Academic journal article Southern Cultures

General Longstreet and Me: Refighting the Civil War. (Essay)

Academic journal article Southern Cultures

General Longstreet and Me: Refighting the Civil War. (Essay)

Article excerpt

Reading Tony Horwitz's Confederates in the Attic: Dispatches from the Unfinished Civil War, with its account of the vicissitudes of the battlefield reenactments and reenactors of the long-ago war, causes me to confront the fact of my own Confederate past. Although I never affected authentic battle garb, dined on rancid bacon and parched corn, or exchanged black-powder volleys with imitation Bluebellies, there was a time when I too fancied myself a latter-day Wearer of the Gray and viewed the Fall of Richmond as a replication of the Fall of Man. As my friend and long-ago teacher the late C. Vann Woodward remarked in later years, "You had a bad case of it."

To understand properly what was going on back then, it is necessary first of all to keep in mind several facts. One is that I was raised in the South at a time when the young were still schooled to think in terms of Us and Them. Another is that at the time of the Civil War my own great-grandparents were residents either of New York City or central Europe, and my one ancestral tie with the embattled Confederate army was collateral--a great-great uncle who died thirty years before I was born. Thus there was a considerable element of desideratum involved, an urge to attest membership in a community to which my own ties were historically of comparatively recent origin.

There was more than a touch of the ridiculous about the whole business--by which I mean not my identification with the South, which was quite natural and in no way remarkable, but my zeal for the military fortunes of the Confederate Army. For insofar as martial skills went, it is quite likely that I was the most ungifted recruit who ever made an absolute ass of himself in basic infantry training at Fort McClellan, Alabama, during World War II. Had I been alive and of age in 1861, it is probable that my military career would have resembled that of the South Carolina poet Henry Timrod, who after a brief, inglorious period in uniform was sent back home to be a newspaper war correspondent, for which he likewise proved singularly unsuited.

I could suggest that the intensity of my Confederate identification was in the nature of compensation for my own military ineptitude, but in all honesty I do not believe it was. For the truth was that zeal predated ineptitude, and also that in those days my imagination bore little or no relationship to actuality. It was as if the realm in which my thoughts and fancies operated, not just upon occasion but habitually, had nothing whatever to do with the details of my everyday existence. In the same way in which, though an inept baseball player, I was quite certain that I was due for a miraculous access of skill and coordination that would convey me to the major leagues, so was I fully capable of ignoring my inability to keep a rifle barrel pointed accurately at a target. Such shortcomings were to be totally ignored; they simply did not matter.

As a child and youth in the South during the late 1920s and the 1930s, I was made conscious of the Lost Cause very early on. I recall visiting my grandparents in Richmond when I could not have been older than four or five, and for reasons that I do not remember, sitting out on the front steps of their house on Auburn Avenue and instructing myself that We were the Confederals, while They were the Federals.

The earliest dream I can recollect is of being taken by my nurse to Hampton Park in Charleston, South Carolina, and there approaching a familiar pathway with green wooden posts on either side. As I watched, from the right-hand post materialized a file of soldiers who strode one at a time across the pathway and vanished into the post at the left. No words were spoken; like silent sentinels walking guard the soldiers faced straight ahead. It may have been that I had been told that a Confederate Reunion was taking place in the park. For whatever reason, the soldiers in my dream were Confederates and wore the Gray. …

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