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I graduated from Northern Valley Regional High School at Old Tappan, or NVRHS at OT, which always reminds me of Professor Peter Schickele’s USND at H — University of Southern North Dakota at Hoople. (I’ve been to Hoople. There is no university there. There are cows. But then, there was no valley I ever noticed in Old Tappan.) 

In northern New Jersey, our school’s football team played our arch-rival, Hawthorne, and before the big game each year, there would be a pep rally, in which we were inculcated with “school spirit,” and induced to yell, “We’re Number One!” over and over, despite the fact that every fall, Hawthorne trounced us badly. Their players always seemed twice the size of ours and looked more like a farm team for the Chicago Bears. 

Yet, we were “the best high school in New Jersey,” a claim that was patently untrue. (We were a perfectly good school; I’m not complaining. But the other schools were also fine.) All over the country (probably the world) schools are making the claim that they are the best and we should all feel proud of our, what? Accomplishments? We were pimply faced kids, let’s face it. I never did understand the school spirit thing. 

Why should we claim that our group is better than your group. And this goes for nations, religions and ethnicities as well. I never understood nationalism, the metastasized big brother of school spirit. What evidence do you have that America is the greatest nation in the world? “America is Number One!” Number One in what? School shootings?

My point isn’t that the United States is the root of all misery in the world. My country has done many praiseworthy things in the past 250 years. But so have other countries. I have seen no evidence that we are any better or worse — that Americans are any different at all — from other peoples. Yes, there are cultural differences. Germans, Chinese, French, Paruvians all have national cultural tendencies. But under it all, we have the same genetic construction. 

Despite that, nations war, and worse, ethnic groups choose to idealize themselves and demonize their neighbors. And just to make it all just that much sillier, usually these contending ethnicities are almost identical. Ukrainians battle with ethnic Russians. Armenians with Azerbaijanis. Israelis with Palestinians. Croats and Serbs. If one writes the language in Roman letters and the other in Cyrillic, they can claim their languages are totally different, even if they can talk to each other over the phone with no problem. 

When I say we are genetically the same, I suppose that also entails the atavistic gene that makes us tribal. This may have been helpful when humans traveled across the landscape in extended family groups and needed to protect themselves from other groups also seeking the limited resources. But now that we have nuclear bombs, this tendency threatens to be fatal. For the whole species. 

You can’t really have an “America first” without also having a “screw you” attitude to the rest of the planet. And if we do that, where will we get our bananas and computer chips? 

If we wish to think that the United States is better than everywhere else in the world, then why are Danes happier than we are? Why are Cubans healthier? Why are the Swiss better educated? In the most recent rankings, the U.S. is listed as 22 out of 178 countries in economic freedom. Educationally, we rank number 40 in math education, 25 in science and 24 in reading. We are 46th in maternal mortality and 42nd in life expectancy. In standard of living, we are only 13th. In political corruption we ranked 23 out of 198 countries, and that was before the Trump administration. We are only 45th in press freedom. And 21st out of 128 for the rule of law. 

Another place we are not No. 1: Many Americans think we pay more in taxes than anyone else, but actually we pay less than any other developed nation, except Mexico — and that counts Mexico as a developed nation. 

Oh, we have a few titles: We are Number One in child deaths by firearm. And we have the biggest military budget, spending more than the next 10 countries combined. 

Other firsts: The U.S. incarceration rate is 716 per 100,000 population, which is the world’s highest. Even 36 of our states have higher incarceration rates than any country in the world. We’re No. 1 in gun ownership both overall and per capita. We watch more TV than any other nation.

And yes, we are No. 1 in corona virus infections. 

Further, more Americans think the U.S. is the greatest country in the world than citizens of any other nation. We’re even No. 1 in smug self-satisfaction. 

This is all not an attempt to denigrate my home country. After all, we’re a long way from the bottom of most of these lists. But it is to counsel modesty. It is to say we’re not exceptional; we have good points and bad points. Yes, we had slavery and we had a national plan of ethnic cleansing toward Native Americans, but we also had the Marshall Plan, and a long history of accepting immigrants and refugees (this last has always been in danger from the “America Firsters.” Trumpism is not all that new; we had “Know-Nothings” in the 19th Century.)

As has been pointed out, those who believe America is the best country in the world probably haven’t been anywhere else. 

