150th Anniversary of the Gettysburg Address: Media Round-Up

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150 years ago today, Lincoln delivered The Gettysburg Address.

It has been great to see the event get so much media attention. I’m also gratified that our book was well-represented as a small part of that.

Slate Magazine — to whom I’m already in debt for talking up the book in the Slate Political Gabfest podcast — today excerpted the entire “Four Score and Seven Years Ago” chapter. It has prompted a lot of interesting comments.

The Library of Congress’s blog ran an interview with me.

I was also honored to have a short piece published on Foxnews.com.

The Chicago Public Library, from November 16, 2013, to March 2, 2013, is displaying an exhibit of artwork from the book.

I was delighted to appear today on WBEZ-Chicago’s “Morning Shift with Tony Sarabia.” You can listen to the interview here.

It was equally a privilege to talk with Alex Cohen on KPCC-Pasadena/Los Angeles on the “Take Two” program. Listen here.

Thanks to everyone who had a hand in getting the word out about this book!

 

 

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The “E” Is For “Enigma”: How Should We Remember Robert E. Lee? Part 3

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[This is the third part of a series of blog posts about Robert E. Lee and what became of his stripped status as an American citizen after the Civil War. You can jump to the first post here, second post here.]

Robert E. Lee died decades before any of the Congressional amnesties — the initial one in 1872 and the final blanket amnesty in 1898 — could have altered his ability to vote or hold office. And Congress did not write those amnesties to have a posthumous effect.

Here’s something else we know that’s quite interesting. Robert E. Lee apparently wanted to have his full powers of citizenship restored. But we have to put a big asterisk on that, for reasons I’ll get into shortly.

On June 13, 1865, Robert E. Lee wrote two letters: one to President Andrew Johnson, and the other to Ulysses S. Grant. (Lee signed both “your obedient servant.”) In the letter to Johnson he officially requested “full restoration of all rights and privileges.” In the letter to Grant, Lee asked his former Union opponent to forward the application to the sitting president.

Despite probable sincerity and good intentions, the application on its own wasn’t good enough. Lee later learned that he also had to submit a signed oath of allegiance to the United States.

So the former general went ahead and fulfilled that requirement on October 2, 1865.

All the same, the application was never acted upon. The story goes that the paperwork was lost or possibly intentionally misplaced.

But that tale of bureaucratic snafu or vengeful sabotage was, at one time, styled to have a romantic and dramatic ending.

As some would have it, a clerk at the National Archives stumbled into Lee’s citizenship paperwork more than 100 years later, in 1970. Many took this amazing “discovery” of an attempt to be restored as a full-fledged American citizen to be a deeply moving gesture of national reconciliation from Lee. (We’ll look at why I placed “discovery” in quotes down the line). An Alexandria, Virginia, newspaper collected signatures and petitioned Congress to restore Lee’s right to vote and hold office.

U.S. Senator Harry F. Byrd, an Independent Democrat from Virginia, along with a number of co-sponsors widely but not entirely representing Southern states, introduced a bill in 1975 to do just that.

Hearing about this for the first time, I wondered: would our leaders really spend valuable legislative time arguing about the validity of a Confederate general’s 110 year-old ghost running for office?

Would any member of Congress rise to oppose posthumously giving Lee the right to vote? And on what grounds? Would they try to re-fight the Civil War in the House and Senate chambers?

Would anyone call Lee a traitor?

In a time of race riots, would any politician grandstand about Lee’s role as a defender of the institution of slavery? How would Lee’s legacy meld with the politics and current events of the 1970s?

I thought it would be extremely interesting to see how this bill was debated.

And I was right.

In the next part I’ll bring you a narrative of how this controversy played out.

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The “E” Is For “Enigma”: How Should We Remember Robert E. Lee? Part 2

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[This is the second part of a series of blog posts about Robert E. Lee and what became of his stripped status as an American citizen after the Civil War. You can jump to the first post here.]

