Tag Archives: civil war

Leadership, Love, and the Last Full Measure of Devotion

Fugitive slaves seek the Promised Land

Abraham Lincoln’s expressive face impressed  an author who remembered  Lincoln’s gray-brown eyes as perhaps the saddest he had ever seen. “Yet, when a good story was told,” the author recalled, “whether by himself or another, his homely face lighted up till he was positively handsome.” In a largely pre-photographic world, however, the American people would come to know their president’s human quality  by his moral courage and empathy.

As the green  leaves of summer  took on fall colors in 1862, one year after the Civil War’s opening battles, Lincoln’s courage and political judgment faced a defining  test. The president announced, on the eve of a critical election, that he would issue the Emancipation Proclamation, which would put slavery on the path to extinction.  Significant numbers of the  North’s white voters, harboring visceral racial prejudices, despised the Proclamation. Even moderate Republicans balked over this issue. As a result, Lincoln’s party suffered major losses in that fall’s Congressional elections.

Why had not Lincoln, arguably American history’s shrewdest politician, waited until after the elections for his unpopular move? Certainly, that has been the course taken by  recent presidents. Yet, Lincoln knew that the loyalty and trust of the common people was an asset to be valued far above rubies, in the words of Proverbs, and not to be wasted  buying electoral advantage with dishonesty. If the nation were to endure the Civil War, he needed the people’s  trust. Indeed, for the coming trial by fire, Lincoln needed to win their love. Losing Congressional seats was simply the price that had to be paid to strengthen Lincoln’s bond with the people–as someone who meant what he said. Such is the sterner stuff of which leadership is made.

It does not surprise us to learn that when the Union cause was at its low ebb, the common people, though war weary, retained their personal affection for  Lincoln. Their faith in him endured, even during the  summer of 1864, when the casualty lists from the murderous battles in Virginia brought sorrow to every crossroads hamlet and town in the North. Their ranks dwindling daily, the toughest soldiers on the planet, the Union’s Army of the Potomac, still knew Lincoln simply as Father Abraham. Their chosen name for him testified both to their religious faith and their love for their commander. The reverential term, used by black and white soldiers alike, expressed as clearly as a bell that true leadership’s touchstone is love. With this emotional bond, Lincoln’s soldiers gave their last full measure of devotion, winning for the nation a new birth of freedom.

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Reconciliation Is More Beautiful than Victory

April 9, 1865, the signal act of reconciliation in American history took place –in the dusty hamlet of Appomattox, Virginia. The last embers of the Civil War were dying, as had 625,000 soldiers, blue and gray.  The courtly Southerner, Robert E. Lee, came to surrender his threadbare army, and he met the most unlikely of counterparts.  Union General Ulysses S. Grant had been a clerk in a leather goods store when the war began.  He wore his usual ordinary soldier’s coat, spattered with mud, and only distinguished by the three stars in each lapel.

When the papers were signed, Lee thanked Grant for his surprisingly generous terms.  Union soldiers watched respectfully as the gray-clad troops filed past; the order had come down from Grant that there was to be no celebration.  Most importantly, the terms of surrender ensured that there would be no retribution against Confederate officers.  Since General Grant,  hero to the public in the North, had signed the document, the radicals and newspaper editorialists could shout for trials and vengeance until they were hoarse, but it would avail them nothing.

The previous month, in his Second Inaugural Address, President Lincoln had anticipated the war’s end with the words, with malice toward none, with charity for all.  He pledged to bind up the nation’s wounds and to care for those who had borne the battle, and their widows and orphans.  Nowhere did he distinguish between blue and gray soldiers.

The common wisdom might be that the Southerners were the beneficiaries of Grant and Lincoln’s generosity.  The better  view of reconciliation is found in the words of Shakespeare.  The quality of mercy is not strained, the Bard wrote.  It is twice blessed, blessing him that receives, but also he that gives.  By choosing reconciliation, the victor eschews the darker, revengeful  side of human nature.  He is then touched, as Lincoln said, by the better angels of our nature.  Given the fertile soil of accommodation, the slow process of evolutionary growth can proceed.

Significantly, with the abandonment of post-war Reconstruction, the promise of reconciliation was denied the freedmen, even the 180,000 who had fought valiantly in the Union Army.  This retreat from equality remained a  stain on the nation’s record for a century.

