Thursday, October 25, 2007

Flags of our (Great-Grand) Fathers

I try not to blog about my political opinions here -- there are other venues where I let off that kind of steam. I find it jarring when history-themed blogs morph into contemporary Op-Ed sections, even when I agree with the sentiments expressed. Some issues, of course, bridge the distance between the Civil War era and the politics of 2007 – such is the reach, and the legacy, of that cataclysmic struggle. One of those enduring issues is a simple but universally recognized emblem and the emotions it evokes. Thankfully, wayward Californian John Coski at the Museum of the Confederacy wrote the book on the Confederate battle flag, so you don’t have to.

Speaking of Op-Ed sections, the battle flag controversy was highlighted in one of my local papers several months ago. I made note of it, and intended to write a letter to the editor, but responding to long-discredited “black Confederate” mythology (the part of the editorial that pushed my buttons) seems increasingly pointless. It’s here to stay. I’m reminded of something I read recently in the acknowledgments to Ray Mulesky’s book, Thunder From a Clear Sky. While Ray was trying to ferret out the details of the “battle” of Browning Springs, Kentucky, with Harold Utley of the Hopkins County Historical Society, Mr. Utley made the profound and sadly accurate comment that “once something is wrong in print, it is likely wrong forever.”

If that was true in the past, it’s all the MORE true in the age of the internet.

The SF Chronicle essay in question, “Give the Confederate flag a break: The Stars-and-Bars is a diversion in the nation's fight for racial harmony,” is a well-intentioned call for people to cool their jets, take the long view, and remove the chips from their shoulders (take a moment to read it in full if you want to make sense of my specific references here). It’s also another subtle example of something wrong in print that will help perpetuate misconceptions until the end of time (and I’m not speaking of the common mislabeling of the battle flag as the “Stars and Bars,” which refers, in fact, to a Confederate national flag).

The editorial starts off well enough, discussing the relevance of symbols, but quickly swerves off logical kilter with specious analogies. No one is suggesting the flag be banned from country music concerts. Legal objections to the flag (from organizations like the NAACP) have to do with it being used in a quasi-official capacity – flying over a state house, for example. Considering that it represented some of the armies that went to war with the United States, objections to the flag under these circumstances don’t seem unreasonable. And considering that, like it or not, it is historically associated with the most virulently racist organizations in the history of our nation, it’s unrealistic to assert that the meaning many black Americans assign to that symbol is unfair or irrational. Symbols are powerful things, and diametrically opposed interpretations do not cancel each other out. A non-racist sense of pride in one’s heritage, symbolized by that flag, is no more valid, and no more historical, than a sense of revulsion by those who see it as emblematic of the armies that fought to perpetuate slavery. Or who see it as emblematic of the KKK and their ilk.

Had the Op-Ed author, Mr. O’Neill, satisfied himself with the “Heritage not Hate” perspective, I would not feel compelled to comment on it. But I was dismayed to read the fresh renewal, in my Sunday paper, of some of the most discredited mythology about the Civil War. The issue of so-called Black Confederates has been so thoroughly refuted, it's astonishing that rational people continue to raise it (he wrote, “between 60,000 and 90,000 black men, both free and slave, also served under the banner of the Stars and Bars”). The entire rationale (whether extended consciously or not) behind the notion of large numbers of black people fighting for the South is to diminish the connection between slavery and the Civil War. After all, how could it be about slavery if blacks themselves fought with the Confederates?

The answer is that they did not, except in isolated and exceptional instances. It was illegal for blacks to fight. Even as late as 1864, when General Patrick Cleburne suggested recruiting slaves as an answer to the South’s critical shortage of manpower, he was nearly run out of town on a rail for such a radical proposition. The CSA did not consider recruiting slaves in earnest until just before the war ended.

The phrasing is key: 10s of thousands of black men “served” with Confederate armies. This is a staple of neo-Confederate web sites that attempt to remove slavery from the equation entirely. To them, it was a war of aggression by mongrel hordes (immigrants) against those true American patriots – keepers of the Revolutionary flame – who sought only to salvage self-determination. But if the slaves put to work on behalf of southern armies served for the Confederacy, we must likewise conclude that a lot of allied POWs served with Japanese forces in WWII. You can see how absurd it becomes when forced labor is referred to in the context of willing, or even conscripted soldiers.

