Sunday, 20 December 2015 08:09

Writers for Conservatives 56: Reveille in Washington, D.C.

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Writers for Conservatives 56: Reveille in Washington, D.C.

Jigs Gardner

Jigs Gardner is an associate editor of The St. Croix Review. He writes on literature from the Adirondacks where he may be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

Margaret Leech wrote two notable histories, this one and an excellent biography of William McKinley. Reveille is an account of Washington from 1800 to 1865 and, so far as I know, it has never been equaled. A study of the bibliography shows that nearly all her sources were written at the time or shortly after the war by participants in the life she describes. Insofar as possible, she has described the city as it appeared to a wide range of the city's permanent and temporary inhabitants at the time.

The first chapter opens with a description of the aged Winfield Scott, general of the army, and goes on to place him in the context of the city: "It was a Southern town, without the picturesqueness, but with the indolence, the disorder, and the want of sanitation" at the end of a recital of the primitive conditions she says, "It was a mere ambitious beginner, a baby among capitals. Its defects were those of youth and energy and inexperience." The second chapter deals with the secession crisis as it appeared in Washington during the waning days of the Buchanan administration, followed by Lincoln's arrival in late February and the ensuing inauguration. True to her method of reporting the mundane, she quotes only two sentences of the speech, framing it in a reminiscence by Thurlow Weed, the New York politician, of his encounter with Generals Scott and Weed, ancient veterans of the 1812 War in which Weed had been a drummer boy.

Effulgent with that sentimentality to which the corrupt are prone, he gazed with veneration on the heroes of his boyhood, and failed to see in the antique tableau . . . a presentation of the Union's unpreparedness for long and bloody war.

Much attention is given to the street life of the city, describing in detail the flagrant disorders brought on by harlotry, drinking, and gambling uncontrolled by the inadequate police force. In northern cities, madams closed their brothels, moving to Washington to take advantage of a burgeoning city full of men absent from home. In 1862 there were 450 registered houses there, and next year 5,000 prostitutes were claimed to be in the city. We hear of

. . . summary roundups of criminals and vagrants who showed their faces in the capital. Handcuffed and labeled with large red placards bearing words, "pickpocket and thief," they were paraded on the avenue . . . followed by a fife and drum corps playing "The Rogues" March.

A whole chapter is devoted to the care of the wounded, and the tribulations of the female nurses, received at first with hostility, are sympathetically told. There is also a perceptive chapter on the complex, unhappy character of Mrs. Lincoln. Part of the illusion of contemporaneousness, the information we receive about battles is just what the people of Washington received at the time, fragmentary and distorted, only straightened out after several days. The battles themselves, momentous as they seem to us now, are "noises off" from Washington.

We know that the war shaped those lives in ways that the actors could not perceive, so there is an underlying irony in the book. I do not mean the blatant irony of Thurlow Weed admiring the old generals, nor do I mean the obvious irony that shows between our conscious goals and the results. I mean something more subtle: the Civil War, the most stupendous and defining event in our history, has called all these actors onto the stage, something only vaguely known to most of the actors and fully understood by no one. They go on eating (naturally a lot of attention is paid to food), drinking, fornicating, fighting, scheming, being brave and craven, and the war, with its 700,000 dead, grinds on to the end - off stage.

Not simply a chronicle of the streets, the book deals with the higher echelons of the war effort, with the generals and politicians, with McClellan and Burnside and Hooker, with Lincoln and Stanton. Her treatment of the latter two is not only shallow but reflects the received opinions of the time (the book was written in the 1930s), so Lincoln is a saint, at war with the vengeful Radical Republicans, and Stanton is a power-mad despot. This was the history taught in the schools in the '40s. It must be remembered that once the war was over, Northerners, secure in their righteous victory, turned to the settling of the West and the business of business, finally shedding any lingering responsibility for the freedmen with the election of Hayes in 1876. Southerners lost not only the war, but also their land was devastated and their economy ruined, and their former slaves were, for a time, prominent in Reconstruction governments. Their situation was psychologically disastrous, so they created the myth of the romantic Lost Cause of state sovereignty dressed in the poses of cavaliers and highborn ladies and happy slaves. Slavery as an issue, as the issue that caused the war, simply vanished. Southerners, therefore, as the only people interested in the subject, were the ones who wrote the histories, right up until the '50s and '60s when much less biased histories were written. I remember asking one of my colleagues in the history department in the 1960s what he thought of one of the new books on Reconstruction, and he was exasperated. "Next thing you know, they'll deny the whole era!"

