Sunday, November 27, 2011

Mencken on Lincoln

Editors Note:
     Below is H. L. Mencken's very insightful essay bursting some of the Lincoln myths that have been told to generations of school children in the United States. Mencken was born in 1880 in Baltimore, Maryland and died there in 1956.  He  was one of the most influential American journalists, authors, columnists and essayists of the first half of the 20th Century and was famous for his iconoclastic viewpoints, one of which was challenging the Lincoln legend. In don't agree with many of his views on other subjects, particularly his anti-religious views, but I think he was right on target with his views about Lincoln. I especially like his take on The Gettysburg Address, contained in the last two paragraphs. This essay was first printed, in part, in the Smart Set, May, 1920, and then "Five Men at Random," Prejudices: Third Series, 1922.

H.L. Mencken
H.L. Mencken on Abraham Lincoln

Some time ago a publisher told me that there are four kinds of  books that seldom, if ever, lose money in the United States—first, murder stories; secondly, novels in which the heroine is forcibly overcome by the hero; thirdly, volumes on spiritualism, occultism and other such claptrap, and fourthly, books on Lincoln. But despite all the vast mass of Lincolniana and the constant discussion of old Abe in other ways, even so elemental a problem as that of his religious ideas—surely an important matter in any competent biography—is yet but half solved. Was he a Christian? Did he believe in the Divinity of Jesus? I am left in doubt. He was very polite about it, and very cautious, as befitted a politician in need of Christian votes, but how much genuine conviction was in that politeness? And if his occasional references to Jesus were thus open to question, what of his rather vague avowals of belief in a personal God and in the immortality of the soul? Herndon and some of his other early friends always maintained that he was an atheist, but the Rev. Willian E. Barton, one of the best of later Lincolnologists, argues that this atheism was simply disbelief in the idiotic Methodist and Baptist dogmas of his time—that nine Christian churches out of ten, if he were live today, would admit him to their high privileges and prerogatives without anything worse than a few warning coughs.
As for me, I still wonder.

Lincoln becomes the American solar myth, the chief butt of American credulity and sentimentality. Washington, of late years, has been perceptibly humanized; every schoolboy now knows that he used to swear a good deal, and was a sharp trader, and had a quick eye for a pretty ankle. But meanwhile the varnishers and veneerers have been busily converting Abe into a plaster saint, thus marking him fit for adoration in the Y.M.C.A.’s. All the popular pictures of him show him in his robes of state, and wearing an expression fit for a man about to be hanged. There is, so far as I know, not a single portrait of him showing him smiling—and yet he must have cackled a good deal, first and last: who ever heard of a storyteller who didn’t? Worse, there is an obvious effort to pump all his human weaknesses out of him, an obvious effort to pump all his human weaknesses out of him, and so leave him a mere moral apparition, a sort of amalgam of John Wesley and the Holy Ghost. What could be more absurd? Lincoln, in point of fact, was a practical politician of long experience and high talents, and by no means cursed with idealistic superstitions. Until he emerged from Illinois they always put the women, children and clergy to bed when he got a few gourds of corn aboard, and it is a matter of unescapable record that his career in the State Legislature was indistinguishable from that of a Tammany Nietzsche. Even his handling of the slavery question was that of a politician, not that of a messiah. Nothing alarmed him more than the suspicion that he was an Abolitionist, and Barton tells of an occasion when he actually fled town to avoid meeting the issue squarely. An Abolitionist would have published the Emancipation Proclamation the day after the first battle of Bull Run. But Lincoln waited until the time was more favorable—until Lee had been hurled out of Pennsylvania, and more important still, until the political currents were safely funning his way. Even so, he freed the slaves in only a part of the country: all the rest continued to clank their chains until he himself was an angel in Heaven.

