The Toxic Vibe at Antietam

A view of "Bloody Lane" from the observation tower.

Every Civil War battlefield is poignant, preserving within itself a base, murderous vibe.  Each speaks to us in its own way of American folly.  Nowhere is the vibe more toxic than at Antietam.

What led Americans to murder one another there in record numbers?  They had lost patience over a complex problem that they failed to solve politically, and each set of murderers would be damned before they would see their opponents prevail.  And so they were.

In a quiet corner of rural Maryland just off the Potomac River, legions of Union and Confederate soldiers—Americans all—converged in cornfields and country lanes outside Sharpsburg, shooting, bombing, and bayoneting one another in a merciless bloodbath.  It was just one day in a civil war that lasted four years and destroyed the lives of hundreds of thousands of young men, scarring their families and traumatizing a proud, optimistic nation.  There in the vicinity of Antietam Creek, on September 17, 1862, some 23,000 Americans were wounded or killed.

Masses of dead Americans lying in a field after Antietam in 1862

They were the victims of party politics.  The lofty language Lincoln and others used to give meaning to the Civil War tends to obscure the truth that the war was a travesty, a rebuke to the pretensions of republican government.  The Civil War was the nasty afterbirth of a colossal political deadlock that upended the political system and plunged the nation into catastrophe.  We rarely acknowledge the deeply shameful character of this domestic rumble. The nation’s leadership class so failed the people that at last they and their states lost patience, gave up negotiating, and gambled on settling their differences by force.

When the Civil War broke out, the United States was a young, forward-looking nation.  Its people were migratory and accustomed to risk.  They were experimental, improvisational, adept at breaking with established ways.  Yet, when it came to slavery, their leaders were blinkered.  They were irresponsible and cowardly.  (Historian James G. Randall once dubbed them “the blundering generation.”)  In the first half of the 19th century, when other countries were advancing toward the gradual abolition of slavery (often in their colonial possessions), a generation of American leaders proved incapable of finding a peaceful way past white Southerners’ longstanding reliance on negro slaves.

An enormous literature catalogs the reasons these “antebellum” statesmen failed.  Slavery was deeply rooted in the South’s colonial past. The slaveholding class perceived owning “property” in slaves as vital to Southern prosperity, which was based on export commodities (chiefly tobacco and cotton).  White Southerners also enjoyed more than their fair share of representation in Congress, thanks to the three-fifths clause of the Constitution.

Northern politicians meanwhile turned a blind eye to slavery (the “peculiar” institution), in part because of the North’s own variety of anti-black feeling, but also because agitating for change with respect to slavery threatened the solidarity of the political class across the North-South divide.  No one in power could envision the US with a large free black population.

Northern Democrats, whose party was pro-slavery, were keen to steer clear of the slavery issue because they wanted to remain in power.  They wanted their party to remain dominant and keep control of the White House.  They were committed to preventing the federal government from infringing on the rights of slave-holding states or individual slaveholders.

In short, until the rise of the Republican Party in the late 1850s, slavery was an uncomfortable issue that no mainstream politician wanted to face.  Slavery, that “fire bell in the night,” as Jefferson memorably described it circa 1820, was so potentially divisive a matter that, for many decades, American statesmen conspired to keep it from interfering in national life.

Politically, this strategy of avoidance allowed northern and southern states to enjoy a balance of power.  As territories were settled and new states admitted to the Union, Congress passed various measures in an attempt to ensure that the number of free and slave states would remain equal.  The Missouri Compromise (1820), the Compromise of 1850, and the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854 were all constructed along these lines.

When an initially tiny group of antislavery politicians succeeded in organizing the new Republican Party and putting their candidate Abraham Lincoln in the White House in 1860, Southern legislators were certain they knew what the future held.  They were convinced that the Republicans’ success (though attained solely with the support of Northern states) presaged slavery’s doom—and their own.  Southern leaders who might have stayed in power to mitigate the effects of this untoward political development, recoiled against their minority status.  Fearful and defiant, they withdrew from national politics.  Then they went home and convinced their states to withdraw from the Union.  In doing so, they placed themselves on the wrong side of history, failing their states and fellow-citizens, and spinning a narrative of bitterness and alienation that some Southerners continue to lean on today.

