Sunday, December 19, 2010

"Disunion" (Civil War History Series) in the New York Times

I'm going to sing the praises of The New York Times today, and note that since October 30, 2010, it has been publishing one of the best and most informative series of articles, mini-essays, and nonfiction stories (tales, in the older sense), under the title "Disunion," that I have read in any newspaper, journal or other periodical anywhere, ever. The pieces, along with a timeline, interactive maps and documents, and photos and engravings, commemorate the 150th anniversary of the breakup of the United States, in 1860, from period leading up to the election of Abraham Lincoln, to the chain of state secessions that provoked the four-year US Civil War (1861-1865). Each day one of several eminent and less well known historians, archivists and writers (Adam Goodheart, Ted Widmer, Susan Schulten, Jill Lepore, Jamie Malanowski, etc.) produces a short imaginative, usually narrative entry, based on their own or others' historical research, journalistic and archival documentation, and so forth, that fills in key gaps about how the North and South split, or rather, the cultural roots of the national divorce, in which North pressed its political, economic and sociocultural case to represent the nearly 100-year-old country's best interests, prevent its dissolution and end slavery, while the South hewed to the interests of its slave-owning leaders and began the process of secession to defend this odious institution. Some are more engaging than others, many incorporate the various trends underway in contemporary historiography (material, cultural and political history, the role of various discourses, the role of race and racism, feminist historiography to some degree, historical theorization and cultural theory, and quantitative methods), yet present vivid stories of our national unbecoming and becoming.

Others have focused on the particulars of candidate and then elected-but-not-yet-inaugurated new president Abraham Lincoln, the first Republican to hold office, shrewdly announced one approach publicly but manipulated his fellow party members behind the scenes; how Southern leaders, like Senators Jefferson Davis of Mississippi, James Henry Hammond of South Carolina, and Robert Toombs of Georgia, and plantocrats like Robert Barnwell Rhett, uttered rhetoric as harsh as any heard today espousing a desire to defend slavery at all costs, white supremacy as the social, cultural and political ideals of the Confederacy to come, and, in Toombs' case, the possible extermination of all black people if the Southerners did not get their way; how leading authors, like Walt Whitman and Herman Melville, discursively and creatively imagined this moment of national fracture; and how famous former US residents, like Giuseppe Garibaldi, a revolutionary in Brazil (Rio Grande do Sul) the founding hero of a united Italy, were linked directly what was occurring on these shores.

In today's paper, Harvard historian Lepore historicizes Henry Wadsworth Longfellow's "Paul Revere's Ride" to show how it was as much about preparation for the coming war as about the Revolutionary era hero, and writer and memoirist Edward Ball shows that South Carolina, the first southern state to secede (and which will celebrate the 150th anniversary of its secession tomorrow), made clear in its articles of secession that the right to enslave fellow human beings as property was central to its traitorous fissure.

One of Goodheart's entry, one of the most moving and riveting I have read yet, described Harriet Tubman's final pre-war journey south, to rescue her sister and niece and nephew in Maryland. Yet when Tubman learned that her sister had died and then her family members did not turn up at the appointed meeting place, Tubman helped a couple escape, which entailed a drama fitting of the best narrative poem or short story one might imagine (an allegedly "crazed" white man was repeated walking about and mumbling to himself in a clearing near where Tubman and the fugitives had hidden, and after a while Tubman realized he was giving them secret instructions about how to get away!). Tubman, the couple and their infant, who had to be drugged to remain quiet, did make it across the Mason-Dixon line, they heading on to Canada and she back to her home in Auburn, New York, and this story, which I have read about in more than one book, came to life for me again in a way that felt as fresh and thrilling as any version I'd heard of it before.
Yet another entry, Schulten's exceptional interactive entry, "Visualizing Slavery," discussed the demographic particulars of the slavocracy on the eve of the war, in 1860, with a superb map I have pored over. One could compare this to current racial-ethnic demographics as well as voting patterns and draw obvious conclusions.  My native state, Missouri, interestingly enough, had the second largest total population of any of the slave states (after Virginia) of over 1.1 million people, the second largest free population (mostly white), and the second smallest population, by percentage, of enslaved people (only Delaware's was smaller). That free white population by 1860, I know from my own reading and research, consisted of many immigrants from German-speaking Europe (many having fled after the failed Revolution of 1848) and Ireland, as well as a good number of internal migrants from upper South states like Kentucky, Tennessee, and western Virginia (which would, during the Civil War, become its own state). Though the article did not discuss this, it fascinates me to consider how Missouri's demographics accounted in part for why the state split during the Civil War, with a pro-Union governor and both its Congresspeople still in Washington, and a Confederate government in exile, in Texas.  It was to this government, another "Disunion" article noted, that Jefferson Davis, the President of the Confederacy, appealed for resolve, as the likely depredations of the looming war became ever clearer.  Missouri remains split, now mainly between the two Blue-Democratic urban-suburban poles (Saint Louis and Kansas City, and their surrounding counties/suburban areas) and the rest of the state, which is often mostly a sea of red (GOP-conservative). The parties have flipped, but the ethos, 150 years later, would not be so strange to residents of that earlier era....

The US slaveholding states, as of 1860 (Texas to Delaware)

I highly recommend reading as many of these pieces as possible. One thread that emerges clearly is Lincoln's steely, far-sighted skill as a tactician even before the War, and the utter failure of his predecessors, particularly James Buchanan (at right), as inept a president as ever held the office. However horrible we may consider George W. Bush, or notable ringers like Warren Harding, Herbert Hoover, Franklin Pierce, etc., none apparently compares to the extremely qualified but extremely ineffectual, feckless Pennsylvanian, who watched South Carolina, and then a handful of other states, threaten and then leave the United States, and responded with blandishments, a non-binding agreement and then silence, which only emboldened the other states thereafter. His cabinet also disintegrated apace. Lincoln, "spewed out of the bowels of Kentucky into Illinois," as the South Carolinian fire-eater Rhett labeled him, was quite aware of what would transpire if the Senate passed the Crittenden Act, which would have papered over the growing political rifts, or similar legislation, and pushed the country towards division, such that the federal government, through its military, would have to confront and end the slave system. How he did this was masterful, but as entry after entry demonstrates, it was bound and had to occur. In the best of hands, thankfully, the nation's fate landed, after a long stretch of some of the worst tenure imaginable.

It would be a great boon to all if the New York Times would pick other periods and other skillful scholars and writers to focus on. Concerning the US, perhaps the Gilded Age, or the Great Depression, or the Vietnam War, or, going further back, the pre-Revolutionary period, or the War of 1812, would be moments to choose. Historical periods outside the US, such as the era of European encounters with Africa and the New World beginning in the 1500s, or earlier moments of political, economic and cultural exchange between China, Japan, and Korea, or the revolutionary period in 19th century Latin America, say, might also be enlightening. The success of this series, which I suppose is still to be measured, might also point to the Times regularly publishing fiction, poetry, and other imaginative work, as well as accessible scholarship too. The blogging format is a good one for short pieces, and as the "Disunion" series demonstrates, when done well, it can provide news, 150 years old yet, as anything else appearing in a newspaper's pages.

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