Lee and Lincoln

As mentioned in my McLuhan "interview" this week, there is a point where the cliches of Centennial history become the actual environment itself - and thereby unexamined and invisible. These cliches then provide the foundation for new combinations of "insights" and generalizations based on the embedded skew, the effects eventually becoming wildly surrealistic - like something out of a Baudrillard essay on hyperreality. I want to share a particularly vicious example with you.

In the immediate postwar, historiographers noticed reconciliation-themed Civil War narratives becoming popular and gaining the predominant "mindshare." The assumption that "We're all Americans now" became pervasive and invisible and provided a foundation of sentiment available to Unionist Civil War authors in our own day writing what Ayers calls "nationalist" histories, e.g. McPherson, his imitators, and those authors McPherson compiles.

Say hello to "Lee the American," "Jackson, the American." Say good-bye to Lee or Jackson as oath-breaking traitors responsible for the loss of hundreds of thousands of loyalists, as the deluded military arm of a horrifying national holocaust.

The effects of "reconciliation history" pervade Centennial works. As these Centennial writings are more literary compositions than historical investigations, they require literary machinery and artifacts - heroes and villains, tensions and struggle, and a happy ending. If we are all Americans now, the doughty Lee and the spunky Jackson can be admirable, can fulfill protagonist roles - even in a history written by staunch Union men. This creates a moral imbalance that can be redressed in part through exaggerated displays of appreciation of Abraham Lincoln.

The villains in these books, then, become Unionists who let Lincoln down. Not let their country down, let Lincoln down. Honest patriots struggling with their own limitations in trying circumstances at the bottom of the red hot crucible of war are to be dressed in jester's costumes and showered with scorn: the Popes, the McClellans, the Buells, the political generals, the failures. You are invited to hiss at them.

The position of Jefferson Davis in this kind of writing tends to be ambiguous, a sure indication that you are reading a failed treatment. Davis is a shadowy supporting actor, subject to a few carping comments about micromanagement and cronyism, but immune to any suggestion of catastrophic moral failure - homicidal pride - or the possibility of evil.

Evil were the men who took arms against the rebellion and then failed to press the attack at the moment retrocatively identified as opportune.

Centennial history is a tale of the heroic Lincoln, Lee and Jackson collaborating in a wholesome drama, the retelling of which will bind us all together more strongly than ever. Lee and Lincoln, the "nothing personal" adversaries followed similar moral compasses all the while avoiding the traps and troubles set by selfish, immoral men.

These are some of the baroque effects generated from the Civil War cliches we are living now. So I am not surprised to see that Guelzo and Maxwell have become involved in a documentary called "Lincoln and Lee at Antietam."

Lincoln and Lee. Profiles in courage?

At first I thought it sad that McClellan had been demoted so far as to become a Soviet-style unperson. For you see, there is this persistent rumor that McClellan was at Antietam and that through some quirk in the command structure, might have been Lee's counterpart. There is also this idea of matching military with military, civil with civil. Lincoln and Davis. McClellan and Lee.

Then I realized that misguided though it may be, this documentary has promoted GBM. Instead of being an albatross hanging from Saint Abraham's neck, he has become ambiguously irrelevant - a benign status long enjoyed by Jefferson Davis in Centennial work.

Well, that's progress.