My first instruction in the history of the Civil War was from the Soviet Agent who wrote the book pictured at the right.
His name was Charles Flato and you can read all about him on the internet now if you wish. But in 1968, when seven-year-old me received this as a present (not even my birthday!) from my father, whose inscription (my name and the date 4/22/68) is still on the fly-leaf, one could have been forgiven for thinking his credentials impeccable. The Golden Book of the Civil War was “Adapted for Young Readers from the American Heritage Picture History of the Civil War” and came with an introduction by Bruce Catton, the sober Yankee professor–Michigan born and bred–and founding editor of American Heritage, who was then (along with Allan Nevins, of Illinois) the reigning popular authority on the subject in question (a position now shared by the New Yorker Ken Burns and the North Dakotan James McPherson).
Flato himself was a “freelance” writer, working for magazines like American Heritage no doubt, when he penned the book for publication in 1960. The book was widely distributed to say the least. I don’t know how many copies were published or sold, but it was probably north of a million. If I wanted to sell my Eighth Edition from 1968, on Amazon or AbeBooks–which I would do some time after I let go my left arm–it would fetch something like four dollars.
I knew nothing about the backgrounds of the men who controlled the Civil War Narrative for “young readers” when I devoured the book in my youth, or when I referred to its battle maps (still the best I’ve seen in the lifetime of interest they spurred in that subject) in later years to give myself a clear set of referential aids to the mind’s eye before my actual eyeballs encountered the battlefields at Chickamauga, Chattanooga, Gettysburg, Murfreesboro (I regretted not refreshing my memory before still later visits to Vicksburg and Shiloh–I’ll not make that mistake in the future when I finally make it to Manassas, Fredericksburg, Chancellorsville, Antietam.)
Had I known, I doubt it would have made any difference to my appreciation of the book in question, or the later books I read or documentaries I watched, virtually all written or directed by Yanks.
One thing I understood about history–was given to understand both by my own instinct and my imminently practical parents–was that its always written by the winners.
I grew up then, in the deep South, with a very distinct view of the Civil War.
The view went for my Democrat father, who had attended a Tennessee college founded by an Abolitionist. It went for my rock-rib North Carolina Republican mother, who knew Democrats, up close and personal, as the people Franklin Roosevelt cut deals with to keep Jim Crow in place in return for the Solid South’s White Supremacist electoral votes.
Be proud of your heritage, your family, etc., then…..
And thank God the Yankees won.
Also, thank God it’s over!
In the sixties and seventies, that was as typical a Southern upbringing as any other.
And it was the only view I knew until I was coming on fourteen and we moved from Central Florida to North Florida.
That’s where I soon discovered that the Civil War was not over and was further surprised to learn that anyone born south of Gainesville was…a Yankee!
When I say surprised, I mean as in so surprised I forgot to laugh.
I really regret that missed opportunity, because laughing doesn’t seem to be an option anymore.
Too bad, because rooting around on Wikipedia this morning, trying to find out who Charles Flato was, I discovered that, besides being a Soviet agent in WWII (and likely afterward–the Soviets weren’t known for letting their agents just walk), and the author of a book designed to perpetuate a vision of the Civil War in line with Bruce Catton’s or Ken Burns’s (that is was worth it….and over….and worth it because it was over), was that he was a good enough friend of Suze Rotolo to will her his car when he died.
What Suze Rotolo was famous for–besides staunch leftiness–was the way she let herself be forever defined by her clinging devotion to a freewheelin’ young man, who had recently begun calling himself Bob Dylan, on the cover of his second album…and would drop her the minute Joan Baez came calling.
Now that’s really the sort of thing that should make you laugh out loud. And if there wasn’t all this talk about how we’re headed for a second Civil War, I’m sure I would have.
As it lay, I had to settle for a rueful smile.
I say all this to remind everyone–yet again–that I am not opposed to removing Confederate statues.
Nor am I opposed to leaving them standing.
Couldn’t care less.
I do care about what’s coming next–about seeing what’s behind the sudden fervor that has mobs of educated white people assaulting Bad Monuments to prove they themselves are not Bad People, even though everyone who ever fought to assure their Monument Assaulting Privilege was Very Bad Indeed.
And what I see is the same old, same old. The angry face of the mob.
I see it growing and growling in the heart of an Empire–not a nation–that is poised to go the way of the Russian, Ottoman, Austro-Hungarian and Hohenzollern Empires at the end of the Great War. I see it coming because I see there is already nothing to hold us together when the wind blows–and nothing will have to become less than nothing before it becomes more than nothing again.
Or, as the freewheelin’ young prophet had it….
If you see something different–something other than the waters of oblivion–peace be upon you.
I hope you’re right. Really I do.
For now, just remember that History does not have Wrong or Right sides.
It has Winning and Losing sides.
I know the modern American has been thoroughly brainwashed into believing otherwise, that Right will make Might.
But even when I was seven–soaking up Yankee and Soviet versions of my own region’s history and thinking no more of it then than I do now–I knew the winners get to decide about the whole Right and Wrong thing. That the only real Lesson of History is always the same.
So it is as we watch Lee and Jackson fade into our History.
So it will be when it’s Jefferson and Washington–and Lincoln’s–turn.
The only question now, for the people who think the old Liberal/Conservative divide that sustained the Enlightenment and the first two hundred years of the American Experiment still holds, and that they’ll get to opt out of the Future, is what you’ll do when it’s not Robert E. Lee’s statue the Neo-Nazi Fascists and Antifa Marxists are fighting over but the Jefferson Memorial, like it’s Weimar all over again.
Whose side will you be on then? Whose side will you be on when “Liberal” and “Conservative” are no longer an option?
Better decide now, because the people who will be coming for whatever your cherished version of History is have one thing in common.
They aren’t going to let you sit that one out.
And they aren’t going to give you a whole lot of time to think.
Take it Gene….