See Disclaimer Below.

Posts Tagged ‘The Civil War’

Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr., Abraham Lincoln, and the Civil War

In America, American History, Historicism, History, Humanities, Nineteenth-Century America, Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. on April 24, 2019 at 6:45 am
Advertisements

Interview with Robert J. Ernst, author of “The Inside War”

In America, American History, American Literature, Arts & Letters, Books, Creative Writing, Fiction, History, Humanities, Nineteenth-Century America, Novels, Southern History, Southern Literary Review, Southern Literature, The Novel, The South, Writing on December 4, 2014 at 8:45 am

This interview originally appeared here in Southern Literary Review.

Robert Ernst

Robert Ernst

APM: Thanks for taking the time to sit down for this interview, Bob. Your novel The Inside War is about an Appalachian mountain family during the Civil War. How long have you been interested in the Civil War?

RJE: I have had an interest in the Civil War for many years. Specifically, the effect of the war on Appalachia became an interest as I researched family history, now more than a decade ago. I realized that not much had been written, outside of academic treatises, on this aspect of the war. Bushwhacking ambushes, bands of roving deserters, intensely opposed partisan factions, and a breakdown in civil society befell western North Carolina. Of course, much study had been given to the poverty of the area during the twentieth century, but not much, save bluegrass music, about its culture. What I discovered was a vibrant pre-war society thoroughly rent by the war. And, the area did not recover.

APM: The story of Will Roberts, your novel’s protagonist, is similar to that of many actual soldiers who fought for the Confederacy. How much historical research went into this book? It seems as if there are a number of events in your story—Sammy Palmer’s shooting of the sheriff, for instance—that track historical occurrences.

RJE: Much of the story is based on historical events. In fact, Will Roberts was a real person, as was his brother, Edwin. I traced their wartime adventures, researched the battles and conditions of their captivity and wove a fictional story around them. Likewise their wives, as portrayed in the story, were based on real people, although their story is more fictionalized. The novel does incorporate many historical characters and events that occurred in the vicinity of Marshall, North Carolina, by which I attempt to portray a picture of the character of the area and the severe impact of the war on it.

APM: There are some themes in the book that cover an aspect of the Civil War that is not often covered. Tell us about those.

RJE: The tactic of bushwhacking, or ambushing mountain patrols, is one. Guerrilla warfare as a matter of accepted tactics was new and was a terrifying degradation of the morality of warfare. There was a real cultural divide among the citizens of western North Carolina between those who supported the North, the “tories,” and those who supported the Confederacy. These divisions played out in many ways, most notably in atrocities like the Shelton Laurel massacre, but more subtly in familial and neighbor relationships. I doubt many women suffered as did those in Appalachia, from the depredations, theft and physical threat of the men who populated the mountains during the war. I was surprised to learn of the inhumane prison conditions at Ft. Delaware. Everyone knows of Andersonville, but not many are aware of Ft. Delaware. We know of the great Civil War battles, but there were scores of skirmishes every week that terrified the contestants and shaped their perceptions. Certainly, Roberts’s family suffered greatly, even though their war happened in the background to better known events.

APM: You seem careful not to glorify war but to present it as the complex tragedy that it is. The book’s epigraph states, “For those who have suffered war.” I wonder if the process of writing this book taught you anything about war itself. What do you think?

Allen Mendenhall

Allen Mendenhall

RJE: The grand histories of the conflicts, eulogizing the fallen and celebrating the victorious are all necessary parts of our remembrance of a terrible, national conflict. What I found in researching this story was intense personal suffering, unnoted except at the basic unit of society, the family, and rippling out to the church, neighborhood and town. Why would a woman abandon her children? What would drive a member of the home guard to massacre captives – mere boys? How could people, so crushed, hope? And, of course, the main theme of The Inside War is hope; hope after, and despite the loss and suffering. As we deal with the veterans of the conflict with radical Islamists we need to surround them with a culture of hope.

APM: From one attorney to another, do you think being a lawyer affects your writing in any way—from the preparation to the organization to the style?

RJE: That’s interesting. Certainly the actual practice of law involves clear writing. I have a hard time reading novels written in stream of consciousness or in rambling, shuffling styles. So, hopefully this book will be understandable and clear to the reader. I like the process of legal research and enjoyed the process of researching this book. However, the characters, though based on historical figures, came about from my imagination, which is why the book is a novel and not a history.

APM: It’s been said that the Revolutionary War produced political philosophy in America whereas the Civil War produced literature. Do you agree with this, and if so, why?

RJE: Perhaps the truth in that statement devolves from the Revolutionary War defining the creation of a nation, the Civil War defining its character. The revolution tested the theories of individual liberty and melded them, free of sovereign control, imperfectly into a new nation. The Civil War represents a gigantic challenge to the notion that a nation of citizens can be free. Millions were intimately involved in the latter conflict and the upheaval and changes were intensely felt and recorded in innumerable books. But the fundamental story of both wars is ongoing, in my view, and that is America must re-experience, “a new birth of freedom,” with regularity if America is to retain her vibrancy and hope.