U.S. citizenship was only a vague legal idea prior to 1868. What I mean by that is the federal government had never previously defined who is a U.S. citizen. It was not the letter of the supreme law of the land, for example, that someone born in America was a U.S. citizen. The matter of who could vote or hold office was largely determined by the states, with only a few basic parameters set by the Constitution. And of course enfranchisement and political activity was excluded to women and African-Americans.

So when one says that Lee was “stripped of his American citizenship” it sounds far more dramatic than it really is.

Lee and other ex-confederates, for example, still enjoyed the protections of the law over their persons and property. They maintained their freedom of speech, freedom of movement, the right to bear arms, and all the other protections enshrined in the Bill of Rights. They still had the right to sue in court and petition their government for redress of grievances. They were not harassed for papers, nor did they have to report their whereabouts to federal or local authorities. Neither Lee nor any other Confederate could have been summarily banished or deported from the United States, as we might do with an individual without citizenship status today.

Still, of course, the removal of the power to vote, hold office, and serve in the militia is a serious business. That’s something that, today, we reserve for convicted felons and the insane.

These punitive legal consequences did not affect most members and supporters of the rebellion for very long, however.

For one thing, it seems several ex-Confederates did, despite the ban, manage to get elected or appointed to high office. District attorneys, by 1870, seem to have been investigating these cases and preparing to attempt to use the courts to remove such people from office. Those proceedings seem to have moved forward at a glacial pace. The whole business sounds part and parcel of the confusion and incompetence of Reconstruction Era policies.

So the 14th Amendment’s disqualification provisions apparently were quite impotent.

Then, in 1872 — considerably less than a decade after the war’s close — Congress took the step of passing an Amnesty Act. The Amnesty Act restored the ability to vote and hold office to almost every ex-Confederate. And this was signed by no less than former Union General Ulysses S. Grant himself, during his 1st presidential term! So anyone who claims the South was thoroughly under the thumb of carpetbaggers and backed up against a wall at bayonet point is on even shakier ground.

The 1872 Amnesty Act excepted only an elite class of former CSA figures from reenfranchisement. It held out on those whose actions prior to and during the Civil War were considered to be particularly obnoxious by the federal government.

Therefore, the 1872 exclusion included sitting members of each branch of the U.S. government —such as Congressmen, Senators, federal judges, and ambassadors — who had resigned their positions and sided with the Confederacy.

The exclusion also applied to members of the U.S. military who had renounced or abandoned their duty — and reneged on their sworn oath to “bear true allegiance to the United States of America, and to serve them honestly and faithfully, against all their enemies or opposers whatsoever.” So Robert E. Lee, who had not only been a Colonel in the U.S. Army but who had also been educated at West Point at the U.S. government’s expense, would not have received any relief from this new law.

The 1872 Amnesty Act paved the way for men like the ardently racist Wade Hampton III to return to power in the South on a tide of vicious campaign violence and murder. Such politicians commenced the process known as “Redemption:” the end of Reconstruction policies and the restitution of the Democratic Party in the South.

Finally, in 1898, another Amnesty Act removed the very last barriers to any ex-Confederate voting or holding office. This was largely symbolic: so much so that I haven’t even been able to find a single newspaper from June of 1898 that reported the story. The 1898 amnesty would have applied to very few people. Both legislation and the passing of years had whittled the still disenfranchised down to a small pool of potential voters and politicians indeed. (I’d be curious to know who some of the exceptions were. Anybody have an ancestor whom they know for a fact couldn’t vote for president during the yawning gulf between Abraham Lincoln’s reelection and 1904’s thrilling Theodore Roosevelt vs. Alton B. Parker matchup?)

So Robert E. Lee would have had his full political capabilities restored to him in 1898, at the age of 91.

But here’s the problem.

The storied Confederate general died on October 12, 1870.

