September 29, 2014
I recently read a Civil War memoir, Company Aytch by Sam Watkins. It’s a delightful book; Margaret Mitchell, author of Gone With the Wind, said “A better book there never was.”1 Watkins’ light-hearted tone and colloquial language have reminded many readers of Mark Twain. Watkins describes the war in the Western Theater — Shiloh, Chickamauga, Atlanta, etc.
After the war, Watkins had eight children; his children remembered him writing late at night and early in the morning, sometimes laughing as he wrote, sometimes crying. Occasionally Watkins tells the reader how he feels at the time of writing; for example, when he describes the sacking of General Johnston, he says, “I lay down my pen; I can write no more; my heart is too full. Reader, this is the saddest chapter I ever wrote.” Sometimes he worries that the reader may be getting bored, as when he describes being sent to Montgomery, Alabama, with other wounded soldiers, to rest and recuperate: “Kind friends, I fear that I have wearied you with my visit to Montgomery, but I am going back to camp now, and will not leave it again until our banner is furled, never to be again unfurled.”
Watkins describes how Confederate soldiers, at least those in the Western theater, became demoralized. Initially they thought war was a great adventure, and they thought they’d beat the Yankees quickly. In fact, they worried that the war would be over before they could get in it. Then the grim reality set in: cold, hunger, death, etc. They initially enlisted for one year, but at the end of the year, the government conscripted them — forced them to remain in the army. The soldiers became hostile to the government, to the Confederate cause, and to their commanders (especially Braxton Bragg). Deserters were shot on a daily basis, but still desertion was common.
When Trotsky was in charge of the Red Army, he placed machine guns in the rear of his forces, to shoot any soldiers who tried to flee. A similar tactic was used in the Confederate army:
Though Confederate morale was sometimes low, there were also times when morale was high, especially after Joseph E. Johnston replaced the unpopular Braxton Bragg. Though Watkins occasionally loses faith in the Confederate cause, he usually says that the cause was just, states are sovereign, Confederate principles are consistent with the Constitution and the Declaration, etc.2
If states are sovereign, however, they aren’t obliged to obey the Confederate government in Richmond, and this was a problem for the Confederacy. How could the Confederate central government maintain Confederate unity if the Confederate nation was based on the principle of state sovereignty? And what about regions within a state — do they also have the right to secede from a state, and form their own state? Where does the principle of secession end? Does it end with every individual being a law unto himself?
The question of state power vs. federal power is a murky one, a question not completely settled in the Constitution, a question that has been debated throughout U.S. history. It’s not unreasonable to believe that, if states joined the Union voluntarily, they have the right to secede from the Union.3 Virginia was opposed to secession until it was asked for its quota of troops, troops that would be used to compel seceding states to come back into the Union. Surely many Virginians were sincere in believing that the principled course, at this point, was to secede. One might say that Virginia seceded for the sake of honor, seceded to save face (in an earlier issue, I said that Socrates died to save face, died because he was “too proud to publicly bow down to his enemies”).4 It wasn’t yet a war over slavery; Lincoln’s war aims, at this point, didn’t include abolishing slavery. So at this point, it looks like a war over principles, a war over different political theories, different interpretations of the Constitution.
But it can also be argued that the Civil War wasn’t fought over the principle of state sovereignty, or over any other principle. The South would have been content with a Union in which they were a majority, or a Union in which they had equal power with the North. But they were opposed to a Union in which they were a minority, a Union in which the majority was hostile to their interests and their institutions. And doubtless many Southerners felt that the North wouldn’t fight to preserve the Union, or would fight ineffectively. So secession was tempting to the South.
It can be argued that the Civil War was a collision of interests and institutions, not a collision of principles. In the absence of slavery, the South and North would still have been divided, would still have had different interests, since the South emphasized agriculture, the North industry. Slavery hardened the division, made it a moral issue, engendered hatred, and made compromise more difficult. So it could be said that the war was fought over slavery.