And my main point isn’t to make the case for or against the U.S., but rather to decry the universal tendency for human beings to think what they have, what they do, and what they believe, is better than anyone else has, does or believes, and further, is willing to kill them over it. 

We have had what has been called the longest stretch of world peace in the earth’s history, from the end of World War II until now. But that is true only if you don’t count the myriad regional conflicts and minor wars that have been constant. Wikipedia lists more than 75 armed conflicts since 1945 (counting them is a bit inexact — which are separate and which are just phases of continuing conflict). And even this moment, there are wars in some 20 countries, the major ones in Afghanistan, Yemen, Syria, Turkey, Somalia, and Libya, and all through central and northern Africa. 

We are Israelis and Palestinians; Sunnis and Shias; Ukrainians and Russians; Azerbaijanis and Armenians; Armenians and Turks; Muslim Kashmiris and Hindu Kashmiris; Tamil and Sinhalese; Tutsis and Hutus; Burmese and Rohingya; Hatfields and McCoys; Republicans and Democrats. Us and Them. 

 I get it: We are more comfortable around people with the same values and habits. And we may be put off by the folkways of others. We don’t eat a lot of snails in the U.S. But is that a reason to condemn those who enjoy a bit of the old escargot? We worship different gods (or the same by a different name), but that shouldn’t be an excuse for killing them. One religion crosses themselves with three fingers, another with two. Get the scimitar! (My favorite was the Albigensian Crusade, where the besieging general was asked how to tell the heretics from the believers, said, “Kill them all and let God sort them out.”) 

I am put in mind of the plea of Oliver Cromwell to the Church of Scotland (“England’s Canada”), “I beseech you, in the bowels of Christ, think it possible that you may be mistaken.”

A little humility goes a long way to helping us recognize our commonality. Our essential humanness. But humility is in short supply. 

“Knowing this and that better cannot be had, know then why old men should be mad.” Or as my late wife used to say — frequently — “We are all just dumb monkeys.”

 

 

shiloh peach blossoms

It is April 2014 and the dogwoods bleach the woods of a Civil War battlefield in southern Tennessee.

shiloh dogwoodsTheir whiteness remembers a signature episode from the fighting: On April 6, 1862, the peach blossoms near Shiloh Church, shocked from their branches by bullets and cannons, fell like a snow on the dead bodies of the Northern and Southern soldier alike.

It is best to see a historic battlefield at the same time of year as the soldiers who died there knew it. You get a better sense of it. At Shiloh, you can feel the spring humidity thickening the air. Nights are cool; they cloud up with April showers. Days are warm with sun. A million crane flies have awakened to the season and float over the unplowed fields. The redbuds wear their flowers like coral beads along their branches, and the dirt beneath our feet, still damp from the thaw, is beginning to dry enough to cultivate.

And 152 years ago, the Battle of Shiloh was the first major battle in the western theater of the Civil War. It was also the battle that first taught the Union and Confederate armies that the war was going to be long and vicious. It put a violent end to thoughts of quick and easy victory. It also nearly cost Gen. Ulysses S. Grant his job.

You drive along the narrow macadam in Shiloh National Military Park, 110 miles east of Memphis, looking at the monuments in the woods, wondering why such an obscure patch of wood and field should have the importance it has.

It is miles from anywhere; why would anyone fight over it?

With our cars and interstates, sometimes it is hard to remember that America’s past is one of rivers and railroads. When the Union Army invaded the South in Tennessee, it did so along the rivers. Military objectives often were railroads rather than cities.

And so it was in 1862, when Grant, a field general under commanding Gen. Henry Halleck, attacked forts Henry and Donelson in northern Tennessee. Grant’s victories opened up the Tennessee and Cumberland rivers, forcing the Confederate Army to abandon the entire state.

And in March of that year, Gen. Albert Sidney Johnston marshaled his Southern army in Corinth, Miss., a few miles south of the Tennessee border, where he could guard the crossing of two vital railroads.

Grant had Johnston on the run, and Grant felt confident.

In following up on the battles, Grant bivouacked most of his Union soldiers at Pittsburg Landing, about 20 miles north of Corinth. He planned to attack Corinth, but was waiting for reinforcements from Gen. Don Carlos Buell, and while he waited, his troops camped leisurely near the Tennessee River.

Pittsburg Landing

When asked if they shouldn’t fortify the camp, Grant and his assistant, Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman dismissed the thought that the Confederates would attack.

