Wednesday, January 14, 2009

W@H: The Passing of the Armies

Walked around my good intentions And found that there were none I blamed my father for the wasted years We hardly talked Never thought I would forget this hate Then a phone call made me realize I'm wrong --Our Lady Peace, "4 A.M." We move out of the Garden -- the world where silly little women tread -- and in to the Wilderness, the world of real men. Please, provide your own soundtrack. I'd suggest the theme song from Two and a Half Men. Failing that, go with the "Men in Tights" song from Robin Hood: Men in Tights I introduced this entire project with the Father Wound. For that matter, I introduced the Father Wound before I knew I was going to do anything beyond it. There's a lot of talk of absent fathers these days. There are more single mothers and absent fathers than ever before. There are more sons growing up without a male influence in their lives. There are more men leaving the house before the sun rises to sit in an office and come back long after the sun sets, then going and sitting in front of the television and ignoring their children. This is ruining the male gender faster than anything in history, leaving boys with questions they never have answered and wounded deep down in their souls. Things were better back in the olden days when men were allowed to be men and knew how to raise their sons to be men, too. Things were better before the race of men failed in their sacred duty. We're a society of wusses now, boys who stay boys even when trapped in the bodies of men. Eldredge says this. Bly says this. The nightly news says this. It makes complete sense. It is, of course, utter and complete bullshit. Men throughout history have had a bad habit of not being in the home. During the days when the only way crops could be grown or buildings raised was with back breaking labor men were gone from before the sun rose until after the sun set. They also had this horrible habit of being conscripted in to armies at the behest of some royal with a bone to pick with some other royal. They'd be gone for months or years at a time, assuming they ever returned at all. The American Civil War was one of the worst examples of warfare in the history of the human race. I've been studying the Civil War since I was in the third or fourth grade and it's why I stand before you today as a pretend internet historian with a real degree and a real membership in the Phi Alpha Theta National History Honors Society. I know the Civil War. One of the most interesting things about the Civil War is the issue of the reputation of its two greatest generals: Robert E. Lee and Ulysses S. Grant. Grant was a colorful figure in American history. He was part of a West Point class that sent some of the most brilliant military minds in history to Mexico as Captains and Majors, then split between North and South and lead the next generation of American boys to their deaths by the thousands, tens of thousands, and hundreds of thousands. We remember Grant as a victorious general and a failure of a President, but we don't remember that Grant was a failure at basically everything. He barely made it to the Civil War, you see. He was mustered out of the Army after the war with Mexico and tried his hand at farming. He married in to a family that had pretensions of gentility and tried to start his own farm. Gentlemen farmers throughout history have named their farms. Remember Tara, the plantation from Gone with the Wind? That was the name of the ancient home of the Irish high kings. We remember Jefferson's Monticello and Washington's Mount Vernon, farms that call forward a sense of place, of power, of substance. Grant called his farm Hardscrabble. The war, to him, was a relief. He'd failed as a farmer and as a shopkeeper. He almost didn't make it in to the volunteer Army due to his reputation for alcoholism and less than spit and polish style. But he pulled in some favors and got a command. He then took Forts Henry and Donelson, marched down the Mississippi, fought at Shiloh in the then most bloody day of the war. As Grant fought and won in the west, a series of generals in the far more visible east did nothing for the Union cause. George McClellan mostly sat on the banks of the Potomac and drilled his army, listening to reports from the Pinkertons that the Confederates had massed impossibly huge armies in Virginia. When McClellan finally moved to launch the disasterous Penninsula Campaign, he was driven back by the newly installed commander of the Army of Northern Virginia: Robert E. Lee, widely regarded as one of the finest commanders in