Back to THE War

 American History is the story of the War Between the States.  Everything before 1861 functions as causes leading up to the war. Everything since 1865 is a result of the War.  The war is central to so much of American government and politics, Southern culture, American–particularly Southern–literature, racial tensions, and visions of what the meaning of America is all about.  That war between Americans still raises the ire of people on both sides of the Mason-Dixon Line.

For some years, I sought to specialize on Civil War history.  I took three college courses related to the War and the South.  I bought and read books with reckless abandon.  I visited battlefields, spent an inordinate amount of time teaching the War to my students, and even joined a re-enactment unit.  In time, I limped home…figuratively speaking…from Appomattox and turned my attention to other areas of history and literature.  But the love and interest has never been lost.

In recent weeks, I have written a couple of stories that are posted on the Voice of the South website.  On appeared on Stonewall Jackson’s birthday and told of the origin of the name “Stonewall.”  The next story I wrote was in honor of the birthday of Robert E. Lee.  So much has been written and said of him so many times that I wasn’t sure where to start.  So, I wrote about Robert E. Lee and His Horses.

At this time, I am hearing the voices of many Southern soldiers asking for their stories to be added to the ones noted above.  In short, the War Between the States is a grand and terrible story that demands to be retold again and again.  Although there are many other interests, historical and otherwise, it is the War, as in THE War, the one that has defined so much of who we are, that keeps luring me back.

I learned some years back that it was virtually impossible to even keep up with the number of books on Civil War history that were being published each year.  Whether motivated by scholarly pursuit or human interest, books on the battles and leaders keep pouring off the presses.  Just when one thinks that everything that can be said has been said, something else is said, or something is said again.

Two Recent Books on the Civil War

I see book reviewing as a contact sport and as exercise.  I also have to admit that it is fun and addicting.  But I am never caught up on the book reviews.  Here are two recent books I have received that are worthy of attention.

The Early Morning of War:  Bull Run, 1861 by Edward G. Longacre is published by the University of Oklahoma Press.  As might be expected, they publish lots of books on western history and Native American history.  But they also have some incredible studies on ancient classics and on military history.  This book is Volume 46 in the Campaigns and Commanders series.  I probably have a dozen or more of the books in this ongoing series, and I wish I had them all.

This book is, however, somewhat different from many of the works in that series.  The previous works are often scholarly, detailed studies of some often obscure aspects of wars in history.  They are not written particularly for the non-specialist who simply enjoys a war story.  This book is longer.  Most of the studies are a couple of hundred pages, while this one is over 650 pages long.  As can be seen, it is decked with an attractive cover.  It is a fascinating study of the first real battle of the Civil War.

I am still in the perusing and scanning phases of this book, but I do have several observations.  The author, Edward Longacre, is a well respected military historian.  As hard as it is to believe that anything could be unsaid about this battle, Longacre combed through lots of previously unpublished sources, including diaries and letters of more than 400 participants in the battle.  He also said that he spent over 40 years working on this book.

First Bull Run, or First Manassas as we southerners prefer to call it, was a textbook case of seeing untried generals using untried troops to attempt to win the war in one day.  Going into the battle, the odds might have favored the north.  That would have seemed to have been justified throughout much of the day.  But the battle turned and the wheeling and flanking motions of the two armies led to a collapse of the northern lines. The northern retreat, better called a rout, is famous and almost humorous.

One portion I did survey closely was how the two sides viewed the battle in its aftermath.  There arose a view among southerners, and arguments as well, that the south missed the opportunity to pursue the Yankees right up to the doorstep of Abraham Lincoln’s house.  Longacre, rightly in my opinion, notes the extreme unliklihood of this being possible.  Some on both the northern and southern sides thought this battle had easily settled the outcome of the entire war.  The south was sure to win and northern efforts were doomed.

Stonewall Jackson, who got the name Stonewall in this battle, saw something few others realized.  He believed that a southern defeat might have been more beneficial to south.  The apparently easy victory gave southerners a sense of certainty of their victory.  The northern command, Irwin McDowell, was heavily, and somewhat unfairly, blamed for the defeat.  He was quickly sacked and replaced by George McClellan.  While McClellan would prove to be an inept battlefield commander over the next 2 years, he did train and mold the Army of the Potomac into a first rate fighting machine.