Perhaps we should conclude that the war was both a war of principles and a war of interests. Perhaps we should conclude this discussion as we’ve concluded so many discussions in this e-zine: truth is contradictory, truth is “both/and”. Or perhaps we should say that the root cause was slavery and other economic differences, the surface cause was different political theories, and the immediate cause (proximate cause) was honor, saving face.5
Confederate soldiers marching through Frederick, Maryland, September 12, 1862
When people are in an excited state, psychic phenomena often occur, hence we often find psychic phenomena in war, athletics, etc. Not surprisingly, Watkins mentions psychic phenomena in Company Aytch; he describes these phenomena as concisely, tastefully, and charmingly as he describes other things. He says that soldiers sometimes had a hunch, a presentiment, that they would die soon:
Watkins then describes a case of death-anticipation:
After a day of fighting,
The editor of this edition of Company Aytch, Philip Leigh, adds other examples of death-anticipation:
A Union officer, Edward Cross, anticipated his death at Gettysburg, and wore a black bandana into battle, instead of his usual red bandana.
In November, 1863, about 18 months before the end of the war, Union forces defeated the Confederates at Lookout Mountain and Missionary Ridge. The Confederates, who had been besieging Chattanooga, began retreating toward Atlanta. Their commander, Braxton Bragg, was replaced by Joseph E. Johnston, who was far more popular than Bragg. Watkins has high praise for Johnston:
After Grant broke through the Confederate siege at Chattanooga, Lincoln promoted him to commander of all Union armies, and he went east to confront Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia, leaving Sherman in charge in the West. Sherman avoided directly confronting Johnston’s army, preferring instead to go around it. Watkins is scornful:
Finally Sherman makes a frontal assault at Kennesaw Mountain, about 15 miles northwest of Atlanta. Here’s how Watkins describes the Battle of Kennesaw Mountain:
When the tide of battle was in their favor, as it was at Kennesaw Mountain, Watkins and his fellow soldiers would become elated, break into song, refuse reinforcements, etc., even though their own casualties were high. They knew the Yankees were trying to tunnel under their lines, but they were still elated: “When they had dug a tunnel under us to blow us up, we laughed, yea, even rejoiced, at the fact of soon being blown sky high. Yet, not a single man was willing to leave his post.” The thrill of victory was so intense that the Confederates were willing to die to experience that thrill: “It is a singular fanaticism, and curious fact, that enters the mind of a soldier, that it is a grand and glorious death to die on a victorious battlefield.” Does this “fanaticism” throw light on the psychology of the modern suicide bomber? Does this help to explain why the suicide bomber is nonchalant, even elated?9
One might suppose that war is about killing your enemies before they kill you. But sometimes violence is replaced by the threat of violence, and sometimes violence is abandoned completely, and replaced by socializing. Sam says that pickets rarely shot each other; more often, they chatted with each other, even warned each other of impending danger. Late in the war, Sam is given the job of scout, and he moves forward to the Union army, or rather to its advance units, and begins socializing:
Montaigne said that he was fond of history, and that his favorite kind of history was eyewitness history. Company Aytch is excellent eyewitness history. Watkins is neither a great stylist nor a deep thinker, but he carries the reader back among the Confederate soldiers as they’re marching, fighting, stealing food, etc. It’s easy to see why Margaret Mitchell said, “A better book there never was.”
This is a photo of my neighbor, Nancy Alice Messinger, in the Rhode Island State House, with a Civil War cannon, and various battle flags. Nancy was born in 1945. Her father, Norman Allen Messinger, was born in 1893. Norman’s father, George Eli Leslie Messinger, was born in 1842.10 George fought for the Union during the Civil War. When he became ill, his father joined his company in order to help him; his father was Eli Messinger (1815-1867).
This is George Messinger (left), and his father, Eli, in their Civil War uniforms.
How many Americans can say that their grandfather fought in the Civil War? Very few, perhaps less than ten.
George contracted typhoid fever and pneumonia. His will-power seemed to save him: “One evening I heard the doctor tell [my parents] that I could not live until morning. That made me determined to get well and during the night the change came for the better.”
