- Historic Sites
August 1962 | Volume 13, Issue 5
Speaking to an audience in Richmond early in January, 1863, Jefferson Davis undertook to remind all southerners of the oppressive weight which a Northern conquest would inevitably bring to them. The weight was being felt, as he spoke, within much less than one hundred miles of the Confederate capital, and President Davis was eloquent about it.
“The Northern portion of Virginia,” he remarked, “has been ruthlessly desolated—the people not only deprived of the means of subsistence, but their household property destroyed and every indignity which the base imagination of a merciless foe could suggest inflicted without regard to age, sex or condition.”
That Mr. Davis had genuine evils to complain about is undeniable. Northern Virginia had known the harsh rule of General John Pope, and it had had even rougher treatment from undisciplined cavalrymen and straggling foot soldiers who overran towns and plantation houses with a casual rowdiness that was the essence of unstudied and unprovoked brutality. Yet the present generation, to its sorrow, has learned things about oppression which the generation of the 1860’s did not know. The armies of Germany and Russia have shown the hideous things that can happen when an invader really casts aside restraint and sets out to break a conquered people. The words, “every indignity which the base imagination of a merciless foe could suggest,” have a meaning now which President Davis, General Pope, and the wayward Union soldier could not possibly have imagined. By this time we have known foes who were genuinely and literally merciless and whose imaginations could descend to a depth of baseness not conceivable to the innocence of a century ago.
President Davis’ indignation, in short, was justified, but his language meant a great deal less in 1863 than it would mean today. We know now how far “the base imagination of a merciless foe” can go, and if we forget, there are plenty of people in places like Poland and the Ukraine who could refresh our memories. Seen in the light of things that happened overseas in the years after 1940, the American Civil War calls for a milder commentary than once seemed justified. It brought an abundance of cruelty and baseness upon the land, but they were not the cruelty and baseness which our generation has had to know about. Ben Butler, for example, was about as malodorous a governor of occupied territory as the Civil War produced, but he seems positively benign by comparison with military governors recently seen in Europe.
These meditations arise from a reading of Mr. Edmund Wilson’s newest book, Patriotic Gore , which is a discussion, by a most eminent literary critic, of the literature of the Civil War. (Not the literature about the war; Mr. Wilson concerns himself with material written by men and women who were actually in it, from Abraham Lincoln and U. S. Grant to Mary Chesnut and John W. De Forest.) In his introduction to this thoughtful and useful work Mr. Wilson remarks that he feels “under some obligation to explain to the reader in advance the general point of view which gives shape to my picture of the war.”
The war reminds him, to begin with, of one voracious sea slug swallowing another; a power struggle, pure and simple, which impels him to try “to remove the whole subject from the plane of morality and to give an objective account of the expansion of the United States.” Like Bismarck and Lenin, Abraham Lincoln was engaged in unifying a great power; like them he became an uncompromising dictator; and “each was succeeded by agencies which continued to exercise this power and to manipulate the peoples he had been unifying in a stupid, despotic and unscrupulous fashion, so that all the bad potentialities of the policies he had initiated were realized, after his removal, in the most undesirable way.”
Thus, after the war, the Radical Republicans in Washington “added every form of insult and injury to the bitterness of the Confederate failure.” “We Americans have not yet had to suffer from the worst of the calamities that have followed on the dictatorships in Germany and Russia, but we have been going for a long time now quite steadily in the same direction.” This leads Mr. Wilson to ask: “In what way, for example, was the fate of Hungary, at the time of its recent rebellion, any worse than the fate of the South at the end of the Civil War?”
Now this, really, is the language of the i86o’s all over again, unmodified by afterknowledge. Did the Republican regime in Washington, after Lincoln’s death, really inflict upon the South “every form of insult and injury”— every form, as the business would be understood nowadays? There were no executions and there were no concentration camps or proscription lists or confiscation of estates. Within very little more than ten years the army of occupation was withdrawn, southerners ruled their own lives as they saw fit, and former Confederate generals took their seats in the Senate and the House of Representatives. The fate of Hungary was no worse than this?
It is of course perfectly true that the South remembers the Civil War with deep emotions; true also that the federal government’s recent attempt to enforce integration in schools has met with a great deal of resistance. But what on earth is one to make of this assertion?—"The truth is that the South since the Civil War, in relation to the Washington government, has been in a state of mind that has fluctuated between that of Hungary and that of the Ukraine in relation to the government of Moscow.”
Patriotic Gore, by Edmund Wilson. Oxford University Press. 816 pp. $8.50.