For too long defenders of Confederate heritage… have associated it with freedom and individual rights for all whites. The specter of the conquering Yankee invading the homeland to oppress the yeoman and steal his acre was the rallying cry. Policy makers in the Confederacy used this propaganda to dupe poor whites to defend the landed gentry- a social order built on the aristocracy of chattel slavery. Jefferson Davis and ilk had no interest in expanding opportunity for the thousands of men who volunteered for this abhorrent cause- they were cannon fodder.
Talk of opportunity and liberty were contrary to the Confederate cause… the slave owning power structure needed poor whites to stay right where they were. The egalitarian dreams of Thomas Jefferson had no place in the CSA- and the leadership expressed it openly- The Declaration of Independence was a threat to the south. Far from a “second American Revolution,” the American Civil War was an authoritarian power grab by an entrenched group of oligarchs.
Confederate propaganda from Georgia said it best…
“Thanks to Mr. Jefferson we have made a mistake … and pushed the love of democracy too far … vulgar democracy and licentious freedom is rapidly supplanting all the principles of constitutional ‘liberty’! When shall the American people perceive that all our difficulties arise from the absurdities of deciding that the ‘pauper’ and the ‘landholder’ are alike competent to manage the affairs of a Country, or alike entitled to vote for those who shall?” Athens Southern Watchman 1857
Jefferson’s feelings on slavery and liberty also alienated our apostle of liberty… from these slave owning aristocrats…
“The whole commerce between master and slave is a perpetual exercise of the most boisterous passions, the most unremitting despotism on the one part, and degrading submissions on the other. Our children see this, and learn to imitate it …The man must be a prodigy who can retain his manners and moral undepraved by such circumstances [under slavery]. And with what desecration should the statement be loaded, who permitting one half of the citizens to trample on the rights of the other, transforms those into despots and these into enemies, destroys the morals of one part and the amor patriae of the other.” Notes on the State of Virginia 1782
America seemed to represent the future… yet by the end of the 19th century, we became a people obsessed with our past. A paradox not easily explained, and frankly, not wholly considered either. The recent passing of historian Michael Kammen received little fanfare nationally, but to younger academics everywhere, it represented a melancholy turning point.
Kammen’s epic study, “Mystic Chords of Memory: The Transformation of Tradition in American Culture” … was standard reading for first year grad students across academia in the mid-1990’s. The difficult task of explaining why Americans simplify and revere their past was at the core of Kammen’s research- historians agreed with his thesis, students were primed for future frustration. The Civil War was indeed a transformative event, radically shifting our traditions of remembrance and honor. Prior to the war, argued Kammen, Americans viewed their past with casual indifference- the Civil War democratized our past- the masses wanted a story worthy of the sacrifices made in that most bloody struggle…American mythology began.
The good academic he was… Kammen was troubled by the wave of popular history that emerged in the 20th century. His analysis at times bordered on whining- why don’t ordinary folks pay more attention to academic history? To his credit, he never looked to assign blame- his study maintained an analytical approach- and his conclusions are if nothing else, valid. But, like many writers of his background, he misses the true point of historical remembrance- pride. Trying to explain it away with abstract concepts understood only in academic circles is manipulative. Our story is a complex, yet inspiring one, and the American people truly feel a part of it. The study of history is so compartmentalized that it cannot contemplate this collective remembrance. There is room for all types of historical study- academic, public, and popular history alike…. Kammen’s work proved it to be so… though it may not have been his intention.
We must forgive our enemies
“It is the duty of every citizen, in the present condition of the Country, to do all in his power to aid in the restoration of peace and harmony…Dismiss from your mind all sectional feeling, and bring [your children] up to be Americans.”
“I think it wiser moreover not to keep open the sores of war, but to follow the examples of those nations who endeavored to obliterate the marks of civil strife and to commit to oblivion the feelings it engendered.”
“Sir, if you ever presume again to speak disrespectfully of General Grant in my presence, either you or I will sever his connection with this university. “
Jefferson loved two women in his life… and lost them both. To deal with the pain of loss and rejection, he looked to his mind- his intellect- to cope.
“A single event wiped away all my plans and left me a blank which I had not the spirits to fill up.”
“The most effectual means of being secure against pain is to retire within ourselves, and to suffice for our own happiness. Those, which depend on ourselves, are the only pleasures a wise man will count on: for nothing is ours which another may deprive us of. Hence the inestimable value of intellectual pleasures. “
Jefferson struggled with his love for Maria Cosway…. going as far as to illustrate his emotional agony to her in a letter- the letter detailed the tug-of-war between Jefferson’s head and his aching heart. Jefferson was perfectly content to remain within his head, buried in his books and letters. But, as seen in the previous post, Jefferson was a man who cared and loved deeply. Maria Cosway was a special woman, he knew he would never find another like her:
Head: In fine, my friend, you must mend your manners. This is not a world to live at random in as you do. To avoid these eternal distresses, to which you are for ever exposing us, you must learn to look forward before you take a step which may interest our peace. Everything in this world is matter of calculation. Advance then with caution, the balance in your hand. Put into one scale the pleasures which any object may offer; but put fairly into the other the pains which are to follow, and see which preponderates…The most effectual means of being secure against pain is to retire within ourselves, and to suffice for our own happiness. Those, which depend on ourselves, are the only pleasures a wise man will count on: for nothing is ours which another may deprive us of. Hence the inestimable value of intellectual pleasures.