APM: Thanks, Bob, for taking the time. I appreciate it, and I know our readers do, too.

The Enduring Importance of Justice Holmes: A Brief Note

In America, American History, Arts & Letters, Conservatism, History, Humanities, Jurisprudence, Law, Liberalism, Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr., Philosophy, Politics, Pragmatism on December 19, 2012 at 9:00 am

Allen Mendenhall

There is an argument to be made that Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. matters more today than he did in his own lifetime, even if he is, with a few exceptions, less understood.  He continues to be the most cited Supreme Court justice in United States history, and his pithy phrases, hard-hitting prose, and axiomatic opinions and dissents continue to obtain as law; even when they do not obtain as law, they almost always remain valid candidates for becoming law.

Holmes wrote his ambitious tome The Common Law to outline the history of the development of Anglo-American jurisprudence as it played out in the complex interactions among people down through the centuries.  In so doing, he showed that law is a meliorative process of applying and organizing—with mixed purposes and results—general principles in different ages.  Holmes’s attention to precedent as both a corrective heuristic and a systematic hermeneutic grounded in case patterns and practices demonstrates how common law systems work.  In recent Supreme Court cases, justices on both the putative “left” and “right” wing of the court have cited Holmes to authorize certain viewpoints, and Holmes’s writings are recycled so often by judges that they appear to have been central to ensuring the validity and viability of the very organism—the common law—that they sought to improve and describe.

Holmes was, and is, known for his deference to local legislatures; he did not think that unelected judges should be able to impose their viewpoints upon distinct, regional cultures and communities.  He resisted sprawling interpretations of words and principles, even if his hermeneutics brought about consequences he did not like.  He was open about his willingness to decide cases against his own interests.  As he wrote to his cousin John T. Morse, “It has given me great pleasure to sustain the Constitutionality of laws that I believe to be as bad as possible, because I thereby helped to mark the difference between what I would forbid and what the Constitution permits.”

Louis Menand, in The Metaphysical Club, asserts that “one thing that can be said with certainty about Holmes as a judge is that he almost never cared, in the cases he decided, about outcomes,” because he was “utterly, sometimes fantastically, indifferent to the real-world effects of his decisions.”  In other words, Holmes did not reach his decisions because they would produce results that he could applaud; he reached them because he thought they were conclusions he had to arrive at in light of facts, circumstances, precedents, and rules.  A common mistake is to take Holmes’s deference to the mores and traditions of states and localities as evidence of his shared belief in those mores and traditions.  For instance, David Bernstein’s Rehabilitating Lochner (University of Chicago Press, 2011) tickets Holmes’s dissent in Lochner v. New York as a denunciation of business interests, but that was not the case.  Holmes did not have to agree with states and localities to say that federal judges and Supreme Court justices should not inject their worldview (economic or otherwise) into the life of a community with an opposing worldview.  As Frankfurter said of Holmes, “He has ever been keenly conscious of the delicacy involved in reviewing other men’s judgment not as to its wisdom but as to their right to entertain the reasonableness of its wisdom.”

In this respect, Holmes is a pragmatic pluralist in the manner of William James, and his judicial outlook seems to enact a more political version of James’s religious masterpiece “Varieties of Religious Experience.”  Holmes’s jurisprudence might even be dubbed “Varieties of Political Experience.”  Holmes’s position on judging is analogous to James’s suggestion in “Varieties of Religious Experience” that a person is entitled to believe what he wants so long as the practice of his religious belief is verifiable in experience and does not infringe upon the opportunity of others to exercise their own legitimate religious practices.  James put forth the idea of a “pluralistic universe,” which he envisioned to be, in his words, “more like a federal republic than an empire or a kingdom.”  Holmes likewise contemplated the notion of a federal republic in his opinions and dissents, especially in his deference to the states and their legislatures.  Although countless biographers and historians have noted the relationship between Holmes and James, I have yet to see an article-length treatment of this federalist aspect of their commonalities.

Holmes is often harnessed in the service of some conservative or liberal position—the most polemical on this score is Albert W. Alschuler’s Law Without Values: The Life, Work, and Legacy of Justice Holmes (University of Chicago Press, 2001)—but it is a mistake to treat his writings as an endorsement of the politics they enabled.  The most recent article published on Holmes, “The House that Built Holmes” by Brad Snyder (Vol. 30 of the Law & History Review, 2012), argues that Holmes’s reputation is largely a product of the iconic status to which young progressives elevated him, even though, ironically, Holmes disagreed with their politics.  In fact, Holmes did not support many of the projects that his decisions made possible; nor did he consider his own views unconditionally right; he therefore refused to insert his ideas into places where a faraway, federal judge’s opinion did not belong.  Menand seems to suggest that Holmes’s experiences as a soldier in the 20th Massachusetts, during the Civil War, shaped Holmes’s views about law, particularly with regard to regional particularities and idiosyncrasies.  His entire life, Holmes would couch his catchy rhetoric in the vocabularies of war, and he insisted that certitude, such as it was, could lead only to violence.