military history. After that a succession of Union generals failed to take the fight to Lee. Finally, July of 1863 began with the four most auspicious days for the Union in the war. July 1st, 2nd, and 3rd marked the battle of Gettysburg. On July 4th Vicksburg surrendered to Grant's forces. When George Meade, the Union commander at Gettysburg, failed to pursue Lee for several days, allowing his battered army to slip back in to Virginia, Lincoln put Grant in charge of the entire Union Army over the protestations of, well, everyone pretty much. "I cannot spare this man," Lincoln famously said of Grant, "He fights." And fight Grant did. He took the Army of the Potomac south, engaged Lee and stuck with the fight. The cost to the Union from then on was horrific and to a war-weary populace accustomed to fairly placid reports from a front commanded by timid generals, Grant was widely regarded as a butcher. His opponent, meanwhile, is seen as a proper gentleman, beloved by his troops. Lee, in fact, came out of the Civil War with a reputation second only to Abraham Lincoln himself, no mean feat considering that he fought for the losing side. Lee's reputation as a gentleman and Grant's reputation as a slovenly butcher obscure one of the most interesting facts of the war: in terms of percentage, more of men died under Lee's command than Grant's. And all of this, surprisingly enough, brings us back to Wild at Heart.
I'm struck by the poignancy of the scene at the end of the Civil War, just after Appomattox, where General Robert E. Lee has just surrendered to General Ulysses S. Grant. For five years Lee has lead the Army of Northern Virginia through some of the most terrible trials men have ever known. You would think they'd be glad to have it over. But Lee's men hang upon the reins of his horse and beg him not to go, plead for one more chance to "whip those Yankees." Lee had become their father, had given those men what most of them had never had before -- an identity and a place in a larger story. --John Eldredge, Wild at Heart (102)
Leave aside for the moment that the Civil War lasted four years and a month. Leave aside the fact that Lee was commanding a desk in Richmond for most of that first year. This scene never happened. It does not appear in James McPherson's Battle Cry of Freedom. It does not appear in Bruce Catton's This Hallowed Ground. Most damning, it does not appear in The Passing of the Armies, the personal memoir of Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain, the Union Major General put in charge of accepting the surrender of the Army of Northern Virginia. In fact, I'll let Chamberlain speak for himself about that day, watching the battle standards of an army he had fought for three years.
Ah, is this Pickett's Division?--this little group left of those who on the lurid last day of Gettysburg breasted level cross-fire and thunderbolts of storm, to be strewn back drifting wrecks, where after that awful, futile, pitiful charge we buried them in graves a furlong wide, with names unknown! Met again in the terrible cyclone-sweep over the breastworks at Five Forks; met again now, so thin, so pale, purged of the mortal,--as if knowing pain or joy no more. How could we help falling on our knees, all of us together, and praying God to pity and forgive us all! --Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain, The Passing of the Armies
It surprises me that this never occurred to me until now, but the only place I've heard that anecdote is in Wild at Heart. Chamberlain, far from an angry, defiant, unbroken force, paints a portrait of an army that is no longer capable of putting up a fight. Gordon, the general at its head, marched with his head down until the Union troops paid the respect due an honored, fallen foe. One soldier, according to Bruce Catton, turned in his rifle and said he'd been trying to get rid of it for two years. If Robert E. Lee at Appomattox is Eldredge's example of what a good father should be, we should all be afraid of the generation of men he wants to raise. Lee gave the Army of Northern Virginia a story, all right. Sadly, most of the men in the story didn't get to hear the end. Now, in the interests of providing what charity is available, I suppose it's possible that he's channeling the scene before Pickett's Charge from the movie Gettysburg. In that scene, which may or may not be a flight of cinematic fancy (I find the movie Gettysburg fascinating. On one level it is highly historically accurate but on another it ties itself to the worst of film making conventions. For instance, after Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain led the 20th Maine in to history with its charge down Little Round Top his regiment spent the final day of the battle atop Big Round Top. In the movie he's given orders to move to the center of the Union line and arrives just in time for us to see a series of shots of Jeff Daniels hiding from the Confederate bombardment behind a wagon. Given that we've already been presented with a movie of epic scale and the emotional onus of the moment has shifted from the tiny 20th Maine's heroic and successful charge to Longstreet's massed infantry preparing for a futile assault and that we've been presented with Lewis Armistead's tragic charge against a wall held by men under the command of his dear friend Winfield Scott Hancock as the personal touch point to the whole affair, we don't need Jeff Daniels' face anywhere in that scene. But I digress), the Confederate soldiers who are about to die convince Lee to let them charge up the hill and take Cemetery Ridge. Given that no one knew what Pickett's Charge would become in the annals of history, that Lee ordered the assault as part of a larger move, and that it was not Lee but Longstreet who was reluctant to issue the orders, that scene is not completely believable. Still, it's more believable than Eldredge's scene at Appomattox. There's something disturbing about the irresponsibility Eldredge consistently displays in his attempts to portray an authentic manhood. He constantly goes to movies like Braveheart and Gladiator to make his point without acknowledging the simple fact that the events in Gladiator never happened and that Mel Gibson's depiction of William Wallace wasn't completely historical in nature. John Eldrege peddles the image of true manhood through a Hollywood filter without any apparent self-awareness of the consequences of his actions. In the movies the "good guys" wear white hats, the "bad guys" wear black hats, the hero triumphs and gets the girl in the end, and the day is always saved. When that doesn't happen the hero is depicted as nobly sacrificing himself for the higher good. Really, one of the places where Gettysburg gets it well and truly right is with the death of Lewis Armistead. He was ably portrayed by Richard Jordan (who died shortly thereafter of an inoperable brain tumor, making his final appearance on screen a portrayal of the tragic death of his character, and we can be assured that Jordan knew it) as a man conflicted, called by duty and horrified by the fact that his friends were dying and that the next one who fell might be at his own hand. In the end, Armistead marches to his death at the head of his men in to the guns commanded by his dear friend. There's a nobility in it, but there's a futility, too. Armistead is no William Wallace, whose death ultimately lead to something greater for his cause. He's no (fabricated) Maximus, getting his revenge in the arena against the vile and cowardly Commodus (who, was nothing in real life like he was in Gladiator). Armistead was a man who did what he felt he had to in spite of his misgivings and doubts and died at the center of what has passed in to history as one of the greatest examples of military futility. Meanwhile, for those three years under Robert E. Lee's leadership the gentlemen and scoundrels who made up the Army of Northern Virginia were apparently becoming Real Men, raised by a Real Father, those gallant men of his army were away from home. In Eldredge's own system they were providing irreparable wounds to their sons. The ones that did return home were probably broken and haunted. Some of them would undoubtedly go on to fill the early ranks of the Ku Klux Klan, or spend the post Reconstruction years running for public office in their Confederate gray uniforms. So what, really, can be said of the legacy of Robert E. Lee if we allow Eldredge to speak for him? I cannot blame Robert E. Lee for the behavior of his men after the Civil War. However, we cannot credit him for being a great father-figure either. And we should worry about anyone who paints carnage and death as a somehow heroic and fitting result of men being what men are supposed to be. We should be worried about anyone who claims that a great father is one who is willing to send his sons to their death. It only works if we take a Hollywood depiction of the world, divorced from context and consequence and modified so the actors with the most star power are put center-stage so the camera can focus on them instead of the thousands of milling extras. And we have to remember: in Eldredge's world, every man is the star actor whose face the camera loves.

9 comments:

PersonalFailure said...

John Eldrege peddles the image of true manhood through a Hollywood filter without any apparent self-awareness of the consequences of his actions. In the movies the "good guys" wear white hats, the "bad guys" wear black hats, the hero triumphs and gets the girl in the end, and the day is always saved. When that doesn't happen the hero is depicted as nobly sacrificing himself for the higher good.


i find this view of "manhood" particularly disturbing, because it has nothing to do with actual manhood: the grind of going to work every day, the frustration of caring for children, the work of maintaining a relationship. action heroes seem great, but that's because you only see them for an hour and a half to two hours. day in and day out, they probably aren't all that great.

Anonymous said...

Braveheart as a role model would be awesome if the average person saw heroism as possible.

Fiat Lex said...

Yeah. I suspect me and Anonymous and PF all agree with Geds and disagree with Eldredge here for similar reasons.

Braveheart as a model would be awesome if all the world's ills were caused by scheming, hardened villains with no interest in compromise or willingness to negotiate. And if all people who needed role models were religiously and racially persecuted lower-class minorities in oppressive feudal states.

And if all problems could be solved by fighting or dying, instead of by forming alliances with moderates, working diligently in the background, transforming the system from within where possible...y'know. Stuff that is just as hard in its own way as heroic self-sacrifice, but doesn't give a person the big hit of self-esteem.

I'm not saying I do all those things. Just that those are the sorts of things I want to see my role models doing. Since they're much more likely to be necessary in my life than fighting and dying for things.

I think though, Geds, you got a leetle tangenty here because you love Civil War history so much. Though I agree that it says very disappointing things about Eldredge that he is apparently willing to manufacture a historical incident out of whole cloth if he needs one to illustrate a point. It means he values truth and accuracy very lightly. Which is an infuriating trait, and neither manly nor womanly.

hapax said...

I beg to differ. I thought the Civil War lesson was *fascinating*, and by far the best part of the post.

But I'm pretty weak on anything that happened after 1500 or so, and most of what I learned about the War Between The States has a definite, er, bias.

I love learning new stuff.

Geds said...

Why thank you, hapax. And you've still got me beat on Church fathers. It's not that I didn't learn, it's that I wasn't paying attention...

Also, I totally did the entire Grant/Lee history thing from memory. So there might be few slightly wrong points. But I can assure you there's nothing as wildly inaccurate in there as my incorrect assertion that Augustine was single.

Fiat Lex:

I may well have to explain the reasons for my historical pedantry later in time. For the purposes of argument, though, Wild at Heart is filled with random anecdotes based on what men can learn about themselves through movies. And he doesn't seem to grasp that Mel Gibson as William Wallace was far different than William Wallace as William Wallace.

Besides, this was totally one of those posts that was far more about the journey than the destination. It was far, far different when I first wrote it. But then I went in to my parenthetical aside about the placement of the 20th Maine on day three, which brought me to Lewis Armistead and the sudden insight in to how flat-out disturbing it is to assume we can run our lives based on Hollywood's tales.

Besides, holding up Lewis Armistead as an image of manhood to counter Eldredge's images of proper Biblical manhood seems fitting somehow. And the anecdote about Richard Jordan playing a role that he could understand on a deep, visceral level runs so contrary to the Hollywood machine that insists we come to see Mel Gibson as William Wallace, not a movie about William Wallace, that I couldn't pass it up. I kind of had to be a pedant to make that happen...

Mau de Katt said...

If this is the "Biblical example" of "True Manhood," then it fits in very well with Rick Warren's example of "True Christian Youth."

I seem to see a pattern....

Geds said...

Wow. Just...wow.

I'm actually more thrown by his assertion that Communism "took China by storm" just because a bunch of people memorized Mao's little red book. I may well have to do a follow-up bit of historical pedantry about that idea, because it fits perfectly with the way these guys seem to make shit up about history that suits their needs.

Nenya said...

Geds, this might sound silly, but I'm glad you're a guy doing this crit. When I think these things, there's a small niggling voice in the back of my head going, "But you're a girl. Of course you don't understand all these Manly Man things! Maybe all Real Men agree with people like Eldredge..." Even though my dad, for all he owned this book, was never ever the kind of guy who thought his sons had to be violent to be men; in fact, he's always been very open with us about how learning to deal with his own emotions (in his mid-forties) opened up a whole new world to him. He's always been responsible, but he's also always been kind, decent, and the kind of guy who isn't ashamed to tell you what his favourite love song for his wife is or to rock his babies to sleep. Meanwhile I've never thought he was a wimp, ever.

Sorry, tangent there. :) But yeah, enjoying this, and the Civil War history was fascinating too.

Nenya said...

(Er, my point, about my dad, was that I don't think he ever *followed* the instructions in this book, though I did see it on his bookshelf. If he tried to, anyway, it definitely didn't take.)