”I have scarcely the faintest idea of an attack being made upon us,” Grant wrote Halleck, his superior back in St. Louis.

Grant had miscalculated, and Johnston with his assistant, Gen. P.G.T. Beauregard was already advancing on him, hoping to win a battle before Buell could arrive with Northern reinforcements.

Unfortunately for Johnston, things didn’t go well. The trip from Corinth to Pittsburg Landing, which should have taken a day, took three days. Bad roads and worse weather slowed the troops.

”As we stood there, troops tramped by mud and rain and darkness,” wrote one Confederate soldier. ”To us who were simply standing in line in the rain, it was bad enough, but those men who were going by were wading, stumbling and plunging through mud and water a foot deep.”

The delay might have lost the element of surprise for the Southerners — if the Yankees had been paying attention. And in the Rebel camp, Beauregard argued for canceling the attack.

”There is not chance for surprise,” he told Johnston. ”Now, they will be entrenched to the eyes.”

Johnston didn’t care. He wanted a fight and wanted it immediately.

”I would fight them if they were a million,” he said.

The actual battle began at 5 a.m. April 6 and it began by accident, when forward units of the Graycoats bumped into outlying remnants of Yankees. The shooting began and it hardly stopped for two days.

thulstrup

Although Johnston had a good battle plan, it quickly fell apart, and the fighting became widely scattered and disorganized.

One thinks of battlegrounds as fields — rolling grass dotted with statues and cenotaphs. But the reality was quite different. Southern Tennessee is thickly wooded and the Shiloh battlefield was mostly woods. Interspersed among the trees were farm fields, square patches of clarity in the obscurity of trees and underbrush. Sherman and his units fought in the woods around a small Methodist church, a log cabin called Shiloh Meeting House. The battle takes its name from the cabin, which is no longer there. A modern church stands near the spot.

The height of fighting that day took place on a field owned by farmer Joseph Duncan. A Union force of about 5,000 men under Gen. Benjamin Prentiss had dug themselves in along a worn wagon path, called the ”Sunken Road,” at one edge of the field. A couple of hundred yards away, Confederates lined the other edge of the clearing.

For most of the day, Confederate infantrymen charged Prentiss and were pushed back by withering gunfire.

”The enemy reserved their fire until we were within about 20 yards of them,” wrote one Confederate soldier. Then the Yankees opened fire, ”mowing us down at every volley.” The whiz and buzz of Minie balls flying through the air was so loud and constant that the position was called the ”Hornets’ Nest.”

shiloh engraving

Twelve times the Rebels attacked and were repulsed.

Then Confederate Gen. Daniel Ruggles tried something different. He assembled 62 cannons and bombarded Union positions. The line to the left and right of Prentiss retreated, but Prentiss held on until 5:30 in the afternoon, when Confederates surrounded him, and Prentiss and about 2,100 Union soldiers were forced to surrender.

On the whole, the Confederates did well on April 6. They forced the Union men back toward Pittsburg Landing and the Tennessee River. But Grant, never panicking as his army was decimated, arranged his troops in a final defensive line that held as night came on.

Beauregard was so elated by the Graycoats’ success that he wired his superiors in Richmond, Va., that he had won a ”complete victory.”

It wasn’t all good news for the Confederacy that day, though. Johnston had been shot in the leg, severing an artery, and bled his life away into his boot. No one recognized the severity of his wound until it was too late. Johnston died on the field and command fell to Beauregard. Johnston’s is still the highest-ranking battlefield death in American history.

Night may have brought thoughts of victory to Beauregard, but it also brought rain. Troops, in wet wool uniforms and soggy leather boots, slept in the open. They shivered terribly in the cold of the night. Confederate soldier George Jones wrote in his diary, ”I have the shakes badly. Well, I am not alone in fact we all look like shaking Quakers.”

Grant himself slept in the open under a tree.

The next morning, Beauregard assumed all he had to do was mop up. But during the rainy night, Grant got his reinforcements, as Buell crossed the river and shored up Grant’s defenses. And when the battle resumed on April 7, the tide of battle turned. One Rebel remembered, ”The Yankees appeared to me like ants in their nest, for the more we fired upon them, the more they swarmed about; one would have said that they sprouted from the ground like mushrooms.”

The Rebel army was pushed back to its original lines, and by midafternoon, it was clear to Beauregard that he would have to retreat. The entire battle had been a fiasco.