One other side note, Longacre gives credence to the idea that General Bernard Bee’s comment about General Jackson (“There stands Jackson  like a stone wall!”) was a criticism.  My recent story, linked above, deals with that incident.

A book I just unboxed today is Sherman’s Flame and Blame Campaign through Georgia and the Carolinas…and the burning of Columbia by Patricia G. McNeely.  This  book is a reminder that this was an ugly war.  Certainly, there was chivalry, respect for the honors of war, and many moments of nobility, courage, and godliness exercised in the midst of battle.  But this was one of the most brutal wars in history.

Southerners are not free of the atrocities of war, and neither are northerners.  In this case, with the campaign of William T. Sherman, the atrocities were not excesses or surprises.  For better or worse, Sherman launched what has come to be called “total war.”  It was also a psychological war campaign with the physical destruction of the south itself, and not just the defeat of southern armies, as its objective.

General Sherman said, “If the people raise a howl against my barbarity and cruelty, I will answer that war is war, and not popularity seeking.  If they want peace, they and their relatives must stop the war.”

You can’t fault Sherman for not being honest and blunt about his military objectives.  His whole method of operation is in great contrast to that of fellow Union General George B. McClellan.  McClellan wrote a detailed letter to President Lincoln explaining the objectives of war for a civilized and Christianized people.  Lincoln basically discarded the letter.

As the saying goes, “All is fair in love and war.”  You can add this:  “There is no arguing with success.”  Sherman’s campaign across Georgia and then through the Carolinas was remembered for decades with bitterness in the south.  Perhaps it did shorten the war.  Perhaps it was “necessary” to settle the war.

But the means to success does not excuse the history teller from being honest.  In this particular book, the focus is on the burning of the city of Columbia, South Carolina.  The question to be answered is this:  Who burned Columbia, South Carolina?  The story emerged and got repeated that Columbia was burned by Confederate General Wade Hampton and the Confederate army.  On the one hand, retreating armies did burn vast amounts of supplies.  And fires lead to fires.  On the other hand, as Mrs. McNeely contends, this was a case of Sherman and his troops burning Columbia and then placing the blame on the Confederates.  This is not surprising.  Sherman’s campaign focused in part on specific military objectives, but the greater focus was on breaking the resistance of the South, breaking the will to carry on the war.  To do that, everything in the South was a military objective to Sherman and the northern army.  Farms were pillaged, art and jewels were taken, homes were burned, and railroads were dismantled.  Cities were primary targets; hence, Sherman was behind the burning and destruction of Columbia.

This should be quite an interesting read.

Imposing Classics on the Youthful Mind

Sidney Harris made this interesting observation about literature:  “It is writing that has the ability to survive the stupidity of the people who teach it and the indifference of the pupils who study it.”

It must be granted that there have been many teachers who have botched, butchered, bungled, and blundered great works of literature.  I cannot imagine the sheer effort it must have taken for such teachers to have turned students against Shakespeare’s tragedies, Chaucer’s pilgrim tales, James Fenimore Cooper’s adventures, Faulkner’s streams of Southern consciousness, and Dickens’ delightful portraits of human nature.

Nor I am unaware of that strange breed of humanity that is characterized by the opportunity of youth but the curse of indifference to truth, beauty, and goodness.  Sad to say, there are is no melody of music so grand, no poem so sublime, no novel so life-changing, and no theological truth so profound as to not have bored some lug filling a school desk at some point.

In spite of bad teachers (and all of us who teach have stumbled) and dull witted students (and I once aspired to that title), not all teaching of great literature is a lose-lose proposition.  It can be and often is, in the right setting, an incredible experience.  It is often romance, adventure, discovery, a quest, a journey, a metamorphosis, a conversion, an epiphany, an adrenaline rush, a meditative calming, an exhilarating climb, and more.  And all those things might come simply from reading a sonnet by Shakespeare or Elizabeth Barrett Browning or a poem by Gerard Manly Hopkins or John Crowe Ransom.

Of late, I have led my students in the Veritas Humanities program through three outstanding reads.  Students being students, that is, disciples needing discipline, they often have to be convinced, convicted, and compelled to read.  The fast ones might hurry through to the last page, while the slow ones fall nearly hopeless behind.  The zeal of those who are alert or who connect with the literature often turns off the one who doesn’t quite get what the fuss and frenzy is all about.  I have been on both sides of the chasm, or maybe should say, I have viewed the mountains from both angles.

In December, my class began John Milton’s Paradise Lost.  We attempted to make it through the first 9 of 12 books in this epic before the Christmas holidays.  In January, I started back with a review of the first few books, and then we worked through to the end.  Milton’s poem is incredible.  He is Biblical, yet imaginative and speculative.  His poetry is jammed full of mythology and Biblical illusions.  His images and craft are stunning.

Teaching Book 3 of Paradise Lost often seems more like a worship service than a classroom discussion.  In that book, God the Father and God the Son talk through the plan of salvation.  Man’s fall is foreseen and certain, and man is doomed.  God the Son beautifully puts Himself forward as the one who will take on human flesh and redeem man.  Did it actually happen like that?  No, but Milton enables us to see something of the sheer glory and beauty of God’s plan to redeem mankind through Jesus Christ.

The love of Adam and Eve, their prayers and worship, and pure innocent holiness are beautiful pictures of love, marriage, and worship.  We are so tainted, warped, twisted, and corrupted by our sinful natures that it is hard to imagine purity.  Milton helps.

And then there is Satan.  More exactly, Milton’s Satan.  Some literary critics have posited the idea that Satan, an incredible created literary figure in this work, is the hero of the epic.  He is grand, inspiring, and rhetorically brilliant.  When he says, “It is better to reign in hell than serve in heaven,” it is gripping.  But, a careful reading keeps showing that this creature of reason, independence, and proud rebellion is actually a total fool.  It is the apparent sublimity of wrong reason, the convincing nature of sinful thought, and the inspiring rhetoric of standing against God that makes Satan a picture of what human sin is all about.  In short, Satan’s sanity is insanity.  His presuppositions appear impregnable, but are pierced with even the simplist Godly truth.

I feel when I am teaching Paradise Lost that Milton is in an airplane passing over us.  Meanwhile, I am in a hot air balloon teaching (with whatever implications one wants to make of that image).  Finally, the students are trudging barefooted on the ground across the hot sand.  This is not easy stuff.  But for those students who glimpse the poetry here, the theology there, a truth enhanced by imagination, and beauty enclosing it all, Paradise Lost is quite a read.

 The next read on our list was Ivanhoe by Sir Walter Scott.  This was my second or third experience in reading this book, and it was the turn-around experience.  I think this was the first time that “I got it.”  Even then, it was only toward the end that the scope and purpose of the book began to sink in.

It takes a bit of patience and perseverance to handle Walter Scott’s writing.  In an age of fast and instant, Scott demands a slowing of the hands of the clock and the leisurely stroll through his language, dialog, and descriptions.  A book then was bought to be enjoyed, not finished.  The prose was to enrich, not explain.  Like his near contemporaries Jane Austen and James Fenimore Cooper, Scott unveils his story in measured, careful paces.

One expects the whole of the novel to be about Winfred of Ivanhoe.  That knight, who has just returned from the Crusades, is a central character, but he is one of many.  There are the bad guys such as Brian de Boise-Guilbert and Reginald Front de Boeuf.  There are the common folk, such as Wamba the jester and Gurth the pig herder.  There are Saxon nobles like Ivanhoe himself and his father Cedric, Rowena, a beautiful Saxon girl and descendant of King Alfred the Great, and Athalstane.  There are Normans, such as the bad guys listed above and Prince John, but also King Richard.  Then there are the Jews, Isaac of York and his daughter Rebecca.

Ivanhoe is a web of stories and plots and adventures.  There is love that fails and love that achieves.  There are battles and jousts.  There is loyalty and treachery.  In the end, it is Ivanhoe who proves to be the model Christian knight.  That is, one who goes into battle regardless of the likely consequences because it is the right thing to do.

 Our most recent read is somewhat of a combination of Milton’s poetic gifts and Scott’s vision of knighthood.  We are currently reading through Book I of The Faerie Queene by Edmund Spenser.  Some years ago, this great work was published under the title Fierce Wars and Faithful Loves with some vocabulary helps and very useful notes by Roy Maynard.  This work, and a second volume on Book II of the Faerie Queene, is published by Canon Press.

This is a story of a knight on a quest to kill a dragon.  He is going on the request of a fair maiden whose family land is held captive by the dragon. But Spenser is using this familiar story line to tell a greater story.  Book I is the story of the Red Cross Knight and the pursuit of holiness.  It is an allegory of the Christian life, of the battle for holiness in a sinful world.  It is the quest for sanctification battling against the world, the flesh, and the devil.  And, Spenser is telling in poetry form the story of the Protestant Reformation; that is, he shows how salvation by God’s grace can be hijacked by self-works, pride, ignorance, and indwelling sin.  This book is a great read for young men especially, but for all people of all ages.

As C. S. Lewis famously said, “Beyond all doubt, it is best to have made one’s first acquaintance with Spenser in a very large edition of the Faerie Queene on a wet day, between the ages of twelve and sixteen…To read him is to grow in mental health.”

Even if one is past age 16, and even if one only has Book I in this delightful edition, and even if one only reads Book I (and there are six complete books here on earth), reading Spenser’s Faerie Queene is a blessing on one’s health, mind, and soul.

I do own a nice edition of The Faerie Queene, but I still find myself coveting this set.


Best Books and Authors of 2014

This past year has been a full year of reading. Over 100 books were read from cover to cover with many others tasted, dipped into, scanned, skimmed, gleaned from, started, stopped, bought, shelved, coveted, and delighted in.

I find it more difficult some years to simply name the best 10 books.  For that reason, I recently posted “50 Books Good and Great Read in 2014.”

Some books are really enjoyable. They are page turners, but they have little deeper impact. There is nothing wrong with a book that is merely enjoyable. There is no need to try to find some nutrition facts about coconut crème pie. The nutritional value is this: Eating it brings pleasure. So it is with some books. Some books are like painful exercise. It is good to have read them, but not all that enjoyable. Other books are like the ocean. One reads the book knowing that it is good and great and profound, while the immediate experience of reading it yields only a beginning knowledge of it.

So, that being said, the books are here. There is only some method in the ordering of the books. I have no explanation why one is # 7 instead of being #5. On the first 2 or 3, the ranking is deliberate, but the ordering becomes less clear to me as the numbers continue.

1. Catastrophe 1914: Europe Goes to War and Winston’s War: Churchill 1940-1945 by Max Hastings.
Reading on World War I in 2014 was to be expected of a history teacher. Hastings’ book Catastrophe 1914 seemed as good as any to tackle, although there are several others I still hope to acquire. Hastings has written mostly on World War II, but his study of the First World War was incredible. The only unbelievable part of this book is the fact that it only covered the first year of the war. I hope Hastings does another book on that most depressing, but history changing war.

Several years ago, I noticed the book Winston’s War: Churchill 1940-1945 by Hastings. My thought at the time was “Why yet another book on Churchill?” But after reading Hastings’ book Catastrophe, I was drawn to buy and read this book.  There is much that is familiar in the story of Churchill, but Winston’s War, more than any book I have previously read, made me aware of Churchill’s personality, foibles, and failures. He was a flawed man. His influence in the war waned considerably as the years went by. His judgments were limited and some of his proposed actions would have been disastrous. Yet, the man was great. Thank God that he was where he was from 1939 on.
I have two more Hastings books on the shelf waiting for this next year.

2. The Discovery of God : The Origins of the Great Religions and the Evolution of Belief by Rodney Stark. Several years ago, I asked for and received The Discovery of God for Christmas. I had whipped through several of Stark’s previous volumes, so I started this book, but soon abandoned it. To the shelf it went, breaking the book’s heart, I’m sure. Then this year, I was teaching a course on World Civilization. I was slammed against the wall of my own ignorance. True love waits, and The Discovery of God waited until I needed this book for my own understanding of ancient religions, Greek and Roman religions, and Eastern religions.  I would not dare enter into a World Civilization course without having this book at my side. I now look forward to reading Stark’s other recent books on the Crusades (God’s Battalions) and How the West Won:  The Neglected Story of the Triumph of Modernity.

3. Coolidge by Amity Shlaes. This book was started in 2013, then put aside for a long time, and then read through to the end. Shlaes is a wonderful historian who has shaken the conventional (liberal leaning) views of the Great Depression and the New Deal. This book thoroughly dismantles another myth–that of the lazy, un-intellectual, ineffective Calvin Coolidge. One thing is clear from this book: We need another Calvin Coolidge. The chapters on Coolidge’s budget cutting are incredible. He was an effective, forceful, clear thinking leader. I hope the next President of the United States has read, reread, taken notes on, and imbibed this book.

4. Another Sort of Learning and The Classical Moment: Selected Essays on Knowledge and Its Pleasures by James V. Schall. I first read Another Sort of Learning back in 1990 and thought it was interesting, but odd. I reread portions of it in 1997, being then in the transition years from public schooling to classical Christian education. This year I read it again and was amazed at how much better Schall is. Okay, I reckon I am the one who has grown. Later this year, I read The Classical Moment. This is a collection of 53 short essays. I tried to space them out, consuming one a day, but on many days I cheated and read two. James Schall is incredibly well read. He has thought deeply, profoundly, amusingly on a wide range of topics and from a wide hosts of writers. He is liable to reference Aristotle, Thomas Aquinas, and Charlie Brown in the same paragraph. He is also addicting.  I want all of James V. Schall’s books.

5. Calvinism: A History by D. G. Hart. I am now convinced that this was the year to finish books started the year before. This is a very scholarly, detailed history of Calvin, his peers, and his heirs. While many of the usual stories and accounts are found here, there are quite a few other interesting sidelights. For the sake of length, this is a good study. But Hart neglected to cover Calvinists of the Baptist and Anglican tradition.

6. Hard Times by Charles Dickens. A few years back, I landed the really nice multi-volume Oxford edition of Dickens’ works. Then I wondered why I got it. I have not been overly driven to read extensively from Dickens, preferring American and more recent authors. Hard Times has changed my mind. Dickens is not always smooth reading. And he is puzzling. At one moment, he is biting and rugged; at another, he is light-hearted or satirical; at another, he is wordy and elaborate, and then he is concise. This particular book is a powerful message to teachers. It is also a powerful reminder of the importance of art and poetry and imagination.

I will also add two other Dickens’ related books. I very much enjoyed reading and teaching A Tale of Two Cities again this year. It is not a typical Dickens’ story, but it is a good historical novel. The book God and Charles Dickens Gary Colledge was a great read and a convincing book. I hope to read a couple of Dickens’ novels each year now.

7. What is a Teacher? edited by Claudia Allums. This is the book that convinced me to read Hard Times. This book is about great literature, or more specifically, about teachers who appear in great literature.  The focus is largely on the stories themselves, but there is application to teachers in the classroom.  If literature is analogous to life, then the accounts of teachers (not all of whom work in classroom settings) are analogous to those of us who teach.  The essays are about works by Melville (Moby Dick), Dostoevsky (Father Zosima in Brothers Karamazov), Faulkner (Sam Fathers in Go Down, Moses), Dickens (Gradagrind in Hard Times) , and others. Dr. Larry Allums’ essay on Sam Fathers from Faulkner was the first essay I read, and that essay alone is worth the price of this nice hardback book. And not to be neglected, this book concludes with an essay on Shakespeare’s play The Tempest by Dr. Louise Cowan.  Anyone who know me knows how high I value Dr. Cowan’s writings.

8. The Kill Artist, The English Assassin, The Prince of Fire, The Confessor, and The Messenger by Daniel Silva. These books took me far away from the normal fare of my reading. These are a part of the Gabriel Allon spy thriller series by Silva. Prior to these books, I had hardly ever read such novels. They are fast paced, brutal at points, page turners. I have to blame George Grant for alluring me into the shady world of spies, foreign intelligence, counter-terrorism, and trained assassins. Had the books been about a teacher having to grade papers, I would have been truly horrified. But, the mere stories of a trained assassin stalking and killing bad guys was quite a stress reliever and actually fun to read.

9. Fathers and Sons by Ivan Turgenev. I try to follow a modern easy-to-read page turner with a classic. Last fall, I read Fathers and Sons for the second time. The first time was many years ago. This was an emotionally moving story. It is a powerful critique of materialism and Nihilism. It is the clash of generations, the battle between tradition and modernity, the search for meaning amidst different philosophies of life. The spiritual values triumph. As opposed to some of the really long and complicated Russian novels, this work is relatively short, but unforgettable.

10. Necessary Endings: The Employees, Businesses, and Relationships That All of Us Have To Give Up In Order to Move Forward by Henry Cloud. This is yet another book that I normally would not have read or noticed. But it was pertinent for this past year. Life is full of transitions. Some are happy; some not. Sometimes, we are climbing the ladder of success; sometimes we are sinking in troubles. So, this was the year for this book.

Coming Soon:  Current Readings and Reviews.