Friday, April 9, 2010

Appomattox Day

A hundred and forty-five years ago today, Lee surrendered to Grant at Appomattox. This is widely regarded as the end of the Civil War, or at least of the part that mattered, but I can't think of it that way. I'm from the Trans-Mississippi District, the red-headed stepchild of the Confederacy, whose top brass didn't surrender till June. General Kirby-Smith had been hemorrhaging men for months, and even early in the war had a hard time keeping his hands on his troops; the high command kept demanding that the states under his command send levies to fight east of the Mississippi, while the bureaucracy made no attempt to compensate the western frontier for the men it took. Indian defense was not a priority. Economic support of the families of conscripts - not a priority. Not even the improvement of infrastructure in order to transfer the relative abundance of resources from the west to the east was a priority.

Unlike other parts of the South, Texas never came close to starving, but our roads were in terrible shape, our harbors were blockaded, and our manufacturing facilities are exemplified by E. Krauskopf's percussion cap factory, which employed an assembly line consisting entirely of his daughters. Honest government officials (and they existed) were outnumbered and outgunned by the cotton speculators in the only industry that had a hope of rendering the Confederate States of America financially viable.

I finished the Semi-Weekly News reel yesterday. The latest paper (but not the last one on the reel, as they were microfilmed out of order) is for April 7, 1865. I need to cross reference this with the microfilms of the Newcomb Collection, to see if they have any missing dates. My head is clogged with tidbits and anecdotes, cryptic partial stories, mysteries and rumors. Cannons were fired in Texas for non-existent victories at Vicksburg and Gettysburg, for the capture of Baltimore and the burning of Washington, DC. The victories of General Tom Green, which feature not at all in most histories of the war, were celebrated in the Texas press (and the county I went to high school in was named after him). Inflation, corruption, extortion, and speculation are a constant concern in the pages of Mr. Finck's paper and of the Texas papers from which he reprints stories. "Have you ever seen a private or a non-commissioned officer dressed in government-supplied clothing?" asks the Freeman's Champion late in the war, returning yet again to the constant question: Why, when the government buys so much cotton, impresses so much cotton, ships so much cotton, is there never any government-owned cotton to speak of being loaded onto ships to make money for the government? The question was never answered to the satisfaction of the public.

Men died and women and children suffered obstensibly for a freedom that martial law on the one hand and lynch law on the other prevented them from having. Gen. Houston wrote to the governor objecting to martial law, but his letter was printed in the papers only after that law ended. Albert Pike spoke before Congress avering that personal freedom was even more important than the political freedom the war was supposedly fought for. But the contradiction of fighting for freedom and preserving slavery was never addressed. By anybody.

Thanks to all the reading I did beforehand, I was able to fill in some gaps and make note of names and events that might otherwise have passed me by, but though I have a sense that I could understand a great deal about the war if I could sort it all out, I'm reluctant to do so. My characters need to be a little confused, a little off-balance. Everybody was.

I know this much: the Civil War taught us lessons that we still have not learned. That we deliberately refrained from learning. It ended, sort of, and the Confederacy became, not history, but myth. Texas never surrendered, and the blood bath of the final ten years of rebellion is divided into two new myths - that of the evils of Radical Reconstruction and the nobility of the Old West. We still declare wars victorious before they're over; we still stand by and let speculators ruin our economy; we still shout for freedom in theory and fear to exercise it in practice.

And nothing I write is going to change that.

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