Like William Jennings Bryan, he was a dark horse made suddenly formidable by fortunate rhetoric. The Douglas debate launched him, and the Cooper Union Speech got him the Presidency. His talent for emotional utterance was an accomplishment of late growth. His early speeches were mere empty fire-works—the hollow rodomontades of the era. But in the middle life he purged his style of ornament and it became almost badly simple—and it is for that simplicity that he is remembered today. The Gettysburg speech is at once the shortest and the most famous oration in American history. Put beside it, all the whoopings of the Websters, Sumners and Everetts seem gaudy and silly, it is eloquence brought to a pellucid and almost gem-like perfection—the highest emotion reduced to a few poetical phrases. Nothing else precisely like it is to be found in the whole range of oratory. Lincoln himself never even remotely approached
it. It is genuinely stupendous.

But let us not forget that it is poetry, not logic; beauty, not sense. Think of the argument in it. Put it into the cold words of everyday. The doctrine is simply this: that the Union soldiers who died at Gettysburg sacrificed their lives to the cause of self-determination—"that government of the people, by the people, for the people," should not perish from the earth. It is difficult to imagine anything more untrue. The Union soldiers in that battle actually fought against self-determination; it was the Confederates who fought for the right of their people to govern themselves. What was the practical effect of the battle of Gettysburg? What else than the destruction of the old sovereignty of the States, i.e., of the people of the States? The Confederates went into battle free; they came out with their freedom subject to the supervision and veto of the rest of the country—and for nearly twenty years that veto was so effective that they enjoyed scarcely more liberty, in the political sense, than so many convicts in the penitentiary. 

Monday, November 21, 2011

150-years-ago Remarkable escape from Lincolndom.

Union troops beat Confederate prisoners of  war in Washington D. C.
(Library of  Congress)
The Richmond Dispatch
November 30, 1861
     The Petersburg Express, of Thursday, publishes the following interesting account of the escape from Yankee land of two of North Carolina's brave and gallant sons:
     William H. Parvin and William B. Willis, of the Washington "Grays," Captain Thomas Sparrow, from Washington, North Carolina, passed through Petersburg evening before last, on their return home, after a long imprisonment at the North Their escape from further confinement, and their subsequent avoidance of detection and arrest, are remarkable — almost miraculous. They were taken prisoners in company with many other gallant North Carolinians at Fort Hatteras. We are all acquainted with the circumstances of the surrender. From Hatteras they were taken to Fort Lafayette--the Bastile of New York. Here they were kept in close confinement until the latter part of October, when they were all put aboard a steamer and taken to Fort Warren, near Boston.
     On their way to Fort Warren, Parvin and Willis formed some plan of escape, and announced their intention to attempt it to Captain Sparrow, who told them they must do it at their risk. If they failed, heavy irons and close confinement for the balance of the war would be their lot. But they possessed brave hearts and were confident of success. They supplied themselves with bread and water, a candle, matches, &c. On their arrival at Boston, the men were marched ashore in companies, as their names were called. Immediately before the name of the Washington Grays was called, Parvin and Willis left their company, descended from the deck, and found their way into the extra coal room of the steamer. Here they concealed themselves, and in a little while had built up a wall of coal around them so that any person entering the room would not discover them. Their late companions in arms were gone, and they were now alone in the dark, unwholesome coal-bunk of an enemy's steamer, not knowing what a day or an hour might bring forth. In this condition they remained for a day, or probably a day and a night, when a large number of sailors were brought aboard the steamer to be shipped to New York.
     On the 1st of November the vessel left Boston, and landed her load at the Brooklyn Navy-Yard. In the bustle and confusion consequent upon their embarkation, our heroes thought they might leave their place of concealment and make their escape. They gained the deck, and went unobserved on shore with the crowd of sailors. But they soon saw that their time for escape had not yet come. All around the Navy-Yard were stationed sentinels, whom it would be impossible to pass. They therefore resolved to return to the steamer and await yet longer. They now concealed themselves in the private apartment of the boat, and remained thus for two days, when finally, as if providentially, in one of her trips the steamer ran afoul of a schooner in the river, and was reported so much damaged as to cause her to make for Jersey City with all possible speed Great excitement was produced among her passengers, and everything and everybody were in the utmost confusion.
     A most favorable opportunity now for the prisoners to escape, and they took advantage of it. They left their hiding place again, and as soon as the Jersey City landing was reached, they rushed ashore. They then took passage on a ferry boat for New York. In this great city they found a friend, who took them in and kindly cared for them. He advised what they should do, and furnished them with money to complete their plans. They took passage to Baltimore as Union sailors-- anti Southern Seceders of the deepest dye. In the noble Monumental City they had not far to go before meeting with friends of the South and her defenders. Clothes are given to them, and they are aided in getting employment on a wood schooner bound for some point on the lower Maryland shore. For sixteen days they worked like heavers, and by their unusual industrious habits and good behavior they gained the unbounded confidence of the Captain. His every wish was law, and every act was done with pleasure; but the proud Captain was soon to be deprived of his prides.
    It was the night for Parvin to keep watch, and the Captain had retired, and Willis had pretended to do so. But hands were busy as eyes. Sails for the small boat attached to the schooner were made and fitted. The proper hour had come; the sign was given, and the two men set forth upon the dark waters. It was all a venture with them, for they knew not whether they might land, among friends or enemies. After long hours of suspense and weary travel, they landed on the Virginia side of the Potomac, below Aquia Creek.--Here they were taken in custody and sent to General Holmes' headquarters, where they were joyfully recognized by old acquaintances from North Carolina They were furnished with free passes over the railroads home.
Is not this a strange and romantic tale, reader? But it is nevertheless true, and puts fiction to the blush.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Was the Confederate Congress Really So Bad?