Suddenly, because of all that, the residents who had heretofore ferried back and forth across the Potomac on their daily errands became mortal enemies.  Confederates blew up the bridge at Shepherdstown, Virginia, that was normally used to get to the Maryland side.  Then, after the bridge was gone, tens of thousands of troops who were part of Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia waded across the river at night to wage war in what was called the Maryland Campaign.

Lee sought to attack and defeat the Union Army on northern soil, but, even at this early point in the war, his soldiers and he may well have sensed the terrible futility and shamefulness of their resort to violence—the civic degeneration that “freed” them to attack their erstwhile compatriots, whose ancestors had fought with theirs to attain independence in the American Revolution.  Having disavowed their faith in federal politics and the Constitution, Southern “rebels” now poured their energies into slaughtering whomever they encountered in the “bloody cornfield.”

After both sides sickened from their atrocious duties, Lee’s forces retreated back across the river into rebel territory, an admission that their aggressive foray against the defenders of federalism had failed.

In retrospect, we can see how the visceral drama and valor of the Civil War took the heat off “the blundering generation.”  We do not excoriate the political establishment of that time for failing to hang together, for their cowardly abandonment of the federal system.

Because the Civil War at last secured the great goal of emancipation, we can easily be fooled into thinking of it as a noble, progressive event.  It’s blasphemy to admit the war was a terrible disservice to the nation, which would have been better off abolishing slavery by consensual means.  The partisan and sectional conflict leading up to the Civil War exposed frightening vulnerabilities in our Constitutional system, vulnerabilities that are still there, waiting for a freak combination of circumstances to exploit them again.

Sadly, the resort to force did not “settle our differences.”  A vast change in our internal relations occurred when slavery ended, but, as for the necessary change of heart, we’re waiting for it still.  Southern slaveholders never assented to slavery’s end.  Northerners never got serious about the concessions that might have induced the South to give up an immoral labor practice at odds with the nation’s ideals.  Ultimately, enslaved blacks attained freedom despite violent Southern opposition, engendering animosities that confound Americans still.  Still, America lacks consensus on racial equality as a fact and a blessing; still retrograde elements valorize their resistance to modern popular will.

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How wonderful it would be

Man cutting out stars in a flag factory (Courtesy Library of Congress)

“It would just be so wonderful if the answers could actually come from the South itself,” Isabella Wilkerson said.  She was talking about the Charleston shootings, the Confederate flag, and the influence the South’s slave-holding past continues to have on the region.  The race hatred that motivated a young white gunman to kill nine African-Americans in their own church is an extreme manifestation of the bitterness and resentment still lingering in some hearts after the Civil War—a conflict whose one-hundred-and-fiftieth anniversary the nation has just observed.

That long-ago conflict determined the superior power of the federal government over the states, while putting an end to Southern slavery.  The citizens of the sections warred against one another, one side sold on the merits of federalism, the other desiring to preserve states’ autonomy.  The South went to war over the right to pass and uphold whatever laws it pleased—specifically those that sanction chattel slavery.

The Union’s victory invalidated the rebels’ arguments, while setting up an asymmetrical dynamic vis-à-vis the South that persists.  In the wake of this rebuke, the federal government (in the so-called “Reconstruction” era) ruled Southern state governments for ten years, fearing that, if given political autonomy, the states would use it to resurrect slavery.  Later in the century, Southern states achieved something approximate through the Jim Crow laws.  During the civil rights era of the 1960s, the federal government again intervened to help secure and uphold black Southerners’ claims to legal and civil equality.  This legacy of intervention achieved progress by coercion–an achievement very different than that of racial reconciliation and political healing from inside.

When I traveled to Mississippi in the early 1990s, I was shocked to encounter whites who felt they couldn’t ‘win’ because of the weights the Civil War had placed on them.  They still felt diminished and beaten, and still resented and feared the state’s large black population, which could attain hegemony if empowered.  Enmeshed in an archaic social paradigm, they still regarded their black brethren as something other than Southern and equal.

The Southern tendency to predicate the present on this past is a baleful impediment to Southern progress.  It is, moreover, a baleful impediment to the vitality and strength of the entire country.  People of all sections are affected by the conditions prevailing in this one region.  Just imagine the transforming effects upon the entire nation if the South were finally to heal its own historical wounds!

