The Bloody Shirt

Principled soldiers of conscience, the victorious army knew they had served well, defending the Constitution to the last full measure.

May of 1865 witnessed Washington’s Grand Review of the Union Army. Smartly uniformed soldiers filed past crowds, in a river of Union blue. The guns had silenced a mere month earlier at Appomattox, Virginia; the Republic preserved.

A brilliant sun glinted off polished bayonets, and the parade route decorated with miles of silk banners, tattered company colors and patriotic bunting. Rejoicing greeted the passing soldiers in shouts and fluttering handkerchiefs. Flower petals rained down in a fragrant carpet of gratitude. 

The bloody war finally, truly, had ended. 

One year later, near Springfield, Illinois, a group of veterans established a fraternal association, the Grand Army of the Republic. The idea caught fire nationally as other veterans founded their own local chapters; a place men could remember, share, and grieve for lost friends. Soon these war horses got busy extending their service to those they had defended.

First, survivors lent aid to disabled fellow veterans, assistance to widows and their dependents, and orphan homes. Soon preserving battle sites added to the group’s outreach. Before long members began seeking electoral office to further serve the nation.

A story has it General Benjamin Butler, now a Congressman, grew extremely agitated while speechifying, and produced a torn, and bloody shirt he claimed came from the battlefield. Soon the practice of “waving the bloody shirt,” invoking war credentials, became customary for candidates. The saying “vote the way you shot,” launched the careers of numerous politicians. 

Presidents from Ulysses Grant, (1868-1876) through William McKinley (1896-1901) had faced the rebels on the battlefield.*

War memorials and monuments mushroomed, funded with GAR donations. Reunions, benevolent societies, veterans homes, and hospitals kept local chapters busy. In fact, much of GAR efforts were eventually assumed by the Federal Government, particularly pensions for those who had served.

Over time survivors of the Civil War dwindled in number. However, the organization soldiered on until 1956 when it finally faded. Loosely related, though more a coincidence, our last five star general was serving as president when the GAR closed its doors. President Dwight David Eisenhower, who kept a farm in Gettysburg, happened to occupy the White House.

This brotherhood, this Grand Army of the Republic, rose to defend our democracy in the mid-19th Century. This model of valor, and sacrifice shaped the character of the military for years to come. 

But one truth is quite clear, no officer ever advocated for a coup, and there was not one sucker or loser in their ranks.

In 2021 we can do no less.

*Chester Arthur served in the New York Militia, Grover Cleveland did not serve.

Gail Chumbley is a history educator, author and playwright. Her two-part memoir, “River of January,” and “River of January: Figure Eight,” are both available on Kindle.

gailchumbley@gmail.com

The Arrogance of Now

Each year I prepared for two major wars, the finale if you will, of second semester US History. With a combined sense of dread, and anticipation, I led the kids through the causes, and progression of the Civil War (with 10th graders), and WWII (with my Juniors). 

A lifetime of study in these eras, especially Antebellum America, tells an anxious story, as two passionate belief systems came to blows. Sophomores learned that our nation, a democracy born in such promise, plunged into the abyss over America’s original sin, slavery.

Meanwhile, for Juniors, the failures of the uneasy peace that followed WWI shaped a broader corrosion. The world after 1919 disintegrated into deadly factions, underscored by exaggerated entitlement, racial hate, and lust for revenge.

Much like America’s 19th Century plunge into the breach, the 20th Century also debased human life, sliding into scapegoating, unthinkable cruelty, and massacre. This record is hard to face, let alone study. 

Real monsters masqueraded as heads of state; Stalin, Hitler, Mussolini, and the War Lords of Japan. All, to varying degrees, convinced regular people that the “worth” of others was suspect, and targeting civilians an acceptable strategy. Yet, as awful as both conflicts were, it’s hard not to stare, and to hopefully recognize the signs when hate again emerges as a justification for horror.

The heresy of exceptionalism, normalizing violence on the vulnerable, and extremism, unleashed evil on the world. Andersonville Prison, Fort Pillow Massacre, the Rape of Nanking, Bataan, the Warsaw Ghetto, and death camps. More than one a student wondered aloud, how could that happen?

In increments.

These signs are clear again. Those same pre-conditions have resurfaced, right now, here in our communities, states, and nation. 

A white nationalist parade in Charlotte that kills one, where there were “good people on both sides.” Normalized daily murders of people of color, and incendiary rhetoric that ends with an attack on the US Capitol, killing five. All offenses excused and minimized by a once great political party, that has forsaken its moral underpinnings. 

