12 April 2010

So Much Misinformation, So Little Time


: After posting this response, I went back again and read the string of comments which caused this "controversy." It immediately became clear to me that, though my comment followed Simons' remark, my "Yeah, me too" was actually in response to the comment prior to Mr. Simons which was:

"I just wish that some of those who hold themselves up as the defenders of the Union cause could show the same amount of respect as Gen. Chamberlin [sic] did toward Robert E. Lee and the Confederacy 145 years ago today."

My response was, as noted, "Yeah, me too." In other words, I, too, wished "that some who hold themselves up . . . could show, etc. " -  Responding to "It is a sad day indeed for all of us who love the South" with, "Yeah, me too" does not make grammatical sense. Responding to the previous comment with those same words does make sense. This just further illustrates the point of this post regarding misinformation and comments being taken out of context. It can easily happen and the order in which my response appeared contributed to the confusion, though I still believe the criticism was over the top. That being said, I believe I understand where Mr. Simons was coming from and attempt to explain that further below.

I promised myself that I would no longer get into these back and forth debates in the blogosphere but, alas, I'm finding that unavoidable. Kevin Levin has, once again, posted erroneous information about my comments on this blog. See here. (Warning, Levin displays some of his finer vocabulary skills at the end of his post.) First of all, Levin finds it strange that some folks would connect sadness with Appomattox and attempts to link those who do so to those who believe  slavery was "benign?" What!? I've said repeatedly that I believe that God allowed the Civil War to occur due to the SIN OF SLAVERY and punished both sections of the Nation for their involvement in that evil. Levin's suggestion is almost as slanderous as it is ridiculous, in my humble opinion.

So, here we go again. I had 3 great-great grandfathers that fought for the Confederacy during the WBTS. All poor dirt farmers. None of them owned slaves. One of them was wounded twice. Two of them served time in yankee prisons. One of them died in Chimborazo hospital as a result of his wounds and ill treatment while in prison. He lies in a common grave with 2 other soldiers in Oakwood cemetery in Richmond, which, until recently, the City of Richmond would not even allow me to mark. Would you consider that sad? I would. His widow died not ever knowing what had become of him. Would you consider that sad? I would. The rest of the family never even knew what happened to him until a few years ago - thanks to a piece I wrote for the Washington Times' Civil War column and the diligent work of SCV researchers working on cataloguing the names of those buried at Oakwood. Another ancestor lies in a grave marked only by a simple field stone. I'm trying to get permission from the landowner to install a proper marker. One of the two ancestors who survived the war continued to suffer from the wounds he received. The other ancestor died penniless, due in large measure to the devastation and loss brought on by the war. Would you consider that sad? I would. That sadness is connected with the surrender at Appomattox, despite what others may think.

Perhaps Levin believes sadness and pride over my ancestor's sacrifice and courage is "Nostalgic B.S.", but I, and many others, see it quite differently.

So, yes, sadness in connection with Appomattox and my ancestors' bravery, courage, and suffering after the war is, in my opinion, appropriate. Rejoicing is also appropriate.  Rejoicing that the bloodshed was over. That sons, brothers, and fathers could finally return to their homes - or what was left of them - and to loved ones. And, of course, that slavery would be ending; albeit at the cost of over 600,000 lives and followed by decades of continued bitterness and division. Could the issues that led to Appomattox have been resolved some other way? Without war? Without the death of over 600,000 Americans - South and North? Without the bitterness that followed? Certainly, sadness over "what if" is appropriate in connection with Appomattox, in my view. How sad to think that the loss of 600,000 lives might have been avoided had cooler heads on both sides prevailed. Sadness and joy are not necessarily mutually exclusive over a war as complicated as was our Civil War. I'm sure even many of those Southern soldiers present at Appomattox were simultaneously sad and joyful over the end of the war. Sad they had given so much and lost. Joyful that they would be returning home. Human emotions at such times are often complicated and difficult to sort through. That Levin would attempt to use such simplistic, "Gotcha history" tactics as a morality play, twist it out of context, and then attempt to get so much mileage out of a simple comment is quite strange, as well as quite instructive, in my opinion.