 

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The “E” Is For “Enigma:” How Should We Remember Robert E. Lee? Part 1

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As I mentioned in a previous blog post, I’m fascinated about the matter of Robert E. Lee’s legacy in general, and the story of what happened to his status as an American citizen in particular.

The subject of Lee’s American citizenship status might just be a side note in how he is remembered, and how he endures as a celebrated figure in national memory. But it’s a detail that I believe has a lot to say about how the Civil War has shaped and continues to shape our culture and political discourse.

As a jumping off point for this discussion, consider this statement:

In 1868, Robert E. Lee was legally stripped of his U.S. citizenship.

Seems harsh?

Members of future generations of Americans thought so, and could not abide this. Many saw it as an insult and injustice to a singular American hero. And so they did something about it. Something, legally speaking, that was decidedly extraordinary and fully unprecedented — something which had never been done before in all of American history.

Now, let’s examine exactly what is meant by Lee’s having been deprived of his American citizenship.

In the aftermath of the Civil War, Americans who had fought for the Confederacy — or materially given the CSA “aid and comfort” — were temporarily stripped of their ability to vote. This was carried into law by virtue of Section 2 of the 14th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which went into affect in July of 1868.

These “insurrectionists” were also stripped of another key political power. They were forbidden to hold any office, elected or appointed.

This disqualification applied across the broad spectrum of U.S. military ranks, federal government positions, and even any state office. This ban was established under the 14th Amendment’s Section 3 and made legally enforceable, by Congress, under Section 5. (The 14th Amendment’s other sections have thunderously altered American law, but the Civil War sections are now regarded historical curiosities.)

You can read about why the Lincoln administration and the 39th U.S. Congress felt they needed to take these steps on page 178 in my book, in the “…Great Task Remaining Before Us” chapter.

These two political “disabilities,” in a nutshell, were the only lasting punitive consequences that the federal government imposed on most members of the Confederate army and government. (True: many tracts of land and other property had been seized by the United States during the course of the war. But those were almost universally restored between 1865 and 1868 by Lincoln’s successor, Andrew Johnson, who liberally wielded his pardon powers reserved to him under Article II of the U.S. Constitution. However, the 14th Amendment had spelled out that only Congress had the power to restore political powers to participants in the rebellion. So Johnson’s pardons, however lenient, were not sufficient to restore all lost privileges.)

Despite having planned and supervised a campaign that resulted in thousands upon thousands of casualties to soldiers in the U.S. Army, Robert E. Lee walked away from Appomattox a free man[i].

To me, this is astonishing.

When in 1787 the Framers of the Constitution set out to form a radically new government for the newly independent American colonies, the matters of courts and justice were important ones. But the Framers did not have the time to work out a whole body of federal law that would pertain to the commission of crimes.

Largely, all the Framers could do was empower Congress to establish specific crimes and punishments at some later date. And it seems the Framers imagined that crimes against the federal government would not encompass much more than piracy, counterfeiting, and various sorts of injury that might be committed against ambassadors and public ministers.

But there is one crime that the Framers were explicit about:

Treason.

Treason is the only crime that the Framers of the Constitution directly addressed — and for which they explicitly provided punishment.

This is not primarily because they were paranoid about having traitors in their midst. It was instead largely because European and British royalty — the very sort of people the American Revolution had been fought to rid (at least part of) the world of — had so vociferously and unjustly abused the idea of treason. Royals could and would apply the moniker “traitor” to anyone they disliked and have that person executed.

The Framers firmly resolved that the concept of “treason” would not be abused in their new republic. So they spelled out its definition in no uncertain terms.

From Article III, Section 3 of the U.S. Constitution:

Treason against the United States, shall consist only in levying War against them, or in adhering to their Enemies, giving them Aid and Comfort.

I think it’s a wholly acceptable question to ask how, by any clear Constitutional construction — the most conservative, hard-bit originalism — waging a campaign against the U.S. military as Robert E. Lee did qualifies as anything other than treason. On paper if not in moral substance.