In recent decades, the simple, but profound message of the meeting between the aristocrat and the former store clerk at Appomattox Court House has been lost in the noxious atmosphere of American politics.  Triumph at the polls is now the occasion for contempt, not respect, for the vanquished.  The new majority arrogantly rams through its agenda without concern for the minority’s deeply held values.  Reconciliation?  How quaint.  However, as Lincoln, Grant, and Lee knew, victory without reconciliation is a prescription for an endless cycle of rancor and revenge.

“Reconciliation is more beautiful than victory.”
Violeta Barrios de Chamorro, President of Nicaragua, 1990

Love and the Last Full Measure

newburgh lake, Michigan

Fine films, like great leaders, touch  the better angels of our nature.  The movie  Glory reaches its audience  in that way, while telling the story of the first Union Army regiment  made up of black soldiers.  This is history told with a personal touch, beckoning  the audience  to approach, inviting them to feel as the characters do.

Repost

A simple quality makes Glory unique as a war film: love.  As the story unfolds, the focus never strays from the bonds between the men, and between a leader and his troops.  In the course of campaigns, soldiers often  develop affection for their commander, but in Glory the formula is altered: the  young, idealistic colonel  grows up as he learns to first appreciate and then love his men.

Captain Robert Gould Shaw, 23 year-old son of upper crust Boston parents, sees the landscape turn red at the battle of Antietam.  Returning home on leave, he is feted at a sumptuous banquet.  The guest list includes the Governor and the great black leader, Frederick Douglass.  Governor Andrews promotes Shaw (Matthew Broderick) to Colonel of a regiment to be recruited solely from free black men and former slaves.

After seeing slaves fleeing the South, Shaw had written to his mother: “We fight for men and women whose poetry is not yet written.”  Yet, as their commanding officer, he finds that these men are strangers to him.  He cannot breach the distance between them, and the former slaves appear to his eyes as if lost in a fog.

A turning point for Shaw occurs early in the film.  The Confederate government in Virginia declares it will consider black men captured in Union blue and their white officers as being engaged in servile insurrection, subject to summary execution.  Shaw informs the assembled men of the grim news and offers to accept any soldier’s resignation.  The next morning, to Shaw’s astonishment, the men stand as one in defiance of the slave master government’s  threat.  The young colonel recognizes he is in the presence of extraordinary courage.  He no longer sees his troops dimly, but begins to see them face to face.

Shaw is helped in his growing appreciation by the regiment’s sage, Sergeant Rawlins, played by Morgan Freeman.  The older man mentors his colonel in the subtleties of human nature, while he acts as a father figure to the soldiers.  Learning from  Rawlins’ tutelage,  Shaw comes to realize that he also must fight the condescending, racist Army upper echelon to gain recognition for his men as worthy soldiers.

While their colonel is maturing, the soldiers are growing in self-confidence and pride.  The culmination of the men’s transformation takes place as they gather around a campfire on the eve of battle.  They invoke their religious tradition to steel their hearts,  as they testify to their faith in God and their faith in each other.  Choking with emotion, a fiery soldier played by Denzel Washington says, “I love the 54th.”  After pausing, he says,  “It don’t much matter what happens tomorrow,  Because we’re men now, ain’t we!”  The chorus responds, “Yessir!” and “Amen.”

The next morning, with cannon shot arcing toward the fort they are to storm, the men of the 54th Massachusetts regiment  stand in their ranks, ready to give the last full measure of their devotion.  Colonel Shaw faces them expectantly in a communication of shared courage and love.  The emotion is there for the viewer to touch.

Love and the Terrible Swift Sword

antietam

Antietam National Battlefield, Maryland
NPS photo

 

Fine art, like great leaders, appeals to the better angels of our nature, to borrow Lincoln’s words.  The 1989 film, Glory, touches its audience  in that way, while exploring the story of the 54th Massachusetts, the first Union Army regiment  made up of black soldiers.  This is history told from the ground up, beckoning  the audience  to come closer, inviting them to feel as the characters do.

A simple quality makes Glory unique as a war film: love.  As the story unfolds, the focus never strays from the bonds between the men, and between a leader and his troops.  In the course of campaigns, soldiers often  develop affection for their commander, but in Glory the formula is altered: the  young, idealistic colonel  grows up as he learns to first appreciate and then love his men.

Captain Robert Gould Shaw, 23 year-old son of upper crust Boston parents with Abolitionist sympathies, sees the landscape turn red at the battle of Antietam.  Returning home on leave, he is feted at a sumptuous banquet.  The guest list includes the Governor and the great black leader, Frederick Douglass.  Governor Andrews promotes Shaw (Matthew Broderick) to Colonel of a regiment to be recruited solely from free black men and former slaves.

