Tuesday, 16 November 2010

Daughter of the Confederacy


I have a fascination with all things connected with the American Civil War. My recent blog on Gone with the Wind was a hint on how much this period intrigues me, in many ways the defining stage of American history, the terrible furnace in which the nation was melted down and reformed in its modern shape. I have an interest in all aspects of the struggle, the political, the social and the military. I know, girls are not supposed to like tales of soldiers and tactics and strategy, but I do!

My interest originates in being taken to some of the sites associated with the conflict when I was quite young. I’ve read quite a lot now, both fiction and nonfiction, including Stephen Crane’s The Red Badge of Courage, the tales of Ambrose Bierce and Michael Shaara’s Killer Angels. I watched every episode of Ken Burns TV documentary, some of which made me cry, particularly the episode that concluded with Sullivan Ballou’s letter to his wife, written before his death at the First Battle of Bull Run. I’ve enjoyed some of the Civil War movies I’ve seen, Gone with the Wind, obviously, and more recent offerings like Gettysburg, Glory, Cold Mountain and Ride with the Devil.

The best historical treatment I’ve read to date is The Battle Cry of Freedom by James Macpherson. Although written some years ago it has yet to be surpassed. I was going to buy Amanda Foreman’s recently published The World on Fire: An Epic History of Two Nations Divided. This interested me because it explores the question of British peripheral involvement. The problem is the reviews have been quite mixed, some glowing, others quite damning. It’s worth having a look at some of the polar positions on Amazon UK. I do so hope I’m not missing something significant here, but when I’m told that the author gets some very elementary facts wrong and that her book does not even contain a bibliography – a major oversight – then I do think this is probably best avoided.

Thanks to Ike Jakson, another blogger, my bedtime reading at present is Andersonville by McKinlay Kantor, a novel which won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 1956. I’m now about a quarter of the way through, two hundred pages down, another six hundred to go! It tells the story of the notorious Camp Sumter, a Confederate prisoner of war camp near the town of Anderson in Georgia. Because of this the camp was more generally known to the inmates as Andersonville. I intend to review it in due course so I don’t want to say too much at present but I’m completely beguiled, horrified and fascinated at one and the same time.

Last year I read Jonathan Littell’s The Kindly Ones, a grossly overrated novel set largely in the Eastern Front during the Second World War. It carried one blurb comparing it to Tolstoy’s War and Peace, no more than stupid hyperbole. There is only one novel that I have read so far that could stand this comparison – Vassily Grossman’s superlative Life and Fate. But Kantor is looking really promising, a tremendous panorama of people and events, a great ebb and flow.

Looking at the war as an event in history I ask myself if it is it wise to take sides? No, of course it’s not, but I’ve never been wise! My sympathies have always been with lost causes; my sympathies are with the men and women of the Confederacy. You see I have a very selective imagination: I can abstract out the degradation of humans as chattel, the horror of Andersonville and the other tragedies of an epic and tragic struggle. My romantic vision allows me to embrace the idea of the Confederacy, if not all aspects of the reality. So, in Dixie Land I’ll make my stand. :-)



25 comments:

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  3. War is hardly ever purely good and evil, but it it is always tragic. I feel the same way about the Wyatt Earps and Wild Bill's of history. The were hardly angels, but what they symbolize in my head is far deeper. Answering to yourself alone.

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  5. Coll, yes they do for me to. I remember reading that there was some move to have Billy the Kid pardoned. I must check to see if there has been any progress.

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  6. I think the issue was tabled as of 5 years ago? Truthfully, I'm more sympathetic to Billy then Jesse James

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  7. Ah, Jesse James, now there is a difficult cause to defend! Still, I think the way he was killed wretched and cowardly.

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  8. I'll be thinking of you when I go to Kennessaw Mountain this Thanksgiving.

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  9. Anastasia

    This a terrific Post and it is only my fist comment because I have enough stuff related to this to keep you reading for years.

    First I must sidetrack though to go back to Andersonville by MacKinlay Kantor. I have said “to take your time” on a number of occasions but now want to suggest that it will be best to finish all our work on that before we enter the next stretch of the road. That is a long road to go still.

    BTW then, just on the name Nathan Dreyfoos; my memory was correct and that is the spelling. When you get to him jot down the first page number when you meet him and the others after that. It is just a request and I shall explain later, or you will see it jumping out of the pages.

    But I shall be back in here soon with my actual comment. I found your Post a vivid illustration of the entire “picture” and it took me back to my own experiences.

