all Nations to acknowledge the providence of Almighty God, to obey his will, to be grateful for his benefits, and humbly to implore his protection and favor, and whereas both Houses of Congress have by their joint Committee requested me “to recommend to the People of the United States a day of public thanksgiving and prayer to be observed by acknowledging with grateful hearts the many signal favors of Almighty God especially by affording them an opportunity peaceably to establish a form of government for their safety and happiness. Now therefore I do recommend and assign Thursday the 26th day of November next to be devoted by the People of these States to the service of that great and glorious Being, who is the beneficent Author of all the good that was, that is, or that will be. That we may then all unite in rendering unto him our sincere and humble thanks, for his kind care and protection of the People of this Country previous to their becoming a Nation, for the signal and manifold mercies, and the favorable interpositions of his providence, which we experienced in the course and conclusion of the late war, for the great degree of tranquility, union, and plenty, which we have since enjoyed, for the peaceable and rational manner, in which we have been enabled to establish constitutions of government for our safety and happiness, and particularly the national One now lately instituted, for the civil and religious liberty with which we are blessed; and the means we have of acquiring and diffusing useful knowledge; and in general for all the great and various favors which he hath been pleased to confer upon us. And also that we may then unite in most humbly offering our prayers and supplications to the great Lord and Ruler of Nations and beseech him to pardon our national and other transgressions, to enable us all, whether in public or private stations, to perform our several and relative duties properly and punctually, to render our national government a blessing to all the people, by constantly being a Government of wise, just, and constitutional laws, discreetly and faithfully executed and obeyed, to protect and guide all Sovereigns and Nations (especially such as have shown kindness unto us) and to bless them with good government, peace, and concord. To promote the knowledge and practice of true religion and virtue, and the encrease of science among them and Us, and generally to grant unto all Mankind such a degree of temporal prosperity as he alone knows to be best. Given under my hand at the City of New York the third day of October in the year of our Lord 1789.

It is clearly aspirational, and even acknowledges “national . . . transgressions,” for which it asks forgiveness in Christian fashion.  It also appeals for strength to be better as a people.

Or consider Lincoln’s, proclaimed during the depths of a Civil War:

The year that is drawing towards its close, has been filled with the blessings of fruitful fields and healthful skies. To these bounties, which are so constantly enjoyed that we are prone to forget the source from which they come, others have been added, which are of so extraordinary a nature, that they cannot fail to penetrate and soften even the heart which is habitually insensible to the ever watchful providence of Almighty God. In the midst of a civil war of unequalled magnitude and severity, which has sometimes seemed to foreign States to invite and to provoke their aggression, peace has been preserved with all nations, order has been maintained, the laws have been respected and obeyed, and harmony has prevailed everywhere except in the theatre of military conflict; while that theatre has been greatly contracted by the advancing armies and navies of the Union. Needful diversions of wealth and of strength from the fields of peaceful industry to the national defence, have not arrested the plough, the shuttle or the ship; the axe has enlarged the borders of our settlements, and the mines, as well of iron and coal as of the precious metals, have yielded even more abundantly than heretofore. Population has steadily increased, notwithstanding the waste that has been made in the camp, the siege and the battle-field; and the country, rejoicing in the consciousness of augmented strength and vigor, is permitted to expect continuance of years with large increase of freedom. No human counsel hath devised nor hath any mortal hand worked out these great things. They are the gracious gifts of the Most High God, who, while dealing with us in anger for our sins, hath nevertheless remembered mercy. It has seemed to me fit and proper that they should be solemnly, reverently and gratefully acknowledged as with one heart and one voice by the whole American People. I do therefore invite my fellow citizens in every part of the United States, and also those who are at sea and those who are sojourning in foreign lands, to set apart and observe the last Thursday of November next, as a day of Thanksgiving and Praise to our beneficent Father who dwelleth in the Heavens. And I recommend to them that while offering up the ascriptions justly due to Him for such singular deliverances and blessings, they do also, with humble penitence for our national perverseness and disobedience, commend to His tender care all those who have become widows, orphans, mourners or sufferers in the lamentable civil strife in which we are unavoidably engaged, and fervently implore the interposition of the Almighty Hand to heal the wounds of the nation and to restore it as soon as may be consistent with the Divine purposes to the full enjoyment of peace, harmony, tranquillity and Union.