Make no mistake: I’m not advocating that Lee should have been executed as a traitor. The Constitution gives the president fantastically powerful pardon powers so that those powers may come into play in just this scenario. In other words, so that the president can use the pardon power as a leverage tool when brokering peace in a case of domestic uprising, and to foster peace and reconciliation. I strongly doubt Lincoln or even many of the most Radical of Radical Republicans would have wanted Robert E. Lee executed. The country had suffered so much for so long — and the U.S. government did not want to show the world that it was capable of making a bloody purge of its own citizens. But to not have an orderly arrest and a fair trial strikes me as amazing. Such generosity has hardly been shown to our pettiest of criminals.

So with the question of treason raised, we’ll next return to the story of Lee’s citizenship.

 


[i] In fact Lee redounded to a friend’s home in Richmond for the first period immediately after the surrender. Jefferson Davis, the President of the Confederacy, was imprisoned for a period. Notably, only one high-ranking Confederate was ever convicted of war crimes and executed: Captain Henry Wirz, commander of the notorious prison at Andersonville, Georgia. Wirz had actually been born in Switzerland, and may never have been a U.S. citizen the way we think about it today.

 

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Thank You, Slate Political Gabfest!

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Podcasts. They’re big in my life. I came tardy to the party of listening to podcasts the “right” way. But in the past there has been audio content of which I’ve been so enamored that I have even rigged up a radio to a VCR in order to record programs — audio on a black TV screen! — when I couldn’t be there to listen to them. (And then transferred the VHS tape audio to a cassette to be played in a Sony Walkman. That’s dating me pretty severely, and really outing me as a talk radio nerd, I know. One personality I was really into for a while denigrated the likes of myself as a corps of sniveling “VCR Petters.”).

Do I have a favorite podcast? I do. It’s the Slate Political Gabfest. And I’m thrilled that Slate editor and show co-host David Plotz saw fit to “chatter” about the book today. Plotz and co-host John Dickerson speculated about the legacy of the Battle of Gettysburg back in July 2013, and what they said was so compelling I had to send them books. Thank you for being such a welcome audience.

Look for the show on iTunes, Stitcher, or wherever you download or stream podcasts. You can also click on the image above to be brought directly to the show’s page. The bit about the book is at 50:38.

Slate is furthermore planning to excerpt a chapter of the book for the coming sesquicentennial of the Gettysburg Address on or around November 19th.

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National Book Festival 2013 — And Robert E. Lee’s Arlington House

Even though I live 2,287 miles away (as the crow flies), I’m an unabashed lover of the Library of Congress. So complete is my ardor that I carry my LOC reader’s credentials with me almost everywhere. Well, that’s actually because, through a quirky matchup of humidity, growth rate, and human vanity, I was having such a good hair day when they took my photo for the card that it’s come to be “the” reference photo I show a barber or hair stylist whenever I’m about to go under the shears.

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That being the case, it was a singular honor to be invited to the Library of Congress’s 2013 National Book Festival several weeks ago, which luck brought in under the wire just a few weeks before the government shutdown. I do not know which Festival judge or Library staff member noticed the book, so I’ll just try to thank them all. And thank you so much to everyone who hung around until the event’s practical “Last Call” to check out my reading.

The Festival was a terrific event. It was great to see so many book lovers come out to the National Mall.

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And it was flattering to say the least to be featured in the Graphic Novels & Science Fiction (and sometimes both) along with Lynda Barry and the comics legends the Hernandez Brothers. There was more to being part of the Festival than I’d initially fantasized, so I did not get to see too many other author presentations. I did manage to check out Lynda Barry’s, though. And once the Library of Congress has an audio or video stream of her speech I suggest anyone with a good sense of humor should check it out too. She said something about science giving us the metaphors we need to understand art, and art giving us the metaphors we need to understand science, that I haven’t been able to stop turning over in my mind.