Now, as to my allegedly rejecting a comment by Mark Snell. That is utterly false. I received no follow up comment from Professor Snell. I don't doubt he attempted to post another comment, but I did not receive it. I sent a private email to address that issue with him. He's responded and I've responded back. Our conversation will remain private, but our exchange was quite civil and I appreciate the fact he took the time to respond. I've invited him to comment in the future. But it really is no business of Levin's whose comments I choose to post and whose I choose to reject (though I never rejected the one in question). Levin comes off as a busybody attempting to police other blogs. Lord knows he has earned quite a reputation of banning people, rejecting comments, and deleting them. He's deleted several of mine before, which is one of the reasons I no longer bother to comment there. I'd say he has a credibility issue with any criticism over rejecting comments. But that's just my opinion.

Regarding Professor Snell's comment that Lee "had no choice", I would disagree. I believe Lee did have other choices - specifically guerrilla warfare, which he rejected. He could have fought on to the death, as some of his men urged him to do, but which he also rejected. And, as I noted in another follow up comment, Grant obviously could afford more casualties than Lee. Regarding the comment about Grant, I suppose Levin rejects the notion that Grant waged a war of attrition against Lee. That's fine, but I interpret the facts differently, as do many others.

Now, as to the criticism that I culled Grant's quote for my own purposes, that's a legitimate criticism and I agree the words chosen don't reflect Grant's complete thought. I had several sources for that quote. I pulled one that did not include the complete remark. That was admittedly sloppy on my part. Here's the complete sentence:

“I felt like anything rather than rejoicing at the downfall of a foe who had fought so long and so valiantly and had suffered so much for a cause though that was, I believe, one of the worst for which a people ever fought, and one for which there was the least excuse.”

Nonetheless, including the whole quote would not have taken away from my point - Grant expressed sadness - perhaps better expressed as "empathy" as one comment noted - over his foe's surrender; this despite the fact Grant thought their cause "one of the worst for which a people ever fought." I think bringing up the omitted part of Grant's comment served as more of a distraction than anything else, since it does not change the crux of Grant's expressed sentiments regarding Lee's surrender. Thus, the point I was making stands.

And, another quote from Grant in which he acknowledges the sadness of Lee's foes at Appomattox:

"When they passed out of the works they had so long and so gallantly defended, between the lines of their late antagonists, not a cheer went up, not a remark was made that would give pain. I believe there was a feeling of sadness among the Union soldiers at seeing the dejection of their late antagonists." Ulysses S. Grant, Surrender of Vicksburg, Personal Memoirs of U. S. Grant (New York, 1885)

I'll conclude here with a passage from the last chapter of Bruce Catton's A Stillness At Appomattox:

"One of [Union General] Ord's soldiers wrote that the army should have gone wild with joy, then and there; and yet, he said, somehow they did not. Later there would be frenzied cheering and crying and rejoicing, but now . . . now, for some reason, the men sat on the ground and looked across at the Confederate army and found themselves feeling as they never dreamed that the moment of victory would make them feel.
    ". . . I remember how we sat there and pitied and sympathized with these courageous Southern men who had fought for four long and dreary years all so stubbornly, so bravely and so well, and now, whippen, beaten, completely used up, were fully at our mercy - it was pitiful, sad, hard, and seemed to us altogether too bad."


MSimons said...

Mr Levin loves to jump to conclusions and then launch his attacks on anybody who sees any good in the South or it causes for separation.

M said...

Sad to see someone get all worked up over my personal sadness concerning the events during the CW.

Richard G. Williams, Jr. said...

Puzzling would be my characterization.

Leonard Lanier said...

If you want to attack Kevin Levin that's fine, but for pete's sake leave God out of the discussion. God did not "allow the Civil War to occur due to the sin of slavery." The actions of people north and south of the Mason-Dixon Line caused the Civil War, not the Almighty.

Richard G. Williams, Jr. said...

I'm not attacking anyone Mr. Lanier. I didn't start this, Levin did. I'm simply responding to *his* attack. As a Christian, I can't leave God out of it. Sorry. And I didn't say God "caused" the Civil War, I said he "allowed" it. Please don't twist what I've said, I have to deal with that enough as it is. I believe the Almighty established certain laws of cause and effect (or "sowing and reaping") that govern the universe and there are consequences for actions - both positive and negative.

