Sunday, April 25, 2010

Virginia, we hardly knew ye

We approach the end of the state of Virginia’s Treason, Secession, and Shooting-Yourself-in-the-Knee Month. Bob McDonnell, the Virginia governor who decreed the festivities, has gone on to boost Earth Day by promoting drilling off the coast of Virginia!

Bob McDonnell may wish to play down his values. A day for the Earth, but a whole month for secession? But realizing that the Confederacy’s great soldier Robert E. Lee thought secession was a bad idea, I wondered whose ox is being gored so badly that Virginia needs a whole month to scratch its ancient wounds.

Do Lee descendants themselves wish to retrieve the family honor? Reputable scholars agree that Lee’s honor wasn’t and isn’t on the block here. The website for Stratford Hall, Lee’s family home (after the loss of Arlington to the United States government), has a descendants-of-Lee family tree. It’s not totally up-to-date, since the last recorded birth was a quarter century ago, but in 2003 Internet sources reported 20 living descendants.

I searched the Internet for suggestions that Lee descendants are active in the secession month movement. They are a remarkably low-profile lot. Hasseltine R. DeButts, Lee’s great-great-great-grandson and born in 1964, holds two patents. His brother William Fitzhugh DeButts’s wedding was reported in the New York Times, but the report focused more on the bride’s family and didn’t mention the Lee connection. Amelia Lee Glover, the youngest on the online tree, seems to be a recent Dartmouth grad. So Lee family muscle, such as it is, is not behind the Organized Soreheads of Virginia.

So who is Bob McDonnell, Virginia’s secesh-minded gov, anyway? His Wikipedia entry tells us he was born in Philadelphia to a family of Irish descent. His father was career military and Bob himself spent time in the military. The two McDonnells saw heavy action on the battlefields of peacetime Germany and Newport News, Virginia. Then, Governor Bob became a salesman. Not very Lee-like.

On the other hand, we all know about those fighting Irish and in fact the governor went to Notre Dame. But the Irish connection is intriguing. Many Irish immigrants fought in the Civil War. Might that be the secession connection?

No, it isn’t. The famous Irish Brigade in the U.S. Civil War was from New York. Overall, though, "About 190,000 Irishmen contributed to both sides of the cause. It is estimated that 150,000 served on the side of the Union and that about 40,000 served the Confederacy. After the conflict was over, more than 130 Irish soldiers had been awarded the Medal of Honor." The same source suggests that nearly 50,000 of the dead were Irish by birth or descent.

So get that. If Governor "Fightin' Bob" McDonnell is claiming that his military background puts him in a position to honor Lee -- well, why doesn't it seem likely that the great general needs to be avenged by a sunshine soldier? If the Gov is out to avenge his Irish brothers who died on the battlefield, statistics suggest that nearly 80% of the Irish dead died at the hands of the south.

But there's an even more interesting back story to Irish Bob's wrongheaded politicking. In his race to the bottom, blind to the slaveholders of Virginia as he panders to their heirs, Gov. McConnell ignores -- or more likely is ignorant of -- the hard reality that his own blood may have been slaves in the south. Lost in the centuries of agonizing over African slaves in the Americas is the story of Irish slaves sold into New England, Virginia, and the Caribbean before, after, but especially during Cromwell's time.

"In the 12 year period during and following the Confederation revolt, from 1641 to 1652, over 550,000 Irish were killed by the English and 300,000 were sold as slaves, as the Irish population of Ireland fell from 1,466,000 to 616,000," reports a history of the Cavanaugh family. [my bolding] In another brief period, at least 100,000 Irish children were taken away from their Catholic parents (who were forbidden by law to even exist and thus had no claim to their own children) to be sold into Caribbean slavery. Some sources quote figures across the entire 17th century of nearly a million Irish sold into slavery; several thousand Scots were also enslaved.

Where did the Irish go? Well, the prettier women were concubines to the planters, but children of these "unions" were also slaves. Frequently the men were more literate than their owners, and were valuable as house slaves and business managers. But their price was low -- they were enslaved to empty Ireland so the land could be redistributed to Cromwell's favorites -- and they were more likely to be beaten to death than the Africans, a luxury item. Speaking from my own pale perspective, I wouldn't be surprised if melanoma leveled many of them. Crafty owners chose to cross-breed them with Africans because their lighter-skinned offspring sold better on the North American continent (especially, of course, the women).

Montserrat alone has a population distinctive because of its mix of Irish and African. From the late 19th century comes this story. "About 100 years after the 1768 rebellion, a ship crewed by Irish-speaking Corkmen dropped anchor at Montserrat....Eventually, as things loosened up a bit, it's said the Montserratans also informed the Corkmen with good humor and a straight face 'Tá sé sin ait, ní fheictear mar Gaeil sibh' - 'That's funny, you guys don't look Irish'"

Another visitor to Montserrat reports: "And then there were the obviously Irish surnames, despite the less than obvious features that went with them: the Burkes, the Collins, the Lynches, the Murphys, the Maddens, the Mullings, the Lanigans, and the Walshes. There were the McCarthys, McCormacks, McDermotts, McDonnoughs, McGanns, McLaughlins, and McMorrises. I found the O'Briens, O'Connors, O'Reillys, O'Haras and O'Meallys -- the list is almost endless, with Madden being one of the least popular, as Madden's is the name of the main undertaker in Kingston."

