As self-defeating as Pickett’s Charge

Library of Congress
Pickett’s Charge, as painted by Edwin Forbes.

Growing up during the Fifties and Sixties in segregated, still rural Fauquier County, I would shudder when friends peppered their conversations with the “N-word,” even sometimes teasing me: “Is your father a N-lover?”

Unlike other doctors they knew, my father welcomed black patients, and I was never embarrassed to be his son. That’s a convoluted way of saying there’s credible personal history when I assert, “I am not a racist.” Rather, I’m a proud liberal who believes the Trump presidency is the worst thing to happen to this country since the Civil War. And yet….

And yet the heroic figures of my youth included Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson. As I’ve grown older than either when they died, these haunting words lamenting Confederate defeat, from William Faulkner’s “Intruder in the Dust,” still send a chill up my spine:

For every Southern boy fourteen years old, not once but whenever he wants it, there is the instant when it’s still not yet two o’clock on that July afternoon in 1863, the brigades are in position behind the rail fence, the guns are laid and ready in the woods and the furled flags are already loosened to break out and Pickett himself with his long oiled ringlets and his hat in one hand probably and his sword in the other looking up the hill waiting for Longstreet to give the word and it’s all in the balance, it hasn’t happened yet, it hasn’t even begun yet, it not only hasn’t begun yet but there is still time for it not to begin . . . .

What Faulkner so eloquently evokes is the start of Pickett’s Charge at the Battle of Gettysburg, frequently called “the high water mark of the Confederacy.” From this point onward General Robert E. Lee’s always-outnumbered Army of Northern Virginia, previously so brilliant on the battlefield, would inevitably succumb to a grinding war of attrition.

But was it inevitable? Is anything inevitable?

Although the Civil War was fundamentally about slavery, Faulkner’s words have nothing directly to do with slavery. Rather, they speak to the universal human condition of pondering the past, its hinges of history, and wondering what might have been: essential to a tragic sensibility, indeed any kind of wisdom.

Nothing can create a tragic sense quite like losing a war, and the United States had never lost a war until Vietnam. But the South had — arguably the reason that it produced such a disproportionate number of great writers, like Faulkner.  

Perhaps not coincidentally, the South’s contribution to U.S. military manpower has also been traditionally disproportionate; if America can be said to have a “warrior class,” it is predominantly Southern. While suspicion of the federal government is a Southern legacy of the Civil War, the military is considered somehow separate from that government, with the virtue and honor of soldiers and sailors perceived to be unblemished by hypocritical politicians and liberty-starving bureaucrats.  

To fight, to be defeated and honorably die for reasons quickly forgotten in the heat of battle — as during Pickett’s Charge — is a story no doubt told around fires by the earliest humans. With Homer, it becomes the urtext for Western civilization’s narrative traditions. Achilles, Ajax, Hector, and Odysseus are memorialized for their heroic actions not for any cause for which they were presumably fighting: who gets to call Helen his wife?

So it is that the memorials to the Confederate dead and their leaders should not be seen only through the reductionist prism of race. True, many, if not most, of these monuments were put in place as racist reaction to Reconstruction, but to erase whatever other powerful meanings they may hold is to play into white supremacists’ hands in the country’s seemingly never-ending ”culture war.”

It’s a perverse expression of the politically correct notion of “cultural appropriation” that the Confederate statues and monuments have now become the symbols of the KKK, neo-Nazis and the so-called alt-right or alt-reich. To engage white nationalists on this battleground of their own choosing is as suicidal as Pickett’s Charge. For they, together with Trump’s loyal voters, can now lay false claim to the high ground of “history and heritage.”

Steve Bannon could be a Union general dug in on Cemetery Ridge just waiting to mow down Confederates as they charge across the open field of fire when he said, “The longer they (the Democrats) talk about identity politics, I got ’em . . . . I want them to talk about racism every day.”

Tearing down the Confederate statues is exactly what Bannon wants.

2 Comments

  1. Excellent statement, Walter, of the great dichotomy afflicting Southerners, such as we, who grew up with one foot in the “Jim Crow” era and the other in the civil rights struggles of the 60s: In our heads and actions, we are promoters and defenders of equality, but in our hearts, we are still “Southern” and do not want to see our monuments razed and memories defiled until we are damn ready to do it ourselves.

  2. What would Lincoln do now? After his soaring non-partisan peroration for the ages at Gettysburg- in 1863 no less two years before Wars end- with his now hallowed Address- What would he do?

    Maybe this question we should ask ourselves even though the Union was saved

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