The only difference between the Proud Boys and the Brown Shirts is the Brown Shirts didn’t wear Carhartt and flannel.

This endless playlist has looped over repeatedly, cursed by the “blind arrogance of now.” But dear reader, now is then, and deluded people do not change with time. The descent into barbarity is more predictable than exceptional. 

When reasonable folks are manipulated by the chorus of the Big Lie, the era doesn’t matter. Society inevitably falls into depravity.   

Gail Chumbley is a career history educator, and author of the two-part memoir “River of January,” and “River of January: Figure Eight.” Both titles on Kindle.

gailchumbley@gmail.com

Vision

Along Highway 55, northwest of McCall, Idaho, is a stretch of road winding through breathtaking mountains.The terrain tinges a powdery blue, set against the white ribbon of lingering snow, and the Payette River flowing beside. This route isn’t fast, but the scenery more than compensates for the slow pace. 

After a steep descent the highway straightens revealing a number of cabins and trailers. Trump signs abound, (not unusual) along with flags emblazoned with Don’t Tread On Me or, the black, blue and, white version of the Stars and Stripes. In particular, this one double wide sits near the road, and passing that place always catches my eye. Cemented between the shoulder and gravel driveway stands a mailbox bearing the Confederate flag.

The irony of that particular symbol of defiance is, well, the actual Confederate mail system had completely broken down by the end of the Civil War. Any Rebel delivery between battle front and home was spotty, at best. In contrast, the Northern mail system saw remarkable advances. In light of the vast numbers of Union dead, the public listing of the deceased grew impossible. Affected families were allowed to endure the devastating news in private from their mailboxes.

That decorated mailbox along the highway strikes me as a metaphor for extreme politics. The US postal system or, any other federally funded service simply wouldn’t exist.

For example, the bridge those residents must cross to get to Boise is connected by a span built by agencies of FDR’s New Deal. The forest fires that seasonally threaten that little enclave, are fought through funds from the Department of the Interior. 

More national programs underscore the absurdity of that little loaf of painted aluminum. Flood control, WIC nutrition,Title 1 education funds, Medicare and Medicaid, all making life better for that little rural residence. 

The South lost the Civil War because the people and their leaders lacked both organization and vision. All these “dissatisfied countrymen” to use Lincoln’s words understood only grievance and fury. No sense of unity, even under the threat of defeat could, for example, force Georgia to send troops to General Lee in Virginia. 

The politics of simmering outrage is aimless and fruitless. Leaders who promote incendiary hogwash for their short-term gain leave followers riled, and dangerous, as the opportunists move on. 

Like on January 6, 2021.

Gail Chumbley is a history educator and author. Her works include “River of January” and “River of January: Figure Eight,” both available on Kindle.

gailchumbley@gmail.com

Richer Than Myth

We all closed our eyes and directed to imagine a stage play. The lights dim to darkness and the curtains open revealing a maid busy at a fireplace feather dusting the mantel.

I dutifully shut my eyes envisioning white marble and busts of philosophers as the servant did her thing.The instructor asked us to further imagine the play’s star dramatically entering from the wings. She asked what would we do as an audience? Clap of course, because the story is about to begin.

Right?

And that dear reader is the model history educators have employed for eons. America was just waiting for white folks to appear, so the story could begin. The implication is that nothing of significance had yet happened. Just the maid dusting the mantel.

To accept that John Wayne or James Arness won the west is but a myth for films and television. American history in noway resembles an episode of The Waltons. The reality of the narrative, stripping away the fiction is much richer when including the whole story.

Mining and ranching customs in America are largely of Spanish origin. Standard size horses spread northward from Mexico as escapees from Hernan Cortes and other conquistadors. The rendezvous system came to be under the French, and their Huron fur-trading partners. From totems, to kivas, to longhouses indigenous people developed distinct cultures. New World foods like corn and potatoes conquered Europe, and African exploitation introduced American traditions in music, food and language.

In short, the story of America didn’t start with Plymouth Rock, nor Jamestown. It isn’t sunbonnet madonnas, bravely trudging west, or white hatted heroes saving the day.

No clear lines separate villains from heroes. If the myth makes you feel good, watch “Lonesome Dove,” or “The Alamo.” Keep in mind both are works of fiction. If it’s accuracy you’re after, crack a history book, or catch a Ken Burns documentary.

