Thursday, September 20, 2007

Once upon a time he commanded a fearsome army against the armies of the United States

sending thousands of U. S. soldiers to their graves in a series of punishing battles. He led hostile forces within striking distance of Washington, and for a time, was the most feared enemy commander with whom the War Department, or the Commander-in-Chief, had ever contended.

Just under 100 years later, the United States named their newest nuclear-powered ballistic missile submarine in his honor. I do wonder if there are any, or many, other instances in world history in which a nation so honored the leading commander of opposition forces in a civil war. Perhaps there's something comparable in the storied history of the United KingdomI'll rely upon a reader for any info along those lines.

Lord knows there have been lots of things named after Robert E. Lee, including a university, and innumerable high schools. But it is fascinating to see military assets and forts named for one-time adversaries. In contrast to the U. S. S. Robert E. Lee, some of the most prominent and vital United States army installations are named for some of the least successful and most inept enemy commandersnamely, generals Braxton Bragg and John Bell Hood, to say nothing of the Right Reverend Bishop Polk.

As the kids say, "what's up with that"?

Back to the Robert E. Lee, who wouldn't want a submarine named after that guy? She was the first U. S. naval vessel to bear the name, and was launched on December 18, 1959, not too long after the last Confederate veteran died (it used to be accepted that Walter Williams, who died
on December 19, 1959, was the last living C.S.A. vet, but this has since been discredited. However, the precise "last" Confederate veteran is likely one of a handful of men who died in the 1950s. William Marvel wrote about this for Blue & Gray magazine at some point).

The Marble Man's nuclear sub was the first U. S. Navy ship, but not the first vessel to carry the
name. Here's a photo of the Giraffe, erstwhile steamer out of Glasgow that in 1862 became the blockade runner Robert E. Lee. After more than 20 successful runs through the Federal Blockading Squadron, she was eventually captured and converted for use in the blockade by the U. S. Navy as the U.S.S. Fort Donelson. Read more about that here.

Here's a link to some history of the Robert E. Lee (SSBN 601; later SSN 601) from the laying of her keel in 1958 to when she was decommissioned in 1983.

This photo shows the Robert E. Lee near Mare Island Shipyard, off San Francisco Bay. She
would have had little trouble taking out the monitor Camanche, also pictured off Mare Island in one of my early blog entries.

The last one (below, click on for larger view) shows the Robert E. Lee's wardroom. Note the bust of famous enemy general next to the phone. What really caught my attention was the aquarium. Viewing this photo was the first time in my life I had considered the idea of miniature aquatic habitats aboard submarines. There's just something odd about it, like a bird in a birdcage, on an airplane.

But what of actual Confederate naval heroes? Were they honored by their former foes in the U.S. Navy? Indeed. Just five months after the Robert E. Lee joined the Cold War navy, the U.S.S. Semmes, a destroyer named for the pre-eminent Confederate sea captain, Raphael Semmes of the C.S.S. Alabama, set sail (heavily damaged ten years later by a clumsy Greek freighter in Naples Harbor). What about James Iredell Waddell, skipper of the legendary C.S.S. Shenandoah? Sure thing. The U.S.S. Waddell, another destroyerlaunched in 1963received 11 engagement stars for service in waters off Vietnam.

I've nothing else to say on this subject. There was no particular point to this entry, beyond the satisfaction of musing about endlessly interesting threads in American history. All this web searching for destroyers brought to mind one named for someone in my own distant bloodlineit took a turn too early and followed some other destroyers into the rocks.

Friday, September 14, 2007

"a superior bastard. . ."

Following up on my two Jesse James entries (and not yet prepared to critique the two biographies mentioned earlier), here's a little note on the third book under discussion there: Ron Hansen's novel, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, and the film adaptation.

There was a pretty meaty article in the Washington Post recently that discusses the novel, and the movie, with much more detail than I was intended to do herereplete with author commentary. So let me just quote some of that, and point you to the rest of it, if you're interested.
It's worth a read even if you have only a casual interest in Jesse James (registration required).

