Monday, April 11, 2011

The Ghosts of the Blue and the Gray

I am drawn to the elegiac. There are moments in world history that can only be honored by our focus on the actions and lives of those who came before us. Sometimes, it’s all that‘s in our power to do.

That’s how I feel about this 150 anniversary of the firing on Fort Sumter, and the four blood-soaked years that followed to rebirth a nation.

150 years ago is feeling very recent. The history of our country is so comparably young in general, and its biggest crisis-—states that left the United States of America for whichever reason you subscribe to---came only 100 years after its founding.

This anniversary of ours has great resonance and relevance at this time of enormous global shifting. I don’t know that anyone really learns from history, but what this country went through should at least help us have compassion for what many are suffering now.

LibyaInMe Libya In Me by acarvin
#itssadwhen you're lifelong neighbour is the one killing you & depriving you of your freedom. Shame shame #Algeria. #libya #feb17
(thanks to @acarvin)

North Is North, and South Is South (with respects to Kipling)

Being a Northerner means I have a particular perspective about 19th century American history in my DNA. Edward Rothstein writes about this in an excellent article about visiting Civil War Museums in the South and the North.

“As seen from a perch up North, the war's purpose is morally and politically clear. Slavery's abolition, like Lincoln's powerful redefinition of the nation's principles, set the United States on a path toward equality that it might have never found through antebellum thickets. The Civil War created contemporary America.

“But spend some time in Southern museums, and it becomes clear that what seems evident up North is here clouded and contested. And if, in the North, the war seems part of a continuum of history, here it remains a cataclysm. The war was not a continuation of Southern history; it was a break in it. And that is still, for the South, the problem.

“Nearly every war site and exhibition I have seen in the South wrestles with double perspectives and conflicting sentiments alien to the North.”

“Alien to the North.” Well said, and part of what continues to pull at the country.

Still, whatever divides us, the North and the South can share a moment today to respect the 625,000 Americans who died in four years as this nation continued its own unfolding.

I don’t remember studying the Civil War—-a.k.a. the War Between the States, or the War of Northern Aggression--much in school; there were no battles in the state of New York. Of course there were many regiments from NY, and much recruitment, as you see in this poster for Manhattan Rifles (from this excellent website all about New York State and the Civil War.)

I would have said that there is not much evidence of the Civil War in Manhattan, but that's not true. There are some memories of the war, and one is so ingrained in the psyche of a native New Yorker so as not to be noticed!

Tecumseh in New York

William Tecumseh Sherman retired to New York in 1886, and died on Valentine’s Day, 1891. For the South he is the most reviled man of the war. He employed the concept of total war---destroying everything that could support an army in any way--to his Siege of Atlanta, March to the Sea, then push through the Carolinas. From a course on "A Southern View of History: The War for Southern Independence: "In Part 13 we will briefly examine a few of the atrocities and war crimes that General Sherman committed against the people of Georgia."

The destruction was a strategy that both he and US Grant shared. They believed the only way to bring the war to an end was to make it so horrible beyond the imagination for the South that the people would have to stop fighting.

I walk by Tecumseh Playground on 77 and Amsterdam every Saturday. All that young life enjoying the swings and ladders of a park contrasts deeply with the destruction wrought by its namesake. I didn’t’ realize that there is a school around the corner, PS 87, named for him. Seems a very odd attribution for a New York City school. How do these things get decided? Sherman himself lived on Broadway and 70th street, called Sherman Square at that intersection.

Both my parents are from Brooklyn, so my entire life I’ve heard Grand Army Plaza sprinkled into conversations. I never thought, “What’s the Grand Army?” and yet now I know. The Plaza was constructed by Olmstead and Vaux in 1867, and originally called Prospect Plaza, at the entrance to Prospect Park. Various elements were added over time, including the Arch with the Soldiers and Sailors Monument by John H. Duncan, which has a relief of Lincoln and Lee.

It was renamed Grand Army Plaza in 1926. Grand Army of the Republic was a fraternal organization of Union Army veterans, started in 1866, disbanded in 1956 when its last member died. In 1926 they were honoring the 60th anniversary of the war by renaming the plaza for the Union veterans. So that little bit of Civil War history under my nose my entire life.

