Am I Entitled? Why, Yes, I Am!

I’ve been reading what people have said elsewhere lately about who’s entitled to celebrate southern heritage and Confederate heritage.  Apparently one need not have had Confederate ancestors (military or civilian), and when it comes to southern heritage one need not have lived in the South very much and perhaps not at all.

This set me to thinking.  I lived in the South(east) for ten years … four years in Virginia, three years in Tennessee, and three years in South Carolina.  Moreover, I’ve lived in Arizona for nearly twenty-two years, and, as we all know, the Confederacy claimed Arizona for its own, although it was never able to control parts of it for very long.  That means I’ve lived in areas claimed by the Confederacy for thirty-two years, far longer than my initial residency in New York.  Moreover, I’m married to a direct descendant of Confederate military personnel, and our daughter Olivia can claim Confederate ancestry.  Hey, if some people can claim a connection to Confederate heritage by biological chance, then it seems to me that one has a stronger claim to Confederate heritage if one married into it with eyes wide open.  Moreover, my great-grandfather lived in Florida after the end of Reconstruction, and attended military school there (that’s right, part of my family actually lived in the South for some time in the nineteenth century, and not as Reconstruction carpetbaggers).

And, as someone who claims to be a strong advocate of Confederate heritage has said, “To say Southerners with no Confederate ancestors cannot claim and celebrate their Confederate heritage is like saying immigrants to the US with no colonial/revolution era ancestors cannot claim and celebrate their American heritage.”  I’d say the same goes for southern heritage.  And this fellow agrees:  “I’ve always thought the Southerness you are referring to as more a matter of mind and heart more than physical location or descendancy.”  Let’s take these good folks at their word.

In short, given my life experience, I’m as entitled as anyone else to have a right to define, commemorate, and celebrate southern heritage, including Confederate heritage.  After all, there are no gatekeepers.  Nor does recognizing that I have the right (as defined by others) to indulge myself as a southerner in any way lead me to refute my American heritage or my New York roots (after all, I grew up on the South Shore of Long Island, right?).

And so there we have it.  After all, no one’s authorized to say who’s in and who’s out.

Now, I’m sure this announcement will come as a shock to some people, especially those folks who think I hate southern heritage and evilize white southerners.  That’s their problem.  I count a good number of white southerners among my friends and in-laws.  Many of my students from Wofford are good southerners, and they stay in touch.   Sure, there are some folks who I could care less about who boast about being southerners, but I don’t care about some folks who boast about being northerners (especially a few select Red Sox/Patriots fans).   I tend to judge people by who they are, not where they come from.  So I expect a few people to squeal like pigs.  Let ’em.  I like BBQ.  I like it pulled.

So, now that I’ve been made aware that I’m allowed to embrace the southerner in me, I’ll do some serious pondering on what the South (and the Confederacy) mean to me.  Y’all are welcome to tag along on my journey.

Triumph over Adversity: Ulysses S. Grant at Shiloh

Every once in a while it pays to step back from a subject you know well to process it again so that the essential facts stand in clearer relief.  Such is the case with the generalship of Ulysses S. Grant on April 6, 1862.

Make no mistake about it: Grant’s army was surprised that morning by the Confederate attack.  No, soldiers were not bayoneted while asleep in their tents, but it remains true that the Confederate assault came as a surprise to the Yankees, although Grant had shown some concern about an attack against Lew Wallace’s division at Crump’s Landing.  Moreover, in the end the responsibility for this state of surprise was Grant’s.  Yes, William T. Sherman proved ineffective in performing the task of perimeter security and intelligence gathering, and yes, Henry W. Halleck’s orders handcuffed Grant’s ability to probe southward to locate the enemy and ascertain his intentions.  In the end, however, the security and preparedness of Grant’s army was Grant’s responsibility.

However, what impresses me about Grant’s performance on April 6 was his response to what he encountered that day.  Yes, in a few instances his orders could have been clearer.  Students of the battle are well aware of the dispute that arose between Lew Wallace and Grant in the aftermath of the battle over the orders issued to Wallace to come to Grant’s aid.  Yes, Wallace was confused.  Yes, he contributed to his delay by countermarching as he did.  Yes, had Grant written orders in a clear and unmistakable way, things might have been somewhat different.  We’re all terrific armchair generals in hindsight, right?  The same can be said for directing the lead elements of Don Carlos Buell’s army to Pittsburgh Landing.  In retrospect that might have been done better as well.  Finally, we remain unsure exactly what Grant instructed Benjamin Prentiss to do on the afternoon of April 6.  Was Prentiss to hold his position at all hazards?  Did he ignore/overlook/fail to receive an order to fall back?  What orders did Grant issue?  True, given various reassessments of the fighting at the Hornet’s Nest, this might not be as important as it once was believed to be, but still, questions remain.

Finally, although it is often claimed that Grant learned from his mistakes, Shiloh offers a somewhat different story.  At Belmont and Fort Donelson, a confident Grant had overlooked what the enemy might do, and that led to his being surprised, first by the Confederate counterattack at Belmont, then by the breakout attempt at Fort Donelson.  True, in both cases he had responded well, especially at Donelson, but he had not quite learned his lesson, and it is fair to say that on the eve of Shiloh he was overconfident and unconcerned about enemy intentions.

Lost in these disputes was what Grant did, and did well.  He determined to hold his position, giving ground grudgingly, while he had a staff officer prepare a strong line of defense in the rear to use when needed.  He rallied men and sent them forward to plug gaps, consulted with his subordinates, made sure his men were supplied with ammunition, and did what he could to move Buell and Wallace to the field.  Given the panic among some Union soldiers, Grant did well to respond to what confronted him as he went from point to point under fire, all the while still dealing with the effects of a painfully bruised leg.  Moreover, he exuded a quiet confidence and determination that was sorely needed.  Not all Civil War generals would have proven equal to the situation.

Grant sensed that the Confederate attack would slow down, and that the two armies would slug it out.  Basically, that is what happened, and if the Union forces conducted a fierce fighting withdrawal, the Confederate offensive started running out of steam.  As dusk cam it was clear that the outcome remained undetermined, and, with reinforcements finally arriving, Grant was thinking about mounting a counterattack the next day (most accounts of Shiloh focus on April 6 and give short shrift to the fighting on April 7).  He made sure to make good on his pledge to “whip them tomorrow.”

Yes, Ulysses S. Grant made his mistakes at Shiloh.  He was far from a perfect general on April 6.  However, his performance when faced with extreme adversity demonstrated that he also possessed a calmness under fire that would serve him and the United States well both at Shiloh and in the years to come.  Grant survived Shiloh: it may well be that the United States survived because Grant survived.