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  10. Jeremy, thanks. My family has a tradition of celebrating Thanksgiving here because of our American associations; we get all sorts of goodies sent over. I can make a knock-out pumpkin pie!

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  11. Ike, thanks so much. I reckon at my present rate of reading I should be finished by early next week, always allowing that other things don't get in the way. At the moment I'm being introduced to the the raiders, who must count as the worst Yankees ever conceived. Yankees, I say, more Bowery Boys and Irish Hooligans.
    :-))

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  12. My instinct is to side with the combatant that has least civilian blood on its hands.
    :-)

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  13. Anastasia

    To repeat what I have said before you have a terrific Post here with many angles that can be pursued each on its own.

    This comment simply applies to taking sides or not in War, and then specifically in this war. I have often quoted one of the best lines that I have ever read on History and had reason to do so again just recently.

    Quote: “The most important point is that it writes itself; what is often called history is maybe an incident in time recorded by one person as he sees it. Its interpretation depends on who wrote it and on who reads it; to understand history you have to read between the lines.” [Unquote].

    I find Adam’s analogy too easy and jut too practical to apply to this War. One of my other favorite descriptions of life is that every story has three sides [in a divorce they are often referred to as her side, his side and the third side, the latter generally called the Truth] but you finds that in reports and books on Wars too.

    You know much better than I how many novels and accounts have been published of this War that some called the American Civil War, others call it the Slave War and still others may prefer to simply call it The War between the States. Some are highly sensitive about using the correct name.

    Your view of the South is of course, shared by many including myself, and the latter for the same reasons that you have. But I have read a small section of a massive amount of stuff by many others.

    The book that enabled me to find a balance, and “to take the third side” about this War is a book called Sherman’s March by Richard Wheeler published by Harper Perennial 1991 Paperback Edition.

    Any person with an Internet Connection may. of course, only key in Sherman’s March in Google and find hundreds of sources for William Tecumseh Sherman but I met him the first time in the above book.

    It is slightly “Northern influenced” but not just “one way biased” and helped me to see both sides. It is a much easier book than Andersonville and only 240 pages including a sensible 4 pages of bibliography and another 5 as an Index. I am in agreement with you on the importance of bibliographies but somewhat skeptical of pages and pages of bibliography to give credence to a waffling ego trip, i.e. one called Living History by one Hillary Rodham Clinton.

    I recommend this for when you have the time.

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  14. Ike, thanks, another one to look for. There is one other term for the conflict that I became aware of from my contacts in Georgia - the Southern War of Independence.

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  15. Oh, Nathan Dreyfoos is now firmly in the fray. :-)

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  16. Anastasia

    Thanks for keeping me informed/

    Walk close to Nathan Dreyfoos and care for him right through to the end.

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  17. He's shaping up as an admirable character, Ike. His realationship with Seneca MacBean looks promising. The raiders are a loathsome bunch, as are some of the more dehumanised people, notably Chickamuga. Wirz is truly pathetic.

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  18. Anastasia

    Thanks for keeping me informed.

    I can visualize where you are now. From now on also watch out for everything about Coral Tebbs and his brother; there is great sadness to come but also moments of sheer wonder. I must stay out of it but you have met Cousin [the young doctor] by now; what a story?

    Don’t let me rush you; it is just that I am so excited knowing someone is reading my favorite book. That this person is also a young historian is almost too much for my old heart.

    Enjoy.

    PS BTW: I hope it doesn’t bother you but all my American Blogging has been set on the USA English Spellchecker. It is more convenient for me.

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  19. Ike, it's a fantastic. book, one that is simply carrying me along; it's difficult to put down. I simply can't imagine the conditions these men had to live under, particularly with regard to sanitation.

    I can assure you that American spelling does not bother me in the least. :-)

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  20. On hypocrisy, even though the war between the states was mostly based on States Rights issues, you romanticize about the Confederacy whose infrastructure was based on agiculture by means of SLAVERY where people were taken from their homeland by force beaten,raped,sold, selectively bred as beasts of burden etc. Third world savages non the less. Yes the romantic lifestyle of the Plantation owners but overall it was what it was.

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  21. What is your real opinion on the American spelling of English words?

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  22. Anthony, I ahve no problem at all with American spelling...for Americans. :-) Actually, some people here will write Pearl Harbour whereas I always use the correct Pearl Harbor.

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  23. A lesson from history "Pearl Harbor" Overwhelming sneak attack .

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