After seeing slaves fleeing the South, Shaw had written to his mother: “We fight for men and women whose poetry is not yet written.”  Yet, as their commanding officer, he finds that these men are strangers to him.  He cannot breach the distance between them, and the former slaves appear to his eyes as if enshrouded in a fog.

A turning point for Shaw occurs early in the film.  The Confederate government in Virginia declares it will consider black men captured in Union blue and their white officers as being engaged in servile insurrection, subject to summary execution.  Shaw informs the assembled men of the grim news and offers to accept any soldier’s resignation.  The next morning, to Shaw’s astonishment, the men stand as one in defiance of the slave master government’s no quarter threat.  The young colonel recognizes he is in the presence of extraordinary courage.  He no longer sees his troops dimly, but begins to see them face to face.

Shaw is helped in his growing appreciation by the regiment’s sage, Sergeant Rawlins, played by Morgan Freeman.  The older man mentors his colonel in the subtleties of human nature, while he acts as a father figure to the soldiers.  Learning from  Rawlins’ tutelage,  Shaw comes to realize that he also must fight the condescending, racist Army upper echelon to gain recognition for his men as worthy soldiers.

While their colonel is maturing, the soldiers are growing in self-confidence and pride.  The culmination of the men’s transformation takes place as they gather around a campfire on the eve of battle.  They invoke their religious tradition to steel their hearts,  as they testify to their faith in God and their faith in each other.  Choking with emotion, a fiery soldier played by Denzel Washington says, “I love the 54th.”  After pausing, he says,  “It don’t much matter what happens tomorrow,  Because we’re men now, ain’t we!”  The chorus responds, “Yessir!” and “Amen.”

The next morning, with cannon shot arcing toward the fort they are to storm, the men of the 54th stand in their ranks, ready to give the last full measure of their devotion.  Colonel Shaw faces them expectantly in a communication of shared courage and love.  The emotion is there for the viewer to touch.

Last Full Measure of Devotion: I Discover a Personal Lincoln

Lincoln Memorial

Lincoln Memorial, NPS photo

Sheltered in the warmth of a Detroit library’s archives on a blustery fall evening, I happened upon a clue to  Abraham Lincoln’s political artistry.   Having often visited Washington, I have met the  marble Lincoln seated at the Memorial, his presence like  an ancient oracle  looking out toward the reflecting pool, his famous words etched on the walls, and a steady stream of tourists looking up to a revered, if distant, figure. The setting last Thursday allowed me a more personal insight.

The archivist led our small group into an alcove where the library kept fragile materials.  A letter on yellowed paper, too frail to be touched, rested on a display table. Written in a forceful, cursive hand, the note  was dated October 11 in the first year of the Civil War.  The writer sought the aid of the Secretary of War.  The signature at the bottom read, Abraham Lincoln.

At first glance, the letter’s content seemed   mundane. Lincoln was asking the Secretary of War to assign two junior army officers to a general named Sherman. Never having seen one of Lincoln’s letters up close, I mused over this bit of history.   For me, there was a sense of the past looking over my shoulder.

Walking out of the alcove, I found myself imagining the story that might lie behind the letter. I pictured Lincoln in the White House with his young son, Tad, playing nearby.  A  Congressman from a Midwest prairie district, fortified for the occasion by a prior visit to nearby Willard’s bar, asks the president for a favor for two constituents.    Perhaps one had been a small town lawyer and the other a local politician; now they were  officers in the burgeoning Union Army.  Did I mention that Lincoln is a Republican and the Congressman a Democrat?  Lincoln listens intently, turning over the Congressman’s request in his mind.  Rather than committing himself, Lincoln tells a droll story, and the two men share a hearty laugh.  Today, this scene would be impossible,, but in 1861, politics worked in just this fashion.

Abraham Lincoln mastered the political arts as a lifelong endeavor, beginning with many years spent brokering deals in the fractious Illinois legislature.  His shrewdness and deft touch have never been equaled in American history.   Lincoln’s strengths met the ultimate test in the  Civil War, where military triumphs required a sturdy foundation of political success.   In the North, popular support for the war remained problematic, from the opening shots at Fort Sumter to the last bugles at Appomattox Court House.  Lincoln faced a precarious high wire balancing act during his presidency.