It also acknowledge’s America’s “sins,” and “our national perverseness and disobedience,” and calls for “humble penitence” therefore: read in context, coming as it did the same year as the Emancipation Proclamation, it is evident that Lincoln is referring to slavery.

In other words, from the outset in Plymouth or subsequent declarations in 1789 or 1863, Thanksgiving was anything but a chauvinistic celebration of a haughty people.  To the contrary.  It was an appreciation for the bounties that Americans had reaped, bound with a recognition of human (and national) failures to realize ideals, and a commitment to do better.  It is more gratitude and humility, than chauvinism and haughtiness.

This is why Thanksgiving is my favorite holiday, and why I for one will push back at the swelling progressive attacks on it.

*One of my direct ancestors, Samuel Fuller, was a Mayflower passenger and a survivor of that first horrible year.  His parents, Edward and his wife (whose name does not appear in the records), were not so lucky, and died soon after they stepped off the boat.  Samuel was taken in by his uncle, also named Samuel Fuller, and survived to the ripe old age of 75, dying in 1683.

It is possible that Samuel Fuller was the only slaveholder among the Mayflower Puritans.  His will bequeaths an Indian named Joel to his son.  There are no other similar records of slaves, Indian or otherwise, held by these Puritans.  Slavery in Massachusetts Bay colony probably dates from the time of the Pequot War, but was relatively marginal there through the mid-18th century.  There were fewer black slaves than free blacks in Massachusetts in this period.   And of course, the descendants of the Puritans formed the core of the American abolitionist movement.

 

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October 15, 2018

The Media on Trump on Lee: Don’t Trust, But Verify

Filed under: Civil War,History,Military,Politics — cpirrong @ 11:08 am
The latest media Trump freakout derives from his statement during a campaign rally in Ohio last week that Robert E. Lee was “a great general.”  Since every Confederate is beyond the pale 153 years after the end of the Civil War, any praise of any Confederate is deemed evidence of racism.

As we’ll see, that spare characterization of Trump’s remarks was grotesquely misleading.  But hit pause on that for a moment, and just consider the objective truth of the part of the statement that was reported.  (Does truth even matter any more?)  There is little doubt that Lee displayed excellent generalship and leadership at the operational level.  Some of his campaigns–Second Manassas and Chancellorsville in particular–are justifiably renowned as examples of a smaller force defeating a larger one through maneuver.  His defense during the Overland Campaign was also laudable. Other campaigns–notably Gettysburg–were less creditable: but no modern general (not even Napoleon pre-Waterloo) was uniformly successful in campaign or battle.  The main objections to his generalship were that his operational success was not achieved pursuant to a broader strategic vision, and relatedly, that his tactical methods produced casualties that the Confederacy could not afford.  (Indeed, the casualties at his greatest victory–Chancellorsville–cast some shade on the achievement.)

Further note that acknowledging that someone was a great general does not imply an endorsement of the cause for which he fought.  Were Manstein and Rommel great generals?  Yes–much to the world’s cost.  Similarly, Zhukov.  The greatest generals in world history–Alexander, Caesar, Genghis Khan, Tamerlane, Napoleon–drowned their worlds in blood in their pursuit of grandeur.  Alas, one of the tragedies of history is that generalship exhibits some correlation with the depravity of the cause in which it is employed.  (This raises interesting questions regarding causation.)

So even if Trump said only what was widely reported, the facts were on his side.  But what was reported was not all he said.  Here are his remarks in full:

But maybe someday he will. It also gave you a general, who was incredible. He drank a little bit too much. You know who I’m talking about, right? So Robert E. Lee was a great general. And Abraham Lincoln developed a phobia. He couldn’t beat Robert E. Lee. He was going crazy. I don’t know if you know this story. But Robert E. Lee was winning battle after battle after battle. And Abraham Lincoln came home, he said, “I can’t beat Robert E. Lee.”  And he had all of his generals, they looked great, they were the top of their class at West Point. They were the greatest people. There’s only one problem — they didn’t know how the hell to win. They didn’t know how to fight. They didn’t know how. And one day, it was looking really bad. And Lincoln just said, you — hardly knew his name — and they said, don’t take him. He’s got a drinking problem. And Lincoln said, I don’t care what problem he has, you guys aren’t winning. And his name was Grant. General Grant. And he went in and he knocked the hell out of everyone. And you know the story. They said to Lincoln, you can’t use him anymore. He’s an alcoholic. And Lincoln said, I don’t care if he’s an alcoholic. Frankly, give me six or seven more just like him. He started to win. Grant really did. He had a serious problem. Serious drinking problem. But, man, was he a good general. And he’s finally being recognized as a great general. But Lincoln had almost developed a phobia, because he was having a hard time with a true great fighter and a great general, Robert E. Lee. But Grant figured it out, and Grant is a great general, and Grant came from right here.

