Saturday, September 10, 2011

Peabody's Improbable History

The Rocky and Bullwinkle Show almost always included a segment called "Peabody's Improbable History." Every episode started with a bespectacled dog saying, "Peabody here. And this is my boy, Sherman." The ingenious Peabody would then describe a famous moment in history and take Sherman into his invention, the Way-Back Machine, to travel in time and witness the event first-hand. Of course, things were never as Peabody expected, and he spent most of the episode trying to "fix" history -- teaching da Vinci's model, for instance, how to give a half smile. Hence the Improbability.

The American Civil War offers many tales of improbable history, and in a curious coincidence, some of those improbable tales involve a man named Sherman. (According to the interwebs, Mr. Peabody even went to visit General Sherman once. But I don't see a synopsis of the episode, and I don't remember it.) Bruce Catton tells a part of the improbable history of William Tecumseh Sherman in A Stillness at Appomattox. In this final installment of his history of the Union's Army of the Potomac, Catton follows his main character -- the Army itself -- through a story arc that starts with glorious hope, moves through disillusionment and then acceptance of a new style of war, escalates to a determination that will keep men fighting day after day without even food or sleep, and then finishes with a most unexpected celebration of victory.

The motivating element in this plot is the new kind of war. The years 1861-1864 saw two wars between blue and gray. In the war everyone thinks of, the opposing armies wore those colors. The other war Catton writes about was a struggle between romanticism and utility, between a view of war as pavilions and pennants under blue skies and and a view of war as a dark, descending road paved with gray headstones. Both North and South started the Civil War with volunteer armies singing "The Battle Cry of Freedom." Both ended with drafted armies whose members knew the ultimate cost of desertion. According to Catton, as the Army of the Potomac lined up for its last charge (a charge preempted by Lee's surrender), "the sunlight gleamed brightly off the metal and the flags, and once again, for a last haunting moment, the way men make war looked grand and caught at the throat, as if some strange value beyond values were incomprehensively mixed up in it all." The men glimpse a memory of the Golden Age, but the incomprehensible value beyond values is only a ghost by this time, replaced by Grant with a grisly acknowledgement that the side with the most men and guns must simply fight continually, accepting daily death as the cost of inevitable victory. It's not a pleasant philosophy to hold, but it works in war. It was the philosophy that stormed Normandy. Catton says that while many of the veteran soldiers in the army still worshiped the dashing and inspiring General McClellan and agreed that the quality of the army had deteriorated since 1862, they also agreed that if Grant had been in command from the beginning, the war would have ended three years earlier.

Now here's the improbable part. Near the end of the war, Lincoln, Grant, and Sherman met to discuss the final strategy. "It was a curious business," says Catton. "The Confederacy had no more effective foes than these men. . . . Yet it was these three who were most determined that vindictiveness and hatred must not control the future." While many in the northern Congress and Cabinet wanted to see Jefferson Davis and his like hanged after the conclusion of the war, Lincoln in his second inaugural asked Americans to show malice toward none and charity for all. Grant responded to Lee's surrender by letting the southern soldiers return to their farms with their guns and horses, declaring, "We are all Americans." The attitude of the leaders trickled down to the men in the ranks. Their unexpected form of celebration? According to Catton, an "enormous silence" and then a band playing "Auld Lang Syne."

But then there's Sherman. It seems very strange to hear Sherman described as "determined that vindictiveness and hatred must not control the future." Soldiers and civilians all over the south hated Sherman for generations. I've heard southerners tell me they hated Sherman, and I was born ninety-five years after the Civil War ended. But the character of the man who cut a 60-mile swath of destruction through Georgia and South Carolina may perhaps best be seen by the reaction of his last professional foe, Confederate General Joe Johnston. Johnston faced Sherman several times in northwest Georgia and then surrendered his small army to Sherman in North Carolina, over two weeks after the much more well known surrender at Appomattox. One might think that the great Confederate leader who witnessed two states going up in flames, who held on for two weeks after hope was lost, and who was forced to humble himself before what seemed like the grim reaper himself would spend the rest of his life harboring hatred for William T. Sherman. But, in the most improbable turn of all, the two ended up lifelong friends: Johnston served as a pallbearer at Sherman's funeral in 1891.

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