George was in the war’s first battle, Bull Run, which was a Confederate victory, followed by a disorderly Union retreat. During the retreat, George found the tent where he had slept the previous night.
Something similar happened to Sam Watkins after the Battle of Lookout Mountain. He ended up in a sea of Union soldiers:
In the last issue, I said that I was impressed with the writing of Arnaldo Momigliano. I decided to read a 1961 essay by Momigliano called “Historicism in Contemporary Thought.”11 One might define historicism as the view that man is the product of history, of a particular historical period, and ideas are also the product of history, of a particular historical period.
Historicism is closely linked with the philosophy of history, and closely linked with Hegel, an important philosopher of history. Since my most original theory is a philosophy of history, and since I was influenced by Hegel, one might say that my work is a kind of historicism. But I would be wary of putting such a label on myself because it may carry with it beliefs that I don’t share, such as the belief that all truth is relative, the belief that free will doesn’t exist, etc.
Momigliano seems to have little interest in what I call the philosophy of history. He pays short shrift to Spengler: he says that Spengler contended that “man cannot escape the destiny imposed on him by the civilization to which he belongs.”12 In my view, however, Spengler’s key argument is that all civilizations go through a phase of decline, and then die; according to Spengler, our civilization is declining, and is on the road to death. I disagree with Spengler’s view. Momigliano neither agrees nor disagrees. Perhaps he doesn’t understand the philosophy of history, perhaps he doesn’t think any philosophy of history is possible.
Hegel was once the leader of historicism, but according to Momigliano, this position is now occupied by two German thinkers, Max Weber and Wilhelm Dilthey. Hegel’s philosophy of history talked about the evolution of the idea of God; it was intertwined with Protestant theology. Momigliano says that Weber and Dilthey have a secular historicism, “a historicism liberated from metaphysical presuppositions.”13 He distinguishes this secular historicism from that of Benedetto Croce, which “carried with it a theological inheritance of Hegelian origin.”14 He says that Raymond Aron attempted a synthesis of Weber and Dilthey in his Introduction to the Philosophy of History.15 The central question of Momigliano’s essay is, How much influence does the new brand of German historicism — the Weber-Dilthey brand — have over historians?
Momigliano’s essay is essentially a survey of modern historians. Momigliano argues that most modern historians haven’t been influenced by Weber and Dilthey; he speaks of, “a resistance to German historicism.”16 But before I discuss Momigliano’s survey, I’d like to say at the outset that I don’t think Hegel’s philosophy of history should be quickly dismissed, and I’m not convinced that Weber and Dilthey should be called philosophers of history. Hegel understood the importance of the dialectic, the importance of the conflict of opposites — what Heraclitus called enantiodromia, running toward the opposite. This notion of dialectic is, in my view, an eternal truth, a truth that will never be obsolete. It plays an important role in Eastern philosophy, in Jungian psychology, etc. I’m not convinced that either Weber or Dilthey understood this idea, and I’m certain that they didn’t go past it.
And this isn’t all that Hegel understood. When he talks about the evolution of the God idea, he’s also talking about the evolution of the human mind, consciousness, personality. So his remarks are psychological as well as theological. His ideas on evolution resemble the ideas of Freud and Jung on the evolution of the mind. For example, Jung’s Answer to Job deals with the evolution of the idea of God among the ancient Hebrews. Jung agrees with Hegel that the mind develops over the centuries. Does he agree with Hegel’s view that history has a goal? Jung felt that the development of the individual has a goal (creating a balanced personality, in which the various elements of the mind can express themselves). So it’s not far-fetched to assume that Jung would be sympathetic to Hegel’s view that history has a goal. In conclusion, I don’t think we should dismiss Hegel’s philosophy of history simply because he brings God into history, and because he justifies the religion and government of his own time.