Rancorous partisan strife marked politics in Lincoln’s time.  Yet, if  Democrats deserted the war effort, the Union cause would be lost. One key to their support was the appointment of prominent Democrats, sometimes woefully unqualified as officers, to positions in the Army.  Lincoln knew that such concessions to political reality were unavoidable, though no one felt the resulting loss of life more deeply than he did.  Fortunately, he eventually found the commanders he needed to win the war.

Lincoln’s simple words in a faded letter remain with me as I write this.  Certainly, his speeches deserve to be enshrined in our country’s memory, yet it should not be forgotten that he was first and always a politician of great sensitivity and finely honed persuasive ability.  He could reach out to an opponent, arrange a deal, and reach a compromise—all the while keeping his eyes on the prize.  Such is the legacy that Lincoln left us, if we would only learn from his bequest.

Spiritual Resistance in the Crucible of American Slavery

Flight to freedom (photo, public domain)

Flight to freedom (photo, public domain)

 Inspiration  shines like a beacon  from great films when the screen portrayal reflects historical truth. In the 1989 movie, Glory, blue-clad soldiers of the famed 54th Massachusetts regiment sing hymns around a campfire on the eve of a Civil War battle.   The former slaves—the United States Army’s first black unit—invoke their religious tradition to steel their hearts,  as they testify to their faith in God and their faith in each other. “It don’t much matter what happens tomorrow,” one fiery soldier says, “because we’re men now, ain’t we!”  The chorus responds, “Yessir!” and “Amen.”

 [Repost from April]

The historical truth is that the religion of American slaves played a crucial part in preserving their humanity in the face of a brutal system that tore down their human dignity. There was no escape from this existential threat. Slave revolts in the American South proved suicidal. Flight was possible, but so fraught with peril that it was available to only a heroic minority. For the vast majority who remained on the plantations, there was cultural resistance, and the center of that culture was the slaves’ religion.

The slaves’ Christianity taught that there was a power higher than that of the plantation owner, and that before Him the slaves were the equal of any man, with an equal claim to human dignity. Their religion also provided a source of solidarity and collective identity. These were powerful messages in the face of the master’s pervasive control of the slaves’ lives, providing an enclave for the slaves’ human spirit, an inner space protected from the toxic corrosion of slavery.  Religion promised a better future, but also fortified the slaves’ community to endure in the here and now.  100 years later, the civil rights movement’s great orator echoed this spirit. “With this faith, we will be able to hew out of the mountain of despair a stone of hope,” Dr. King avowed before the Lincoln Memorial.

The story of this cultural resistance in times that  tried men’s souls is  told in a remarkable book published two generations ago, Roll, Jordan, Roll: The World the Slaves Made, authored by Eugene Genovese. The title itself says so much. Slaves in the American South have often been portrayed as passive, even submissive, and as victims. In Genovese’s account, they are the active subjects who make history, not merely objects to be used and abused by actors who wield greater power. From his narrative, it becomes clear that the slaves’ social labor and their collective struggle to maintain their human dignity contributed as much to the history of the American South as the actions of the planter aristocracy or the exploits of the great political families.

Genovese’s achievement  in writing Roll, Jordan, Roll merits admiration today. Although he is passionate, his book is reliably objective, untainted by the self-righteous tone that so often mars the current spirit in politics. His history reads from the bottom up, giving ordinary men and women their due as historical actors. For an activist and scholar on the left (as Genovese was then), it was a signal mark of creativity to recognize the critical part the spiritual played in enabling the slaves to maintain their humanity.

We are urgently in need of such objectivity and creativity in our politics today. As Abraham Lincoln said in the rancorous 1850s:  ” If we could first know where we are, and whither we are tending, we could then better judge what to do, and how to do it.” Indeed, with contemporary efforts to ban religion from public spaces and airbrush religion from American history, Roll, Jordan, Roll and its tale of communal spiritual strength speaks to us as a timely voice from the past.

A Mettle Forged into Legend: Iron Brigade

Iron Brigade Monument, Gettysburg

Iron Brigade Monument, Gettysburg (Photo by Robert Swanson)

 

Through Maryland’s green and rolling meadows, a stream the color of chocolate winds on its unhurried way to the Potomac River. Blown by summer breezes, cirrus clouds coast across the blue sky, trailing their shadows like the tails of kites across the tasseled corn. In this pastoral landscape, a battlefield seems out of place. One autumn day in 1862, the clash of musketry and cannon fire erupted in the normally languid air near Antietam Creek. Continue reading