Thursday, January 08, 2009

Men without Weakness

"No. Shoot them all. I do not wish them to be brave."

Stonewall Jackson, responding to a Confederate colonel's regret at having killed so many young men of a particularly gallant Union cavalry force.

The cold blue eyes look down history, finding us with contempt. He gave up drinking whiskey when he found that he liked the taste of it; he gave up reading the newspapers when they started to praise him. He did take pride in winning battles, but he knew it was a sin: the victories belonged to God, not to him. In winning a battle he found spiritual ecstasy: it was, maybe, the only token of God's love he would ever believe. He exemplifies the hard cold center of the Confederate dream, as far removed from chivalry, in his direction, as Sherman of the Union was in the other. Between the two of them what was sentimental and humane in America would be ground to nothing. There was to be nothing but a wasteland, from now on, between the cold fanaticism of Jackson and the materialist imperialism of Sherman. In that devastated countryside men like Twain and Whitman would try to scrape a desolate spiritual living. It was a hardscrabble life.

Jackson was notoriously intolerant of weakness, and shot deserters without compunction. After his brilliant victories in the Shenandoah Valley -- achieved partly by marching his men so hard that they covered a phenomenal amount of ground, and began to be referred to as "foot cavalry" -- he was brought down to join the defense of Richmond. Driving himself even harder than he drove his troops, he rode all the way down to consult with Lee and rode all the way back to join his army and march down with them. He got some ten hours' sleep in four days.

What happened thereafter, in the Battle of Seven Days, perplexes many students of the war, but I don't think it would perplex many students of sleep deprivation. What Jackson mostly did during the Seven Days was fall asleep. Lee barely pulled a victory out of the fire anyway, but Jackson's veteran army, probably the best troops in the Confederacy at that point, took almost no part in it.

He loved his wife with surprising, even astonishing, tenderness.

I am rereading Shelby Foote's three volume history of the Civil War. Last month I read a biography of Grant, and I'm also in the midst of Sherman's Memoirs. I'm confirmed in the opinion I once gave, that if I were to give a foreigner one book to explain America, it would be Foote's Civil War. The Civil War is what made us what we are: it's when America hardened and set, when the dream of a New World empire triumphed over the Jeffersonian dream of a nation of independent farmers and artisans minding their own business.

People who think that it was World War I that destroyed the old order tend to forget that on this continent we had already fought a total war, a war of trenches, railroads and machine guns, a war of economic devastation, a horrible four year maelstrom that undid American civil liberties and destroyed the economy of the American South. It destroyed slavery as well, and thank God. But once a nation has practiced mass conscription, systematically eliminated its dissident press, and disappeared hundreds of its citizens, it will never, ever, be the same again.

Reading William Tecumseh Sherman's Memoirs, things began to fall into place. Why the South fought the Civil War is clear enough. But why did the North fight? "The mystic idea of the Union," explained Shelby Foote, and I thought: what the hell? What does he mean? But reading Sherman, I get it. "Union" is code for "Empire." It's all about expansion, the romance of the Reich. Sherman is high-strung and lyrical, and what excites him most deeply is the expansion of America. The dream of conquest. He began his career hunting Indians in the swamps of Florida, to make room for settlers; and after the war he hunted Indians again as the head of the U.S. army, protecting the railroads west by waging his trademark ruinous total war. That's why he couldn't bear to see the South depart. Nor can the South claim any moral high ground, here: they wanted to devour Mexico and Cuba as well. They wanted an empire in the image of Virginia, that's all, not in the image Massachusetts. An empire of planters rather than of manufacturers.

The two impulses weave throughout American history, from its earliest days. Two responses to the New World. One is: here is a place where we can finally be let alone, and put our own house in order. And the other is: here is where we shall found the new Rome, and make an empire to overawe the world.

We only want to be let alone, said Jefferson Davis. But one of the reasons the North fought was because Northerners felt there would sooner or later be a showdown anyway: why not now? Someone was going to master the continent, and then the world -- was it going to be a slave-owning planter aristocracy or honest egalitarian hardworking ingenious yankees?

But we are still here, too. The people who genuinely only want to be let alone. We want no part of war and empire. We want no corporations, no billionaires, no get-rich-quick. We don't want an enormous standing army posted all over the world. We want to tend our own garden in peace. I would appeal to the rest of the world: we've been overshadowed and our voices drowned out by the hectoring, bullying imperialists and frantically greedy capitalists, but we are still here, and our American dream is not dead either. Don't count us out. Men without weakness have their weaknesses, nevertheless, and weak men have their strengths.

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