Should Weber and Dilthey be regarded as philosophers of history? I read some of Weber’s books many years ago, and I found his remarks on Protestant civilization and Chinese civilization enlightening. But I don’t recall anything in Weber about the issue of renaissance and decadence, which I regard as the most important issue in the philosophy of history. If Weber has influenced some historians, as Momigliano suggests, then perhaps that points to a convergence between history and sociology; modern history, instead of focusing on kings and generals, is dealing with society as a whole.
As for Dilthey, I haven’t read him. What I’ve heard about him doesn’t lead me to regard him as a philosopher of history.
Now let’s turn to Momigliano’s survey of modern historians. In each European country, he identifies the leading historian, and his most important disciples. Many of the leading historians we’ve discussed in this e-zine. Momigliano says that contemporary Dutch historians are “All in the shadow of their great Huizinga.”
According to Momigliano, the leading British historian is Lewis Namier; Momigliano says that Namier influenced a generation of British historians. Namier made a close analysis of the British ruling class — more specifically, the British Parliament in the 1700s. Momigliano thinks that Namier influenced Ronald Syme, who discussed the Roman ruling class in his Roman Revolution. Namier’s work on the British Parliament has been compared with Charles Beard’s work on the Founding Fathers. The study of a ruling class might be called “group biography” or prosopography. One of Namier’s best-known disciples was A.J.P. Taylor. Namier himself was influenced by Pareto, who wrote about the nature of elites; when Namier was a young student in Switzerland, he heard Pareto lecture.
The leading French historian, according to Momigliano, is Marc Bloch, who steered his disciples toward rural history and social history. The researches of this school are carried out with “the utmost minuteness.”
Momigliano mentions German historians who were influenced, not by a historian, sociologist, or philosopher, but by a poet, Stefan George. Momigliano speaks of “the cult of the hero-leader in the circle of Stefan George,” and he says that George started a movement “to reinterpret the whole of European history in terms of great personalities.”17 The historian Ernst Kantorowicz was influenced by George, and was a member of his circle.18
Momigliano says that Werner Jaeger was a leader of a German movement to develop a new humanism — sometimes called the “third humanism” (I suppose the first was Greek, the second Renaissance). This movement disappeared soon after the Nazis came to power. Jaeger is best known for his three-volume work Paideia, a study of Greek culture and education (Momigliano calls it “a history of Greek thought”19).
Momigliano sometimes goes beyond history, and mentions psychologists like Jung, and philosophers like Heidegger. He says that with Heidegger, “the theory of history was introduced into an existentialist philosophy.”20 Momigliano mentions my old nemesis Leo Strauss: “In his Chair at Chicago [Strauss] has carried out a penetrating critique of historicism with the object of reviving the idea of natural law.”21 Momigliano mentions Mircea Eliade, and says that his writing on the history of religion “produced brilliant generalizations on insufficient and sometimes refractory material.”22
I also read an essay by Momigliano called “Some Observations On Causes of War in Ancient Historiography.” In this essay, he says that both Herodotus and Thucydides wrote about war: Herodotus wrote about the Persian Wars, Thucydides about the Peloponnesian War. Thucydides sticks to his main topic, while Herodotus seizes any excuse to digress.
Momigliano says that Thucydides is adept at describing constitutional changes, changes in the internal structure of a city-state, perhaps because the Sophists of his time focused on constitutional changes. Momigliano says that Thucydides isn’t very good at describing the causes of foreign wars, such as the Peloponnesian War. Thucydides overlooks the “traditions and interests which were involved in the fight. [Thucydides] is much less convincing than Herodotus in discovering the remote origins of the war.”23
This weakness in Thucydides is, according to Momigliano, a weakness that he shares with ancient historians in general. Ancient historians were clumsy at explaining the causes of war because they accepted war as a “natural fact... about which nothing could be done.” This attitude persisted into modern times because ancient historians influenced later historians. It was only in the 19th century, says Momigliano, that historians began to take a deeper view of war, and “histories of wars began to become less technical and more deeply concerned with political and social implications.”24
When Momigliano discusses different kinds of causes, he quotes the Greek terms used by Thucydides. Since I don’t know Greek, I went on the Internet to find a translation of these terms. I came across an essay called “Thucydides on the Causes of the Peloponnesian War,” by P. J. Rhodes.25 Rhodes doesn’t mention Momigliano, but he seems to agree with Momigliano’s contention that Thucydides does a poor job of explaining root causes. Rhodes says that Thucydides is a partisan, an apologist for Athens:
Was the real cause of the war Athenian hubris? Rhodes says that Athens wanted war, and felt that this was a good time for it:
So while Thucydides puts the blame on Sparta, Rhodes puts the blame on Athens — on the immoderate ambitions of Athens.
