Sunday, July 19, 2015

For Those Who Still Hear the Guns


I believe it was Faulkner who said the past is never dead. It isn't even past. There are those of us for whom the past is just as alive as the present. We hear the fading echos of artillery fire from long ago. We sense the presence of those who tread on many a far flung battlefield with us. They haunt our minds and our thoughts. The past drives us to squander the present while we mentally dwell in a bygone era. We spend money and time that we perhaps do not have to focus on an era in which we will never actually live. Is this foolhardy? Is it misguided? I would say no. The world needs people like us. We keep old memories alive.

I suffer from some pretty serious health issues that seem to be getting more serious. I deal with it by retreating in time to the Civil War where I can spend what time I may have left (I don't know) reading books and watching television programs that tell me of an era when things appeared to be more clear cut. More simple. But, of course, they weren't. My own fear of the future is pushing me further into the past. I don't really see this as a bad thing. In fact, I kind of enjoy it as I have always been a Half A$$ Historian. Obviously the Civil War is my bread and butter, but others of you may have different eras that you enjoy (Great War, WW2, etc). 

Does, for example, the Civil War still matter? Recent events have shown that perhaps it does. The problem is the overall pop-culture version of the Civil War which includes the North's own Lost Cause myth that is taught in schools that bother to teach history means that most of those entering the public discourse have no real historical knowledge of the Civil War. That does not, however, stop them from pontificating on the subject. How many of those tearing down Confederate flags from private property can even name a Civil War battle, much less a General. The decline of historical knowledge in this country is exactly why those of us who "live in the past" must continue to do so!

I get frustrated and angry with "professional historians" for many reasons. First of all, the very idea of a "professional" historian is dumb. What makes you "professional"? Some will say that you must have a PhD. Others say no, just a graduate degree period (like an MA). Others say to be "professional" you have to get paid to teach history or work at a museum. Said professionals scoff at books written by non-PhD people as being "popular history". I wonder if they ever think that there might be a reason for the popular part? Second, though a lot of professional historians do know about history, their knowledge is more limited than you might think. For example, military history is very rarely taught in graduate history programs (with a few exceptions). It is all about race, class, and gender now. If that is what you want to learn about, great. If not, you are screwed. Third, though many of them teach history (and teach it well), there is a difference in teaching history and truly living it. By that I don't mean in the reenacting sense, but rather living with the past in your mind 24/7. 

When I was healthy enough to be able to visit Civil War battlefields, I could still hear the cannons and the muskets. I could see everything unfolding in my mind when I closed my eyes. The Civil War is not simply empty words on paper or some boring and grainy old documentary. It is real. For those of us who still hear the guns, the war rages on in the recesses of our minds and we will forever be prisoners of it. Yes, it still matters. 

Friday, July 17, 2015

What They Fought For



I've been mulling over writing this for a while. I'd talk myself out of it and then talk myself into it. I've touched on the topic in various other blog posts, but I never have, as of yet, taken pen to hand to address the issue directly. There seems to be a lot of misinformation and outright misunderstanding as it relates to the motives of Civil War soldiers, much of it due to academic historians with no military service ascribing lofty ideals and values on a topic which they really know little about. I think there is a distinction that can be drawn between what causes a war and why men fight in it just as there is between what motivates a soldier to enlist and what keeps him there after the first shots are fired. They are all different. Historians blur the lines between a war's causes and the reasons why soldiers fight. It is an honest mistake, perhaps. I can sum up the traditional view on the Civil War as follows:

1. Northern soldiers enlisted to preserve the Union or to free the slaves.
2. Confederate soldiers enlisted to defend the institution of slavery or at least a society that tolerated the existence of slavery.

This is problematic for a few reasons. Did Northern soldiers enlist to free the slaves? Not really. And certainly not before the Emancipation Proclamation. Historians who promote the Northern version of the Lost Cause Myth (ie: the North was a racial utopia and freeing the slaves was the objective of the war all along) often ignore the fact that enlistments dropped and desertions increased after the Proclamation was issued. Why do you think the North had to resort to conscription? Historians love to gloss over that small point. As to the Confederate side, I've actually read books wherein historians argue that though it is true that most Confederate soldiers did not own slaves, they belonged to a society in which they could aspire to slave ownership and thus all enlisted to preserve it. Seriously? You are going to risk being disemboweled by canister rounds because you want to own slaves one day. I don't buy it. Also, consider that when the Confederacy passed its draft law in 1862 which exempted the planter class from military service, Confederate enlistments dropped and desertion increased quite a bit. Why would this happen if the Southern soldier all ran out to fight so that they could own slaves that they didn't actually own. Sure, there are letters and diaries where Confederate soldiers do talk about joining up over the slave question. There are a lot more that don't mention it. The same is true for Northern accounts as well. Some mention wanting to free the slaves but many others are silent on that point. The truth is, more Northerners cared little about the slave question (as the Northern economy relied on Southern cotton). 

So what reasons then motivated soldiers to enlist? They are as varied as the number of soldiers who enlisted. I think it is important to remember that the average Civil War soldier was in his early twenties. Some were older and quite a few were younger. Really, they were no different than the men and women who join the military today. So here are a few reasons why I think soldiers enlisted.

1. Protect their homes. (Very important to the Confederate soldier who's region faced invasion.)
2. Peer pressure. (Men who didn't run out to enlist received women's undergarments in the mail!)
3. Money (more so in the North....especially when bounty money was involved)
4. Adventure. (Most people lived their whole lives within 100 miles of where they were born. The war promised a chance of adventure that their regular lives lacked.)
5. Sense of duty (For many, joining up with everyone else just seemed like it was the right thing to do.)