Above: A man cuts out stars for a flag with a machine, in a photograph probably taken in 1909.
Image courtesy of the Library of Congress.

After The Tax Bill Passed

cartoon shows tax inspectors looking under a woman's crinoline and under a bed in her home.

A federal income tax was first levied in the United States in 1862.  Congress instituted the tax to meet the extraordinary expenses of the Civil War.  The Revenue Act of 1862 levied a progressive tax on Americans, of 3% on incomes between 600 and 10,000 dollars, and 5% on incomes over 10,000 dollars (roughly $238,000 today).

Prior to the Civil War, the federal government relied primarily on tariffs (duties on goods imported into the US) to finance its activities.  The use of the tariff protected the growth of nascent American manufactures, by making foreign goods more expensive relative to those made in the US.  This arrangement allowed the government to operate without taxing citizens directly.

The cartoon above, published in Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper soon after the Revenue Act went into effect, captures its impact on American psyches.  The tax is depicted as indecorously invasive.  In the drawing, four federal tax collectors are snooping around inside the home of an American citizen named Scroggs.  Caught in the act of arranging his hair, Scroggs faces interrogation armed only with a brush and comb.  A tax commissioner in a high hat accosts him while fingering Scroggs’s pocket-watch.  Another visitor peeks under his wife’s skirt, while still others scrutinize the couple’s clothes and look under their child’s bed.  The caption: ‘Scroggs says he is ready and willing to pay any amount of tax, but he would like them to leave his wife’s crinoline and other domestic trifles alone.’

Did instituting the income tax create an antagonistic relationship between citizens and the government that had not existed before?  What we do know is that in 1867, the Civil War at an end, the income tax was sharply reduced, and in 1872 it was eliminated.  According to the Internal Revenue Service website, between 1868 and 1913, 90 percent of internal revenue was garnered through taxes on alcohol and tobacco.  The income tax was re-instituted only in Woodrow Wilson’s era, following the ratification of the Sixteenth Amendment, which increased Congress’s discretion in levying income taxes directly on the citizenry.

Image: from this source.

Thomas Nast’s ‘Central Park in Winter’

Two scenes, showing skating and sleighing in Central Park. The top panel includes drawings of James Gordon Bennett Sr and Horace Greeley
For the January 30, 1864, issue of Harper’s Weekly, Thomas Nast drew a many-paneled illustration of Central Park in winter.  Like many of his works, this one featured a large central drawing, surrounded by smaller vignettes in round and elliptical frames.  The main drawing shows New Yorkers ice-skating on Central Park’s Pond.  (The Park was then only a few years old.)  Below that is a rather wild sleighing scene, in which genteel New Yorkers ride through a desolate terrain, as urchins throw snowballs or rocks at them.

The opening of Central Park coincided with ice-skating’s growing popularity, which took hold in earnest in the 1850s.  The Park was most heavily visited in winter, when its pond became crowded with thousands of skaters, whose activities Nast captures here in wonderful detail.  (Note the woman in the skating chair.)

Perhaps inevitably, Nast’s wonderland contains some politics, too.  Two months earlier, President Lincoln had been reelected as an inconclusive Civil War dragged on, inflicting terrible casualties.  New York, being a commercial center, had always viewed the war with ambivalence.  The conflict was contrary to the city’s interests, disrupting a lucrative trade with the South on which New York’s economy relied.  While many New Yorkers were ardent Unionists and Republicans, the city also had a large Democratic constituency, including a politically active immigrant population, which resented the war, the federal government, and the fuss about slaves.  Many, wishing a return to peace, had lately voted for Lincoln’s challenger, Democrat George McClellan.

Anger over the federal government’s war policies had boiled into violence the previous July.  New York became the scene of bloody draft riots, in which rioters lynched at least 11 blacks and 120 people were killed in street fighting between protesters and the police.  Poor whites were inflamed against a draft bill that Congress had recently passed: while ostensibly requiring all fit men to serve in the Union military, it contained a loophole that wealthier Northerners would use to evade the draft: arranging for a replacement by paying a bounty.

