November 18, 2003


MY OFFICE IS A BATTLEFIELD. No, that’s not a metaphor for the state of my desk (er, well, actually it is a metaphor for the state of my desk, but that’s not what I mean). The Law School is in the Fort Sanders neighborhood, so called because it’s the site of Fort Sanders, whose siege played the decisive role in the Siege of Knoxville during the Civil War, opening the path for Sherman’s march to the sea. There were cannon, trenches, telegraph wire (substituting for barbed wire, which hadn’t quite been invented), and snipers, one of whom played an important role.

I mention this because of Antoine Clark’s remark that “I continue to despair at the difficulty that anglosphere writers have in comprehending the humiliation of occupation. Admittedly this is for the best of reasons: Washington DC was last under foreign armed occupation in 1812, London in 1066.” (Arguably, of course, London remains under foreign armed occupation, but we’ll let that pass by.)

In fact, of course, the American South knows what it’s like to lose a war, and to be occupied, which may possibly explain why the American South is also far more military-minded than other parts of the United States — or, for that matter, than London. And the American South certainly didn’t like being occupied. Reconstruction was very unpopular, and my grandmother can still tell stories that she heard from her grandmother about Union soldiers passing through and stripping the place bare of everything except what they were able to hide, and of the years (decades, really) of privation that followed the war.

But American southerners know something that apparently a lot of other people seem to have trouble with: how to lose a war and not hold a grudge. (Much of one, anyway). The monument shown above illustrates that; it sits about a block from my office (click the picture for a bigger image; you can see a closeup of the inscription here if that’s too hard to read on your display). As late as the Spanish-American War, there was considerable doubt about whether southerners would turn out to fight for the United States. They did. (My great-grandfather was one of them).

There are a lot of reasons for that, but the American experience of reconciliation after one of the world’s bloodier and more divisive conflicts is one that perhaps ought to get more attention. It may be that, like so many things American, it is exceptional. But maybe not.

Meanwhile, with the Civil War in mind, reader Gregory Birrer points out that Europe never changes:

I have been reading a little book I picked up while in Gettysburg recently, entitled, “Memoranda During The War” by Walt Whitman. It is a compilation of his notes from about 3 years worth of visits to War hospitals in and around Washington D.C. from 1862 – 1865. Toward the end he inserts some interesting political commentary (mixed in with a variety of topics) that sounds as if it could have been written today. Here’s the piece:

Attitude of Foreign Governments toward the U.S. during the War of 1861-’65 -
Looking over my scraps, I find I wrote the following during 1864, or the latter part of ’63: The happening to our America, abroad as well as at home, these years, is indeed most strange. The Democratic Republic has paid her to-day the terrible and resplendent compliment of the united wish of all the nations of the world that her Union should be broken, her future cut off, and that she should be compell’d to descend to the level of kingdoms and empires ordinarily great!There is certainly not one government in Europe but is now watching the war in this country, with the ardent prayer that the united States may be effectually split, crippled, and dismember’d by it. There is not one but would help toward that dismemberment, if it dared. I say such is the ardent wish to-day of England and of France, as governments, and of all the nations of Europe, as governments. I think indeed it is to-day the real, heart-felt wish of all the nations of the world, with the single exception of Mexico–Mexico, the only one to whom we have ever really done wrong, and now the only one who prays for us and for our triumph, with genuine prayer.

Is it not indeed strange? America, made up of all, cheerfully from the beginning opening her arms to all, the result and justifier of all, of Britain, Germany, France, and Spain – all here – the accepter, the friend, hope, last resource and general house of all – she who has harm’d none, but been bounteous to so many, to millions, the mother of strangers and exiles, all nations – should now I say be paid this dread compliment of general governmental fear and hatred?…….Are we indignant? alarm’d? Do we feel wrong’d? jeopardized? No; help’d, braced, concentrated, rather.

We are all too prone to wander from ourselves, to affect Europe, and watch her frowns and smiles. We need this hot lesson of general hatred, and henceforth must never forget it. Never again will we trust the moral sense nor abstract friendliness of a single government of the world.

“Never again?” Apparently, we need to be reminded from time to time. European hopes for our descent were frustrated then by the greatness of the American spirit, which both ended the war and — more importantly — managed to build a great nation without bitterness. May it be so again. And may the Europeans who resent it continue to gnash their teeth.

UPDATE: Virginia Postrel has observations.