Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Junius and Albert's Adventures in the Confederacy: A Book Report

First off, before I get started, a new approach towards Tesla's dream is out there, and I hope it all works out. Okay, that said...

"Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité" is, for me, a valid and logical sentiment. Much of the contest of wills - as I see it -  in the US of A comes down to liberals stressing the equality part of the motto, whilst conservatives favor the liberty part. Both fail to give enough attention or support to the fraternity part. 

Junius and Albert's Adventures in the Confederacy: A Civil War Odyssey by Perter Carlson is a likeable and readable book - so likeable and readable that I got his previous K Blows Top from the library.  (It's in the pipe, as I am in the process of reading the lovely Karen Lord's Best of All Possible Worlds and then Redemption in Indigo, and I still have to get to Black Empire...). 

Junius Browne and Albert Richardson are war correspondents for the New York Tribune. Captured at Vicksburg, paroled for return to the Union, they are instead imprisoned for twenty months (no doubt for being Yankee scribblers employed by Horace Greeley's hated abolitionist newspaper, a near lynching offense). They are shuttled in jails, first incarcerated at the relatively benign Libby Prison in Richmond, then the notorious Castle Rock prison, and then finally the death camp of Salisbury Prison in North Carolina. 

I should be quick to point out that neither side in the war had a monopoly on cruelty and brutality. The Confederates had Andersonville, Belle Isle, and Salisbury, to name a few, the Union had Ft. Delaware, Rock Island, and Elmira. All took in relatively healthy men, and spat out wretched, starving, skeletonized, vermin-ridden creatures who barely resembled men. We tend to forget that the horrors of war are not a modern creation.

Serving as hospital attendants, and living in relative comfort thanks to a corrupt warden, Browne and Richardson eventually escape by simply walking out the gate of Salisbury Prison. They spend a hard two month journey through winter Appalachia, making it to the Union camp in eastern Tennessee, helped by an assortment of interesting characters.

It's a well-told tale, with larger than life characters, but there is the one flaw, in that one tends to forget how fundamentally sad it all is. Perhaps it's not a flaw, for the sadness is there, but wrapped up in an adventure yarn.

There were times that gave me pause. We tend to think of that war as black and white, good versus evil, and then are told a more sophisticated outlook is shades of grey. But grey is composed of little tiny fractal pieces of black and white, and this distinction of sophistication really comes to nothing when confronted with the vilest and most despicable - and most noble and gracious giving - behaviors of the actors in this play.

One can't help to take pause when reading something like:
Ten minutes later, they came upon another slave cabin. When the old man who lived there heard they were Yankees, he said he'd be happy to feed them. He invited them into the cabin, and introduced them to his wife and daughter. Then he went outside and killed two chickens. He stayed outside, on guard, while the women cooked the birds and the Yankees huddled near the fire, their wet clothes steaming... When the Yankees had devoured the chicken and hot cornbread, Richardson took out the bag of tea he'd smuggled out of prison. The women had never seen tea before, so he showed them how to brew it, and then the slaves and escaped prisoners sat down to an odd little tea party. Revived by the food and the tea, the Yankees thanked their host and hostesses and got up to leave. "May God bless you" the old woman said with tears in her eyes. Her husband noticed that Browne had no hat to wear on the long, cold journey, so he pulled off his own and handed it to Junius. The hat was humble - an ancient, shapeless, sweat-soaked woolen sock - but the gesture was grand. Here was a man who owned almost nothing - he did not even own himself - but he was willing to give his hat to a stranger he'd probably never see again".
When I think of Silicon Valley and Wall Street billionaires comparing themselves to Jews persecuted by Nazis, who feel they are not being properly respected, who don't have the first fucking clue what charity is, and I compare them to these grand human beings, I want to bend the rich spoiled brats over my knee and give them such a spanking as they've never had in their lives.

I can't help but think that The Confederacy is one the vilest and most evil human excretions ever exuded. I can't hate the people, though. I can hate some of the people, and mainly the rich merchants who wished to maintain the liberty of owning other people as chattel property. Far too many people of the South were either actively opposed, or involuntarily entrained, in that horrid and wholly undemocratic festering enterprise.

Appalachians, for example, viewed it as a "rich man's war, poor man's fight" (and how often has that sentiment rung down through time?).
"In the South's vast flatlands, society was dominated by rich men who owned large plantations and many slaves, and who considered themselves aristocrats. In the mountains, where the land was unsuited for plantation agriculture, few people owned slaves and most families scratched a living growing corn, raising hogs, and shooting deer. The flatland aristocrats controlled the state governments and mocked the mountaineers as ignorant, uncultured hillbillies. Proud and a bit prickly, the mountaineers detested the aristocrats as haughty, greedy, and arrogant. William G. "Parson" Brownlow, the acid-tongued Methodist preacher who edited the Knoxville Whig, summed up the mountaineers' attitude: 'We have always despised, in our heart of hearts, a hateful aristocracy in this country, based on the ownership of a few ashy Negroes, and arrogating to themselves all the decency, all the talents, and all the respectability of the social circle'. The flatland aristocrats reacted to Abraham Lincoln's election by demanding their states secede from the Union, but most mountaineers didn't see Lincoln as threat to their way of life. In the wave of secession conventions in 1861, most delegates from mountain counties in Georgia, Alabama, Virginia, North Carolina, and Tennessee voted against secession".
It is the worst form of historical irony how those who opposed the Confederacy have, over time been rewarded. Some of the poorest and endemically poverty-stricken areas are those mountain counties,  and let's not forget the plight of the enslaved and their descendents. Multiply this by the comfortable and prosperous lives so many of Secessia enjoyed after the war, and still do to this day. It is a stain this nation will never blot out.

The war never did end, did it? The North may of won the war, but the South won the peace. We are still struggling with the inequities and injustices, and the sentiment I voiced before still awaits fulfillment, ""Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité". 

Did I say fraternity? Hardly, it really should be "sororité". The inescapable fact throughout the book, and history, is that, it may be men who are the breadwinners and fighters most of the time, but always, always, it is the women who are bone and sinew of our society. There is the beautiful Melvina Stephens, who guides escaped prisoners past Rebel encampments. A chapter is devoted to her, but really, not enough mention is made to the heroines in this book. But they are there, holding society together. I pay these redoubtable and truly courageous creatures too short a shrift. They deserve more. 

The escaped prisoners come to a cabin inhabited by Mrs. Welborn and her daughters. Keep in mind they are little better than tramps, their clothes in tatters, filthy and lice-ridden:
"It was a large cabin, divided into three rooms, with white curtains on the windows and pictures cut from newspapers decorating the walls. The girls gave up their beds so the visitors could sleep in comfort. In the morning, Mrs. Welborn made a breakfast while her two youngest daughters, aged four and six, stood guard outside, watching for anybody coming up the road that passed by the cabin. When a local woman of dubious loyalties wandered up the road, Mrs. Welborn and one of her daughters casually stood in the doorway, blocking the view into the cabin while the Yankees scrambled to hide. After breakfast, the girls reported a squad of Confederate cavalry was riding up the road. Mrs. Welborn motioned to her visitors to hide under the beds. Then she walked out to the porch and casually bantered with the horsemen for several minutes, feigning nonchalance, until they rode off. 'All is safe, boys' she announced." 
 In all, as I said, it's a fundamentally sad book posing as an adventure tale, and a buddy story, but you'll get the idea if you read it.

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