The Southern myths still exist, but they no longer dominate the field, and there have been so many excellent studies of the war, as well as of the antebellum South and Reconstruction, that we now have a much deeper, more comprehensive knowledge of the era than we had jut 25 years ago. It is apparent, for instance, that although many Radical Republicans mistrusted Lincoln and thought him too moderate, he used them for his own purposes. Far from being a saint, he was a master politician. It is also clear now that he was being cautious in his first tentative steps toward Reconstruction, and he would never have tolerated Southern attempts to reestablish the old regime, as with the Black Codes.

Those aspects of the book can easily be discounted. We know better now and can ignore the historical prejudices while we enjoy the ever-moving panorama of the city. Upon reflection, this brings up some more thoughts about history. When we read the best books about the Civil War today we get a synoptic view, by which I mean that though it contains many details, they only fill out the picture, give it life - the main lines are already drawn, as we know even before Yorktown that McClellan is already afraid to face what he imagines to be overwhelming numbers, that he will never fully commit his troops to battle, neither before Richmond nor at Antietam; we know that the Emancipation Proclamation will change the nature of the war. We read about the events again and again because we get fresh ideas, detect nuances we had not seen, we learn more. We can never learn enough about any historical event to understand it thoroughly, but with the reliable synoptic histories we get the illusions that we know it all. What this book about Washington does is to make us see that immediate knowledge, for instance, the news about the battles that trickles back to the city in distorted fragments, is what the actors know at the time. No one at the time has synoptic knowledge, although Lincoln had a tentative vision of it when he entrusted everything to Grant. As he told him, he didn't want to know his plans; he trusted him to pursue the war to its end.

What I am trying to say is that modern synoptic histories (like Bruce Catton's) may be true to us now, but they would not be true to those living at the time; for them, the immediate details (as in Miss Leech's book) are in the front of their minds, and if we want to understand history we must have not only as well-informed a synoptic view as possible, but we must try to take account of what is in the minds of the actors at the time.

I wrote an essay in this series called "Historians, the South, and the Civil War," and I should like now in the light of subsequent knowledge (like Miss Leech's book), to modify my judgment of Grady McWhiney for failing to see how stupid Jefferson Davis was because he didn't see the obvious futility of secession. We must remember that since the 1830s, when Britain outlawed slavery in Jamaica and began the suppression of the slave trade, and abolitionism began growing in the North, that Southern guilt and consequent denial of the evils of slavery became ever more vehement (only the guilty would feel the need to ban abolitionist papers from the mails). Under those conditions, the prospect of secession would not seem so insane. Viewed from the contemporary perspective, it has some logic. Southerners were suffering from longstanding delusionary thinking, and eventually they would pay dearly for it. That Davis never understood that is a mark of his mediocrity.

It is also delusionary to think, as historians sometimes do, that there were times of discouragement when, with a little more pressure, the North might have given up the struggle. The North, looking west, had become a national culture unlike the regional, provincial South, and the Union was an almost mystical concept; it would never be given up. The actions of Grant and Sherman in the last year of the war show that.

I can recommend an excellent short (121 pages) book by a Southern historian, Bell Irvin Wiley, on the reasons for the South's defeat: The Road to Appomattox (1956). Look it up in your library. *

Read 3835 times Last modified on Saturday, 13 February 2016 14:41
Jigs Gardner

Jigs Gardner is an associate editor of the St. Croix Review.

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