The Yankees had been caught off guard and nearly lost the fight. The Confederates lost their best general in the days before Robert E. Lee took command in Virginia. Both sides lost huge numbers of men, and in the end, both sides were where they were before the battle began: Grant at Pittsburg Landing and Beauregard back in Corinth.

The bloodiness of the fighting came as a shock to the public on both sides of the war. Of the South’s 44,000 men in the fight, nearly a quarter were casualties, with 1,700 killed. Grant’s force, joined with Buell’s, came to 65,000, of which 13,000 were casualties, with 1,700 killed.

In fact, more casualties were inflicted at Shiloh than in all the wars America had fought before then put together.

The battle changed the nation’s attitude toward the war. Before Shiloh, one Union soldier wrote, ”My opinion is that this war will be closed in less than six months.” Shortly after Shiloh, the same soldier thought it might take 10 years.

What didn’t take long was for Northern editorial writers and politicians to call for Grant’s scalp. He was an incompetent officer, it was claimed, who hadn’t prepared for the unexpected battle.

But President Lincoln — recognizing something in Grant that he couldn’t find in a general in the East, as he went through one incompetent general after another — refused to remove Grant.

”I can’t spare this man; he fights,” Lincoln said.

shiloh peachblossoms 2

Now, when you stand at the edge of the Hornets’ Nest looking back over the field toward Ruggles’ cannons, or walk in Sarah Bell’s field, where her peach orchard used to be, near where Johnston was killed, you can see something of the confusion that must have reigned in 1862. The woods are still there, with those few fields in between. It is impossible to conceive of anyone at any part of the battle knowing what was happening at any other part. The maps show where troops moved, and where the cannons were assembled, but they give you a false sense of clarity.

That’s why you have to visit the place.

You cannot get a real feel for the battle without standing on the ground and seeing the landscape.

And if you are very lucky, when you are there in April, it will rain.

Ashe Co. plowed field

You cannot walk five feet in the South without knowing there is blood in the dirt.

It gives July 4 a special meaning, for you know that no matter where you turn, there is history under your foot.

There is history elsewhere in the country, too: Bunker Hill, Mass., Fort Ticonderoga in New York or Tombstone, Ariz. But they are singular places you go to visit — somebody else’s history. The South is so full of history that its land and people seem buried under the sense of it.

The first democratic legislature in the New World was Virginia’s House of Burgesses. The author of the Declaration of Independence was a Virginian. And the Revolutionary War came to a close at Yorktown, Va.

Each state has its Civil War sites, where thousands of its men are buried.

There are the street corners where civil-rights workers were hosed and beaten by police. Cotton fields where slaves were whipped.

It is interesting that the one place in the country where Black and White share the most is the South.

For most Americans, history is a story told in a schoolbook. It seems removed from the lives we live. For most Southerners, history is something their grandparents did or was done to them.

It isn’t just that the Civil War raged over the landscape. No part of the United States has suffered so much warfare on its land.

There had been battles with Indians from the very first European settlements.

The Revolutionary War brought Gen. Nathanael Greene to the South, where he led the British on a wild goose chase. The South also was the stage for Francis Marion, called the ”Swamp Fox.” Towns are named for them throughout the South.

natgreenemonument

The War of 1812 brought Andrew Jackson to fight with both the British and the Creek Indians.

The Mexican War helped bring Texas to the South and later to the Confederacy.

And, in the meantime, the blood of countless slaves and freedmen enlarged the tragedy of the South. There were lynchings and later the violence of the civil-rights movement.

It isn’t only rancor and slaughter that give the South its sense of history, but the land itself.

sprott evans

You can stand in a cornfield in rural Sprott, Ala., 25 miles north of Selma, and see the stand of trees at its border, knowing the trees are no more than 60 years old. And that before those trees began filling in the countryside, there were cotton, sharecroppers and poverty. A dilapidated wooden shack sits in the middle of the woods, and you wonder why anyone ever built there.

sprott farmhouse

Then you recognize they didn’t. The sharecroppers’ home — just like those written about by James Agee in his Let Us Now Praise Famous Men of 1941 — was built by a cotton field, but times change and history presses on and the fields are now woods.

I have lived in the South for the better part of my life. Every town, every pasture, every street corner brings to mind details of what they call ”The Great War.”