It's really a story about fame, mythology, and the cold-blooded truth. And Hollywood.
I was really curious to know how Hansen's novel, which came out quite a long time ago and was not widely known, all of a sudden made it to the big screen. Well, of course, it happened just the way you imagine it happening with your novel:

A filmmaker walks into a used bookstore.

Australian filmmaker Andrew Dominik was in Melbourne, hanging out with friend Rowland Howard, the Australian rock musician, when they strolled into a second-hand bookstore three years ago. Howard picked up a title, started reading it, then stopped. "He said, 'Wow, this would make a good movie,' and he handed me the book," recalls Dominik. It was Hansen's The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford. Dominik purchased the book, left the bookstore, and started reading. "It knocked me out."

His latest film project had collapsed. He needed work. So he phoned his agent in California. "My agent said, 'Jesse James? Oh, I can sell that. Jesse James is like Batman.'
Hansen offers some fascinating insights from his own James research, the sources he used, how he tried to retain historic authenticity around characterization. How, all these years later, out of the blue, his phone rang. "Something about Brad Pitt."

Already the London TimesOnline has weighed in with a review of sorts: "It's 1881 and when Brad Pitt swaggers into view, dressed from head to toe in black, we know we are in the presence of a superior bastard. The star of The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford is a member of the James Gang and one of America’s most ambivalent myths."

Good enough for me.

Thursday, September 13, 2007

“The Centennial is worth celebratingbut there is a ghost at the feast.”

—Walker Percy on the Civil War centennial

As promised, a few more comments and quotes from Walker Percy. The two essays of his that I’ve recently re-read are interesting, to me, for the fact that they are written by a philosophical novelistraised in the Deep Southon the eve of the Civil War centennial. A thoughtful commentator on life in the South, his observations about the region one hundred years after The War are of particular interest to those who spend an inordinate amount of time thinking about such things.

I was about two years old when the centennial years began, so have no personal memory of that period, but I imagine it must have been a strange time. There was a veritable explosion of Civil War books published around then, and the pace has hardly subsided since. Concurrently, the Civil Rights movement and racial discord were picking up steam, dating back to Brown vs. the Board of Education Topeka in 1954, and peaking with violent clashes and assassinations throughout the 1960s. The stark disconnect between the centennial celebration of noble combat and North/South (Caucasian) reconciliation on the one hand, and the decidedly unreconciled advent of groups like the Black Panthers on the other, tells a tale about how different parts of segregated America viewed the evolution of society in the decades since the surrender at Appomattox.

Percy’s essay “Red, White, and Blue-Gray” was first published in Commonweal in 1961, one year before his first novel, The Moviegoer, won the National Book Award for fiction. The essay was published some six years after Emmit Till was murdered, and Rosa Parks was arrested. It was published two years before Dr. King’s Letter from a Birmingham Jail, the March on Washington, and the bombing of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, the city where Percy was born.

It always feels remarkable to me how recently in our history the Civil War was fought. People I’ve known who had little interest in history are surprised to learn that there are people alive today who had a grandparent that fought in the Civil War, or a grandparent born into slavery. It must have seemed all the closer in 1961, which was not too many years after the last veterans of the war reportedly died.

Percy noted that:

“there is a paradox about current Civil War Centennial literature. It commemorates mainly the fighting, the actual frontline killingwhich was among the bloodiest and bitterest in modern history. Yet it is all good-natured. Illinois historians say nice things about Forrest; Mississippians, if not Georgians, speak well of Sherman. In the popular media the War is so friendly that the fighting is made to appear as a kind of sacrament of fire by which one side expresses its affection for the other.”