Gail Chumbley is the author of the two-part memoir River of January, and River of January: Figure Eight. Both available on Kindle.

gailchumbley@gmail.com

Breaking Point

No beating around the bush. These seditionists inside the halls of Congress are damn dangerous. Something that requires violence as a solution is no solution. Never has been. Those two drama queens from Colorado and Georgia have no answers, only an odd sense of chaotic victimhood. Same goes for Cruz and Hawley.

As Tom Petty aptly titled the mindset, these scoundrels are Rebels Without a Clue.

South Carolina Congressman Preston Brooks was much the same. The young man had a Velcro sensibility to perceived wrongs, and could lash out unexpectedly. Raised in the Southern canon of the code duello, Brooks believed physical retribution a necessity to defend honor. Years before he came to Washington, the young man challenged another he believed had insulted his father, Whitfield Brooks. For his trouble young Preston carried a cane and a limp for the rest of his short life.

Hate was in the very air of Capitol Hill during the 1850’s. The “irrepressible conflict,” slavery, weighed heavily among its members.

The question at that moment, concerned the extension of slavery into expanding territories. One law after another had allowed or limited the peculiar institution to migrate across the Mississippi River. This was also when Brooks arrived from South Carolina to take his seat in the House of Representatives.

The admission of Kansas cut from Nebraska Territory drove the headlines of the day. Would the Nebraska Territory split into two new states, one free, and one slave? The decision came at a critical moment challenging the delicate equilibrium in the Senate.

Into this tinderbox stepped Senator Charles Sumner of Massachusetts and his powerful speech that gripped not only Congress but the agitated nation. Titled “The Crime Against Kansas,” this staunch abolitionists and orator cursed the institution of slavery and belittled people of the south as enamored with the “harlot slavery.”

That oratory was all the spark necessary to ignite Congressman Preston Brooks.

Following Senator Sumner’s two-day denunciation, the chamber quieted, and members wandered in and out, chatting or working at their fixed desks. Charles Sumner himself, was seated on the Senate floor, focusing on the work before him. That was the moment Rep Brooks sidled up behind the preoccupied lawmaker.

Brooks made some remarks at the Senator’s desk, then lifted his cane and came down hard on Sumer’s head. Over and over the provoked South Carolinian beat his quarry, who found himself trapped halfway between his chair and bolted desk. Finally Brooks ceased, and exited the Senate floor. Sumner was a bloody mess.

In the following days Preston Brooks was reviled and feted by enemies and compatriots. As a point of order, the young Representative resigned his seat and left for home.

Gifts of canes were sent to this Southern hero who had demonstrated to those Yankees the price of loose talk.

The episode accomplished nothing of substance. Nothing. Brooks died of some damn thing soon after, and Charles Sumner survived to later take a Jehovah-like revenge on the defeated Confederacy.

Why does this matter? How does this concern Brobert, Greene, Cruz, and Hawley? Because America is a nation of laws. When these yahoos stoop to assault and insurrection it never turns out how it started. Methodical lawmaking takes more thought, analysis, and compromise than these media-starved exhibitionists possess.

Take it from me, the past does matter. Deja Vu.

Gail Chumbley is the author of the two-part memoir, River of January and River of January: Figure Eight. Both titles are available on Kindle or at http://www.river-of-january.com.

gailchumbley@gmail.com

The Crime Against America

From NBC News.

The man in the portrait is mid-19th Century Senator Charles Sumner of Massachusetts.

A fierce opponent of slavey, Sumner delivered a scathing speech titled, “The Crime Against Kansas,” denouncing the proposed addition of a new slave state from Nebraska Territory. After his two-day denunciation of the “peculiar institution” the Senator was beaten in the Senate chamber, nearly to death, by a defender of slavery.

This symbol of slavery, waved by a domestic terrorist is especially repulsive.

And this Judas has no idea.

Gail Chumbley is the author of the two-part memoir, “River of January,” and “River of January: Figure Eight.” Both titles available at http://www.river-of-january.com, or on Kindle.

gailchumbley@gmail.com

Gratuitous Harms

“The earth is the mother of all people, and all people should have equal rights upon it.” Chief Joseph of the Nez Perce

Hopefully a majority of Americans agree that the time has come to change administrations in Washington. Joe Biden and Kamala Harris will usher in a presidency of competence and dignity. Howard University, where Harris did her undergraduate work, is proud of her selection as Joe Biden’s running mate, and Howard alumni are bursting with pride. This ticket is honestly historic.

Still . . .

I am troubled by the trumpeting of Senator Harris’ connection to Howard University as positive while other historic figures are dismissed for living their lives within the constraints of their time. Please don’t misunderstand. A number of “dead white guys,” from the past have it coming, committing gratuitous harms beyond the scope of humanity and justice. Slavery was and is such an abomination, but not America’s only sin. 

