Polk’s Rise

Great men with larger-than-life personalities … do not always make the best Presidents.  Too much of their focus is directed inward, and the needs of the electorate are overlooked (see Jackson.)  Consistency is required when dealing with momentous issues.

182px-James_Knox_Polk_by_GPA_Healy,_1858

A top ten President

James Knox Polk was the right man… in the right place, at the right time.  He was not flashy, brilliant, cagy, or diabolical as many have charged.  Polk was steady, determined, erudite, and conscientious; some might even call him boring.  His presence demanded respect, but did not inspire awe.  He possessed a keen mind and was an excellent administrator.  Simply put, he got things done, with nearly no regard for his own legacy.

For too long revisionists in academia… have kept the real Polk from us.  Hopefully this blogger has been able to shed new light on an important figure long shrouded by academic misdeeds.  Polk now sits comfortably in the top ten lists of most Presidential historians…where he belongs.

“The inestimable value of our Federal Union is felt and acknowledged by all. By this system of united and confederated States our people are permitted collectively and individually to seek their own happiness in their own way, and the consequences have been most auspicious…Our Federal Union—it must be preserved. To preserve it the compromises which alone enabled our fathers to form a common constitution for the government and protection of so many States and distinct communities, of such diversified habits, interests, and domestic institutions, must be sacredly and religiously observed. Any attempt to disturb or destroy these compromises, being terms of the compact of union, can lead to none other than the most ruinous and disastrous consequences.”

The Civil War is Being Lost

In 2013 I attended the sesquicentennial celebrations at Gettysburg.  150 years of living history, remembrance,  and understanding.

me2

I tried to describe the experience in words….

 

A week never to be forgotten– the perfect culmination to my 20+ years of reenacting – men and women from all over the country coming together for history and remembrance-

Spiritual connections–  Every reenactor on the field could feel the magnitude of the occasion, and at times it was awe inspiring.  The brave men who struggled here do speak to us, we do our best to honor their memory- by sharing the experience with the latest generation.

The real purpose-  Living history is an education experience.  Reenactors are students of the Civil War as well as a gateway to the past for spectators.  A reenactor who quits learning has already left the hobby.  There was plenty to learn this week by all in attendance…  for the sake of our country, let’s hope the lessons were embraced by everyone.

18fcd7855c3d501f195388c4af29f543

        Learning- Remembrance- Inspiration- Healing….

I believed the event had helped our country turn a corner

    I was wrong…

 

The seminal event of our history- the most written about subject in all of our history-  is being rebranded by overly-sensitive reactionaries completely disinterested in finding meaning in the sacrifice made by 715,000 Americans.

lee

James McPherson described our Civil War experience the best:

Five generations(now six)  have passed and the War is still with us…”

Douglass Out of Context

Armchair historians like Colin Kaepernick often quote Frederick Douglass when making disingenuous points about civil rights history.

Douglass is too often misquoted or valuable context is ignored, most persistently in regards to Abraham Lincoln and emancipation.

In history, context does matter.

abraham_lincoln_o-77_matte_collodion_print

 

Frederick Douglass is often cited as proof that slaves never cared for Lincoln or his deeds.  Ignoring context, Douglass is cited as the authoritative critic of Lincoln….

“you (white people) are the children of Abraham Lincoln. We are at best only his step-children.”

This disingenuous, lazy, line of reasoning…  has created a terrible myth about the creation of the civil rights movement.  Failure to place words in a proper context have terrible implications on historical interpretation.  In the same speech, Frederick Douglass explained to his predominately white audience, his true feelings for Abraham Lincoln:

“Viewed from the genuine abolition ground, Mr. Lincoln seemed tardy, cold, dull, and indifferent; but measuring him by the sentiment of his country, a sentiment he was bound as a statesman to consult, he was swift, zealous, radical, and determined…. infinite wisdom has seldom sent any man into the world better fitted for his mission than Abraham Lincoln.”  Frederick Douglass  April 14, 1876

505px-Frederick_Douglass_c1860s

Memorials to War Dead

Virginia’s Governor, his past indiscretions aside, celebrated the triumph of his party in the State legislative election by promising more iconoclasm in the Old Dominion.

      There are over 660 Confederate monuments across the United States.  A scholarly study conducted in 1982 found that nearly half of these are specifically memorializing Confederate war dead.  Another third are generic pronouncements of sacrifices made during the Civil War.  The smallest grouping denotes a celebration of “lost cause” ideology.

Durham_confederate_statue

The recent passing of the eminent Bud Robertson, chosen by John Kennedy to chair the Civil War Centennial Committee, has been largely ignored by academics(no doubt due to resentment.)  In one of his last speeches, Robertson derided current efforts to destroy all the progress made by his Centennial commission …. unity, and remembrance.

Today, Civil War history is being molded into something divided, derisive, and vengeful.  Bud may not have been at his best, but he could identify the problem:

“Elements hell-bent on tearing apart unity that generations of Americans have painfully constructed.”

Remarkable Restraint

Abraham Lincoln could have curried much political favor in the West had he ordered the executions of 303 Dakota Sioux – Instead, he reviewed each case.

Despite the crushing defeat at Second Bull Run, the horrific carnage of Antietam, and the political fallout of issuing the Emancipation proclamation Lincoln still listened to the facts of the 303 condemned to hang in the Minnesota Sioux uprising of 1862.

abraham_lincoln_by_george_peter_alexander_healy

Lincoln pardoned all but 38 of the defendants.  Nearly 800 white settlers had been slaughtered in the uprising, and the public demanded retribution.  Lincoln was not going to allow these murders to go unpunished, but he was determined to use his pardoning power judiciously.

General John Pope encouraged his Commander-in-Chief to order all 303 hangings, sighting the popularity of such a decision on the Minnesota frontier.  Lincoln famously responded,

“I could not hang men for votes…”

 

 

 

Essential Civil War Reading

  • Battle Cry of Freedom, by James McPherson.  Winner of the Pulitzer Prize, this is the best one volume account of the War told by its greatest storyteller.  It traces the conflict from Free Soil to the assassination of Lincoln in an authoritative voice that has yet to be rivaled.
  • To the Gates of Richmond, by Stephen Sears.  Only Sears could encapsulate the quagmire of McClellan’s Peninsular campaign into a single, eminently readable volume. The book brilliantly weaves multiple story-lines from common soldiers all the way to the Commander-in-Chief-  Sears proves there is no greater authority on the McClellan/Lincoln feud.
  • No Better Place to Die, by Peter Cozzens.  The rare book that definitively recounts the battle, while bringing humanity to the brave men who fought it.  Cozzens’ tactical knowledge is matched only by his exhaustive research into hundreds of primary sources.  No finer battle study has been produced- Stones River is no longer a forgotten battle.
  • Gettysburg; The Second Day, By Harry Pfanz.  No man knew Gettysburg better, Dr. Pfanz’s book is the definitive study of July 2, 1863.  By focusing on the pivotal day of the battle, Pfanz brings the sacrifices of the men into clearer perspective.  Far too much ink has been spilled on Pickett’s charge, Pfanz shows us  the battle was truly won the day before.
  • The Iron Brigade, By Alan Nolan.  More than a unit history, Nolan’s book is military history at its finest.  By tracing the unit through primary sources, from its Commanders to the private soldiers, Nolan’s book provides a rich and exciting narrative.  The detailed description of battles with the legendary Stonewall Brigade set the book apart.  This book is the standard all subsequent unit histories are measured.
  • Joshua Chamberlain: A Hero’s Life and Legacy, by John Pullen.   The perfect companion to Pullen’s regimental history of the 20th Maine, this biography of its legendary leader stands the test of time.  Pullen separates myth from fact in recounting Chamberlain’s heroic military service.  Like any great biographer, Pullen finds the man in the midst of hyperbole and legend.
Soul of a lion