Absolute, uncompromising certitude is precisely what Holmes had against natural law jurisprudence.  Holmes saw natural law as an excuse for those who thought their worldview was correct to impose their politics onto others with different ideas.  Holmes defined truth as the system of his own limitations and as whatever it was that he could not help but believe.  Truth, for him, was no grounds for policy; it was simply what one does with what one knows.

In “The Path of the Law,” Holmes put forth the bad man theory or prediction theory of law, which holds that we should not view the law as an abstract statement about morals, but as those consequences which a bad man predicts will obtain if he chooses one course of action instead of another.  The law is, accordingly, a prediction about what will happen if one performs certain acts.  Such informed, calculated guessing—a habit acquired and refined by experience—is the way most of us decide to do one thing or another.  Most of us do not, when we stop at a traffic light, for example, consider the morality of the action we are performing, but instead consider the ramifications of our potential act should we actually carry it out.

That Holmes continues to be such a hotly contested figure, that his writings continue to be cited by judges at all levels, state and federal, suggests that his legacy remains important and that his ideas, however misunderstood, continue to figure the direction of American law and government.

Rugged Individualism in Slave Narratives

In American History, Arts & Letters, Emerson, Humanities, Liberalism, Libertarianism, Literary Theory & Criticism, Literature, Nineteenth-Century America, Slavery on August 1, 2012 at 8:45 am

Allen Mendenhall

The transcendental idealism of Emerson and Thoreau found its most illuminating expression and drew its most ardent followers before the Civil War would temper the spirits of many Americans.  Emerson and Thoreau both advocated for removing oneself from the constraints of society and for realizing an inner drive and power for epistemological, spiritual, and political purposes.  This individualism had more credence in New England than it did in the Southern states, and it is therefore not surprising that 19th century slave narratives would seek to appropriate that discourse of individualism in order to explain and condemn the realities of slavery.  Slavery could be cast as a symptom of the collective mindset, an evil that clearly could be seen as such if only individuals would separate themselves from conformity with the social unit and prevailing ideology.

Frederick Douglass, in both Narrative of the Life and his later work My Bondage and My Freedom, reveals that his childhood in slavery was relatively relaxed compared to that of other slaves, yet as he moved from master to master and was denied education—that is, as he grew into a man—the regulation of his body became harsher and more violent.  Douglass, who, as a lecturer, impressed upon his listeners a sense of rugged masculinity, uses his narratives to show how an individual can stand up to an entire institution.  In both narratives he vividly depicts his battle with Mr. Covey, a vicious overseer who was determined to train Douglass into docile submission by means of overwhelming violence.  It is an inner will as much as brute strength that brings about Douglass’s triumph over Covey, and it is Douglass’s determination to read and to learn that allows him to circumvent white law to achieve the literacy that made both of these works possible.

As an anti-slavery advocate in the North, having attained his freedom, Douglass expressed his individualism in a variety of ways, not least of which in his insistence to remain independent of William Lloyd Garrison and other abolitionists with whom Douglass had, as it were, a falling out.  Douglass also articulated a desire for blacks to embrace the ideal of personal responsibility and to look to their own personhood as a means for pulling themselves out of their unfortunate condition.  His enabling rhetoric was intended to be inspirational and to imitate the rhetoric and values of New England whites, without whose support neither he nor other slaves could mobilize political action.  Other authors of slave narratives such as William Wells Brown (who, it should be mentioned, had a falling out with Douglass) employ similar tactics and strategies regarding the appeal to individualism.  Brown also promoted himself as a masculine figure who realized his autonomy and drew strength from his own will to deliver himself from bondage.

Harriet Jacobs’s narrative couches individualism in more ambiguous terms.  She gives herself the name Linda Brent in the narrative, which is addressed explicitly to the “women of the North.”  Her narrative is replete with apostrophes to these women readers and, therefore, with signals and coded references meant to gain sympathy and provoke anger at the institution of slavery.  When Linda’s master attempts to take her in as his sex slave, she goes so far as to have an affair with a white man, Mr. Sands, as a form of resistance.  Knowing the decorum of her audience and the precariousness of her status as a freed slave, Linda repeatedly acknowledges the sinfulness of her act but stresses, too, that she cannot be held to the same standards as white women, who enjoy the freedom to make moral choices.  In a system of slavery, Linda suggests, there are no moral choices because one is reduced to selecting between one bad act or another.  Like Douglass, Linda finds freedom in the North, and, like Douglass, she spends time in England, where, she indicates, freedom flourishes, at least in relation to the United States.  Jacobs’s narrative can be taken as an urgent statement on the agency of slaves in the face of seemingly insurmountable obstacles, and the image of the strong woman that she cultivates (not just in herself but in the person of her grandmother) resonates as a powerful trope that others would pick up on. Read the rest of this entry »

“Gone,” Edited with Photography by Nell Dickerson

In Arts & Letters, Book Reviews, History, Humanities, Nineteenth-Century America, Southern History, Southern Literary Review, The South, Writing on May 9, 2012 at 7:45 am

Allen Mendenhall

The following review originally appeared here in the Southern Literary Review.