That is where General Oliver Otis Howard comes in. A Civil War general, a recipient of the Congressional Medal of Honor, and one-time president and namesake of Howard University.   

Born and bred in Maine, Oliver Otis Howard opposed slavery as did many Americans north of the Mason-Dixon Line. A West Point graduate, Howard entered the Civil War commanding a volunteer unit from his home state— leading his men from the First Bull Run, to Antietam, to Gettysburg, and on to Sherman’s March Through Georgia.

His work with aiding newly emancipated blacks after the war brought attention to Howard’s concern for civil rights, leading to Howard’s appointment as Commissioner of the Freedman’s Bureau, and later President of Howard University, a traditionally black institution.

However . . .

By 1874 this same General, O.O. Howard returned to the regular Army, where he was sent out West as the Commander of the Department of the Columbia. That was where General Howard who, in 1877, set out to vanquish the Nez Perce in what is today Central Idaho. 

The General doggedly pursued Chief Joseph and his 250 followers through what is now western Montana. Joseph succeeded in evading Howard and his forces for nearly eleven hundred miles, where the Nez Perce were finally stopped within 40 miles of freedom across the Canadian border. Exhausted, the Nez Perce were forced onto the reservation in Idaho. 

Following the Nez Perce episode Howard set out to apprehend the Bannock and Piute nations further south.

Why was this actively Christian man and abolitionist kind to newly freed blacks, and a killer of Natives? The answer is simple-Indians had land to confiscate, and freedmen had nothing. 

It is perilous to celebrate or reject historic figures outright for one facet of their lives. Not one of us can pass scrutiny based on the moment of our worst actions. While General Howard showed admirable humanity with one underclass of Americans, that behavior did not transfer to another.

Gail Chumbley is the author of the two-part memoir “River of January,” and “River of January: Figure Eight.” Both titles are available on Kindle.

gailchumbley@gmail.com

Mixed Emotions

This is a reprint of an earlier post.

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It’s been uncomfortable to watch the media coverage from Louisiana about the removal of General Robert E Lee’s statue in New Orleans. As a life-long student of the Civil War the idea of removing reminders of our nation’s past somehow feels misguided. At the same time, with a strong background in African American history, I fully grasp the righteous indignation of having to see that relic where I live and work. Robert E. Lee’s prominence as the Confederate commander, and the South’s aim to make war rather than risk Yankee abolitionism places the General right in the crosshairs of modern sensibilities. Still, appropriating the past to wage modern political warfare feels equally amiss.

Robert Edward Lee was a consummate gentlemen, a Virginia Cavalier of the highest order. So reserved and deliberate in his career was Lee, that he is one of the few cadets who graduated West Point without a single demerit. Married to a descendent of George and Martha Washington, Mary Anna Randolph Custis, Lee added stature to his already esteemed pedigree. (The Lee-Custis Mansion, “Arlington House” is situated at the top of Arlington National Cemetery. And yes, this General was a slave holder, however he appears to have found the institution distasteful).

When hostilities opened in April of 1861, the War Department tapped Lee first to lead Union forces, so prized were his leadership qualities. But the General declined, stating he could never fire a gun in anger against his fellow countryman, meaning Virginians.

On the battlefield Lee was tough to whip, but he also wasn’t perfect, despite his army’s thinking him so. Eventually, after four years of bloody fighting, low on fighting men and supplies–facing insurmountable odds against General Grant, the Confederate Commander surrendered at Appomattox Courthouse, Virginia.

Meeting Lee face-to-face for the first time to negotiate surrender terms, Ulysses Grant became a little star-struck himself in the presence of the General, blurting out something about seeing Lee once during the Mexican War.

After speaking with General Grant, in a letter addressed to his surrendering troops Lee instructed, By the terms of the agreement Officers and men can return to their homes. . .

But Robert E. Lee’s story doesn’t end there.

Despite outraged Northern cries to arrest and jail all Confederate leaders, no one had the nerve to apprehend Lee. And that’s saying a lot considering the hysteria following Lincoln’s assassination, and assassin John Wilkes Booth’s Southern roots. The former general remained a free man, taking an administrative position at Washington College, now Washington and Lee University, in Lexington, Virginia. It was in Lexington that exhausted Lee died in 1870, and was  buried.