So in a campaign rally in Ohio, Trump was praising Ohioans–a staple of stump rhetoric.  One Ohioan he praised was Ulysses S. Grant.  In the process of praising Grant, he touted the generalship of Grant’s most famous foe–Robert E. Lee.  This wasn’t about Lee, except indirectly.

Trump employed a standard rhetorical technique: he enhanced the achievements of the person he was praising by emphasizing the personal obstacles he had overcome (in Grant’s case, alcohol) and the brilliance and strength of the enemies that he vanquished (here, Lee).  Would David have become a legendary figure had he felled Irving, the Philistine Dwarf, instead of Goliath, the Philistine Giant?  Er, obviously not.  Nor would Grant have been as famous if he had vanquished Benjamin Huger or Leonidas Polk or any of the many non-entities that achieved general rank in the Confederacy.  (Indeed, one reason to question Lee’s brilliance is that his victories were won against a parade of incompetents.)  But beating Lee is a true accomplishment.

But the media ignored this in its haste to find another charge to add to the Trump indictment, and to further the narrative that he makes racist appeals to the Confederacy.   Indeed, some media couldn’t satisfy its frenzy by stopping merely at ripping a sentence fragment out of context: NBC falsely enhanced the narrative by claiming that Trump had said that Lee was “incredible.”   Actually, that is a classic case of projection: It is NBC, and the rest of the media that ran with the “Lee is great” meme that lacks credibility.

Yet they whine when he blasts them for spreading “fake news.”  Here’s a thought: if you don’t want Trump to accuse you of spreading false news, don’t spread false news!

If there’s anything objectionable in Trump’s remark, it is the first part of that rhetorical technique: Trump arguably exaggerated seriously Grant’s alcohol problem, at least as of the time of the Civil War.  There is still much debate over whether and when and how much Grant consumed alcohol.  Many of the reports of his abuse of liquor were insinuations by nasty backbiters (e.g., Henry Hallack) that exploited the reputation Grant developed in the 1850s while marooned at Fort Humboldt in California.  There is no credible report that he was impaired at any time in the conduct of his duties 1861-1865.

And as Lincoln said when those backbiters criticized Grant: “I wish some of you would tell me the brand of whiskey that Grant drinks. I would like to send a barrel of it to my other generals.”  For Grant carried out one, and arguably two, of the greatest campaigns of maneuver in the Civil War.  The Vicksburg campaign, in fact, is one of the most brilliant campaigns in modern military history anywhere.  The crossing of the James in June, 1864 was also operationally brilliant, though barren of results due to the blundering of the generals in charge of carrying the attacks at Petersburg home–and arguably due as well to the exhaustion and casualties and loss of aggressiveness brought on by the relentless grinding of the Overland Campaign of the prior 5 weeks.

Further, Grant excelled Lee in that his operational successes all advanced broader strategic goals.  By March, 1864 Grant had responsibility for Northern grand strategy, and seized the opportunity with a relish, whereas Lee invariably avoided this responsibility.  Although the frictions of war–notably the incompetence of Franz Sigel, Benjamin Butler, and Nathaniel Banks–prevented the immediate consummation of Grant’s strategic vision, its breadth and flexibility eventually led to its success.  (There is some similarity between the fate of Grant’s strategic plan and his grand tactical scheme at Chattanooga in November, 1863.  Neither scheme worked according to plan, but since neither was dependent on the success of any single element, the failure of one or two aspects of the plans did not preclude their ultimate success.)

This sorry episode illustrates yet again what should by now be obvious.  If the media reports anything about Trump, modify Reagan’s famous remark about the USSR: don’t trust, but verify.

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