HOW NEAR A THING….

Rarely in warfare has the arrival of a single officer on a battlefield been more timely and consequential than Hancock’s at Gettysburg. One of his subordinates gave the picture: before he came, “wreck, disaster, disorder, almost the panic that precedes disorganization, defeat and retreat were everywhere.” After he appeared on Cemetery Hill, “soldiers retreating stopped, skulkers appeared from under their cover, lines were re-formed”: in place of a rabble seeking Cemetery Hill as a sanctuary, an army with a purpose–under a leader who could lift it to extraordinary efforts–confronted the Confederates.

There was something dominating and inspiring about Hancock. The men of his corps were essentially the same as those of any other, but at the end of the war they could say that the Second had captured more enemy guns and more enemy colors than all the rest of the army combined. After Grant had taken command and had gone through the Wilderness, Hancock could tell him proudly that the corps had never lost a color or a gun, though oftener and more desperately engaged than any other. The Galena tanner was to use the corps cruelly at Cold Harbor, but it nevertheless finished the war, and with a record of a larger number of engagements and an aggregate of more killed and wounded than any other corps in the Northern armies.

(High Tide at Gettysburg, Glenn Tucker, 1958, p. 192)

It’s a theme of the egalitarian part of American identity that individuals make no difference. One person is as good as another after all, before the tide of history as before anything else.

It’s a fiction of course.

Winfield Scott Hancock is now remembered by Civil War buffs, fans of Ron Maxwell’s battle films (Gettysburg and Gods and Generals) and virtually no one else.

And yet, at every moment when it seemed victory was in the Confederacy’s grasp during the crucial spring and summer of 1863, Hancock was there to save the day. Historians debate the “high tide of the Confederacy”. Some say the first day at Chancellorsville, some the first, second or third days at Gettysburg. At some point on each of those days, the Confederate armies seemed on the verge of routing and destroying the Army of the Potomac which was the guarantor of the Federal government in Washington D.C.

At the crucial point on each of those days, it was Hancock’s leadership that determined the outcome and saved the day. It was his men who rallied and staved off Stonewall Jackson’s charge at Chancellorsville after the Confederates had collapsed the Union flank with a brilliantly conceived and executed surprise attack; his presence (after George Meade gave him the command ahead of two higher ranking generals who were already in the field) that stabilized the panicked Yankee retreat on the first day at Gettysburg and held the crucial high ground for the Federals (according to Tucker, it was literally Hancock’s decision both to take a stand at Gettysburg and where exactly the stand would be made); his decisions regarding troop movements that stymied Lee’s furious attacks on both flanks on the second day; and it was Hancock who held Cemetery Ridge (where Lee had correctly surmised the Union line would be both weakest in manpower and least expecting an attack) against Pickett’s Charge on the third day.

Though he never commanded an army–his various superiors considered him too valuable to recommend for promotion elsewhere–one could make a strong case that Hancock was at least as essential to the preservation of the Union as Lincoln or Grant.

After the war, he was the Democratic nominee for the presidency in 1880, losing a close election to James Garfield (the popular vote was the closest in American history, though Garfield won pretty comfortably in the Electoral College–naturally, allegations of fraud were thrown about in the close states, especially New York–there is nothing new under the sun). As the Hero of Gettysburg was a strong supporter of states’ rights, the opposition painted him as a man likely to hand back the Union victory to the post-Reconstruction South (which voted for him overwhelmingly).

Such is politics.

Garfield was assassinated a few months into his presidency. Hancock continued his military service until his death in 1886, by which time he had, among other things, served as president of the National Rifle Association.

Such is life.

A few statues have been erected in his honor and there’s an elementary school named after him in his native Pennsylvania.

Removing statues of Union heroes is a thing these days, so visit while you can. Because, however bad you think things are, you can rest assured they’d have been a whole lot worse without him.

WHEW! TURNS OUT I WAS WORRIED FOR NOTHING…

…Turns out the whole Bring Down the Statues Thing really was just about Stonewall and Bobby Lee.

And really was just about memorials on public land.

Or memorials on private land that could be casually viewed by the public.

Thank God. We can all rest easy now!

Take it Gene!

…and Eddie!

AS A POINT OF COMFORT….

…I’m not always right about this End of Days stuff.

I’ve been telling the only friend I have with whom I tend to discuss politics (she keeps her “political” twitter account under an assumed name, separated from her personal/business oriented twitter stuff, to avoid the usual constant threats of violence and barrage of abuse) that statues honoring Jefferson and Washington will soon follow those honoring Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson into various states of defacement and dismemberment, and that Lincoln and Grant will be in the cross-hairs five minutes after that.

Silly me.

It looks like I had the order wrong.