Heart: This world abounds indeed with misery: to lighten it’s burthen we must divide it with one another. But let us now try the virtues of your mathematical balance, and as you have put into one scale the burthens of friendship, let me put it’s comforts into the other….In a life where we are perpetually exposed to want and accident, yours is a wonderful proposition, to insulate ourselves, to retire from all aid, and to wrap ourselves in the mantle of self-sufficiency! For assuredly nobody will care for him who cares for nobody.
Mel Gibson’s blueprint to “Braveheart” does a disservice to Turner’s rebellion Final Grade- D
First-time director Nate Parker takes full advantage of the Hollywood… surge in independent, minority filmmakers tackling long ignored characters and events. Parker wrote, directed, produced and stars as Nat Turner, leader of the bloodiest slave rebellion in US history. In August of 1831, Turner and a band of devoted followers murdered 60 white men, women, and children in Southampton, Virginia. Turner’s rebels killed nearly everyone they encountered, including the brutal beheading of an infant. The Virginia militia suppressed the rebellion on August 23, though Turner eluded capture until October. Virginia authorities executed 56 blacks in retaliation- historians believe as many as 120 slaves may have been killed in the aftermath. Turner was hanged on November 11.
Parker touches on the history with short strokes… choosing to follow the well-used revenge trope utilized by Mel Gibson’s “Braveheart”. Turner’s true motivation was religious- a devout Baptist, Turner claimed to receive a calling from God to free his people and punish their oppressors. Parker’s Turner is religious, but it barely serves as a set piece- Parker focuses intently on the rape and beating of Turner’s wife and the wife of his chief conspirator(conjectural.) The comparisons to Gibson’s film about Scottish rebel William Wallace are striking- martyrdom driven by bloody revenge- a simple, yet effective way to make a movie. History is complex and often messy and Parker’s film misses the mark telling the accurate story of Turner’s rebellion. Villains are beheaded by righteous warriors and the heroes fall in a blaze of glory on the battlefield. Missing are the atrocities, drunkenness, and religion that comprised those complicated 48 hours. Far from a pitched battle, Turner’s rebellion could not be sustained when confronted with better armed, and determined troops. Parker’s final battle is complete with the slow motion charging, battle axes thrust defiantly into the air, muted cries of “Freedom” drowned out by the artillery of the antagonists- minus the face paint and kilts.
There are powerful images found in Parker’s film… but the script is too conventionally written to capture the historical relevance of Turner’s rebellion. Parker only briefly touches on Turner’s confessional, a stark testimony given by Turner to a lawyer shortly before his hanging. In his own words, Turner chillingly describes every murder he and his followers committed. He leaves little doubt that he believed it was God’s will, much like John Brown’s convictions thirty years later. The ironic title Parker conceived is far from proper acknowledgment of the impact this event had on history. States throughout the South strengthened already oppressive laws limiting freedoms to slaves and their owners- including the right to unconditional manumission. Many of these changes came about to placate poor whites, who felt especially vulnerable following the bloodshed. Too much attention falls upon Parker’s Turner and his motivations- lost are the deeper religious and cultural motivations for the uprising.
Nat Turner boldly declared “I had the same revelation, which fully confirmed me in the impression that I was ordained for some great purpose in the hands of the Almighty.” Nate Parker’s film fails to appropriately portray the complexities and historical relevance of Turner’s rebellion. Conventional Hollywood treatment of historical events often lead to missed opportunities- precisely how “Birth of a Nation” treats Nat Turner.
Three days of indecisive movements by Union forces… allowed Robert E. Lee’s army to strengthen its positions near Bethesda Church and New Cold Harbor. The delay muted the Federal assaults of June 1-2. The troops in blue knew exactly what awaited them the following day. The carnage of Grant’s Overland campaign had taken its toll.
Jefferson Truitt was one of the Union soldiers… who knew exactly what was going to happen on June 3rd. The all-to-familiar pattern could again be seen; Confederates controlled the thoroughfares to Richmond, and Union troops would try bludgeon them open. War-weary troops began pinning names to their uniform coats for easier identification; many penned one final diary entry- “Killed at Cold Harbor.” Jefferson Truitt, and his regiment, the 62nd PA. were due to leave the service on July 1. He had survived the bloodiest conflicts of the war: Malvern Hill, Antietam, Gettysburg, Spotsylvania… now, with just weeks to serve, he would meet his end near the intersection of Old Church and Walnut Grove roads.
Last full measure
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