In the foreground of his skating scene, Nast (who ardently supported Lincoln and the war) highlights several figures, including a military man at the far left wearing a kepi—a reminder of high-minded Northerners voluntarily leading the Union effort as officers.  At right are two prominent New York newspaper editors, James Gordon Bennett Sr and Horace Greeley, who have run into trouble on proverbially thin ice.  Greeley is teetering, while Bennett has fallen, both near a hole signifying treachery.  Bennett had been an outspoken critic of Lincoln and proponent of McClellan, whereas Greeley, while fitfully supportive of the war, had recently embarrassed the Lincoln administration by engaging in bogus ‘peace negotiations’ with some Confederate representatives who turned out to be fakes.

Both editors, though overwhelmingly influential, earned Nast’s scorn because they were feckless peace-mongers.  To have ended the Civil War through a settlement at that juncture would have rendered the suffering of the soldiers in vain.

Their presence heightens the allegorical meaning of the left side of the tableau, where three figures guard the safety of the family and society.  Besides the Union officer, who holds a small boy in his arms, Nast’s own editor Fletcher Harper (with mutton-chop whiskers) stands over a young girl protectively, while a third man (unidentified, but probably a prominent editor, too) deferentially greets a woman standing at the edge of the ice.  Nast depicts these figures as both benevolent and patriotic.  Harper gave Nast a venue for his pro-Union and radically egalitarian views.

So what at first glance passes for an innocuous pleasure scene is a comment on specific editors, and a paean to the value of virtuous editors in a conflict-ridden time.

Image from this source.

The Dream of Emancipation

Thomas Nast, "Emancipation: The Past and the Future," colored wood engraving, 1865 (Library Company of Philadelphia).
All the fervent hopes associated with the end of American slavery animate this colored engraving of Thomas Nast’s “Emancipation: The Past and the Future,” published in 1865.

Better than pages upon pages of tracts and editorials, this vivid artwork expresses the moral convictions and sentiments that led Americans of 150 years ago to get rid of slavery, and, beyond that, to envision a society in which all people would equally enjoy certain basic rights.

Freeing the slaves was one thing: it was quite another for white America to embrace a vision of political equality that would extend to Americans of another color.  Yet this northern Americans did right after the Civil War (1861-65), amending the Constitution to secure positive legal equality for former slaves and all persons of color.  Proponents of the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments—which abolished slavery, promised citizens equal protection under the law, and extended voting rights to blacks—believed that these measures would guarantee the liberty of former slaves and their descendants, opening the way for their sharing in the blessings of prosperity and peace.

In that sense, the so-called Reconstruction Amendments, passed between 1865 and 1870, represent the high-water mark of nineteenth-century America’s quest for racial equality.  That quest, which had begun in earnest in the 1830s, was an essentially moral and intellectual movement, a movement that a generation of writers, moralists, orators, newspaper publishers, and outspoken clergymen advanced.  For many decades they labored hopelessly and alone.  Abolitionists were marginal and dangerous figures.  Politicians wanted nothing to do with their cause.  Statesmen were uniformly loathe to disturb slavery: it was essential to the US economy; therefore, it was far better to let it be.

Only the abolitionists persistently and inconveniently refused to be silent.  For decades, their cause, their dream of banishing slavery once and for all, was a fringe movement, something entertained only in truly radical minds.  Those who demanded abolition were literally playing with fire, and sometimes the fire found them, as when their offices were burned, or when their efforts to keep the courts from returning fugitives slaves to their masters caused riots.

The belief that slavery had to end and that, once it did, the only proper course was to recognize black Americans as citizens, gradually gained some political traction, though it remained a minority view.  Radical Republicans like Senator Charles Sumner of Massachusetts would not rest until they had expunged slavery from the Constitution and enshrined the principle of racial equality in its place.  After the war, Northerners succeeded in amending the Constitution as they did only because the South was relatively disenfranchised and in a state of social and economic disarray.

The amendments were right, but they remained radical: like many of our nation’s founding principles, the Reconstruction amendments spelled out an ideal, one that has proved elusive, for decades more inspirational than real.

But the dream of it, the dream of racial inclusion and equality: that dream has made all the difference, both during Reconstruction and subsequently.  The Americans who struggled, 150 years ago, to codify this radical vision and make it more real were the forerunners of modern civil-rights heroes like Martin Luther King.  That dream continues to inspire all people of conscience to practice mutual respect, and to be true to the radical principle of equality that ennobles us all.