And while it's true that "the vast majority. . .owned no slaves,” it's a disingenuous argument. The 1860 census shows that close to 25% of all white southern families owned slaves (and in each of those slaveholding families, likely only one person was named as the owner). The institution was part and parcel of the southern economy, and southern antebellum culture. People who did not own slaves aspired to own them, benefitted from the presence of them, or otherwise facilitated the system. And regardless, the armies were sent into battle to achieve the objectives of the government. In this case the objective was independence to protect a system of chattel slavery, and soldiers were fighting for that whether they realized it or not.

The nation was split literally between slave and free soil interests. The election of a president from a party with explicitly abolitionist roots precipitated secession, which in turn led directly to the war. The architects of secession (see Apostles of Disunion), made it painfully clear that slavery was the central issue, and leading Confederates themselves made no bones about the fact that independence was necessary to preserve slavery. With all the primary resources at our disposal, it's a tortured argument for someone today to say the American Civil War was not about slavery, but about states rights. The only state right at issue was the right to preserve and expand the institution into the western territories. Ironically, the Confederate Constitution took that right to the other extreme: it prohibited states of the Confederacy from interfering with slavery even within their own borders. Which is to say states would have to allow slavery whether they wanted it or not. So much for states rights.

Mr. O’Neill makes the oft-seen point that since the U.S. flag flew over the entire nation prior to the Civil War, it, too, was an emblem of slavery. How to explain to someone that the flag of emancipation transcends the reason emancipation was necessary? In the short life of the Confederacy, how could the battle flag transcend the reasons the Confederacy was seeking independence? How could it transcend the negative associations of the next 100 years?

In one concluding paragraph, O’Neill writes, “Though the Confederate flag remains an easy target for politicians looking to take cheap shots, the heritage represented by that flag is far from simple. Though it retains negative power, there surely is not a soul left on the planet who waves that flag in support of slavery. Voters whose ancestors gave their lives under that banner should not be written off by the party that has, historically, best defended their interests."

Certainly the first sentence rings true, but it bears mentioning that many of those voters he refers to wrote off the party – not the other way around – during the an era of forced integration and civil rights protests. Indeed, there was a monumental resurgence of the battle flag in direct response to court-ordered integration, well in advance of the Civil War centennial.

I agree with much of what Mr. O’Neill wrote in his essay. I share his exasperation with the hollow, pseudo-controversies of each successive election cycle. And I certainly agree that people today should be given the benefit of the doubt when celebrating or honoring their heritage -- that a presumption of racism is unwarranted. It’s pointless to pass moral judgment on the common soldier of 1861, and equally pointless to take an emotional stake in defending their honor (this enduring emotional charge may be unique to civil warfare, while more recent enemies quickly become trading partners and allies). But you can't have it both ways. You can't insist that others appreciate your affinity for the banner, while insisting that their interpretations of that symbol are irrational. Both views have a long, tangible history.

Mr. O’Neil may think I am missing the larger points of his editorial while focusing on a few passing comments (I will email him a copy of this blog entry). But I think everything hinges on this issue of states rights vs. slavery. If one is to easily dismiss the negative connotations that generations of African-Americans, for example, assign to the battle flag, one must first make the case that the war was not really about slavery, then rationalize the particular association of the battle flag with the Klan. Good luck with that exercise.

But one needn’t rewrite the history of the Civil War to make the other, thoughtful arguments. No one who honors the service and sacrifice of their Confederate ancestors owes anyone an apology today. Individuals fought for all kinds of reasons, and in the final analysis, it’s just history. It’s always best to face it head-on.

I really liked this passage in O'Neill's essay, and it's a good one to close with here:

And so it goes, in the words of recently departed Kurt Vonnegut, a wry commentator on human folly in all its guises whose leavening humor and wisdom will be sorely missed in a nation fairly bereft of both qualities. And nowhere is that wisdom and humor needed more than in our bogged-down-in-B.S. attitudes toward race, wherein we continue to countenance unequal schools and a vast disparity in opportunity while arguing about words and old flags.

Thursday, October 18, 2007

iTunes U

Even though I did not own an iPod or other MP3 player until just recently, I have amassed a vast library of free podcastsmainly of various radio programsthat I thought might be nice to listen to during long walks or drives, or while outside doing solitary work.

Of course in real life, long walks are hard to come by, long drives feature a live soundtrack of boys fighting in the backseat, and I try to do as little work outside as possible. But still, I love the technology, and the mobility of podcasts, and I continue to collect them just in case.

Lately, I started downloading some interesting-sounding lectures from various universities, on all manner of topics. There are some fairly amazing repositories for college-level presentationsusually introductoryon everything from astronomy to the history of Rome.
If you have iTunes installed, a good starting place is here (click on the link to iTunes U to save you navigating it from scratch). You can also go straight to the university websites, and usually find an iTunes U icon (or search the site with keywords "itunes" or "podcasts"). This web page has a handy list of podcasts by university, with links.

[click on the images at top and bottom of this entry to get a larger view, if necessary]

There's some Civil War stuff there, if you look for it. At UC Berkeley, Jennifer Burns
has a long list of lectures on U.S. history starting with the Civil WarI listened to part of the first one, and took issue with a couple statements, but thought it very listen-able, all in all. That's a tough lecture, any way you shake it.

I see from her biography that she's moving on to the University of Virginia soon. Her apparent interest in Ayn Rand probably informs her interpretations of the Civil War. She does ask the question, "who freed the slaves" (a question we see Kevin Levin took up in his classroom recently). Professor Burns' answer is, the slaves did.

Over at Princeton's website, Dimitri's favorite professor holds forth on "Abraham Lincoln's Invention of Presidential War Powers."
For some of the reasons I mentioned in the 2nd paragraph above, I am very much enamored of the 60-second Lecture series at the University of Pennsylvania. Now that is a cool idea: get over-educated people in various fields to summarize their subjects in one minute. The first thing you'll notice is that many of them run long. "Intracellular landfills" runs over two minutes! My favorite: "What Makes a Poem a Poem," by Charles Bernstein. One minute, twenty-two seconds. And it's really all you budding poets need to know.

Friday, October 12, 2007

Buster Kilrain in Song...

Steve Earle sings "Dixieland": a long introduction, but it's worth it, as Steve explains what the war was really about, and how the 20th Maine saved us all from talking funny:


I am kilrain and i'm a fightin' man and i come from county clare
And the brits would hang me for a fenian so i took me leave of there
And i crossed the ocean in the "arrianne" the vilest tub afloat
And the captain's brother was a railroad man and he met us the boat
So i joined up with the 20th maine like i said my friend
i'm a fighting man
And we're marchin' south in the pouring rain and we're all goin' down to dixieland

I am kilrain of the 20th maine and we fight for chamberlain
cause he stood right with us when the johnnies came like a banshee on the wind
When the smoke cleared out of gettysburg many a mother wept
For many a good boy died there, sure, and the air smelted
just like death

I am kilrain of the 20th maine and i'd march to hell and back again
For colonel joshua chamberlain - we're all goin' down to dixieland

I am kilrain of the 20th maine and i damn all gentlemen
Whose only worth is their father's name and the
sweat of a workin' man
Well we come from the farms and the city streets and a hundred foreign lands
And we spilled our blood in the battle's heat
Now we're all americans

I am kilrain of the 20th maine and did i tell you friend
i'm a fightin' man
And i'll not be back this way again, cause we're all
goin' down to dixieland

"The Road to Appomattox" more Appomattox-related entry for now: Andrew McKnight sings "The Road to Appomattox," WUWF radiolive television concert, recorded at the Pensacola, FL Museum of Commerce 6/4/2005

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

"Sholbit" = "the end"

In August of 2006 I posted a blog entry with passing reference to the "Battle of Bloody Island," in which Captain Nathaniel Lyon's 1st Dragoons killed perhaps as many as 200 Pomo Indians near Clear Lake, in northern California. The Pomo's endured, but haven't fared well in modern times as a casino-less tribe living adjacent to a Superfund toxic cleanup site.

About a week ago, the local Sunday paper reported that Elem Pomo, an 8,000-year-old dialect spoken by many of the people slaughtered at Bloody Island, is now spoken fluently by only one person, 59-year-old Loretta Kelsey.
It is another vestige of the past, already obscure, moving closer to the brink of oblivion. Unlike so many lost tongues, however, this one survives on reel-to-reel tapes at UC Berkeley, and you can hear some examples from Loretta Kelsey herself on this podcast.

I have never consciously avoided opera

but somehow it took until 2007 for me to attend my first performance, at least a final dress rehearsal. Even then, incentives were required: a free ticket, and a storyline involving one of my favorite subjects: e.g., grilled meats, the poetry of Stephen Dunn, the Civil War.

Finally, with that third item, the right combination clicked into place.
By contrast, I do consciously and aggressively avoid musicals of all types (though I may make an exception for Spamalot). I should say, though, at times in my life I have been enamored of certain so-called "rock operas," such as Tommy, and Quadrophenia. When I was about 11-years-old, most of what I knew of the Christian gospels came from hours playing Jesus Christ Superstar LPs on the old Hi-Fi. Of course, I'm referring to the original, with Deep Purple lead singer Ian Gillan as Jesus Christ, not the later, subpar movie soundtrack.

But Appomattox was my first experience with an honest-to-goodness opera. By now you've probably gauged my qualifications for critiquing such a performance. This blog entry offers no expertisejust honest impressions. And maybe it's best that way. It was my expectation, based on snippets of exposure to televised opera, that the singing would be interesting, but unintelligible, and eventually tedious (mercifully, this was sung in English, with superscripts). I'm impressed that people can produce those voices, but I like a little action, too. And if I can't have a blind pinball prodigy, I'll take the burning of Richmond, punctuated by the low thunder of distant artillery.

I did not even have any pre-established opinions on Philip Glass's body of work. When Ranger Manny posted a Glass joke as a comment on this blog, I didn't get itthough plainly it had something to do with monotonous repetition. The show opened last Friday, and many of the paid critics have had their say. Dimitri, over at Civil War Bookshelf, has conveniently linked to a handful of those reviews here. As you might expect, the reviews were all over the board, though at a glance it looks like more negative commentary than positive.

For my part, I was pleasantly surprised. I was impressed. I was genuinely movedthe scene with Lincoln walking in Richmond, the combination of the music, the set, and the moment where he asks someone not to kneel to him, actually raised the hair on my arms and brought water to my eyes. All told, I only looked at my watch a couple times, tapping it to make sure the second hand was moving. Two and a half hours would have been easier to take had the bar been opena little pick-me-up at intermission goes a long way in wartime.

As mentioned in my last blog entry, the night started with a personal backstage tour, and that alone would have been worth braving rush hour traffic. The War Memorial Opera House is a spectacular building, and backstage is a wonderland of high-tech and classically traditional tools, equipment, shops, costumes and props. Here, I got my first view of Lincoln's coffin, along with uniforms, swords, the Lee and Grant tables, and even the "silent witness." The original Silent Witness is pictured at the top of this post (click on that photo, or read the story of rag doll herethe next photo below, with desk, shows the SF Opera witnessclick on image for a larger view). It's fascinating to me to see how much care goes into the details that many people in the audience will never notice.


I thought the musical score was powerful, but never distracting. It set just the right tone in some very dramatic scenes, and only on occasion did I find myself concentrating on the orchestra at the expense of the stage, so subtly did the music meld into and foster the emotional fluency of the scene. Emotional fluency? Well, I hope you know what I mean. I took notice of when the music seemed to be outside the scene, rather than a part of it.

The level of historical accuracy was remarkably high, and this surprised me the most. I had expected wanton artistic license, even to an absurd degreewas even braced for some over-the-top mythology. Instead, the libretto (a word I looked up a couple weeks ago) was pleasingly true to history. Details about Lee's decision to vacate the lines at Petersburg, the abandonment and destruction of Richmond, Lincoln walking the streets of the Confederate capital with a guard of sailors, Grant's pounding headache during the suspenseful exchange of correspondence with Leethe headache that went away as soon as Lee agreed to meet. All of this was faithful.

The back-and-forth baritone exchange between Lee and Grant, prior to the meeting at Appomattox, was sung virtually verbatim. I didn't expect that, since the messages themselves are hardly poetic. Initially I found this awkward, but after a time it struck me as increasingly powerful that documentary history served as the script. It was more than a little odd, I suppose, to go to my first opera not as an opera buff, but as a student of the Civil War who, coincidentally, had also made my first visit to Appomattox Court House earlier this year.

There are certain exchanges of correspondence in the O.R. that I have read and re-read because of the combination of historic import and language employed, like the Hood–Sherman correspondence when Sherman demands Atlanta be evacuated. And there is the Grant–Lee correspondence during Lee's retreat to Appomattox. One cannot write fictional correspondence that contains more momentous weight. I posted part of that exchange as a blog entry in April 2006, here. In the opera, this exchange is sung in heavy-hearted baritones by Grant and Lee in their headquarters tents, occupying opposite ends of the stage, while staffers study maps and couriers race back and forth. It was a clean and imaginative way to portray that brilliantly dramatic discourse.

Artistic license was relegated mainly to the female roles, Mrs. Lee, Mrs. Grant, Mrs. Lincoln, but their parts added another dimension to the war's denouement, and, in fact, reflected historic attitudes and tensions. Last March, during the Civil War Forum's Appomattox conference, Ed Bearss devoted an evening talk to the tensions between Julia Grant and Mary Lincoln in the waning days of the war, when they met on the James River. I will say that I found the angry wailings of Mrs. Lee to be jarring and unsettlingseemingly out of bounds with her all-but-invisible presence in Civil War narratives dealing with the events of April 1865. It piqued my curiosity, though, enough to look into it and see what, if anything, might have inspired that portrayal.

As someone who has long had an interest in Native American participation in the war, and having read all I could on Ely ParkerGrant's 3/4 Iroquois (Seneca) military secretaryI wondered if Glass's opera would include one of the most famous of all anecdotal stories from the McLean parlor. Sure enough, there it wasand what dramatist could resist? After Parker transcribed the surrender terms, Lee remarked, according to Parker himself, "I am glad to see one real American here," to which Parker allegedly replied, as he shook Lee's hand, "We are all Americans." As far as I know, Parker is the only source for this too-perfect exchange (recounted here at the Appomattox NHP website), and I don't fault Glass or Christopher Hampton (author of the libretto)it really is a good story, and I know of no one else in the room who may have discounted it. So good, I used it myself in the first magazine article I ever had published, a now-embarrassing piece on Ely Parker in the defunct Civil War magazine (incidentally, apparently all of the performance's literature misspells his name as "Eli").

One thing about the Ely Parker moment that I found odd is that there is no indication to audience members who haven't read a lot about the Civil War that Parker was part Indian, and decidedly so in appearance. So Lee's comment to him about a real or true American would hold little meaning to anyone who hadn't read that far. For the most part, the story line didn't rely on audience members to be particularly well versed in the subject.

Something that I had read about beforehand, and anticipated with some reservations, was the introduction of scenes jumping into the future to incorporate modern day civil rights struggles. I was afraid it might try to fit too many monumentally emotional dramas into one (McLean) parlor. And it was uncomfortable. Near the end, when a lone white man in a wheel chairEdgar Ray Killencame out to spew a white supremacist diatribe, I wondered if things might spiral out of control. But it held together, and in retrospect, the uncomfortable feeling of that scene effectively served to punctuate one of the legacies of the Civil War—the fact that emancipation and equality were two very different thingsin a way that would have been hard to deliver with something safer, or trite. To many people, I'm sure, those are the parts that will make this Civil War story relevant.

I should not end this without a few comments on the sets, etc. As mentioned, the costumes and props were spectacular, and had I had some of those fancy opera binoculars, it would have been impressive to note that the amputated limbs looked even more real in magnification. The setwork (is that an opera term? Should be) was stark, but effective, though the burning of Richmonda small line of flames on one end of the stagelooked more like someone was stoking coals for a tailgate party than it did the conflagration of cotton warehouses.

And those horses. Full-sized, bloody horses, ropes tied to their hind legs, hanging from the sky. I know they were meant to convey something about the carnage and horror of the Civil War, and there is something deeply disturbing about the slaughter of such huge beastsbeasts that were so emblematic of Civil War armies. But it just looked weird to me.

Go to this page and click on "Video Clips of Appomattox" for a taste. The more I remember this production, the more I'd like to see it again.

Thursday, October 04, 2007

"I reciprocate your desire to avoid useless effusion of blood. . ."

Way back at the end of January I posted a short blog entry on the forthcoming Philip Glass opera Appomattox, scheduled to open in San Francisco this fall. Then, just like the siege of Petersburg, nine months passed, and finally Robert E. Lee came forward to face the music, only this time he's singing along.

My favorite Chickasaw Okie and long-time Sierra camping buddy, who's in his 17th season backstage at the SF Opera, gave me a tour Tuesday night, and an orchestra seat to the final dress rehearsal. The show opens Friday night.
I'd never been to the opera before. But then, no one's ever written one with such studious reliance on The War of the Rebellion: a Compilation of the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies. It's about time.

Interestingly, at the heart of Act II, a good bit of the actual Grant/Lee correspondence is sung verbatim (in advance of my visit to Appomattox earlier this year, I posted much of that historic exchange here).
Between now (3:00 a.m. Pacific on Thursday a.m.) and Sunday night [better make that early next week], I'll post some impressions and observations about Appomattox, the opera. Two other blog entries during that same time frame will include slow gestating & long overdue follow-ups on Stonewall Jackson's sister, and an unexpected Appomattox tie-in from my recent Arkansas vacation, fit in around some Little League action, Hardly Strictly Bluegrass, and the 49ers. Busy weekend.

Thanks for checking in.

[below: props backstage. What size boot do you wear?]