The weekend was a bit of a whirlwind. But as someone interested in the Civil War — and in, if you like, the enigma of Robert E. Lee — I would have been derelict in my duty not to see some historical sites close up. For years I’ve been wanting to see the Lincoln Cottage a.k.a. Soldiers’ Home (which appears in the book on Page 28). But I was staged on the wrong end of the District to make this feasible. Instead I made my way to Arlington House, the onetime home of Robert E. Lee. It was also meant to be the setting of one of the images in the book: Lee resigning his commission in the U.S. Army on Page 26. Arlington House stands on a high bluff on the Virginia side of the Potomac with a commanding view of the whole District of Columbia.

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Just to give a thumbnail sketch of the history of this mansion inside in the boundaries of Arlington National Cemetery, the large home and grounds had come into Robert E. Lee’s possession by marriage. The place has a provocative history that dates all the way back to the days of the Early Republic, along with firm links to George Washington. But I won’t get into that.

Lee and his family knew shortly into the Civil War that the federal government would almost certainly, at the earliest opportunity, take this land by force. It had too much of a tactical advantage for anyone who aimed to either attack or defend “Washington City.” So the family more or less gave it up for lost. And true to Lee’s prophecy, Union forces did (I believe, bloodlessly) take the property in May 1861. It was officially seized due to non-payment of taxes.

As the war’s casualties swiftly rose there was the snowballing problem of where to bury Union soldiers. U.S. Quartermaster General Montgomery C. Meigs had a particular axe to grind against Robert E. Lee. Meigs, a Union man from Georgia, unreservedly regarded Robert E. Lee — a former mentor — as a traitor. As the war went on, Meigs seems to have wanted to do something to deal Lee and his family a permanent black eye.

So Meigs agitated for fallen Union soldiers to be buried at Arlington House. At first this was just on the property’s extensive grounds and gardens. But as the years passed, the burials were directed to be closer and closer to the actual family home. Meigs saw to his end goal: to insure that neither Lee nor any of his relatives could ever make Arlington House their residence again.

Meigs’ son, John Meigs, was a Union lieutenant on General Philip Sheridan’s staff. John Meigs was killed in action near Harrisonburg, VA, in 1864. Meigs was so distraught over his son’s death that he ordered the exterior of the man’s sarcophagus to be made to look exactly the way the corpse was found. So the way Meigs buried the dead definitely carried a strong personal bent.

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Photo credit: Tim Evanson

I’ll mention one other thing which surprised me about the visit to Arlington House — even though it might get me in trouble.

As I mentioned, my free time in D.C. on this trip was short. Even the run to check out Arlington House was fraught with the possibility of missing something else I had to do. So at one point, looking for a short cut to Lee’s former mansion, I set out up the hill across a lawn. Only later did I see signposts indicating that this is verboten.

In any event, just downhill from Arlington House, I more or less stumbled onto Sheridan’s tomb.

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I have to think that the placement of this particular grave was another stinging barb directed at the Lee family. At the same time, though, the tomb is almost impossible to see from anywhere an average visitor to Arlington Cemetery would be. It may very well have been the case that I was trespassing when I found it. I certainly was not looking for it.

If that’s not an example of America’s split personality when it comes to remembering the Civil War, I don’t know what is: spitting on the memory of Robert E. Lee on the one hand, and making sure no one knows about it on the other.

 

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Cleveland Civil War Roundtable

It was a real pleasure Wednesday night to be a guest at the monthly dinner of the Cleveland Civil War Roundtable. I’d like to single out Mike Wells, the outgoing president of the group, for making me feel so welcome.