|1.|| I’m reading the version edited by Philip Leigh; I recommended this version in an earlier issue. back|
|2.|| Another Southerner, George Eggleston, wrote:|
“The Southerners honestly believed in the right of secession, not merely as a revolutionary, but as a constitutional right. They not only held that whenever any people finds the government under which it is living oppressive and subversive of the ends for which it was instituted, it is both the right and the duty of that people to throw off the government and establish a new one in its stead; but they believed also that every State in the Union held the reserved right, under the constitution, to withdraw peaceably from the Union at pleasure.
“They believed that every man’s allegiance was due to his State only, and that it was only by virtue of the State’s continuance in the Union that any allegiance was due to the general government at all; wherefore the withdrawal of a State from the Union would of itself absolve all the citizens of that State from whatever obligations they were under to maintain and respect the Federal constitution. In other words, patriotism, as the South understood it, meant devotion to one’s State, and only a secondary and consequential devotion to the Union, existing as a result of the State’s action in making itself a part of the Union, and terminable at any time by the State’s withdrawal.
“They were as truly and purely patriotic in their secession and in the fighting which followed, as were the people of the North in their adherence to the Union itself. The difference was one of opinion as to what the duties of a patriot were, and not at all a difference in the degree of patriotism existing in the two sections. You, reader, who shouldered your musket and fought like the hero you are, for the Union and the old flag, if you had been bred at the South, and had understood your duty as the Southerners did theirs, would have fought quite as bravely for secession as you did against it; and you would have been quite as truly a hero in the one case as in the other, because in either you would have risked your life for the sake of that which you held to be the right.”(A Rebel’s Recollections)
Eggleston makes the Southern case better than Watkins does; he has more literary polish than Watkins, he’s better-educated, and he’s a deeper thinker. But Watkins is a master of the humble detail, the charming anecdote, and his battle descriptions are superb. back
|3.|| As far as I know, the Constitution is mute on the subject of secession. Was secession discussed when the Constitution was being written and ratified? Doubtless Southerners were fond of quoting the 10th Amendment: “The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people.” back|
|4.|| The challenge for Lincoln was to come up with a face-saving way for states like Virginia to remain in the Union — without losing face himself. Of course, Virginia’s decision was important because it was one of the South’s most populous and wealthy states; it included what is now West Virginia. Virginia didn’t want to secede, just as Socrates didn’t want to die, and his opponents didn’t want to kill him. “The death of Socrates is a classic example of people stumbling into a quarrel, and no one being willing to back down.”|
Eggleston says, “Virginia did not want to secede, and her decision to this effect was given in the election of a convention composed for the most part of men strongly opposed to secession. The Virginians believed they had both a moral and a constitutional right to withdraw voluntarily from a Union into which they had voluntarily gone, but the majority of them preferred to remain as they were. They did not feel themselves particularly aggrieved or threatened by the election of Mr. Lincoln, and so, while they never doubted that they had an unquestionable right to secede at will, they decided by their votes not to do anything of the kind. This decision was given in the most unmistakable way, by heavy majorities, in an election which involved no other issue whatever.”
