We’ve been watching Ken Burns’ The Civil War and last night we finished the episode that includes the battle of Gettysburg. And when Burns begins to tell the story of Pickett’s Charge, the historian Shelby Foote, the shy-eyed, slow-talking baritone who is the star of the narrational portions of Burns’ documentary, refers to a quote from William Faulkner’s Intruder in the Dust about how for young Southern men it’s always early in the afternoon of July 3, 1863, the lines are still forming in the woods, the battle flags are about to unfurl, and that wide open field still looks like the clear road to Washington and the end of the war and victory for the South.
I looked up the exact quote afterwards:
For every Southern boy fourteen years old, not once but whenever he wants it, there is the instant when it's still not yet two o’clock on that July afternoon in 1863, the brigades are in position behind the rail fence, the guns are laid and ready in the woods and the furled flags are already loosened to break out and Pickett himself with his long oiled ringlets and his hat in one hand probably and his sword in the other looking up the hill waiting for Longstreet to give the word and it's all in the balance, it hasn't happened yet, it hasn't even begun yet, it not only hasn't begun yet but there is stll time for it not to begin against that position and those circumstances which made more men than Garnett and Kemper and Armstead and Wilcox look grave yet it's going to begin, we all know that, we have come too far with too much at stake and that moment doesn't need even a fourteen-year-old boy to think This time. Maybe this time with all this much to lose and all this much to gain: Pennsylvania, Maryland, the world, the golden dome of Washington itself to crown with desperate and unbelievable victory the desperate gamble, the cast made two years ago....
This time. Maybe.
When you’re young you think nothing can whup you, not even time. For every Southern boy the war is still winnable.
Which would mean that for every Southern boy the war is still being fought.
White Southern boys. Faulkner was talking only about white kids.
I’ve always thought how weird that must be, growing up with one of the things defining your sense of self being hand-me-down memories of your grandfather’s, great-grandfather’s, great-great-grandfather’s war.
Was that ever true? Was it just Faulkner’s fancy? Is it still true?
For my friends and I growing up in the North, the Civil War fascinated our imaginations and provided all kinds of stories to act out in our backyard and cow pasture battlefields, but it wasn’t the war. It was one of a long string of wars that we won. And by we we didn’t mean the North. We meant the United States.
Our Southern counterparts could pretend to fight almost as many wars as we did and count themselves among the we who won them. But when they put on their imaginary gray their we divided against itself. Their we lost. Our they won. In their imaginations they seceded from the Union and they got whupped for it, no matter how victorious they were in the Peach Orchards and Devil’s Dens, Cemetery Ridges and Angles of their neighborhoods.
For a Southern kid there would always be moments in his games when he was not one of us. When he was a Reb. When he was at war with the United States.
Which could not have made sense to him if like us up in the North he was also part of the we driving the redcoats out of Boston and the Nazis back to Berlin. We was we, wasn’t we? There might have been some natural rebels among them for whom it was congenial to play at being a they, at being if not one of the bad guys then a renegade or some sort of outlaw. Kids have no problem being pirates. But for the more conventionally-minded kids, which is most kids, it couldn’t have been easy to accept that by taking their own side they were making themselves the bad guys, volunteering to not only be the losers but to be the ones in the wrong. How could they say we started the war for ignoble reasons and then lost it, deservedly?
The answer to that would be they wouldn’t have to. Their parents would have taught them that it was the North that started the war and the South was on the side of the angels. They’d have inherited a culture of denial and down is up-ism. Slavery wasn’t that bad, in fighting to protect the peculiar institution the South was actually fighting to help its slaves whom it would free, eventually, in a saner, smarter fashion than the North intended or cared to manage. It was a war of Northern Aggression for the purpose of robbing Southerners, slave-holders as well as non, blacks as well as whites, of their land, their rights, their sovereignty.
But the South lost!
The bad guys won. The good guys lost despite possessing superior virtues and fighting spirit, despite being on the side of the angels. How did that happen?
How do you work that into your sense of who you are? How do you believe simultaneously in your own inherited superiority and in your place in history as the vanquished?
Wouldn’t this create a self at odds with itself? A self that felt entitled and undeserving at the same time? A self that was full of bravado and just as full of self-doubt? A self that felt it could lick all comers and a self that was insecure, afraid of a fair fight, brave only when among large numbers of the like-minded and tribally loyal, which is to say essentially a coward? Wouldn’t you get a self spoiling for a fight in which it could prove itself? A fight that would resolve the internal contradictions by showing the undeserving, self-doubting, insecure, dependent coward inside that he is not me?
Wouldn’t you get when these boys grow up the men who more and more fill the ranks the Radical Right as the Right and the Republican Party more and more become creatures of the South?
What self-respecting boy with a good and brave heart would want to grow up into that? What self-respecting kid feeling himself pulled towards such a future self wouldn’t rebel and retreat into an idealized past? And where better to go than to that moment at the foot of the hill leading up to Cemetery Ridge, before the order to go forward---given by a general too heartbroken at what he knows is about to happen to give it with more than a wordless nod---when none of it matters, when victory is still within grasp, when the fighting men of the South are at their best, when the cause is still glorious and history can be denied because it has yet to unfold?
Am I just going Faulkner one better?
Or are we still fighting that damn war?
Still fighting that damn war: Well, some of us are.
From CathiefromCanada, the Klan comes to Ole Miss.
From Oliver Willis…for Missouri Republicans it’s not the hour before Pickett’s Charge, it’s the day before the attack on Fort Sumter.
The movie Gettysburg does a pretty fair job of giving a sense of how splendid it must have been to have been one of those thirteen thousand men stepping off from Seminary Ridge. You can understand why one Union officer looking out across the field thought the view of the mustering Confederates was the one of the most beautiful sights he’d ever seen.
The movie doesn’t do quite as good a job of conveying the slaughter that was unleashed when the Yankees finally rose up and fired, how could it? But it’s still heartbreaking to watch.
Two longish clips from Gettysburg.
And the battle: