Ken Burn’s The Civil War

Dec 26

Thanks to Netflix, I finally managed to watch Ken Burn’s epic documentary, The Civil War.  It brought me back to my days as a kid and teenager when I was an avid Civil War buff, devouring all the books I could find on that conflict.  William Tecumseh Sherman and Ulysses Grant were of course my favorite generals, there was no figure I found more contemptuous than George McClellan.  Nothing in this documentary has given me reason to doubt my childhood judgments on these men.  (Although I find it interesting that the people of New Jersey had it in them to elect McClellan governor in later years — I suppose the promise of America is that the possibility of redemption is always around the corner.).

But, I did learn about a figure I had never heard about before: Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain of Maine , who as a junior Union officer at the head of a Maine regiment, heroically defended Little Round Top against a vastly superior force of Confederates, and turned the tide of that battle in favor of the Union.  He miraculously survived what should have been a fatal wound at the battle of Cold Harbor in 1864, receiving from Grant what Grant thought was a death-bed promotion to brigadier general.  The greatest thing about this guy was that he was a professor of classics before the war, and after the war, among other things, became president of Bowdoin College.  Who said that liberal arts education is useless?
The inclusion of comments from Fredrick Douglass were especially illuminating. Often frustrated with Lincoln’s seeming tardiness to wage war against slavery and his persistent indulgence of white prejudice, he later said about him words that I think are still important for progressives of all types to digest:
“I have said that President Lincoln was a white man, and shared the prejudices common to his countrymen towards the colored race. Looking back to his times and to the condition of his country, we are compelled to admit that this unfriendly feeling on his part may be safely set down as one element of his wonderful success in organizing the loyal American people for the tremendous conflict before them, and bringing them safely through that conflict. His great mission was to accomplish two things: first, to save his country from dismemberment and ruin; and, second, to free his country from the great crime of slavery. To do one or the other, or both, he must have the earnest sympathy and the powerful cooperation of his loyal fellow countrymen. Without this primary and essential condition to success his efforts must have been vain and utterly fruitless. Had he put the abolition of slavery before the salvation of the Union, he would have inevitably driven from him a powerful class of the American people and rendered resistance to rebellion impossible. Viewed from the genuine abolition ground, Mr. Lincoln seemed tardy, cold, dull, and indifferent; but measuring him by the sentiment of his country, a sentiment he was bound as a statesman to consult, he was swift, zealous, radical, and determined.”
War is clearly horrific, but does any of us today — I mean Americans — doubt that their sacrifice was absolutely necessary and that we are all in their debt for acts of courage we can scarcely imagine? It is easy with hindsight to say that the outcome of the war was never in doubt: given the vastly superior resources at the Union’s disposal, it was inevitable that they would win.  That underestimates the extent of sacrifice that was required to produce victory against a determined foe.  The Union could have easily decided those sacrifices were not worth it, and under the leadership of that scoundrel McClellan, nearly did throw in the towel.  So, while superiority in men and weapons was a necessary condition for victory, it was not sufficient: a moral vision giving hope for a better future was required to sustain the sacrifices necessary to carry the day.  That is precisely what is lacking in the Arab world and why all the killing, especially in Syria, is pointless.

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