Unlike my own hometown Civil War Roundtable on the West Coast, which meets in the community room of a branch public library (and please don’t get me wrong, it’s a perfectly commodious spot), the “digs” of the CCWRT are high luxury indeed. Chandeliers, wainscoting, a proper stage, beaux arts appointments galore. ccwrt_grant_and_lee_captionedThe Civil War program aside, the meeting at Judson Manor , a repurposed luxury hotel, was a stirring and inspiring peek into the history of Cleveland’s University Circle area, which seems to boast as many elite cultural institutions as the grand districts of any major city but with about 1/5 the foot traffic. (Seriously, I’m starting to think that Cleveland is like a “Moneyball” city if you’re considering culture instead of prowess on the field of sporting competition. Cleveland offers a surprising amount of overlooked “cultural value” which you can access at a low practical cost.)

Anyway — the CCWRT was presenting a truly compelling program that night. In what I thought was a pretty decent survey of Reconstruction history, I never came across the fact that some years after the “late unpleasantness” Robert E. Lee traveled to Washington, D.C. for a meeting in the Oval Office with his old battlefield opponent, U.S. Grant. Who, of course, was then President of the United States.

The particulars of what Grant and Lee spoke about is lost to history. But, as I learned, during the 15-minute meeting (Lee was just one member of a small delegation from Virginia) it was likely that discussion of Reconstruction policies affecting the Old Dominion were on the table. As brief as this meeting may have been, it boggles my mind to think about what Lee and Grant must have been thinking and feeling — though not necessarily saying — during that one known postwar encounter.

The CCWRT presented an original one-act play about this meeting, and did a bang-up job. The gentleman portraying Lee made an interesting speculation that Lee would have felt that McClellan, not Grant, was the most talented Union general he faced. His argument was that while Grant essentially overwhelmed the Confederate forces with sheer numbers and brute force, McClellan, in 1862, ably maneuvered and positions his corps to force the CSA forces from positions close to Washington all the way back to Richmond, VA, with comparably less bloodshed. The military side is not my strong point, but I’ll have to think about that. I don’t know that some 15,000+ Union Casualties at the Seven Days Battles and so on qualify as relatively bloodless.

Another provocative thing that turned up during the CCWRT event was this 1975 Congressional Joint Resolution, signed by President Gerald Ford, to posthumously restore the American citizenship of Robert E. Lee, which had been effectively stripped by Section 3 of the 14th Amendment to the United States Constitution, ratified in 1868. (Congress did the same for Jefferson Davis in 1978).

For some reason I’m really piqued by this. Watch this space. When I have time, I’m going to research to see how seriously these efforts were debated in Congress and what was said on both sides of the argument.

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Publisher’s Weekly Review

From Publisher’s Weekly:

“Many of us will admit to sleeping through history class but we might have stayed awake if we’d been taught by the crafters of this graphic novel, which examines one of our nation’s most oft-quoted presidential speeches.

We are all familiar with ‘four score and seven years ago’ and most of what follows—but how much of it have we ever really paid attention to or even attempted to understand? Hennessey’s text pores over Lincoln’s address and breaks down its 271 words into 17 sections, explaining the meaning of each passage from both historical and philosophical viewpoints, bolstered with exhaustive amounts of historical information. McConnell’s artwork lends the text considerable evocative gravitas and relates the stark truth of the Civil War and the years leading up to it, avoiding the larger-than-life, emotionally manipulative tropes sometimes found in depictions of that dire period.

A real revelation that puts the speech’s content in proper context rather than presenting it as a bunch of pre-recorded hoary platitudes issuing from the mouth of an animatronic figure in a gaudy theme park.”

 

http://www.publishersweekly.com/978-0-06-196976-8

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Kirkus Review

From Kirkus Reviews:

(Starred review)

“Where the format might lead some readers to anticipate a simplified primer, this second collaboration by Hennessey and McConnell (The United States Constitution: A Graphic Adaptation, 2008) again finds them probing the implications of history through incisive analysis and compelling art.

What the narrative terms ‘probably the most famous and influential speech in American history,’ ‘just 271 words in length and requiring no more than a few minutes to recite out loud,’ might not initially seem like enough of a hook for such an expansive examination. Yet practically every one of those words proves significant, as the scope of the book extends from the American Revolution to the present day, casting the Civil War as tragic and transformative but likely inevitable as well. It finds the country’s two most revered and renowned documents—the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution—at odds with each other, as the equality celebrated in the former (though the degree to which that equality was intended to extend remains open to interpretation) finds itself on a collision course with the rights of the states (and distrust of a strong central government, after the tyranny of England) inherent in the latter. Add the profound differences between the North and South—in demographics, climate, economy, political orientation—and the intensification of those with the passage of time, and you’ve got an explosion waiting to happen.

Resisting the temptation to reduce the conflict to a morality play—the evil of slavery vs. the ideal of emancipation (though there is that)—or to make President Abraham Lincoln more enlightened on race relations than a man of his time was likely to be—the authors combine historical depth with art that also finds shades of gray amid the black and white.

Even Civil War buffs should find this graphic adaptation engaging, provocative and deftly nuanced.”

 

https://www.kirkusreviews.com/book-reviews/jonathan-hennessey/the-gettysburg-address-graphic-adaptation/

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The Civil War: A [True] American Horror Story

The Civil War has long struck me, in a certain way, like a horror movie. In a horror movie, a dreadful something — something no reasonable person could expect to genuinely exist — suddenly arrives and savages the comforts and predictability of everyday life. Terrible and irreversible acts of violence upend the status quo. The unthinkable becomes reality. The unconscious set of assumptions and expectations that allows people to peacefully go about their affairs utterly vanishes, and they find themselves facing choices and sustaining harms they never even thought possible.

Between 1861 and 1865, a dreadful something drove neighbors living in the same land to kill each other. Those neighbors, generally speaking, spoke the same language, believed in the same God, and shared the same racial makeup. Moreover, unlike in the English, French, or Russian civil conflicts, those murdering neighbors gloried in a common vision of what a just and enlightened political and economic system should be. (The U.S. Constitution, and the constitution drawn up by the states of the Confederacy, were, after all, nearly identical in substantial ways. More on that in another post).

It goes without saying that the Civil War was not a horror movie. It was horribly real. And that makes it horribly and immeasurably worse than the most jarring and terrifying Hollywood fantasy (which, for my money, happens to be this). And a case can be made that a capacity for killing each other is a disturbing legacy we as Americans have in common

That cold fact fascinates and terrifies me. And I believe that cold fact also lies at the heart of everyone who continues to be intrigued by the Civil War — as linguist Geoffrey Nunberg recently and memorably put it when riffing about battlefield reenactors, “All those optometrists and computer programmers with their impeccably accurate uniforms…”[i]

If it can be said to be true that a history of violence is part of our legacy as Americans, it’s difficult, or at least it is for me, to shed the thought that perhaps some set of circumstances could make it happen again.

Now, believing that to be inevitable, or imminent, would be the basest paranoia. And for the record, I don’t subscribe to it. One of the points I believe to be most potent in The Gettysburg Address: A Graphic Adaptation is the argument about why the most troubling and bitter days of the Civil Rights Era — days marked by race riots, saber-rattling political rhetoric about states’ rights, and federal troops deployed on Southern soil — failed to set off another Civil War. (See

But even acknowledging the barest possibility that neighbors in this land could once again take up arms against their neighbors leads one back to that horror movie quality of the Civil War. What was that “dreadful something” that proved the foundation of peace and mutual respect to be not a fortress but a sandcastle?

It might be nice to believe — and it would fit a popular narrative among many in this country — that it was the base immorality of one section of America that drove it to assail the ethical superiority of the other. That it was either cruel and racist slavers at war with a population of gallant abolitionists on the one hand, or the petty minions of big government tyranny putting the crush to the defiantly courageous defenders of true freedom on the other

But I don’t buy that the “dreadful something” was purely political or ideological. Although I do think it’s inarguable that both of those criteria, as well as the concepts of honor, manhood, and morality, had much to do with it.

Why doesn’t the idea that the Civil War was just about politics and ideology hold water?