However, I agree with you when you say:

"The actions of people north and south of the Mason-Dixon Line *caused the Civil War"

Reaping and sowing. *Cause and effect. Immutable laws set in motion by the Almighty.

Leonard Lanier said...

As a Christian, I don't understand the need to involve God in this particular discussion. Your statement, which you highlighted in red for added emphasis, charged that God “punished” the opposing sections for the “sin of slavery.” Whether he “allowed” or “caused” it, your statement implies that the Almighty shares some responsibility for the deaths of over 600,000 people. Where’s the love and compassion?

Furthermore, it’s a totally un-provable statement. A historian can’t interview the Universal Sovereign. He can’t read transcripts from the 1860 meeting of the heavenly council. A sound argument needs verifiable evidence to substantiate the claims. The “Civil War as divine retribution” does not pass that litmus test, and it’s totally unnecessary. There are plenty of totally-certifiable bad human decisions that caused the conflict.

Mark Snell said...


To return to my original response, and the one that did not appear on your blog, I simply wanted to know why Mr. Simons would state that April 9 was “a sad day indeed for all of us who love the South.” When someone makes a blanket statement in a public forum such as yours, contrary views are bound to be posted. I still find it an absurd statement, and I do not believe my response was “surprising.” Whether or not your response was confused with another post is not my concern, although I do understand that technology has its draw backs. Not until later posts by you did the word “empathy” come up. Anyone who has studied the Civil War quite normally might feel empathy for the sacrifice of the losing side (regardless of the justness of their cause), just as GIs at the end of WW II felt some sympathy for German civilians and Wehrmacht veterans. I have felt melancholy myself when visiting Appomattox—not so much for the Army of Northern Virginia, but for the great sacrifice made by both sides, blue and gray, black and white. As far as Grant having the manpower to carry on the war—a war of attrition, you claim—well, that’s not how you originally described it: “Moreover, it was Lee who did not want to see the killing continue. Grant is the one who seemed to be willing to continue to supply an endless supply of human cannon fodder.” I still disagree, even if I concede that what you meant was that Grant was determined to fight a war of attrition. Anyone who has read Gordon Rhea’s books on the Overland Campaign can clearly see that Grant tried to fight a maneuver war, but Lee out-maneuvered him and battles of attrition were the result. In your original post, you never mentioned guerilla warfare, which of course would have resulted in more bloodshed. Yet, white supremacist groups during Reconstruction actually did carry out insurgency campaigns, which on the whole were quite successful (see, for example, Millet and Maslowski, For the Common Defense: A Military History of the United States, chapter 8).

I take responsibility for having my response—the one you didn’t receive—for being placed on Kevin Levin’s blog. When I assumed that you were not going to post it, I asked Kevin to post it on his blog, as I knew you were a regular reader. He waited two days, at my request, to give you a chance to respond on your own blog. I believe we all get a little worked up over these issues, which is the reason why we must step back, reassess, and not allow our modern-day political agendas to influence our analysis of history. That is much easier said than done. Kevin is a nice guy, caring teacher, and dedicated to the craft of history. We don’t see eye to eye on everything, but his interpretation of the “memory” of the war is—from my viewpoint—objective and accurate. I do not know you but I have no doubt that you are passionate about history. I understand your attachment to your family history, and I’ve never suggested that Confederate soldiers were bad or wrong. I take issue with some who call themselves historians, the ones who believe that the “South was right,” who use a selective memory of the past—like focusing only on the tariff issue or the idea of the “defense of home and hearth,” because they only use evidence to support the way they “feel” about the past and the present. I have the same problem with people who try to equate Confederate soldiers with NAZIs.

I will not respond to any more posts on this issue—too much grading to finish, as the end of the semester rapidly is approaching. Thanks again.

Richard G. Williams, Jr. said...

