Wednesday, February 21, 2007

Manly Men in the Service of the Lord

"The Civil War is our only 'felt' history," wrote Robert Penn Warren, and one can certainly feel that in the element of religious fervor that attends our inherited and adopted interpretations of that cataclysmic era. Though no one today was alive in the 1860s, many there are who have a deep, emotional investment in how the story is told (or remembered, as Kevin at Civil War Memory might say).
Certainly Abraham Lincoln has attained saintly status in the literature, but the Southern Cause, in particular, has become synonymous with righteous struggle. There is something fundamentally strange about the way Confederate icons have all but replaced the apostles in the stained glass of southern history. They were the knights of the Confederate round table (minus Lancelot's adulterous betrayal, of course), and the reasons they fought can never be sullied by incidental, political distractions like free soil versus slave soil. The godliness of men like Lee, and Jackson, is cartoonishly caricatured in films like "Gods and Generals," and in the essays of earnest children (see the With Lee in Virginia paragraph of this one, quoted below). But this business about "biblical manhood" puts a new twist on things (see the 2003 winner of biblical manhood essay contest here). The subject of the essay is a Civil War figure, and I'll give you one hint: it wasn't Benjamin Butler.
I don't have the energy or inclination to speak at length about this phenomenon, but I did need an excuse to use Church Sign Generator.

Another book with powerful lessons of providence is With Lee in Virginia. Set in the South during the War Between the States, it explores causes of the war, happenings during it, and lasting effects of it; in it, Henty shows the divine providence which was continually overarching and undergirding the efforts of His people. G.A. Henty sought to remind readers of the religious causes and ramifications of the war. He told how the great leaders of the Confederacy were godly men fighting for godly principles in areas as broad as Christian culture and as specific as decentralized government. He also told how the Reformed faith was what motivated countless men and boys to rise up to defend the South. Most importantly, he showed the grace and mercy of God in the course of the war. The Reverend J.L. Underwood, who also wrote about the war, said in reference to the purpose of the Confederates: “there is a thing better than peace: liberty.” This idea is a recurring theme throughout With Lee in Virginia. Henty explores how God strengthened them to fight what they called the Second War of Independence in a Christian manner and for Christian principles. He gave them resolve to continue in their cause; He gave them strength to act in accordance with their faith throughout the war. Though we still mourn the loss of so many godly men, and though we see that many of the principles for which they fought vanished from society as they died, we can thank God fervently for His providence in preserving their honor and strengthening their faith in the following generations.

Is it just me, or is there something deeply bizarre about groups like "The Vision Forum" assigning Victorian adventure novels (such as G. A. Henty's With Lee in Virginia) to give children today a notion of devout manliness in the antebellum South?

With all due respect to our young essayist and Henty aficionado, and not having read the book, I'm going to take reviewer
Catherine Hood's word for it (from the first critique of With Lee at Amazon): "This book was not exciting, nor is it realistic of antebellum life in Virginia. From the title, you would think that the book would be about the War Between the States and about Robert E. Lee. It is neither. It is what an Englishman thinks it might have been like to be in the South before the war begins, but he doesn't know. The research, if there was any research, was not done well. . . . it is a very tedious, boring, and painful book to read."

That said, after a Google search, I did find a copy of the book online here. I haven't had a chance to go through much of it, but will give an overview in a subsequent post. Our hero, Vincent Wingfield, is an Englishman in Virginia. A slaveowner himself, and sympathetic to the South, he's not above pummeling a plantation owner for whipping a slave:

"You are a coward and a blackguard, Andrew Jackson!"
Vincent exclaimed, white with anger. "You are a disgrace to Virginia, you ruffian!"

Without a word the young planter, mad with rage at this interference, rushed at Vincent; but the latter had learned the use of his fists at his English school, and riding exercises had strengthened his muscles, and as his opponent rushed at him, he met him with a blow from the shoulder which sent him staggering back with the blood streaming from his lips. He again rushed forward, and heavy blows were exchanged; then they closed and grappled. For a minute they swayed to and from but although much taller, the young planter was no stronger than Vincent, and at last they came to the ground with a crash, Vincent uppermost, Jackson's head as he fell coming with such force against a low stump that he lay insensible.

Those riding exercises and schoolyard fisticuffs really paid off.


Anonymous said...

I bet you can easily find excuses to use (so many choices)

dw said...

Comedy King,

You're right. Nearly infinite possibilities present themselves. Just not quite as many in the context of a Civil War blog.