Thursday, September 6, 2012

Defining Ourselves: What This War Was All About

For a few moments on one hot July afternoon, the future of the nation, of the very definition of
freedom, hung in the balance above this simple fence. Here white soldiers unknowingly defended a
black man's low slung stone wall, literally defending his property from the tide of an army
wishing to make him property himself. And as the straggling, defeated rebels wended their way
back across the field, the 111th New York and their fellow Federal comrades had not only defended
Abraham Brien's right to be free, but had advanced the very definition of freedom one giant leap
forward in the muggy July air.


  1. Ah love this pic Capt John. For is was perhaps my own people (as in actual ancestors) that fought within sight of that picture, in the field to the left.

    This picture and post give a great opportunity to discuss point of view. You and I have a well-trod difference in what this whole war means and what it meant. In the present we are far closer than we are in our interpretation of what it meant in 1863. While you, and a good many others who are quite intelligent, see it as a struggle for freedom for the black man in 1863, the view from the other side of this picture was quite different in my view.

    Those poor wretches in gray believed they were fighting for freedom as well, but a whole different type of freedom. Looking back on this from 2012 the war becomes undoubtedly about that new birth of freedom that Lincoln so eloquently stated. We cannot sit here today and find good in the core underlying belief in slavery, that time has thankfully come and gone.

    My issue though is that it has become fashionable to use the southern soldier as some type of foil in propagating that such was the blanket case in 1863. Tossing around those terms (freedom, fighting for his freedom etc) ultimately diminishes their value through overuse, as well as denigrates the actual men on the other side of the coin. We look for the two sides of any conflict today as "good" and "bad" and try to instill that onto our past. While it is fashionable, it gives a false sense of the history and the complexity of the situation that made the events so momentous.

    And come now, let us have an argument, its been a while :>)

    1. I'm sorry I've been delinquent in our arguments. Time escapes... like sands through the hour glass, you know.

      The Southern soldier as foil, you are right, is an invalid metaphor. But I hold that the Southern army as a foil is entirely valid. An individual soldier might have thought he was fighting for freedom, and that's why he was signing his enlistment papers, but the army as a whole was motivated by a national policy: slavery.

      On top of that, it took individuals within that army, not all but some key ones, undertaking some key actions which allow historians like us to characterize Lee's 1863 invasion as a slave raid. Does that mean that an average private from North Carolina is a slave catcher? No. Is he aiding and abetting while fighting for what he termed freedom? As a famous Southern president once said, "it depends on what the definition of the word 'is' is."

      Did your grand-pappy fight for slavery? No, not personally.

      Did he fight in a slaveholder's army, in a slaveholder's rebellion? Yes.

      Does that make him personally bad? No. Misguided, perhaps, but not evil by any stretch of the imagination.

  2. Ah there is the Capt John Rudy I know!! Full of vim, vigor, and vinegar!!

    The good ole' blanket statement, makes life easier doesnt it? Ok was the Confederacy fighting for slavery? Personally I think it is at the heart of their argument but it is an argument that was crafted around other political freedoms and this ungodly practice was seen as part of it. Again no one can defend slavery - and those who try are beyond redemption. Like you said, the definition of freedom is about perspective and I am not convinced that the southern armies being a foil is a valid reference except in the narrowest of interpretations. Of course we are going to disagree - heck what fun would this be otherwise; but I will stick to that point till we all cross over the river and rest under the shade of the trees.

    Ok my morning bell just rang, will return during my planning period.

    As for grandpa Joe, maybe he did fight for slavery. But probably not since he became a Republican at the end of the war.

    Be back in a bit :-)

  3. Ok am back for a moment. Just spent way too many pages talking about the winter of 1862-1863. What a ball of fun that was!

    Anyway, I was screeching about your blanket statement. Leaving ancestors out of the equation (hard for southerners to do, but I will try) this thing gets even more interesting to me.

    What we have done is cast the situation in the lowest common denominator - one good and one is bad, or at least it's period-relevant equivalent. We have also made the good and the bad monolithic and homogenous. It is easy to do, it helps set up an argument, and it allows one to frame the discussion/question so that only they can possibly be correct. And therein lies my fundamental problem with our profession as well as with our discussion.

    Each of us has our own axes to grind and bells to ring. It is what makes us tick, gives us passion, and makes things fun. It also is in many cases simply bad history. Not that any of us would intentionally set about to fudge the facts or skew the interpretation - but our own passions and predilections can and do get in the way.

    If you are with me at Gettysburg you KNOW that Scales' Brigade is going to play a prominent role in what I do on certain parts of the field. They are my "people" and I look for them at every turn (which is why I like having Capt John along to temper my enthusiasm - just in case any others were wondering). Other people have their own bells that they ring and maneuver around to fit within the panorama they are describing.

    I think that the use of the ANV (or any southern army) as a foil is one of those skewed props that helps set up the argument that some people want. Much like the use of Sherman as a whipping boy in the south, this act becomes a sideshow-esque trick that artificially shoves the personal interpretation to one end of the proverbial ideological spectrum or the other. This doesn't effect the die-hard, but it does the impressionable.

    Capt John, you know that I am not attacking you personally on this, but rather as a blanket statement. I want the readers to know that while we disagree on some of the finer points (this being one), that I do indeed have a distinct reverence for your thoughts and opinions. I just love a lively discussion where we can all get up in arms.