Mr. Lanier, as a Christian, I don't see how I can avoid to involve God in the discussion of history. As Benjamin Franklin noted:

"I have lived, Sir, a long time and the longer I live, the more convincing proofs I see of this truth -- that God governs in the affairs of men."

Though I've not lived as long as Franklin had when he made that statement, my experiences in life, and my study of history, have brought me to the same conclusions. Do you disagree with Franklin's statement?

The remainder of your comment ignores my cause and effect assertion. I would simply refer you back to that original statement in my previous comment.


Richard G. Williams, Jr. said...

Thank you Professor Snell for your thoughtful response. I believe you have adequately explained your position and comment and I believe I've done the same in this post. We still disagree on a few points and I believe we could probably come closer on those if we both had time, but since you don't want to respond further, I'll leave those points alone - unless they're raised by someone else.

You write:

"I believe we all get a little worked up over these issues, which is the reason why we must step back, reassess, and not allow our modern-day political agendas to influence our analysis of history. That is much easier said than done."

I could not agree more. And I think all of us could agree that the very nature of the blogosphere, emails, and forum discussions often lead to "misreading" someone's statement and intent and their motivations - you can't read facial expressions, hear the tone of voice, gauge immediate reactions which would lead to further clarification, etc.

Thanks again. Do comment if you have time in the future.

M said...

Mark if you back to the orginal thread you will see my reasons for being sad. I am so sorry I caused all this uproar over stating my sadness.

Steven Mynes said...

A thoughtful post. I am glad to sense a tone of reconciliation and empathy (a term well chosen on your part) in both the post and the comments, which is all too often missing in these types of discussions.

As to your view of God and history, I don't presume to know His purposes, but I think we probably agree that He is always working. This is a matter of faith and always fails as an academic argument, which is fine with me. It does not invalidate our perspective.

We disagree on the Confederate History Month firestorm, though I do feel Southerners deserve some sort of forum to honor the sacrifices of their ancestors. I personally do not feel that extends to their cause, where I tend to agree with Grant, but I would close with another quote from him - "Let us have peace."

Richard G. Williams, Jr. said...

Hello Steven. Thanks for the kind words. Yes, I would certainly agree that He is always working and often in ways that surprise us.

Peace to you.

Brooks D. Simpson said...

Richard. I appreciate what you say. Let me offer an observation. The suffering and destruction you describe was basically the same on April 8, 1865, as it was the following day, the day of the surrender. I'd venture that if the Confederacy somehow came back to win, much of the suffering and destruction you describe so movingly would nevertheless have taken place. Thus, the relationship between such suffering, sacrifice, and destruction on one hand and the fact of ultimate Confederate defeat is a bit more complicated, I'd suggest. Much of the former would have taken place had the Confederacy prevailed.

Richard G. Williams, Jr. said...

No major disagreement Professor, though my general view remains the same. We can play "what if" all day but, I think you're right, much of the carnage would have continued either way. It was, after all, a war. That being said Grant did, at least in my opinion, appear to be more *willing* to fight a war of attrition than was Lee. That was my point. Now, one could debate the reasons for that, e.g., Grant was more of a proponent of "total war" or, Grant simply could afford more losses than could Lee, or Lee was simply tired, worn down, and knew the end was now inevitable. Probably some combination of all 3. For what it's worth, I believe it was Churchill who once said that the WBTS was "the last war between gentlemen." At the risk of suffering a tongue lashing from those who disagree, I think Lee embodied the concept of the 19th century gentleman much more than did Grant. He certainly does in the popular memory of most Americans. But hey, I'm a 9th generation Virginian.

I'm not making a moral judgment here, just another observation, though admittedly from a Southern perspective. Of course, arguments could be made that Grant was, at least in his own mind, convinced that the high cost in lives was worth it. You are the Grant scholar and have much more insight there. I've never studied Grant other than superficially. For my own purposes, the fact Lee had such high respect for Grant after the war tells me quite a bit.

If I'm way off here, feel free to offer further insight or rebuke. I'd be particularly interested in your thoughts on Lee's opinion of Grant, especially after the war.

Brooks D. Simpson said...