Hon. Rep. John Goode of Virginia
Confederate Congress. (Library of Congress)

     The Confederate Congress got a lot of bad press and complaints from generals, but was it really so bad?
     General Robert E. Lee made this famous quote about the Confederate Congress: "I have been up to see the Congress and they do not seem to be able to do anything except to eat peanuts and chew tobacco, while my army is starving."
     However, one of the most distinguished historians of the mid-20th Century, Bell I. Wiley of Emory University, said at a 1961 conference at Gettysburg College that the Congress' bad reputation was the result of bad press and its excessive secrecy.
     Wiley was quoted by the press at the time as saying, "Nearly all important business was conducted behind closed doors. Newspapermen resented their exclusion and in their resentment they gave the legislators an unfavorable press -- representing them as as ineffectual and mediocre."

    But in fairness, the historian noted "some of the problems which they (the congressmen) were condemned for not solving were by their very nature impossible of solution.The Confederate Congress appeared in worse light than most legislative bodies because it represented a 'nation with nothing,' so to speak, involved in a great modern war with a country whose resources were practically unlimited.
     "And, after all, it did on April 16, 1862, it did on April 16, 1862, pass the first national draft act in American history and it adopted other measures which according to the ideas of the time, bordered on the revolutionary, including impressment of private property for military use, suspension of the writ of habeas corpus, and the levying of taxes on profits, income and farm produce.
    "In light of the enormous difficulties with which it had to content, its accomplishments appear more impressive than its shortcomings," Wiley said at the Gettysburg College conference.
     Wiley, born in 1906 and died in 1980, was a native of Tennessee, received his BA degrees from Asbury College in 1928 and a PhD. degree from Yale University in 1933. Besides Emory, Wiley also taught at the University of Mississippi and Louisiana State University.  Among his many outstanding books is The Life of Johnny Reb: The Common Soldier of the Confederacy, (1943), which is a classic and still in print from Louisiana State University Press.

Monday, November 7, 2011

150-Years-Ago -- The Militia and the Foreigners

Patrick Cleburne was the  highest ranking
foreign born general in the  Confederate Army.
(Library of Congress)
Natchitoches, Louisiana
November 7, 1861

 The Militia and the Foreigners
The duties and obligations of the Militia, in relation to foreign residents in Louisiana, have never been defined in a clear and precise manner, and on the part of the high authorities of one State, contradictions and conflicts appear every day. Some examples will suffice to edify our readers.

The Natchitoches Chronicle of the 2d November publishes a letter addressed to Capt Wm. Payne, as follows:

Attorney General's Office, }
New Orleans, Oct. 17, 1861.}

Captain Wm. Payne, Natchitoches:

Sir—Yours of 11th received. Foreigners residing in the state sixty days are bound to defend the country, and are subject to militia duty. The Governor has no power to exempt any one from militia duty; his proclamation has nothing to do with the matter.

Thos. J. Semmes

Here then we have the orders and proclamations of the Governor, destroyed by a letter, which may have the merit of being very laconic, but which is not very clear. What does the Attorney General mean by the word country? Is it the place, the Parish or the States inhabited by the unnaturalized foreigners? Or is it the whole confederation? According to the tenor of the letter addressed to Capt. William Payne, we should be tempted to believe that we should not consider the proclamations of the Governor as serious, unless approved by the Attorney General.

Amidst this conflict between those high functionaries of our State comes the opinion of Count Mejean, French Consul at New Orleans, an opinion which, on such a subject is not without importance. It is expressed in the following letter communicated to us, for the purpose of enlightening the French Residents of Louisiana.

French Consulate }
New Orleans }
New Orleans 16, October, 1861.


I received your letter of the 11th and hasten to answer it. The Militia Law, in the State of Louisiana, and probably in the other Southern States, is clear. All male white inhabitants from 18 to 45 years, are obliged to submit to it. The only concession made by the Governor of this State in favor of Foreigners is, to accept for the protection of the Towns and Parishes which they inhabit, and without being require to serve beyond them, all bodies or companies of men composed entirely of foreigners not naturalized. From this Law, foreigners have no way of escaping or could only do so by leaving the Country. But as in doing this, they would be obliged to abandon their interests and the property acquired here on the faith of treaties I think that by remaining and submitting forcibly to the Laws, they do not violate, in any manner, the neutrality commanded by the Government of the Emperor.

Receive, sir, the assurance of my distinguished consideration,

Count Mejan,

French Consul.

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

150-years-ago -- General J.B. Maguder impresses visitor

The Richmond Daily Dispatch
November 2, 1861

Gen. John  B.  Magruder cut an
impressive figure in his uniform.
(Cdv, blog author's collection)
Yorktown, Oct. 28, 1861.
     Editors Dispatch:--I reached here two days ago, and immediately repaired to the office of Col. Colquitt, the commander of the post, to get my permit endorsed. I sat in his office for one hour, and observed him in the midst of business, giving his ear and attention to a multitude of details and an infinite variety of applications. No man I have met has impressed me more favorably. He is polite and intelligent,-- --comprehends readily the questions submitted to him, and disposes of them with facility. Simple and unaffected in his manners, he is wholly free from that grave and mysterious air of consequence, with which men devoid of merit seek to impose upon the world. I would trust my fortune to his good sense and discretion in any emergency.
     If there is one error more than any other into which our military leaders have fallen, it is the mistaken and contemptible idea that an abrupt manner and a curt reply are the evidences of their fitness for power and authority.
     I passed from the office of Col. Colquitt to the headquarters of General Magruder. Here, too, all was stir and talk. General Magruder stood in the midst, a proud and commanding form, bowing to one, listening to another, and giving directions to a third. He is impulsive in manner, and one would think, up on the first blush, impatient and harsh, yet there is a fund of good nature in him. A scene occurred in my presence which illustrates it. A man with a sabre steps in and hands him a paper. "What's this?""Application for a furlough, sir.""Furlough! Don't you know my order, sir; don't you know my order?""Yes, General; but I [ hav'nt ] been home in four months; left hurriedly; business mixed up; wife at home by herself; furlough short.""How long?"--"Ten days.""Ten days! Where do you live?" "New Kent.""New Kent! Two days to go--two to return--five days is enough, sir; any man can attend to business in one day. Five days is enough." He takes his pen and, relaxing in his feelings, writes, "Grant him ten days furlough." He has enough to make him impatient and to keep him so, and I should hardly blame him if he were to swear a little. He is untiring in his exertions, and is now bending his energies to a more perfect defence of the Peninsula. The present state of preparation I am not allowed to refer to; but it is enough to say that while much remains to be done, the troops here would be glad to meet the enemy now or at any time. More anon. Accomac.