Oh, by the way, the organizer of the Charlottesville Unite-the-Right March, is now reported to be an Obama-supporting Wall Street Occupier who had a magical conversion to White Supremacist power player within days of Donald Trump’s election. It hardly matters if it’s true. The important thing is that conflicting accounts are now readily available from all the usual sources and you may choose among them as you wish.

I pity those whose brains remain unprotected from these waves of industrial feces by insufficient familiarity with the New Testament or the holy texts of Rock and Roll America and advise them to repair to a quiet space at once and redress their ignorance in council with their own spirit practicing the Priesthood of the Believer.

I don’t know any songs dedicated to the smell of sheep dip, so this will have to do for today’s inspirational tune from the Book of Clarence. (Chapter Seven, Verse 4, I believe, but don’t quote me. I ain’t here to start any trouble.)

Those who prefer The Good News version to the King James, may like this one better…

…Either way, hello America. It’s a brand new day!

Didn’t listen now, fools, did ya?

 

ELEGY REVISITED IN ANOTHER COUNTRY CHURCHYARD….

The curfew tolls the knell of parting day,
The lowing herd wind slowly o’er the lea,
The plowman homeward plods his weary way,
And leaves the world to darkness and to me.

(Thomas Gray, “Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard”)

Virgil Caine is my name and I served on the Danville train,
‘Til Stoneman’s Cavalry came and tore up the tracks again…

(The Band, “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down”)

I’ve mentioned before that I drive a hundred miles each way to put flowers on my mother’s grave every Mother’s Day. My parents are the only appointed missionaries buried at the oldest Baptist church in Florida (est. 1825). Every year, I walk around to see who has died. Every year, one or two familiar names are added (usually wives joining husbands long passed). Every year, I note the military ranks of many of the departed. It’s a small church with a small graveyard so the military mentions toward the middle and back of the cemetery are a smattering.

Korea (my Sunday School teacher, he never mentioned it).

WWII (the man who loaned us money to travel home to see family the first Christmas we moved there, he never mentioned it…this year, he was joined by his daughter, a college teacher who wrote the letter of recommendation that helped me get a job at the Southern Baptist Convention’s center in Ridgecrest, North Carolina in the summer of ’79….else her husband…the grave was fresh dug, no stone yet).

WWI. (too far back for me to know them personally though the names suggest I knew their heirs).

At the front, the names are somewhat more numerous. Up in that part of the churchyard, the military designation is always CSA. Some of them died in what they would have called The War Between the States, some after. Whenever they died, an alarming number bear birth dates of 1848, 1849, 1850. By the end, the CSA was calling up fifteen-year-olds.

That’s what happens at the end, when your life is at stake.

I never had much sympathy for the Lost Cause or Ye Olde Confederacy. A permanent curse on the slaveocracy who cast their permanent curse on us. As much as I know anything, I know if we’d somehow managed to win, we’d have been the Balkans and the USA would have been some hellish combination of Germany and Russia. Best that it worked out as it did.

But I don’t like to run from the past either.

If I’d been born in 1849, I know where my bones would lie…and I don’t doubt the military designation on my grave would read CSA. If not in this churchyard, then some other, because I doubt there’s a vintage cemetery in the parts of the South where my folks came from that doesn’t have an even longer row of the Lost Cause’s Honored Dead.

Hell, by the time Stoneman’s Cavalry rode their last, ” just eighteen” ¬†was an old man in the army of the CSA.

And it’s not like I have to project.

When Stonewall Jackson’s West Point roommate, George Stoneman, rode out to exact the final vengeance for his humiliation at Chancellorsville (the high tide of both the Confederate States of America and his roommate’s brilliant career, which ebbed away in an instant when a unit from my mother’s home state mistook Jackson for the enemy in the gloaming and mortally wounded him), he left from Knoxville, Tennessee, twenty miles from my father’s stone-cold Unionist home town (where the college my father had not quite graduated from when Pearl Harbor re-directed his life down a path that eventually led him to the bible college that sits seven miles from where my parents are buried, was founded by one of the South’s now forgotten fire-breathing abolitionists and where my father’s older relatives nonetheless had living memories of chasing cows into the woods to keep the Yankees from confiscating them), and reached its turn-back point in Salisbury, North Carolina, where my mother grew up learning to hop trains in the hobo jungle in the days when the legends of Jimmie Rodgers and Woody Guthrie were still aborning.

From this distance, I can be glad the Yankees won, even in this age when we seem so determined to throw it all away.

But when I’m walking through a country churchyard down here, mulling the gravestones, there’s no way for it not to be a little bit personal.

Even from this distance.

This month is the thirtieth anniversary of my mother’s death. But you know what Faulkner said. In the South, “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.”

And, as he did not quite say: “Would that it were.”

Rest of ya’ll will know what we know soon enough. I give it not more than a century and it will pass in the blink of an eye. Then you won’t care if the money’s no good either.

Enjoy this hard and bitterly won space while you can.