For some, they may have enlisted for more than one reason. I just think it is insane how historians argue that the average Confederate soldier rushed out to enlist and fought for four long, brutal years because some rich planter wanted him to. Soldiers don't die for causes. They die for their comrades in the ranks. Why would the Civil War be any different? Or is it because historians are sometimes guilty of imposing their own moral judgments and political values on the past. Does this mean that slavery did not cause the war? No, of course not. Slavery was at the root of the Southern economy and if you took it out of the South there would not have been a war. But what causes a war and why soldiers enlist and fight are not always the same thing and historians would do well to remember that. But for those who sit tucked away in academia, far from the smoke and noise of a Civil War battlefield (or any other battlefield) it is too easy to sit in judgment rather than reporting facts. And that is sad.

And yes, I do know that there are documents and letters that may state things other than what I have written about. However, there are also plenty of others which DO support what I am saying. If you discount one because it doesn't support your already arrived at conclusion, then you move lower than Half A$$ Historian and just become an A$$. 

My name is Lee Hutch and I am a Half A$$ Historian. 

Thursday, July 9, 2015

NEVER Lose Sight of This


This needs to be said. It needs to be read. It needs to be shared. It needs to be shouted from the rooftops for all to hear and understand. While any discussion as to the merits of the Confederate battle flag has its place in our society, we are dangerously close to losing sight of what is really important. And it isn't our fault, really, because the media depictions of the Civil War be they film or television program do no justice to the war. Yes, it is romanticized in our culture and I am not just talking about the Lost Cause mythology either. Has there ever been a Civil War program which truly depicts the horrors of a Civil War battlefield? Do you know what is missing from our collective conscious as it relates to the war? Reality. Plain and simple. Here is what all is missing from our national discussions over the war and also of the flag:

The fact that when canister rounds struck a line of advancing infantry, body parts flew as high as the tops of the trees. The screams of wounded horses which sounded almost human. The screams of wounded men which sounded like an animal. The sheer carnage wrought on the human body by a Mini Ball, far more than a modern round. The coppery scent of blood spraying your clothing from a wounded comrade's shattered body. The palpable odor of fear mixed with the sulfur stench of gunpowder mixed with sweat, and shit, and wet wool. The courage of the Irish Brigade assaulting Marye's Heights and the entire Army of Tennessee making the ill advised charge at Franklin. The fear and pain of having a limb amputated with a dirty saw as surgeons probed with ungloved fingers. Of the morphine addicts made so by their Civil War wounds. And what of those wounded in mind rather than body, many spending their days locked in mental institutions which, in some ways, were worse than prisons. The pain of abdominal cramps brought on by dysentery, more deadly even than combat itself. And typhus. And cholera. There is no glory in dying a long slow death brought on by fluids leaking out of every orifice. But tens of thousands died that very way. And what of the pain of women and children as they waited for word of casualties following a battle. And how you felt grateful when your loved one's name wasn't on it only to feel guilty for feeling relieved when so many others suffered loss. And what of the anguish of entire communities when all the men marched away and yet none came back. What of the generation of widows and orphans? And what of slaves, awaiting their day of liberation and hoping they survived long enough to see it. Some opted to free themselves by escaping to Union lines, only to be used as forced labor. What of those laborers working long hours in dangerous conditions to feed the industrial appetite of the war machine. Of the immigrants enlisted fresh off the boat and sent to fight a war they understood nothing of.

Debates over the battle flag has its place. However, we are in danger of forgetting how brutal the war really was. The war wasn't over a flag. It was the most traumatic event that our nation has ever gone through and to try and sum up the entire experience through a flag is wrong. The flag is not as important as the war and the outcome. It isn't our fault. No one wants to talk about the reality of the war. What I've written above may in fact have disturbed you. Good. That was the point. The Civil War was nasty, ugly business. You cannot praise the courage of one side and denigrate the courage of the other, as courage does not depend on the color of one's uniform or the validity of one's cause. Pardon the pun, but history is not black and white. Southern soldiers were not all evil and Northern soldiers were not all out to free the slaves, contrary to what has been taught and what the media says. Good and evil existed in both armies. Trying to boil everything down to South bad North good is absolutely ridiculous and something that no one who calls themselves a professional historian should engage in, but many if not most do.

We are at risk of whitewashing the entire episode from our history and to what end? So we can forget it and thus risk repeating the same mistakes of the past? We MUST honor the soldiers who fought in the war in whatever way we as individuals choose because of the sacrifices they made for the homes, their families, and their comrades. Not for their cause. Men don't die for causes. They die for their comrades in arms. Brave men fought on both sides. So did cowardly men. So too did men who were not especially brave nor especially unbrave. So too did a few women disguised as men. The whole country was affected by the war. 2 percent of our population died, near 700,000 people! Do NOT simply view them as statistics. They were living, breathing humans with the same hopes and fears as all of us. Most were men, young men, who never got to live their lives as we have.

All of them died for a country that no longer regards their sacrifices as important, but rather a part of an episode in our past that must be forgotten. I am fiercely proud of my Civil War ancestors, on both sides. Yes. I'm proud of my Confederate ancestors. Why? Because they lived through the conditions described above. Or died because of them. How many of you would be willing to do the same? Yes. I am proud of the battlefield exploits. I mourn those who were lost. And I am glad that their cause did not succeed. So fly the flag or not fly the flag, that is your choice as an individual. Personally, I don't but that's my decision. But no matter what you do or how you feel about the flag, for the love of God, NEVER lose sight of what happened during this war. NEVER forget the bloody hell that was a Civil War battlefield. NEVER forget the experiences of soldiers, civilians, adults, children, slaves and free people during, what was the crucible of our national experience. PLEASE don't let those deaths be in vain.