Thursday, July 26, 2012

Unity and Variety

Joseph T. Glatthaar’s Forged in Battle continues to move, excite, and surprise me with its excellently told account of black soldiers in the Civil War. The depth of research is astonishing; Glatthaar generally places one endnote number only at the end of each paragraph, and each note usually contains three or four references – references to letters, diaries, official army records, newspapers, and other primary and secondary sources. Yet the author consistently organizes the overwhelming mass of information into a coherent, accessible narrative.

Perhaps the most impressive feat in the display is Glatthaar’s success in showing the surprising variety of backgrounds and motivations these soldiers brought to the situation. The number of reasons not to sign up in the Union Army provides the best example. It might seem that every slave given the chance would seize the opportunity to flee his bonds and participate in an organized fight against his tyrant. But the story isn’t that simple. Some feared the fate they would meet should the Union cause fail. Some stayed in servitude to protect their families from reprisal. Some found it too hard to trust any white person, northern or southern. Some heard sadly true stories about corrupt recruiters who kept most of any black man’s signing bounty. Some were actually sold by their southern owners to the northern army and naturally saw the whole process as just one more instance of degradation.

As a result of all this resistance, the United States government supported a program that flipped my head with amazement: a program sending free black recruiters into southern cities to hold public rallies. Imagine what would have happened had Hitler sent a Nazi recruiter to stand on a platform in Times Square calling for volunteers. But it’s easy to forget that the status of the southern states as a separate country remained weirdly ambiguous throughout the war; it was not at all clear that these recruiters were invading foreign soil. And it is also hard to forget that Americans of 150 years ago didn’t automatically think of unarmed civilians as enemies or targets. Sherman’s march would come soon, but Japanese interment camps and My Lai lay a century in the future.

Reading about all this kaleidoscopic variety brings to mind a passage from Kevin Arnold’s narration in the first episode of The Wonder Years:
I think about the events of that day
Again and again
. . . . . . . . .
Whenever some blowhard starts talking about
The anonymity of the suburbs
Or the mindlessness of the TV generation,
Because we know
That inside each one of those identical boxes,
With its Dodge parked out front
And its white bread on the table
And its TV set glowing blue in the falling dusk,
There were people with stories.
But amazingly, many of the stories in Glatthaar’s book, as different as they are at first, end the same way. As he tells it (and he has a lot of material from primary cources to back this up), the men who did leave slavery to enter the Union army showed, if properly led, unusually high levels of pride in the trust given them, of eagerness to learn, of willingness to fight, and of courage under fire. One tale told over and over is that of wounded men who returned to the front to fight on. One soldier after losing a leg to a shell immediately propped himself up on a log and kept firing his musket.

They say that what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger. But sometimes, let’s face it, what doesn’t kill you makes you crippled. Not in this case, though. These men apparently uniformly took strength from their survival over terrible adversity and convinced many erstwhile naysayers that they were in fact the best soldiers in the United States Army. What made the difference? How can we – OK, how can I turn painful experience into strength and not into weakness? Part of the answer, I believe, lies in reading inspirational examples of people who got it right.

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