Robert E. Lee led by example, consciously moving on with his life after the surrender at Appomattox. He had performed his duty, as he saw it, and when it was no longer feasible, acquiesced. He was a man of honor. And from what I have learned regarding General Lee, he would have no problem with the removal of a statue he never wanted. Moreover, I don’t believe he would have any patience with the vulgar extremists usurping his name and reputation for their hateful agenda.

This current controversy isn’t about Robert E Lee at all. It’s about America in 2017.

Gail Chumbley is the author of the two part memoir, River of January and River of January: Figure Eight. Also available on Amazon.

New Birth of Freedom

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We all know the story.

On a mild April night, President and Mary Lincoln attended the final performance of the popular comedy, “Our American Cousin,” at Ford’s Theater. Lincoln, by all accounts was in a light, blissful mood. A week earlier Confederate forces commanded by Robert E. Lee had surrendered at Appomattox Courthouse, Virginia, and except for some dust ups, the Civil War had ceased. We also know that John Wilkes Booth, and fellow conspirators plotted to kill, not only the President, but the whole order of presidential succession; Vice President Andrew Johnson, Secretary of State William Seward, etc . . . but only Booth followed through with that night’s violence.

Andrew Johnson took office in a whirlwind of shifting circumstances. In the year up to President Lincoln’s death a notable power struggle had taken shape between the President and Congress. America had never before endured a civil war, and the path to reunion had never been trod. As President, Lincoln believed the power to restore the Union lay in the executive branch—through presidential pardon. But an emerging faction in the Republican Party, called the Radicals saw the issue differently. These men operated from the premise that the Confederate States had indeed left the Union—committed political suicide at secession—and had to petition Congress for readmission. (Congress approves statehood). And this new president, Andrew Johnson, was determined to follow through with Lincoln’s policies.

Unfortunately, Johnson was by temperament, nothing like Abraham Lincoln. Where Lincoln had a capacity to understand the views of his opponents, and utilize humor and political savvy, Johnson could not. Of prickly character, Andrew Johnson entered the White House possessed by deeply-held rancor against both the South’s Planter Class, and newly freed blacks. This new Chief Executive intended to restore the Union through the use of pardons, then govern through his strict interpretation of the Constitution. Johnson had no use for Radical Republicans, nor their extreme pieces of legislation. Every bill passed through the House and Senate found a veto waiting at Johnson’s desk, including the 1866 Civil Rights Act, and the adoption of the Freedmen’s Bureau. Congress promptly overrode Johnson’s vetoes.

Reconstruction began with a vicious power struggle. And much of the tumult came from Andrew Johnson’s inability to grasp the transformation Civil War had brought to America. While the new president aimed to keep government limited, the Radicals and their supporters knew the bloody struggle had to mean something more—America had fundamentally changed. Nearly 700,000 dead, the emancipation of slavery, the murder of Father Abraham, and a “New birth of Freedom” had heralded an earthquake of change.

But Johnson was blind to this reality, seeing only an overreaching Congress, (Tenure of Office Act) and Constitutional amendments that had gone too far. And so it was a rigid and stubborn Andrew Johnson who eventually found himself impeached by a fed-up House of Representatives. Johnson holding on to his broken presidency by a single Senate vote.

 

There have been other eras in America’s past that fomented rapid changes. The Revolution to the Constitutional period, the First World War into American isolation, the Vietnam War stirring up protest and social change. All concluding with reactionary presidencies. No less occurred with the 2016 election of Donald Trump.

2008 to 2016 witnessed social change of a new order. Administered by America’s first African-American President, Barack Obama, liberty reached further, bringing about change where once-closeted American’s hid. Gay marriage became the law of the land, upheld by the Supreme Court in Obergefell V Hodges. The trans community found their champion in Bruce, now Caitlin Jenner. Health care became available to those caught in relentless poverty and preexisting conditions. Undocumented young people were transformed into “Dreamers.” And though he didn’t take the Right’s guns, President Obama did successfully direct the mission to nab Osama bin Laden, America’s most wanted man.

So when former students began sending horrified texts to me, their old history teacher on election night, 2016, I gave the only explanation history provided. The Obama years introduced change to America that reactionaries could not stomach. (And yes, racism is certainly a large part of the equation).

So now we deal with a Donald Trump presidency. But, Mr. Trump would be wise to acknowledge and accept what has transpired in the last eight years. The thing about expanding the ‘blessings of liberty,’ is no one is willing to give them back. When push comes to shove, the new president may find himself facing the fate of Andrew Johnson.

Gail Chumbley is the author of River of January and River of January: Figure Eight. Also on Amazon.