The library in Greensboro, N.C., where I lived, was a wartime hospital. In Madison, N.C., where my wife grew up, the family names of the wealthy whites and the poorest blacks were often the same, a legacy of slave times. The constant presence of the Civil War in the South crosses color lines.

In most other regions of the United States, the Civil War is something you read about in a book. In the South, the Civil War is now, a perennial now. A Southerner’s perspective on the war is personal. It is in the blood.

So, when I hear the battle names reeled off on TV documentaries — Shiloh, Vicksburg, Gettysburg — they sound distant on the narrator’s tongue, distant as Gallipoli, Waterloo or Omaha Beach. To most Northerners, they are just distant names.

But when I lived near Norfolk, Va., and traveled to Richmond on Interstate 64, I passed the Elizabeth River, where the Monitor steamed out to meet the Virginia (nee Merrimac); I passed Fort Monroe, where Jefferson Davis was imprisoned after the war; I passed Malvern Hill, where the Peninsular Campaign sputtered in frustration.

My wife, Carole Steele, was born in North Carolina and learned about the war firsthand from her great-grandmother, Nancy Hutcherson Steele, who was 10 when it began. She had plowed the fields during the war while her father and brothers were away fighting. When she died at the age of 98, she did so in my wife’s childhood bed in a small house on the banks of the Dan River. Carole was 8 at the time.

Nancy Hutcherson Steele

Nancy Hutcherson Steele

After the war, Nancy had married Rowan Steele, who had joined the Confederate army at the age of 14, becoming a bugler in the cavalry. He was allowed to join the cavalry because he owned his own horse.

At war’s end, as a courier for the 16th Battalion, N.C. Cavalry, he was wounded in the head at Appomattox and left deaf in one ear.

One of the first things he told his family when he returned from the war was that he could no longer tolerate to eat black-eyed peas. In one of his battles — he would never say which one — in a field of black-eyed peas the blood flowed in the furrows like irrigation water, a vision he could never shake when confronted with a bowl of the peas.

Rowan and Nancy were married in 1868. He lived until 1917, when because of his deafness, he didn’t hear the train that killed him.

Rowan Steele

Rowan Steele

She lived long enough to teach Carole how to tie things up with hickory strips instead of rope, a trick she had learned in the great deprivation of the war, when they stretched what little game they could kill with ”peckerwood dressing” (sawdust), when they ate pokeweed and made ”coffee” from parched rye and wheat.

And she taught Carole to make the paper flowers that many Confederate women sold after the war to make a few dollars for disabled veterans.

As Henry Miller wrote, ”The Old South was ploughed under. But the ashes are still warm.”

For a Fourth of July in the South, history is what fertilizes the rich red clay.

grave digging patrol antietam 1862

Most Americans’ response to the Civil War depends on which side of the Mason-Dixon Line they were born.

And they can endlessly discuss the causes of the war and its meaning. Was it fought to end slavery, or to impose Northern industrial power on the agricultural South? Was the Confederacy an evil attempt to perpetuate racism or a noble attempt to protect its native soil and individual rights?

But when you are standing in Bloody Lane, you can’t pick sides. It no longer matters who was right and who was wrong.

Before Sept. 17, 1862, the brief dirt drive was called the Sunken Road, and it was a shortcut between two farm roads near Sharpsburg, Md. All around were cornfields rolling up and down on the hilly Appalachian landscape.

The narrow dirt road, depressed into the ground like a cattle chute, now seems more like a mass grave than a road.

And it was just that in 1862, when during the battle of Antietam Creek, Confederate soldiers mowed down the advancing Federals and were in turn mowed down. The slaughter was unimaginable.

You can see it in the photographs made a few days after the battle. The soldiers, mostly Southerners, fill the sunken road like executed Polish Jews. It was so bad, as one Union private said, “You could walk from one end of Bloody Lane to the other on dead soldiers and your feet would never touch the ground.”

Civil War 150 The Lost Order

Even today, with the way covered with crushed blue stone, the dirt underneath seems maroon. Perhaps it is the iron in the ground that makes it so; perhaps it is the blood, still there after 135 years.

Antietam was the worst single day of the Civil War. Nearly 23,000 men were killed or wounded. They were piled like meat on the ground and left for days before enough graves could be dug for them. There were flies, there was a stench.

