Hawking Up Hairballs

Monday, September 25, 2006

Lee's Lieutenants

I must confess that I’m fascinated by military history. No, I don’t sit around replaying famous battles with those hand-painted, lead soldiers, and I’ve never been to one of those ridiculous Civil War re-enactments. Nonetheless, I read a lot of military history.

I can’t really say why I’m so fascinated by the history of war. I’m certainly no fan of the military, and I made damn sure that I didn’t get caught up in the horror that was the war in Vietnam. What’s more, I don’t think that there is such a thing as a good war, or a just war. Even when a war is seemingly necessary, the only people who really benefit from it are the ruling elites. Those who do the actual fighting and dying are just their chumps.

So again, what is it that is so intriguing about military history? Perhaps it’s the fact that war is one of the few experiences in which everything is on the line, and in which dramatic, historical changes can be made. This can be appealing to lots of people, particularly the young. At the outbreak of World War One, there was partying in the streets of London, Paris, and Berlin. Millions of young men where all excited and ready to go, probably for the reasons stated above, and what came of it? Death, death, and more death on an industrial scale. It didn’t take long for the excitement to wane.

All this is to lead up to saying that I recently finished Lee’s Lieutenants: A Study In Command by Douglas Southall Freeman. The book is a study of the leadership of the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia, commanded by Robert E. Lee, and it is considered a classic of its kind. The original is in three volumes. I read an abridged version that was still awfully long, over 800 pages of small type.

Ironically enough, Freeman’s middle name, “Southall”, sums up his point of view. He is all about the South and, though the three volumes were originally published in 1942, he writes as though addressing a Confederate audience with which he is in full sympathy. The Confederate soldiers are “our boys” and, from time to time, he even occasionally refers to some of the more well-known Southern officers by their nicknames. It seems kind of unbelievable, but there was apparently an audience for that sort of thing as recently as sixty years ago.

It should be said that there is a lot of good information in Lee’s Lieutenants and, in spite of Freeman’s perspective, the book is no hagiography. He is very objective in his evaluations of the Confederate leaders, but I found myself shaking my head again and again. Freeman’s point of view is unrelentingly chivalric. He refers to various generals as knightly, gallant and honorable. It’s as though his model was Sir Walter Scott. What makes this just plain obscene is the nature of the American Civil War. It was the first truly industrial war, and men were killed on an industrial scale. There was nothing at all chivalrous about it.

This book brought to mind my reading of Kevin Phillips’ Cousins’ Wars. In that book, his thesis is that the English Civil War, the American Revolution, and the American Civil War were all just the continuation of a single conflict, that between the Royalists and the Roundheads. Freeman is an out-and-out royalist. Lee and his general represent the aristocracy and the ordinary soldiers are the yeoman. One doesn’t need an actual monarch to be a royalist. The king is just the boss of bosses among the aristocracy.

Phillips also maintained that this conflict has continued in America. I would tend to agree and, under George W. Bush, the royalists have triumphed. How long this will remain the case remains to be seen.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

the slaves that were liberated after the war were poor. they benefited. what's that do to your theory?

1:21 AM  
Blogger Chuck Oliveros said...

Regarding the Civil War, the Confederacy fought it to preserve the institution of slavery. However, the Union did not fight that war to abolish slavery. They fought it to maintain the Union. That was made very clear by Lincoln from the start. He said that if he could preserve the Union by keeping slavery, then he'd keep it and if he could preserve it by abolishing slavery, then he'd abolish it. The Emancipation Proclamation was an opportunistic maneuver to sway European political opinion the Union's way, and it freed the slaves only in those states which were at war with the Union.

Though legal slavery was abolished after the war, mostly because of the efforts of the Abolitionists in Congress, the efforts at Reconstruction failed and one would be hard pressed to contend that the material condition of the overwhelming majority of Southern blacks was much better than it had been before the war. In addition, anti-slavery sentiment was growing throughout the industrial world in the 19th century and it could be argued that it would have been abolished anyway before the century ended.

1:03 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

sure, slavery was just going to fall by the wayside due to some floating p.c. drifting in from europe & to make a quantum leap to NOW it turns out the same arab types are still induldging in the practice. oh incase you didn't notice reconstruction of the south is still running at full speed.if i get your concept no intervention is needed to stop the taking of slaves in sudan, darfur or congo..we should just let some european p.c. drift in & soon all will be coming up roses.no? maybe you're right & slavery is like solar flares, it just pops up every so many yrs & then dies down . slave traders if left to their own devices will simply get bored

3:28 AM  

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