Thursday, March 11, 2010

Misanthropy 101

You know what I said awhile back about not judging people in history?

Am I inconsistent if I can't stop myself from being mad and disgusted at them?

As I read deeper and deeper into the Civil War via the Semi-Weekly News, with the purpose of getting into my heroines' heads, I find it harder rather than easier to keep my own standards out of the way of my reading eye.

Take the report of the Battle/Massacre of the Nueces, for example. To my relief, they did cover it, on August 25th - local censorship was not that bad. But it's got to be the oddest account of a battle I've ever read. The report, direct from "one of Captain Duff's Company who has been in pursuit of the enemy," is described as an account of "the battle in which Mr. Frank Robinson, of Uvalde, was killed, but was not." Presumably this refers to some rumor going around town in the days since the battle, now lost to history save, perhaps, the descendents of Mr. Frank Robinson of Uvalde. The names of the two of Duff's company who died instead of Mr. Robinson are given, followed by the names of 15 wounded. Of the "foul nest in the Mountains...more than half of them were left dead on the field and the remainder -----------------?"

Is this hinting at the murder of wounded? Am I paranoid, in the context of the rest of the paper at this time, to imagine a wink of approval behind it, expected to be shared with the readership? Possibly; possibly it is the strongest complaint the reporter felt able to make against the military's refusal to give him a more complete report. But the report continues for another paragraph, and I read on for clarification; only to be brought up short by a description of the pleasures and amusements of the trip for the soldiers - crystal streams teeming with fish, wild bee's honey hanging "geometricaly and lusciously" from projecting rocks. Can even the most partisan Confederate have regarded treating a military operation like a picnic as in good taste? ("Well, the fish and the honey tasted good," pointed out my friend Ben when I discussed it with him.)

That blank with the question mark haunts me. Elsewhere I have seen vague mention of protests in San Antonio over what happened on the Nueces, but if so they are invisible. That may be a result of martial law. Some kind of unrest is going on, and mention of some of it is acceptable to authorities, for the editor (Dr. Williams, now; E. Huston is long gone) openly threatens those who charge inflated prices with mob violence in the market, and owners of six-shooters and Bowie knives are encouraged to leave them at home.

In September, I read of a prisoner, a Unionist guerilla on the Rio Grande, who was kept 24 hours without water, lured outside by an apparently unguarded bucket, and shot "trying to escape." "Such is the fate of traitors."

"A Fiendish Outrage," reprinted from the Memphis Appeal, tells how Sherman refused to arrest a slave pursued for the rape and murder of a white woman. No reference to evidence on either side: the men in pursuit declare him guilty, Sherman replies that if so, they seek to punish him for crimes of which they are no less guilty. Child of the sixties that I am, I have to wonder: Is this the first instance of that hardy excuse for lynching? And did it not seem strange to the original audience to see such articles in the same paper as those extolling how happy blacks (usually "Negroes," but sometimes "darkies," "Africans," or just "slaves) are to be enslaved, how much better they are treated in the South than they are in the North, how loyal and funny they are?

Shock and horror are expressed at a rumor of a bounty on Rebel scalps around Denver; later in the same paper, on the same page, troops headed to oppose Federal forces on the coast are encouraged to take "a Lincoln scalp." Because what's wrong for them is okay for us. The position of the editor of the Houston Advocate, that martial law is too similar to occupation by the enemy and that the freedom the secessionists insist they are fighting for is lost as surely one way as the other, is disputed: "The freedom of the press of which he speaks, and of which our country has ever boasted, should not be interfered with; yet, no man should be allowed to utter such ideas as would subvert or tend to the subversion of the liberty which ensures the freedom of the press."

It's all so modern I could weep. That's the worst of it; how familiar it all sounds. The stories culled from Union papers, intended to show a) that Northerners are as racist as Southerners, so there; b) that they are all monsters of iniquity, longing to enslave the proud Southerner; and c) that most of them are against the war and would as soon let the Confederate States be as not. The coy coverage of violence, judicial and personal, lauded or condemned depending on who does it to whom. No doubt I'd read similar vile nonsense in the Union papers; just as I can hear it on the radio or read it on the internet or watch it on TV today. No wonder I'm a misanthrope.

It's not just the racism and the sectionalism. Between that 150 years difference and the attempt to focus tight into Di's point of view, I can see how the overwhelmingly white male middle-aged voice of Finck (Dr. Williams, too, soon disappears from the masthead, and Finck is left to soldier on with the paper alone) stands between me and my character. With the exception of a soldier's wife, reprinted from the Galveston News, who fought off a burglar with a stilletto and a pistol, women appear here only in two guises: ladies, and wives.

Ladies present flags to companies and write patriotic verse for the paper. Wives suffer without the support of their husbands. Hearing that three soldiers' wives have been seen butchering a cow in Atascosa County, their capability is not commended, but the "manliness" of the men of that county who are exempt from service is called into question. In February 1863, martial law being a thing of the past, the sentries in front of the arsenal order passersby to not walk on the sidewalk in front of it, and "It is trying to the patience of anyone, to see a lady ordered into the mud more than ankle deep." Yankee atrocities are always perpetrated upon ladies; appeals to compassion and charity always conjure up images of the impoverished wife.

And this is who Di is supposed to turn into; this person whose welfare is evoked so often; much like the welfare of the slave, for whose benefit slavery is, really. No, really. When a lady presents the Vigilance Committee with a flag, their leader goes on about that at length in a speech reprinted in full. Unlike Di, I'm familiar enough with the history of the women's movement to see how closely pro-slavery and anti-feminist rhetoric parallel eachother. Is it realistic for me to let her feel that?

Is it realistic to expect myself to be able to keep her from doing so, if it's not?

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