The North had far too much of its own racial bigotry, for one thing. Ohio, in the first half of the 1800s, barred blacks from living in the state if they could not post a steeply expensive bond to guarantee good behavior. Even a state in abolitionist and progressive New England — Connecticut — in 1818 officially forbid blacks to vote[ii]. New York, which sent more soldiers to fight for the Union cause than any other, had throughout its history imposed all manner of restrictions on blacks voting.

And the South, with its historically outsized influence over the federal government (in terms of Southerners always having had presidents, members of Congress, and Supreme Court justices aplenty) was far too complicit in making Washington what it had, over the years, become.

So what was, in the end, that “dreadful something” that took Americans’ differences with each other and amplified it to the point where it could excite entire sections of the population to actual bloodshed?

I would say, at the core, that it was the threat to their livelihoods — whether that threat was real or perceived.

Look at how you live your life. Look at your assumptions about — and, especially, your sharpest, middle-of-the-night worries over — how you are going to provide for yourself and your family. Think about how you would feel if higher civil powers, ones that you have very little control over, were working behind the scenes to utterly strip you and your children of decent opportunities for the future. Ponder the frustration and sense of failure you might feel if all you had worked for and all you might gain in the years to come were to begin sliding away, pushing you into ever sharper degrees of indignity and desperation.

It’s easy to couch the story of the Civil War into a “clash of two rival economic systems, slave labor and free labor” as I’ve heard pundits and professors sometimes put it. Here’s my problem with that language. An obtuse phrase like “economic system” disregards the quality intimacy of how economics impacts an individual human life. It deemphasizes how very real anxiety about the future can shape a person’s attitudes and decisions.

To portray it in simplified terms, Southern slaveholders saw and were reacting to a threat to their livelihoods: to what they felt they deserved, to what their civilization had promised them, to the quality of life and prosperity that they had justly earned and expected to leave as a legacy for their children.

And many Northerners similarly felt that the screws were tightening on their livelihoods. They anguished over that belief that the chance for a decent and acceptable quality of life was flying away from them. Part of this was due to a great shift in how Americans lived and worked. Increasingly, industrialization had been making tradesmen’s time-honored skills superfluous. More and more were forced into wage work — with the bottom dropping even on that. Events in the decades leading up to the Civil War ramped up their uncertainty, making many believe that free men might eventually have to compete for work and opportunity with slaves. One such event was the 1857 Dred Scott decision, which by some — and not unsound — analysis essentially made slavery once again legal everywhere in the United States. One thing was clear to these worried Northerners: competition with slaves was no competition at all. Their lives and futures were on the line.

So there you have it. My argument is that most human beings can tolerate all kinds of injustices around them, and can exist, however uneasily, in the face of all kinds of disagreeable politics and ideology. But when it comes down to the bread on the table, the slashing of the last purse string — that’s when a critical mass can be pushed towards violence.

Again, fascination with the Civil War comes — even if it’s on a subconscious level — with the tiny but nagging dread that something like that could happen again. I hardly think that’s going to happen anytime soon. I pray it never happens at all. I also believe that every American should live and make decisions as if they had a stake in preventing it.

And I will say this. I believe that changes in how Americans live and work over the last several decades threatens the livelihoods of many of us. Without concluding that this is sure to lead to another neighbor-against-neighbor conflict, let’s take some crucial lessons from the antebellum period. Let’s take a hard look at how we can steer the course of our country towards as high a quality of life for as many Americans as possible.

And leave our horror movies where they belong, only on movie screens.

[i] NPR, Fresh Air Weekend, March 3, 2013.

[ii] Although there was a tiny loophole about permitting those who had been previously admitted as “freemen” to continue to vote, it’s dubious that this applied to any blacks. Wesley, Charles H. “Negro Suffrage in the Period of Constitution-Making, 1787-1865.” The Journal of Negro History, Vol. 32, No. 2 (Apr., 1947), p. 162.

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