As to which man -- Lee or Grant -- better fits the concept of a gentleman, I'll just note that we've crafted an image of that concept that people at the time may not have shared. There are plenty of stories about Grant's kindness and consideration, and there are a few stories about Lee that suggest that if either of the two men got their blood up in battle, it was Lee. So I think these discussions about being a gentleman tell us more about ourselves than about either man.

Grant didn't fight a war of attrition, although he fought a campaign of attrition, and that was largely, I think, due to Lee's skill as a defensive commander in 1864, as well as to the incompetence of other Union army commands in the Valley and along the James. That's where I think the suggestion to read Gordon Rhea has merit. Too many people confuse the whole campaign with the June 3 assault at Cold Harbor, and that seems, upon further research, to rest on the shoulders of Meade and his corps commanders. The rest was a grim business, to be sure, but so were Antietam and Gettysburg, to name but two battles.

A look at the entire wartime careers of Grant and Lee suggests that Grant was more sparing of the lives of his men than was Lee, at least statistically speaking. I think they both deplored the human cost of war. I think both of them were driven to fight the way they did because of the circumstances in which they found themselves. Lee thought that he had to take costly chances to win, while in 1864 Grant had to produce results in an election year with an army not of his own making. In 1865, when Grant first asked Lee to surrender, it was Lee who was willing to keep up the fighting, despite abundant evidence that the end was near. It was not until he really had no alternative on April 9 that he decided to surrender, and he did so reluctantly.

Lee seems to have thought well enough of Grant after the war, although he opposed Grant's presidential candidacy. But I'm never quite sure what to make of Lee's reported postwar comments, because he has been quoted as praising McClellan as well as Grant. I think he still believed that had things gone differently at critical moments, he would have prevailed.

Bob Pollock said...

I have been hoping Brooks would continue this discussion, but in the meantime, may I offer a few things to consider?

I do not consider myself a military historian, but I think if you want an assessment of Grant's generalship the best place to start is J.F.C. Fuller's "The Generalship of Ulysses S. Grant."

From Fuller regarding frontal assaults (which as we know, both Lee and Grant ordered):"Here we are confronted by a choice between two evils- to assault and risk heavy casualties, or to refrain from assaulting and so prolong the war, a war in which two men died from sickness to every man killed on the battlefield. Rightly or wrongly, Grant chose what he believed to be the lesser evil of these two, and in spite of the fact that the tactical theatre favoured the defense. There can be little doubt that his assaults did shorten the war, and in the long run, in all probability, they led to an economy in life; yet there can be no doubt they were costly, though not more costly than those carried out by Lee and other generals."

And this from Fuller:"From the common criticism levelled against Grant's last campaigns, the only conclusion is that he was a callous butcher. Yet, as is well known, Grant had a horror of bloodshed. His usual question after a fight writes Horace Porter, was 'How many prisoners have been taken?' Further- 'No man ever had such a fondness for taking prisoners. I think the gratification arose from the kindness of his heart, a feeling that it was better to win in this way than by the destruction of human life.' And again- When a number of his officers urged him to assault the inner lines at Petersburg on the afternoon of April 2- 'he was firm in his resolve not to sacrifice the lives necessary to accomplish such a result. He said the city would undoubtedly be evacuated during the night, and he would dispose the troops for a parallel march westward, and try to head off the escaping army.'"

The above begs the question, if Grant had such overwhelming forces, nearly unlimited manpower, why did he bother with sieges at all?

I'm not sure what you mean when you say Grant was convinced in his own mind that the high cost in lives was worth it. Are you suggesting that Grant should have stopped the killing and allowed the Confederacy to survive? It seems to me that both sides thought their respective causes were worth a high cost in lives.

And, what do you believe is the
19th century concept of a gentlemen? Grant was honest, courageous, honorable, dedicated to his country, a loving husband through 37 years of marriage, a caring father to four children, a defender of the rights of the oppressed even when it was unpopular, loyal to friends, and a man who kept his word (which is why when Lee appealed to him regarding Johnson's attempt to have him arrested, Grant laid his personal career on the line by threatening resignation if Johnson did not honor the agreement Grant had made with Lee at Appomattox).