And here’s another. I never knew that the plaza outside of, well, The Plaza (hotel)on 5th Avenue and 59th Street is also called Grand Army Plaza, for the same reason as in Brooklyn (completed in 1916). The honking statue of a man on horseback in the plaza, somewhat recently re-gilded, is none other than William T. Sherman. I have walked, driven, jogged by that statue a thousand times in my life, and never looked at who was on the horse or why. It was sculpted by Augustus Saint-Gaudens and unveiled in 1903.

Here is the description of the statue from a Central Park website:

Dynamic in all its glory, no one can miss the magnificent elevated gilded bronze statue of William Tecumseh Sherman in the northern half of Central Park's Grand Army Plaza.

The larger-than-life statue of Union Army General William Tecumseh Sherman, a great American military hero of the American Civil War, dramatically appears on his regal horse whose right rear hoof crushes a Georgia pine branch.

Accompanied by Nike, the Goddess of Victory, Sherman is courageously led into the battle of 1864 in which the Confederacy was successfully split in two effectively ending the Civil War.

History is indeed written by the victors, especially on their own turf.

The arguments about the “actual” whys about the Civil War continue heatedly. Again I recommend the Disunion series in the NY Times, for the vibrancy of the conversation there:

Ed, New York:

To Athur UWS NYC: "the North brought the war to Southern homes and to Southern hearths."

Nice try, but the first shots were fired by the South trying to steal federal property.

Yup. This war simply defies complete consensus. It’s American to the core.


dorki said...

Very well written, M.A. From the view of this native and resident of the Deep South, your description of the different interpretation of events of "The War" was spot on. As a matter of fact, my hometown was occupied twice by Union troops.

Many references to this period emphasize the "slave-owning southerners". I agree that slavery was the key issue causing this conflict. But many, maybe most, of the troops fighting those battles were just poor farmers that never owned slaves. My ancestors were Mennonites and as such, never owned slaves and were pacifists. That did not matter when the Confederate officer came by and forced them into service.

I hope one day humans will start learning from the mistakes of history.

M.A.Peel said...

Thanks dorki. It's so interesting to hear a perspective from the "other side" of this event. It's part of what makes blogging great.

Phyllis said...

Marvellous blog. Thank you! A beautiful portrait hangs on my wall....the widow of a man killed at 2nd Bull Run (Manassas to the rebs), and a large photo of a Gettysburg hero is on another. We also have their letters written from the battlefield. So I'm somehow reminded of the CW every day. These men were ardent Union supporters, and coming from Salem/Boston were surely aware of abolitionist sentiment, though their experience with slavery must have been minimal.

dorki....I really sympathize. For several summers I volunteered at a small CW museum in TX transcribing letters from the war....both sides of the conflict. Most were simple men with no political agenda enduring the most horrific conditions with little thought of the broader implications of the struggle. Followed orders and prayed to survive. Same hopes and fears for Blue and Gray.

The South still romanticizes the war and always will. "The Lost Cause" has a dramatic ring, but in truth it was well lost. We are still a long way from realizing complete "emancipation". So many lives were sacrificed.....and in vain? An on-going challenge.

Gorgeous statue of Gen. Franz Siegel down the block. Gallant and regal. I hear he was, but what frightful scenes he must have witnessed. So much suffering on both sides. We must not forget....

M.A.Peel said...

Phyllis, I didn't know you had so much CW interest and knowledge. Thanks for adding to the posts.

Phyllis said...

If you are interested I'll show you the last letter written at Bull Run to his wife, the lady in my portrait.....we don't have the original, but it can be found in several books. He enlisted at age 49 and was killed in his first battle. His young son also enlisted later, and died of TB contracted during the war.

Phyllis said...

If you are interested I have an account of 2nd Bull Run and a last letter written to the lady in my portrait. He enlisted at age 49 and was killed in his first battle. His son enlisted later and died from TB contacted during the war. Have you read Shaara's books? History really comes alive.......

Phyllis said...

whoops.....didn't see my post come sent another and now can't seem to cancel first!