Should Lincoln have attempted appeasement? Did the Virginians really want to stay in the Union? It has been argued that, “Sparta was eager for war, because of her fear of Athenian power, but did not decide to embark on the war until her allies presented her with a suitable occasion for it.”(P. J. Rhodes) Is this also true of Virginia? Was Virginia “eager for war” but waiting for a “suitable occasion”? back
|5.|| Apparently ancient historians, when discussing wars, distinguished between root causes and surface causes (Thucydides distinguishes between grievances [aitiai], disputes [diaphorai], and truest cause [alethestate prophasis]). Momigliano says that Thucydides does a poor job of explaining the root causes of the Peloponnesian War; another scholar, Cornford, went even further, and said that Thucydides isn’t a scientific historian because he isn’t interested in causes.(see Momigliano, “Some Observations On Causes of War in Ancient Historiography”) Thucydides says that the root cause of the Peloponnesian War is Sparta’s fear of the growing power of Athens, but perhaps he should discuss the differences between the two societies — the differences in their economic structure, etc.|
Has anyone ever compared the Peloponnesian War to the Civil War? Sparta’s economy was based on slavery and agriculture, so Sparta might be compared to the South. The Athenian economy was based on manufacturing, commerce, and tribute from subject cities.
Perhaps the Civil War was fought in order to give historians a vacation — they don’t have to work hard to find the root cause, it’s clear that slavery is the root cause. As Lincoln put it in his 2nd Inaugural, “Slaves constituted a peculiar and powerful interest. All knew that this interest was somehow the cause of the war.” Rarely has there been a major war whose root cause was so obvious. back
|6.|| Ch. 8, “Chattanooga,” sub-chapter: “Presentment, Or The Wing Of The Angel Of Death” back|
|7.|| Eggleston mentions a case of death-anticipation, but as an educated man, he can’t accept it as a mystery, the way Watkins does; instead, Eggleston dismisses it as superstition:
An example of someone who had a hunch that they would survive is Napoleon. Napoleon felt sure that, until he had performed his destined role, any attempt to assassinate him was bound to fail: “They used to try and scare me with the story that Georges was dogging my footsteps in order to assassinate me. The utmost he could do however was to murder my aide-de-camp. It was impossible to murder me at the time. Had I already fulfilled my destiny? I feel as if I am being driven towards an unknown goal. As soon as it is attained and there will no longer be any use for me, an atom will be sufficient to annihilate me; but until then, all human efforts whether in Paris or in the army will be powerless to prevail against me.”(Napoleon the Man, by Dmitri Merezhkovsky, Ch. 9) back
|8.|| Ch. 12. If you want to learn more about the war in the Western Theater, consider a documentary called Civil War: The Untold Story. back|
|9.|| The soldier’s elation sometimes manifests itself in shining eyes: “Major Venable added that he had often heard of the light of battle shining in a man’s eyes. He had seen it once — when he carried to Hood orders from Lee, and found in the hottest of the fight that the man was transfigured. ‘The fierce light of Hood’s eyes I can never forget.’”(Mary Chesnut, quoted in Company Aytch) back|
|10.|| “Allen” is spelled various ways.
The FindAGrave article says that George “is at present engaged in the manufacture of pottery at East Brookfield, Mass.” But Dave Adams, a descendant of George, tells me that the pottery was in Cambridge (A. H. Hews), that George owned an inn at West Brookfield, Massachusetts, and that George is listed in the 1907 Providence city directory as the owner of an inn at Providence (11 West Park Street). back
|11.|| The essay can be found in a book called Studies in Historiography. back|
|12.|| p. 223 back|
|13.|| p. 221 back|
|14.|| p. 221 back|
|15.|| p. 232 back|
|16.|| p. 222 back|
|17.|| pp. 223, 226, 227 back|
|18.|| Kantorowicz was a colleague of George Kennan’s at Princeton’s Institute for Advanced Study. In his memoirs, Kennan refers to him as “Eka,” and says that he was a “great medievalist.... and a man of ineffable Old World charm.” back|
|19.|| p. 226 back|
|20.|| p. 223 back|
|21.|| p. 226 back|
|22.|| p. 234 back|
|23.|| p. 118 back|
|24.|| p. 123 back|
|25.||Hermes, 115, 2nd Quarter, 1987, pp. 154-165 back|