I’ve always maintained a spectator’s curiosity in the rituals and practices of photography.  I can’t take a good picture, no matter which side of the camera I’m on, but I appreciate the idea of reducing the world to a more manageable form, something I can look at and admire without getting overwhelmed by the sheer magnitude and kinetics of it all.

I used to have a friend who was a photographer, and I would watch her take pictures.  She tried, once or twice, to teach me the nuances and particulars of photography, but I’m too proud to fail at new activities, so I strive never to undertake them.

Photographs are, folks say, moments stuck in time.  That makes them especially melancholy if their subjects, as it were, are decaying, rotting, or dying.  That’s what I realized when I leafed through the pages of Gone, a brilliant, conversation-starting, coffee-table book bearing the subtitle “A Heartbreaking Story of the Civil War,” and the sub-sub-title “A Photographic Plea for Preservation.”

Gone makes history even as it documents history.  Its images of antebellum Southern churches, plantations, and homes—some dilapidated, some just barely restored—ought to remind Southerners of the need for preserving the finest monuments of, and to, our complicated history.

That the photographer is Nell Dickerson, cousin to the late, great historian and novelist Shelby Foote, who needs no introduction to readers of this publication—although we editors have given him one—only adds a sense of authenticity to this project.  It’s as if in image and word and authorial kin, the book is tied to a past that struggles, and fails, to remain present; and it’s in that failing that the book achieves its most meaningful and poignant expression.

We Southerners place a premium on the fixed, the immutable, the known, perhaps because we understand that the things we value—family, hearth, home, community, place, religion—are bound to change.  We mourn change as we mourn loss, because all change entails loss, and it’s our tendency to mourn that gives us a unique, constructive identity.

We define ourselves as a people who have lost, or have lost something.  It’s a position that doesn’t survive interrogation, but there it is, a tragic ethos (and, for that matter, pathos) that we hope will stay the same when all else is, if not different, then almost unfamiliar.  Almost. Read the rest of this entry »

Additional Thoughts on Gary W. Gallagher’s The Union War

In American History, Arts & Letters, Book Reviews, Historicism, History, Nineteenth-Century America, Slavery, Southern History, The South, Western Civilization on December 23, 2011 at 10:50 am

Allen Mendenhall

Recently I reviewed Gary W. Gallagher’s The Union War (Harvard University Press, 2011) for The University Bookman.  The review (“Why the Union Soldiers Fought”) is available here.  I have not said all I mean to say about Gallagher’s book, so this post records some additional thoughts.

I began my review with the tale of the “Lost Women and Children of Roswell.”  It was difficult as a child, knowing this story and others like it, to view the Union Army as completely righteous and pure, or to justify the eradication of certain evils like slavery with other widespread and destructive evils like war.  Despite being a Southerner with ancestors who fought for the Confederacy, I’m ambivalent about the War because of the various and totalizing perspectives that were thrust upon me when I was young, and because of my general opposition to war and nationalism, to say nothing of the complex figuring of race that played a defining role in bringing about the conflict.

As I went from middle school to high school, and then college to graduate school, the less likely I was to reduce the causes of the War to one or two factors, and the more likely I was to believe that anyone’s view of the War is already tainted by biases and assumptions.  Over time, I learned never to rule out alternate ways of viewing the War or the Confederacy.  I decided that no one would ever discover the intellectual trump card that would prevail over other viewpoints about the War that killed more men than all other wars in American history, combined.

There’s always more than one way of looking at a conflict, be it this War or some other one.  And our imperfect understanding of conflicts—of anything, really—always consists of generalizations based on the confines of personal experience.  We can read about the events encompassing the War, and we can guess at the logic and beliefs that explain those events.  But we can never relive the War or experience it in real time; and if we are honest, we must say that we can never read all there is to read about the period, never fully know the way a nineteenth-century mind thought, never entirely understand the quotidian realities of the men and women of all races at those times and in those places.  Being human, moreover, we make mistakes and assumptions.  Most of us revise our errors when we notice them.  But some don’t.  Some try to rationalize the logic of the unrealities to which they cling.  Read the rest of this entry »

%d bloggers like this: