American Elephants


History Is What Happened In The Past by The Elephant's Child

I have been distressed at the attempts to rename buildings, tear down statues and monuments, and in general to make any history that doesn’t meet today’s more refined sensitivities — just disappear.  One of the greatest problems for historians is that people have often destroyed the evidence that tells us of their times, and they have to guess at what really happened. We live in an age of political correctness, the party line of the day, and the politically correct are trying to expunge any evidence of those in the past who did not agree with today’s notions. Of course, for most it is simply a campus fad that sweeps from one college to another. Protesting is the in thing, and if they can’t find anything else to protest, perhaps the donor of a building once owned a slave so the building should be torn down.

Today we mostly universally agree that slavery is and was a very bad thing, But before somewhere around the mid 18th century, slavery was the norm. Many college students are astonished to find out that slavery existed in other places besides the United States. Because we ended the slave trade, had a great Civil War and freed the slaves and are such an open society the world is familiar with America and slavery. Because of that history present day virtue seekers are anxious to destroy all traces of the Confederacy. New Orleans is currently engaged in a great battle to tear down statues and monuments.

They are wrong. Millions of Americans today have ancestors who fought for the Confederacy.  Two of my great great uncles lost their lives fighting for the Union with Grant, and two lost their lives fighting for the Confederacy, one in the battle around Richmond and the other at Snicker’s Gap. The Southerners were brothers, the Union soldiers were members of families who had established a station of the underground railroad in their meeting house. To be interested in the stars and bars or the Confederate battle flag does not insinuate a fondness for slavery, only an interest in history.

Max Boot, writing at Commentary, approves of the actions of New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu in tearing down statues honoring Confederate war heroes. He finds the idea of honoring the losing side of the war disgraceful, and believes that Army bases in the Southern states named after Confederate generals should be renamed.

Historian John Steele Gordon, also writing at Commentary, deeply disagrees. “The Past is a Foreign Country” is his headline, and he says “Subjective and fleeting standards are no way to judge.” I’m with Mr. Gordon. If I am deeply interested in both sides of the Civil War and its effects on the nation, it does not indicate approval or disapproval. The past is what happened. So much of the artifacts of the war were simply destroyed, or thrown away, that what we can know about the war is diminished.

Here is a page from the Smithsonian’s Civil War history that shows the uniform of the 5th New York Volunteer Infantry (Duryee’s Zouaves). Bet that would surprise you. Both sides had volunteer units that adopted Zouave uniforms based on an elite battalion of the French Army in Algiers in the colonial war of the 1830s. Follow the arrows on that page to see some of the other artifacts that the Smithsonian thought important to save.

John Steele Gordon ends his piece with these lines:

The country did a magnificent job of binding up those wounds, as the deeply touching pictures taken at the 50th-anniversary reunion at Gettysburg in 1913 testify. Now some people on their high horses want to pick open those wounds, for no better reason than so they can virtue signal their own moral superiority to those who lived in a different world and a different time.

It’s a disgrace. Historians, especially, should understand the profound truth expressed by L. P. Hartley in the opening line of his masterful novel The Go-Between: “The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there.”

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Memorial Day Began in the Aftermath of the Civil War. by The Elephant's Child

It was after the worst war in our history that we began to officially celebrate Decoration Day, when the graves of the fallen were decorated with flowers, and ceremonies of remembrance were held.  It was three years after the Civil War ended on May 5, 1868 that Major General John A. Logan, head of the Grand Army of the Republic (GAR), declared that Decoration Day should be Observed, and the last Monday in May was chosen because flowers would be in bloom all across the country.

The first national observance was held that year at Arlington National Cemetery, just across the Potomac River from Washington D.C.. The Arlington Mansion, the former home of General Robert E. Lee, was draped in mourning. Mrs. Ulysses S. Grant presided over the ceremonies, and after the speeches, children from the Soldiers’ and Sailors’ Orphan Home and members of the GAR made their way through the cemetery strewing flowers on both Union and Confederate graves, reciting prayers and singing hymns.

There were so many fallen, the traditional numbers were 618,222 — 360,000 from the North, 258,000 from the South. Demographic historian J.David Hacker combed through newly digitized census data from the 19th century, and recalculated the death toll and increased it by more than 20 percent — to 750,000. At that, Dr.Hacker made assumptions and the numbers are only an educated estimate. The data suggested that 650,000 to 850,000 died as a result of the war. He chose 750,00 as the midpoint. That meant 37,000 more widows and 90,000 more orphans.

Here is a fascinating photographic essay about the places of the Civil War 150 years ago, with 48 images. Photography was still in its infancy, but war correspondents produced thousands of images bringing the harsh realities of the frontlines  to those at home in a new way. Remember that the United States was only 85 years old at the time. Here are some of the people of the War, the generals and the ordinary soldiers, the slaves, the President, the heroes and the dead.

I lost four great, great uncles in the Civil War, two on each side. One in the battle around Richmond where he was badly wounded and died from his wounds. His older brother and brother-in-law drove a wagon up from South Carolina, near the Georgia border, across South Carolina, North Carolina and Virginia to bring his body home. His brother was killed at Snickers’ Gap, the only Confederate to die in that exchange. Their younger brother was in the South Carolina Calvary and survived the war.

On the Union side, the Ohio soldiers fought in the war down the Mississippi valley. One, I know only as “Uncle Frank who was killed in the war” for I have a tintype portrait. The other, I believe from the dates, was wounded at Chickamauga and died from his wounds.

War is terrible, and none was ever more terrible than the War between the States. but the nation healed slowly, and remained a strong union. “As we here highly resolve, these dead shall not have died in vain—that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom — and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”




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