The whole thing was a fiasco, for both sides, really. Robert E. Lee had taken his Confederate forces, numbering about 40,000 men, into the North, intending to take Union supplies at Harrisburg, Pa. It was a strategic move that Lee hoped would lend the Confederacy enough respect so that England would recognize the presumptive nation diplomatically. This, many Southerners hoped, would force the Union to negotiate a peace with the seceding states.

But he didn’t get farther than Maryland before the Union, under the sluggish General George McClellan, showed up with 87,000 men.

After a period of jockeying for position, Lee wound up with his troops in a long line, running north and south along Antietam Creek and through the town of Sharpsburg. The Union approached from the east.

Lee braced for a battle, but McClellan hesitated. When he attacked, his battle plan was botched by his field commanders. In the early morning, his men attacked the north part of Lee’s line. They fought relentlessly for several bloody hours, only to reach an exhausted standoff.

antietam harpers weekly

In the middle of the battle, the Union soldiers attacked at about 9:30 a.m. That is where the Southerners had set themselves in the Sunken Road. It was a perfect defensive position, and when the Federal troops marched over the rise a few tens of yards above the road, the fire devastated their ranks.

For four hours, the battle went on, soldier falling on dead soldier, and at the end, the Confederate commander at one end of the road misjudged an order, and retreated, opening up the end of the road to Northern reinforcements.

Given a clean line of fire on the remaining Rebels, the Yankees hacked through them like machetes through a jungle.

That is where the midden of bodies came from that filled the hollow of the road.

Later that day, along the southern boundary of the battle, the Yankees tried to cross a bridge over the creek and were held back for several hours by the Confederates.

But at the end of the battle, both Northern and Southern battle lines were nearly exactly where they had been in the morning. The battle had been a pointless bloodbath. The cocky McClellan claimed victory, but he could not say what he had won.

McClellan had lost every chance he had been given, hesitating and halting. “It wouldn’t be prudent to fight at this time,” he said at just the moment he might have broken Lee’s line and finished off the whole blood-soaked Civil War in an afternoon. As a result, Lee managed to get his army back safely south of the Potomac River. McClellan had lost his chance.

bodies on battlefield antietam

But all these years later, as you stand in Bloody Lane, the grassy margins of the road inclining up around you and the way lined with the criss-cross of split-rail fencing, it doesn’t matter if the soldiers were Yankee or Reb. They were all young, brave, impetuous and dead.

It is painful to stand in the declivity, looking up at the mound in front of you, covered in cornstalks in a mid-July day. You can see that when the Yankees came over the rise, they were already close enough to touch. There was no neutralizing distance for your rifle fire to travel, no bang-bang-you’re-dead, no time, no room for playing soldier. Your enemy was in your face and you had to tear through that face with lead, the blood splattered was both Federal and Confederate, in one red pond among the furrows.

It is only made more poignant by the peacefulness of the countryside  now, turned into a National Battlefield Park. Birds and butterflies play among the grassy seedheads, tourists come with their videocams and enjoy the scene. Husbands regale their wives with statistics:

In four hours on 200-yard stretch of Bloody Lane, 5,000 men were blown apart.

In another part of the battlefield, Union General John Sedgewick lost more than 2,200 men in less than half an hour in a charge into the West Woods.

In the Miller Farm cornfield, Union General Hooker later wrote, “every stalk of corn in the northern and greater part of the field was cut as closely as could have been done with a knife, and the slain lay in rows precisely as they had stood in their ranks a few moments before. It was never my fortune to witness a more bloody, dismal battlefield.”

I am not a superstitious man. I lay hold of empirical evidence, hard fact. But it is difficult to stand in Bloody Lane and not feel that all the soldiers are still there, perhaps not as ghosts, but as a presence under your boot-sole, there, soaked into the dirt.

It is almost, as some cultures believe, as if everything that happens in a place is always happening in that place. The battle was not something that occurred before my great-grandfather was born, but a palpable electricity in the air. You can not stand there in Bloody Lane and not be moved by that presence.

 

Lincoln seated

What we know best of Abraham Lincoln is his face. Gaunt and furrowed, with hollow cheeks, dark, shadowed eyes and a cowlick in his hair, as if he didn’t quite know what to do with a comb.

It may be partly that we know him from black-and-white photographs, but it is a gray face that already seems to be cut from stone. It is a monumental face.