Percy dispensed with the oft-heard notion that history is written by the victors. Serious students of the Civil War learn very quickly that in the written history of the Civil War period, the vanquished held their own quite nicely. Percy wrote:

The South has certain tactical advantages in the present “war” (like the North’s industry and population in the first) and has accordingly won a species of literary revenge. The two great figures of the Civil War were Lincoln and Lee, and since most of the literature is about the fighting, Lee is bound to get the better of it. And what with the American preference for good guys and underdogs, and especially underdog good guys, and Lee’s very great personal qualities and the undistinguished character of his opponents, and finally the Army of Northern Virginia which was always outnumbered and nearly always wonit looks as if the next hundred years will see the South not only running the Senate but taking over the national myth along with it.

He goes on to mention the “unease” liberals felt about the centennial literature, on the basis that commemoration of the war as a problem solved would diminish the current and ongoing struggle for civil rights. Percy also bemoans the fact that certain phrases and concepts were co-opted by white supremacists, though he does not use that phrasing. The concept of “states’ rights" once held a certain political legitimacy, but in 1961, Percy writes, “when a politician mentions states’ rights, it’s a better than even bet that in the next sentence it will become clear what kind of states’ rights he is talking about. It usually comes down to the right to keep the Negro in his place.”

Likewise with the phrase, “A Southern Way of Life,” which Percy imbues with all manner of pleasant and respectable connotations. “But I don’t like to hear the phrase now,” he says, “it usually means segregation and very little else. In New Orleans, which has a delightful way of life, the ‘Southern Way of Life’ usually means ‘Let’s Keep McDonough No. 6 Segregated.’”

Some more passages from “Red, White, and Blue-Gray”:

Still and all, there is no need to worry about the Reconciliation. It was very largely an Anglo-Saxon war, and Anglo-Saxon has been reconciled to Anglo-Saxon. But to whom is the Negro reconciled?

The North did win and did put the South in Arrow collars. The sections are homogenized. Everybody watches the same television programs. In another hundred years, everybody will talk like Art Linkletter. The South as gotten rich and the North has gotten Negroes, and the Negro is treated badly in both places. The Northerners won and freed the slaves and now are fleeing to the suburbs to get away from them… .The South, on the other hand, has always managed to comfort itself by pointing to the hypocrisy of the North—not realizing that it is a sorry game in which the highest score is a tie: “Look, they’re as bad as we are!

I think it's safe to say that things continue to change for the better with respect to the reconciliation Percy was talking about 40-some years ago, though that is a matter of perspective, of course. Jim Crow is dead, or if not dead, driven deep into the sticks. Racism is alive and well, but no longer so overtly institutionalized. The next president of the United States may very well be a black man. Maybe the "ghost at the feast" will soon be sitting at the head table.

Thursday, September 06, 2007

Walking away from a mountain. . .

"The truth of it is, I think, that the whole country, South included, is just beginning to see the Civil War whole and entire for the first time. The thing was too big and too bloody, too full of suffering and hatred, too closely knit into the fabric of our meaning as a people, to be held off and looked atuntil now. It is like a man walking away from a mountain. The bigger it is, the farther he's got to go before he can see it. Then one day he looks back and there it is, this colossal thing lying across his past."
from "The American War," Commonweal 65 (March 29, 1957): 655-57; republished in Signposts in a Strange Land, by Walker Percy, edited by Patrick Samway (New York, 1991).

Percy, an increasingly obscure southern novelist and friend of Shelby Foote, wrote this essay in anticipation of the Civil War centennial. He makes a number of interesting observations in this essay, and another—"Red, White, and Blue-Gray"that are deeply compelling and insightful, and, I think, surprising or unexpected to people whose roots and experience lie outside the mysterious South.

The other day my friend Steve, historian emeritus of Loudoun County, reminded me of the quote above, which I was once in the habit of including in Civil War Round Table newsletters, the Civil War Forum's start page, and the like. I was prompted to go back and read the two Civil War-related essays in the Signposts collection, after a long time since last looking them over. An often fascinating thing about rereading something after many years is that you are not the same person who read it the first time around.
I'll try to explain the "surprising" or "unexpected" part in my next entry, and include some more passages from those essays.