What can you say about a man -- an elected official in these United States today -- who celebrates the rape, murder, and enslavement of millions of people? You can say that he is free of compassion. You can say that he is ignorant of what "America" is about. You can say that he is calculatedly pandering to a group of people like himself, who envy the perhaps "chivalrous" history of a few Virginians and are pretending a likeness, aspiring to a sort-of-aristocracy among the dead. And who, incidentally, are unimaginative, mean-spirited, and deeply forgetful about what their God intends for them to be.

What can you say about a man who celebrates the rape, murder, and enslavement of a million and more of his own kin? Who sees slavery with the face of his own mother, of his own son, and separates himself out of that image? Out of sight, out of mind, and six degrees of separation counts for naught. Virginia's Governor McCromwell has truly lost his soul.

Monday, April 12, 2010

The Marble Man, 145 Years Later

It’s Day 12 of Virginia’s Bad Ideas and Treason Month. Today is the actual anniversary of the end of the Old Dominion’s ancien régime, and since any number of pallid politicos are having their belligerent say, it’s worth examining the greatest Virginia soldier of them all. (And the handsomest! Right: Lee as a young man.)

Robert E. Lee stepped open-eyed into his future. He was no fan of the Confederacy in its first stages, but when President Lincoln asked him to take command of the entire Union army, he refused, saying that he could not take up arms against Virginia, should it secede. It did secede, and he went with it, [I assume] resigning his commission in the army of the U.S.A. He ultimately commanded the Confederate forces in the east, and it’s in that role that we are most familiar with him.

If Lee had chosen to lead the Union army, it’s unimaginable that the war would have lasted as long as it did. His record at West Point was one of the best in its 208-year history, and he served as its superintendent from 1852 to 1855. Lee was an outstanding military leader during his life in the U.S. Army and did the best with the resources he had in his years with the C.S.A. (It’s worth remembering that his resources included soldiers trained at West Point and the many United States military bases built throughout the south.)

Nonetheless, I believe that Lee’s most remarkable feat — of all his life — was his surrender. What the soft-bottomed soreheads in Virginia (most of whom have no doubt visited a military base only as a tourist, just like me) forget is that Lee surrendered. He had to. He had no other option. The C.S.A. was defeated. It was not betrayed. The Confederacy lost. Robert E. Lee was the supreme commander of the Confederate army in the east and he believed the war was lost. Period, end of story. (Left: Lee as the Confederacy's great general. The portrait is at Washington & Lee.)

Lee and General Grant, head of the Union forces — and, incidentally, with a career trajectory nothing like as brilliant as Lee’s — discussed the terms of Lee’s army’s surrender for several days. There was no treaty, perhaps because Lincoln’s government insisted that the C.S.A. was not a sovereign nation. The terms of the agreement were simple, permitting every soldier to return home safely, if he turned in his arms and horse or other animal (if publicly owned). Soldiers could keep horses or other animals if they were privately owned, which was regarded as a mercy to men who had to return home, possibly to ruined homesteads, and begin the spring planting.

The paroles — the pledge of safe passage to these soldiers — were based on Lee’s word alone. In effect, the last public use of Lee’s honor came in the maintenance of the peace. Imagine what it would have been like if Lee reneged! Within the week Lincoln was assassinated, and a lesser man might have taken up arms again or encouraged an uprising. Lee did not.

I am telling a complicated story in a simplistic way. There’s a lot to argue with in terms of Lee’s choices. He was a slave-owner, although in a limited way, although he did control an estate that owned slaves. Slaves on his property did testify that he had ordered whippings. He had been shown that Arlington, his estate across the Potomac from Washington, D.C., was financially viable only when operated with slave help, and that trumped any thought of freeing them. After the surrender, Arlington was confiscated by the United States government as part of the punishment for Lee’s treason. Lee became president of Washington College in Lexington; it subsequently became Washington & Lee. (Right: The Matthew Brady portrait of Lee, following the surrender, in Richmond.)

Robert E. Lee died in 1870, but he was in the process of becoming “the marble man” as his biographer, Thomas L. Connolly, described him. The myth-making had begun.

Sunday, April 11, 2010

Confederate History Month, Day 11, and Golden Tomatoes

Confederate History Month continues.  I am reminded of a classmate from the Virginia boarding school I attended.  I visited her Norfolk home and was shown into a drawing room with a portrait of a Virginia gentleman over the fireplace.  A cut in the canvas had been clumsily stitched up.  "What happened?" I asked, ingenuous at 18.  "Oh, a Yankee soldier stabbed it with his sword,"  I was told.

A few years later, I wanted some reassurance that I had not imagined the exchange.  Ah, said my friend.  "That's what we were told in the family!"  She went on to say that her parents had taken the portrait to a restorer who examined the rip and said no, it was not the result of an intentional cut -- probably just wear, or a bump against a sharp object when being carried.  That story seems to me to be a metaphor for Virginia's ill-considered new festivities.  The actual history, the intent of the story, and its actual effect seem strangely, nastily, mean-spiritedly askew from each other.

Well, the small minds in the Old Dominion don't affect my life here in Chicago.  Today the temperature was 72 and I had a lovely walk through Kenwood and along the lake.  And I worked up a thirst, also a hunger.   What would still my craving?

Too early for gazpacho, I thought, which is only adequately served with red tomatoes ripe and scented, taken  from the vine in the last several minutes.  I recalled reading about a golden gazpacho, with yellow tomatoes and red-gold fruit and veg.  Yellow tomatoes were in the store -- ripe-ish looking, not too insulting, from Mexico of course, and I recalled that I have a huge batch of bean and kale soup in the fridge which was just too wintery for a day like this.

So: two pounds of yellow tomatoes, into the blender.  Two cloves of garlic.  A medium red onion.  Two red peppers.  It wouldn't be gazpacho without cucumbers.  Olive oil, wine vinegar, ground pepper, some salt.  A large handful of cilantro.  And a beautiful ripe avocado!  Result: smooth, creamy texture ... but a little brash (the garlic).  An hour later, mellowing and even creamier, but ... boring, actually.  I put a cupful into the blender and added carrot juice; sweeter but two-dimensional.   A second cup, with sweet potato this time: sweeter and stiffer, no more interesting.  Orange juice -- sweeter and wetter.  By the fifth cup, I was still dissatisfied and tried blending in some fresh yogurt cheese I made this morning: tangier, certainly.  I realized I have consumed more than a quart, which is a lot of tomatoes, and put the experiment aside until tomorrow.

A small thing, but a lot more nourishing than the sourness emanating from Richmond.

Thursday, April 8, 2010

Santa Claus, is there REALLY a Virginia?

I have wanted to resume blogging, but as time passed by, asked myself: what topic really deserves being the one to break silence for?  But Gail Collins tells us, as kings of stupid begin to line up south of the Mason-Dixon Line.  Explanation: Virginia's governor says it's now Treason and Secession History Month!  Yes, indeed -- economic crisis be damned, the new south hangs on to its old garbage.  Onward into the swamp, my friends.

The alternative histories are fascinating. If you agree that it would be legal for a state to secede (Lincoln's view is that secession was illegal, thus impossible) a CSA [Confederate States of America] would have been created, of states who believed they could secede as needed. So it would have been a more fragile organism to start with. Add to that the short fuse and honor obsession of the Celt (historians Grady McWhinney and David Hackett Fischer separately suggest that the south was basically a Celtic culture), and without any prodding, the CSA would be even more likely to implode or explode.

Western provinces would not have automatically assumed they would join the Union -- but on the other hand, if the CSA was combustible, or relatively poor, or did not believe in unity, why join it? Would Texas have stayed in the CSA once oil was discovered? Why? I think it more likely that Texas and Louisiana would have held their noses and allied with each other, because of oil and the Mississippi River. They would be better off doing business on their own with the CSA than joining it. The north central territories would NEVER have joined with the CSA, port or no port, but would do business through a foreign New Orleans.

But again, the northern route through the Great Lakes would have united the Union and the north central territories firmly with British Canada. I can't imagine the Union and the north joining Canada, but I can imagine the southern tier of populated Canada being ever more firmly allied with the USA. Duluth, Milwaukee, Chicago, Detroit, Cleveland, Buffalo, Ottawa, Quebec, and Montreal were already population centers by this time -- a far better substrate to build an enduring alliance than one along the Mississippi. The Chicago River might still run north!

Once you no longer have northern sheriffs being forced to observe the Fugitive Slave Act, the CSA's northern boundary would always leak. Imagine a Berlin wall stretching from the Atlantic to the Mississippi! Would the CSA have the leadership or the money to make it happen? If you were a southern soldier with a small-holding and a slave or two, or none, once the dust had settled and your so-called honor was no longer threatened by the Yanks, would you feel like paying taxes to Richmond or sending your son to protect that boundary? It didn't work for the British between 1763 and 1776, it didn't work for eastern businessmen in 1792, and it didn't work for East Germany in 1989.  In fact, it didn't really work for East Germany between 1961 and 1989 either!

I haven't read this anywhere and I'm not spouting another author's ideas -- I've just been tossing this around in my head in the few minutes since reading Gail Collins's blog. If I can come up with such serious reasons for the CSA not to stay together in just a few minutes, I don't think it really could have survived.

The north has been subsidizing the south since the writing of the Constitution: the three-fifths compromise and the siting of the capital on the Potomac. The south has been holding the north for ransom -- almost literally, since we've been putting our military bases there -- ever since. After the late 1860s unpleasantness, it received northern industry because carpetbaggers saw a fresh wilderness to exploit. Before globalization, it received northern industry because southerners were willing to sacrifice their dignity, working without unions. The south would have been better off listening to Robert E. Lee's better angels than sending him off to fight.

(Incidentally, Lee himself did not always listen to his better angels.  You can read here about how he treated his own and inherited slaves.)