Item: from the collections of  The Library Company of Philadelphia.
Click the print to enlarge it.

Nast’s drawing telescopes all the horrifying aspects of slavery.  At left, the capture and abduction of Africans from their native lands; the break-up of their families; their sale on the auction block to American owners;
the powerlessness of male and female slaves in the face of their owners’ will;
their forced labor, the fruits of which now belonged to their owner;
and the absence of any recourse except to the ear of God,
to end the injustices and torment of being enslaved.
Only Liberty (at the top of the print) could dispel these grave moral and social sins.
Nast imagined a future in which newly freed people would enjoy everyday blessings,
such as (at right) having intact families, sending their children to school,
being paid wages for labor performed,
and owning something themselves instead of being owned.

The real stuff of history

Woman's shoes circa 1845 from the blog "In the Swan's Shadow"

Woman’s shoes, circa 1845, featured on “In the Swan’s Shadow.

As a result of the internet revolution, the historian (whether armchair or professional) has better materials to work with than ever before.  Museums, libraries, antique dealers, auction houses, even private collectors are increasingly sharing images of their holdings online, giving the material culture of the past a prominence and visibility that it lacked formerly.  Hidden away for centuries in cellars and attics, History’s shoes and dresses, waistcoats and wallpapers, jewelry, love letters, paintings, and furnishings are suddenly everywhere, courtesy of digital photography.

The impact of these items can be surprisingly revolutionary, correcting and revitalizing the past that has come down to us through historical writing.  Architecture, photography, and other vestiges of material culture together impart a more accurate and sophisticated view of earlier cultures.  Rather than growing dimmer, views of nineteenth-century America, for instance, are growing more vivid each day.

Dipping into that past is the business of “In The Swan’s Shadow,” a blog that’s been around for about 5 years.  The unidentified blogger who puts it out is amazingly dedicated and prolific, posting 1,560 items in 2013.

The site is a trove of images of items surviving from the era of the American Civil War, documenting the lives of women (and children) in particular.  There are laces and shawls, bonnets and gloves, cameos, fancy dresses, portraits big and small, genre paintings, fashion illustrations, Victorian earrings and bracelets made of jet and turquoise, old photographs of women, hair-do designs, crinolines—you name it.  I love the items the “ebon swan” features.

Popular interest in the Civil War period, about what women wore and how they looked, has been stoked by historical re-enactment and its sister art, historical costuming, both of which are the focus of innumerable blogs.  A desire to re-create and re-inhabit the past, however briefly, has proved a powerful motive for taking history apart at the seams.

Fashion plate from the 1850s

1859 fashion plate featured in a post on “In the Swan’s Shadow

Thanks to an unsung army of hobbyists, curators, shopkeepers, and bloggers, two great gains for history are being achieved.  First, the scrim of drab sentimentalism that formerly enveloped the antebellum and war period is being torn away. The era’s clothes, jewelry, and pictures bring back a culture that was sumptuous, passionate, colorful, and edgy.  The heavy clothes that, in fashion plates, look only imprisoning can now also be appreciated as opulent expressions of female power and dignity.

Antebellum dress with black buttons.

Dress with black buttons in the Kentucky Historical Society‘s collection. Featured in a post on “In the Swan’s Shadow.”

Second, nineteenth-century America’s participation in a trans-Atlantic culture has never been more plain.  Many Americans lived in primitive conditions in the early national and pre-Civil War periods, but others had access to goods that were dazzling.  Lacking a fully developed sensibility, upper-class Americans continued to rely on Europe for luxury goods and ideas—for the glamour distilled in a fine silk damask, or in the light flutter of a lady’s fan.

Ladies fan in the collections of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.  Click to go to the source.

Feathered fan in the collections of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, featured on “In the Swan’s Shadow.”  Click here to go to the MFA site.

Yes, the real stuff of history is piling up at a crucial intersection of proof and inspiration, offering its mute truths as a feast to our vision.

The Nullifiers and Cliven Bundy

Nullification . . . despotism (1833 lithograph by Endicott & Swett)Not fifty years had passed before some Americans grew restive under the federal Union.