You claim that Lee embodies this gentlemen concept more so than Grant in the popular memory of most Americans. I'm not sure what you base this on, but part of the reason Grant's reputation suffered is because(as you have done in these posts and comments)Lee admirers felt it was necessary to denigrate Grant in order to deify Lee.

Richard G. Williams, Jr. said...

Thanks Professor. I would disagree with a number of your assertions, particularly Grant vs. Lee and the *"sparing of lives" comment, but I appreciate your taking the time to respond.

*My sources tell me that the North lost 13,000 men at Cold Harbor and that the Confederacy lost 2500. Just one example that came to mind.

Richard G. Williams, Jr. said...

I'm no military historian either, but I would not equate Grant's approval of Sherman's "total war" campaign a sign of gentlemanly conduct.

"You claim that Lee embodies this gentlemen concept more so than Grant in the popular memory of most Americans. I'm not sure what you base this on"

I base it on observation. Whether or not that "popular memory" is accurate is the subject of debate and question, but I don't believe there is any question whatsoever that Lee holds that position over Grant at least in, for lack of a better term, "popular culture", e.g. Civil War art and what sells.

Just look at the ads in most CW publications and see what subjects seem to be consistently the most advertised. Again, one can debate the accuracy of that popular memory, but it most certainly does exist.

Brooks D. Simpson said...

Richard, as Gordon Rhea and others have demonstrated, the notion that Grant lost even 7,000 men in 30 minutes in one charge on June 3 is simply nonsense. The figure you cite for Union losses is for twelve days of campaigning. Recent work has also suggested that Confederate losses are undercounted, and, given the way both sides counted losses, the Union's greater willingness to determine that someone had been wounded and recording them as such makes these comparisons problematic. That said, of course Grant lost more than Lee at Cold Harbor, and I'd say by a significant margin.

What that proves is a bit more difficult to say, as Lee lost more men at Gettysburg (and more men at Pickett's Charge than Grant lost on June 3 during the assaults). So, if we use the reasoning that battlefield losses determine the quality of one's heart and soul as well as skill, one would point to Lee at Gettysburg as being wasteful, and indeed note that Lee suffered losses in 1862-63 far in excess of Grant's from 1861 to 1863. Lee was part of the bloodiest single day of the war and the bloodiest single battle. If number of combat losses signifies either butchery or a preference for attrition, then one would have to evaluate Lee accordingly.

Brooks D. Simpson said...

Richard ... do you really want to argue that the marketplace determines personal worth? As for the recognized dominance of Lee/Jackson/Forrest in popular art, well, I'm not sure what that says, either. After all, Che was once as popular as Farrah was later when it came to wall posters. One would hope you aren't equating Lee to either of those subjects.

I would not determine which man was more of a gentleman based on modern popular perceptions reinforced by marketplace studies of t-shirts and the like. Forrest outsells Jackson, for example.

Richard G. Williams, Jr. said...


"do you really want to argue that the marketplace determines personal worth?"

We were discussing perception and popular memory, so I think my point and example is valid.

"After all, Che was once as popular as Farrah was later when it came to wall posters. One would hope you aren't equating Lee to either of those subjects."

No need to fear, I was not. (Though Che remains popular among a certain segment of the population.) However, Che and the Angel were not WBTS subjects, so I don't think the analogy is a good one.

Again, I was simply trying to make the point that, at least in the mind of those who read and are interested in the WBTS, Lee is much more popular and representative of the "19th century gentleman." I touch on the same subject here;


"Forrest outsells Jackson" - I think that just proves more folks are interested in the "horse cavalry" than they are the "foot cavalry."


Richard G. Williams, Jr. said...


I've heard Mr. Rhea speak before at a seminar, but I've not read any of his books so I'd not want to comment beyond saying that I'd be interested in his sources on numbers compared to the contrasting claims by other historians.

I suppose his book on the subject is just one more that I'll have to add to my ever-growing stack.

As you point out, assessing the why's and how's of the numbers of losses (as well as the numbers themselves) can lead one to different conclusions and involves "getting inside the head" of the commanders present. Much is conjecture and opinion. Thanks for taking the time to offer your assessment. We'll see if anyone else wants to jump in.