Bishops behaving badly: Civil War Edition

On the NYTimes Opinionator, a profile of Leonidas Polk. In Sewanee, I knew him as the Battling Bishop, but the Opinionator calls him the Fighting Bishop. Either way, he was apparently one of the worst generals in the Confederate Army.

A graduate of West Point, he attended Virginia Theological Seminary and was first the Missionary Bishop of the Southwest, then the first Bishop of the Diocese of Louisiana. The article notes the important role he played in founding The University of the South

His portrait hangs (I assume still) in Convocation Hall of the University of the South:

Of his military skills, one historian wrote:

In his history of the Army of Tennessee, Thomas Connelly condemned Polk’s “remarkable ability to evade the blame for situations that were the result of … flaws in his character.” Polk, Connelly claimed, could be “stubborn, aloof, insubordinate, quarrelsome, and childish.” He was, put simply, “the most dangerous man in the Army of Tennessee.”

No word in the article about his skills or gifts as a bishop.

Telling War Stories: The Civil War and the Meaning of Life

Drew Gilpin Faust, President of Harvard University and eminent Civil War historian, has written a profound essay reflecting on our continuing fascination with the Civil War. She begins with the centennial commemoration, juxtaposing a reenactment of the First Battle of the Bull Run with MLK’s March on Washington, then she briefly outlines the intervening 50 years of historical reinterpretation of the war. But her real interest is with humanity’s fascination with war in general:

How is it that the human has become so entangled with the inhumane, and humanity’s highest creative aspirations of literature and imagination have been all but inseparable from its most terrible invention—the scourge of war? Most other creatures engage in violence, and some insects and animals with elaborate social structures reflect those systems in their modes of association and aggression. But humans are unique in their creation of an institution of war that is designed to organize violence, define its purposes, declare its onset, ratify its conclusion, and establish its rules. War, like literature, is a distinctively human product.

Among her conjectures:

The seductiveness of war derives in part from its location on this boundary of the human, the inhuman, and the superhuman. It requires us to confront the relationship among the noble, the horrible, and the infinite; the animal, the spiritual, and the divine. Its fascination lies in its ability at once to allure and to repel, in the paradox that thrives at its heart.

She discusses the “impossibility and necessity” of communicating war’s truths, for foot soldiers writing letters home, as well as for historians or novelists. Most importantly, she links war and narrative: “To rename violence as war is to give it teleology,” using the example of the invasion of Iraq to prove her point. The “war on terror” implies that “terrorism could be defeated, eliminated, that it need not be a permanent condition of modern life. We expect wars to come with endings.”

It’s well worth reading and pondering.

On the 150th Anniversary of the Beginning of the Civil War

Ta-Nehisi Coates on the persistence of the myth that Blacks fought in the Confederate Army. Robert Krick has studied the records of 150,000 Confederate soldiers and has identified 12 as African-American.

A CNN poll that shows 1 in 4 Americans sympathize with the Confederate cause.

Ed Ball, author of the amazing Slaves in the Attic, reflecting on Civil War reenactors converging on Charleston and the lingering racism and white supremacy that he sees as legacies of the war: An American Tragedy.

As I’ve mentioned before The New York Times “Disunion” is a remarkable resource with careful history and insightful commentary.

Historian Adam Goodheart on NPR’s “Fresh Air:”

“I think the South is changing a lot today, even from where it was just a few years ago. Some of the deep genesis of my interest in this subject came about 10 years ago when I traveled through the Deep South, visiting plantations and plantations that had become historic sites. And I found there was this great collective amnesia going on. I visited one plantation in Natchez, Miss., where the slave cabins had been turned into guest rooms at a bed and breakfast, and there were Jacuzzi bathtubs in these places, and it was this incredible example of redecorating the past away. But I think even 10 years later, when you travel through the South and you visit these historic sites, there’s an increasing willingness to engage with the slave past.”

E. J. Dionne on why getting the Civil War right matters

From The New Republic.

Money quote:

After the war, in one of the great efforts of spin control in our history, both Davis and Stephens, despite their own words, insisted that the war was not about slavery after all, but about state sovereignty. By then, of course, slavery was “a dead and discredited institution,” McPherson wrote, and “(to) concede that the Confederacy had broken up the United States and launched a war that killed 620,000 Americans in a vain attempt to keep 4 million people in slavery would not confer honor on their lost cause.”

He concludes:

Why does getting the story right matter? As Mississippi Governor Haley Barbour’s recent difficulty with the history of the civil rights years demonstrates, there is to this day too much evasion of how integral race, racism and racial conflict are to our national story. We can take pride in our struggles to overcome the legacies of slavery and segregation. But we should not sanitize how contested and bloody the road to justice has been. We will dishonor the Civil War if we refuse to face up to the reason it was fought.

Updates on the Civil War anniversary

First up: This article on the Secession Ball, held last evening in Charleston, SC. No comment is necessary. The brilliant historian Eric Foner offers a necessary historical perspective.

A century and a half after the civil war, many white Americans, especially in the South, seem to take the idea that slavery caused the war as a personal accusation. The point, however, is not to condemn individuals or an entire region of the country, but to face candidly the central role of slavery in our national history. Only in this way can Americans arrive at a deeper, more nuanced understanding of our past.

The Civil War lives on, as does racism. To wit, Haley Barbour.