Back then, in 1832, the unhappy ones were called “nullifiers.”  They hailed from South Carolina, and their leader was the redoubtable John C. Calhoun, a senator and out-going Vice President with a good head on his shoulders and plenty of determination.  (In the cartoon above, he is the central figure, reaching for the despot’s crown.) Continue reading

Looking In on Lincoln’s Inaugurations

Inauguration of Mr. Lincoln (1861), photograph courtesy of the Library of Congress

How fortunate we are that Lincoln’s presidency came just after the development of photography!  Of course, by the time he first took office in 1861, certain photographic processes, notably daguerreotypes, had been around for decades.  But only around mid-century did photography develop into a versatile, practical, and widely circulating medium.  As a consequence, whereas photographs of Lincoln’s predecessors in the White House are scarce, Lincoln and his political contemporaries had their pictures taken many, many times.  Some even became shrewd retailers of their mechanically reproduced selves.

The result, from the point of view of the present, is an opening-wide of the window onto history.  Whereas details of James Buchanan‘s 1857 inauguration come down to us mainly through artistic and verbal description (there is this one blurry photograph), good photographs documenting both of Lincoln’s inaugurals survive.  From 1861, for instance, there are several fine distant views of Lincoln taking the oath of office, though none of them is close enough for us to make out his great defeated rival, Senator Stephen A Douglas, who, according to historical testimony, is said to have been looking on from a seat nearby.

These photographs remind us of the immature, precarious state of the Union at the time.  The great addition of the new Capitol dome was incomplete, and, even as Lincoln moved to forward to assume his elected office, the elements that made up the nation were breaking apart.  Prior to March 4, 1861, when this picture was taken, seven pro-slavery states had seceded, and afterward, four more southern states would depart.  On April 12th, with the firing on Fort Sumter, the nation would descend into a state of war.

A closer view of Abraham Lincoln's Inauguration in 1861 (Courtesy of the Library of Congress) of Abraham Lincoln in 1865

The crowd gathered for the swearing-in knew that they were witnessing a momentous scene.  The crowd was thick; most had furled their umbrellas; men, straining for the best possible view, mounted light poles and trees.  Motionless, they strained to hear the unamplified proceedings, the camera preserving the style of their hats and clothing.  Two men turn to face the camera, cannily.

The succeeding years saw a widening use of open-air photography, so that we know with some immediacy the Civil War’s corpse-strewn scenes.  Photographers like Alexander Gardner (by then working for Mathew Brady) tirelessly trailed the armies, unflinchingly recording the realities of camps, hospitals, and battle-fields.  By the time of Lincoln’s second inaugural, in 1865, the war was in its final months, slaves had been liberated, and the nation had become accustomed to seeing itself through the lens of photography.

The crowd at Lincoln's Second Inauguration, March 4, 1865 (Courtesy of the Library of Congress)

This wonderful photograph by Gardner captures the look of that later crowd.  Here, the people themselves, not the government nor the army, nor their most powerful representatives, are recognized as camera-worthy, as they gather on an inauguration day that is once again wet and muddy.  Great coats and banners billow in the breeze, as knots of spectators stand about, chatting or strolling as they please.  In time, they part to make way for the inaugural parade, in which Union regiments of both races proudly march.

Alexander Gardner, Stereographic view of the crowd at Lincoln's Second Inauguration, March 4, 1865 (Courtesy of the Library of Congress) Lincoln's Inaugural Parade (1865)

Is it my imagination, or is there a touch of jubilation here, missing from the earlier proceedings?  Though the war had yet to end, the prospects for the Confederacy were dwindling sharply, and Americans who had fought to keep the nation together knew that their victory was sure.

Alexander Gardner photograph of Lincoln delivering his second inaugural address as President of the United States (Courtesy of the Library of Congress)

Bare-headed, Lincoln reads his message of reconciliation to a crowd radiating around him like magnetic filings, the dais overflowing with dignitaries.  A miscellaneous crowd of watchers stands beneath him, studying the crowd while listening.  It is a homely scene with little pageantry, suited to a federal republic that, though riddled with conflict, has endured trials to grow in confidence and power.  Outside the frame, the Capitol dome has been completed, and stands triumphantly capped with the Statue of Freedom.

All images from the collections of the Library of Congress.
Click on the images for more information and larger views.