It is also an ambiguous face. Perhaps because of the longer exposures needed to make those portrait photos in the 1860s, his expression is blank. We don’t have images of Lincoln smiling or talking. He is always sitting still, waiting for Matthew Brady to say, “OK, thank you, Mr. President. We are done.” And he can then relax, stretch his long legs and perhaps crack a joke. “Mr. Brady, it reminds me of the one about …”

But the static pose means we look at the face and read into it what we want: fatigue, care, wisdom, faith, despair, grief or distraction. Maybe just boredom.

Lincoln 1865

And it isn’t only in the photographs that Lincoln is more mirror than figure. Everything in his life is ambiguous, and lets us find the Lincoln that reflects the image of ourselves. What we know best is his face, but it tells us the least.

Nathaniel Hawthorne called it “this sallow, queer, sagacious visage, with the homely human sympathies that warmed it.”

The words are from Library of America’s Lincoln Anthology, a collection of writings about our 16th president edited by Lincoln scholar Harold Holzer. It contains a century and a half of writing, from the recollections of his contemporaries to recent ruminations and lucubrations by writers such as Gore Vidal and Garry Wills. Each has his own Lincoln.

In it, you can read the shifting versions of the man. For some he is the preserver of freedom, for others he is a bloody tyrant. Some saw a sober man of deep reflection, others a jokester who would jibe at the most inappropriate moments. Some saw him as a statesman, others as an opportunistic politician.

For some he was a pious Christian; for others, he was an atheist.

You can find proof of any of these views in the more than 10,000 books that have been written about him.

Did he prosecute the Civil War to end slavery or to preserve the Union? There is evidence for all these Lincolns, and more.

Recent books have suggested everything from a closeted gay Lincoln to one afflicted with one or another form of undiagnosed genetic neurological infirmity.

Perhaps nothing illustrates the problem better than Lincoln’s attitude toward race. His early writings can be hard to read nowadays, from a post-Obama perspective: “There is a physical difference between the white and black races which I believe will forever forbid the two races living together on terms of social and political equality. And I … am in favor of having the superior position assigned to the white race,” he said in a speech in 1858. He was an avid user of the N-word, hardly excused by the fact that almost everyone did back then.

Yet freed slave Frederick Douglass, who frequently held Lincoln’s feet to the fire over slavery, after meeting him in 1863 wrote in his autobiography that Lincoln was “the first great man that I talked with in the United States freely who in no single instance reminded me of the difference between himself and myself, of the difference of color.”

“He was big enough to be inconsistent,” wrote W.E.B. Du Bois in 1922. “Cruel, merciful; peace-loving, a fighter; despising Negroes and letting them fight and vote; protecting slavery and freeing slaves. He was a man – a big, inconsistent, brave man.”

There are three explanations for Lincoln’s inconsistencies.

The first and easiest is that he was a politician and said to people what they wanted to hear. This is certainly true in many cases.

The second is that his views changed over time, and that what he said in 1858 cannot accurately reflect what he believed in 1863. This is also true. Few presidents show so much growth in office as Lincoln.

But the third is more important: He was simply a complex man. He seemed able to hold opposing points of view in mind at the single moment.

Unlike many later presidents, who grasp unwaveringly to their ideologies, Lincoln approached the world as a multifarious and varied place in which a single point of view cannot encompass. It allowed him a pragmatic flexibility.

One of the lies of history is that it follows a script. We tend to see history as a story with a beginning, middle and end. We know how the Civil War turned out. But in the midst of it, no one knew how it would turn out, and Lincoln faced new problems every day and no single policy would work in every case.

And every day presented choices that could lead to an infinity of results: Behind every door, a dozen more waited to be opened.

“I claim not to have controlled events, but confess plainly that events have controlled me,” he said in 1864. His genius – his political and moral genius – it to have been a great surfer of events, turning this way or that to maintain his balance and herd those events toward the general goal he held firm to.

“My policy is to have no policy,” he once said.

It is what made him the right man for the job in 1860: An abolitionist could not be elected; a Southern sympathizer would only have prolonged the agony, like his predecessor, James Buchanan. Lincoln’s steadfastness of purpose was matched with a flexibility that many saw as being unprincipled. Yet, that flexibility is what worked.

“The scars and foibles and contradictions of the Great do not diminish but enhance their worth,” Du Bois wrote.

“I love him not because he was perfect, but because he was not and yet triumphed.”

LINCOLN