Archive for May 2010

For Cause and Comrades: Why Men Fought in the Civil War, by James M. McPherson

May 31, 2010

What memories of vigils, bloody, by that Cape–
Ghoul-mound of man’s perversity at balk
And fraternal massacre!
Hart Crane, “Cape Hatteras”

McPherson, a Princeton history professor, wrote what many think is the best one-volume history of the American Civil War, Battle Cry of Freedom. In this book, he takes a sample of letters by 1,076 soldiers (647 Union and 429 Confederate) and analyzes them for the reasons that the soldiers gave for fighting the Civil War. The book quotes generously from the soldiers’ own letters.

The book is organized by theme:

1. This War is a Crusade
2. We Were in Earnest
3. Anxious for the Fray
4. If I Flinched I Was Ruined
5. Religion Is What Makes Brave Soldiers
6. A Band of Brothers
7. On the Altar of My Country
8. The Cause of Liberty
9. Slavery Must Be Cleaned Out
10. We Know That We Are Supported At Home
11. Vengeance Will Be Our Motto
12. The Same Holy Cause

How much were they putting on a front, and how much saying what they mean? Who knows even if the soldiers themselves could tell us, but this is what we have to go on.

They fought against slavery in the cause of liberty.
“I want to sing ‘John Brown’ in the streets of Charleston, and ram red-hot abolitionism down their unwilling throats at the point of the bayonet.”–a Massachusetts infantry captain

They fought for slavery in the cause of liberty.
“The vandals of the North are determined to destroy slavery. We must all fight, and I choose to fight for southern rights and southern liberty.”–a Kentucky physician

They fought for their personal honor and glory.
“No Jenny . . . while your happiness is as dear to me as life duty prompts me to go.¬† My country first, home and friends next. Jenny, what would friends be to me if I had no country?”–Recruit, 11th Michigan
“I much reather be numbered among the slain¬† than those that stay at home for it will be a brand upon their name as long as a southren lives.”–Sergeant, 24th Mississippi

They fought because it was expected of them and their officers commanded them.
“I will go as whare and stay as long as eney of my offersers will.”–Sergeant, 2nd Rhode Island
“Napoleon the first said ‘a man to be a good Soldier must first be converted into a machine,’ & I am inclined after some experience to concur with him.”–Lieutenant, 43rd North Carolina

They fought to “see the elephant”–to have the long-awaited fight.
“We pushed on anxious for the fray.”–Indiana private
“For almost an hour there was the most deafening yells that ever was made by one regiment. It seemed as if they was wild and mad for the fight. I never felt so much like facing the canons.”–Private, 25th Mississippi

They fought because it was God’s will for them, and their fate was determined.
“I think that one place is as dangerous as another, for God has appointed our day and we are perfectly safe until that day comes.”–Color bearer, 4th Virginia
“What little Presbyterianism I have left makes me something of a fatalist.”–Lieutenant, 8th Kansas

They fought to protect their unit, their closest family.
“I am very proud of this company & I am too much attached to my intimate friends to seek an opportunity of parting with them.”–South Carolinian
“I should leave with much regret the men who stood manfully by me in the hours of dainger through which I have passed.”–Quaker captain, 5th New Jersey, later killed at Second Manassas

They fought to defend their country against the invader and to take vengeance against him when they had the chance.
“I certainly love to kill the base usurping vandals.”–Sergeant, 8th Georgia
“I want to fight the rest of my life if necessary before we recognize them as anything but Rebels and traitors who must be humbled.”–Illinois sergeant

They fought to preserve the heritage of the American Revolution.
“Every Southern heart must respond to the language of the great Patrick Henry in the days of ’76 & say give me Liberty or give me death.”–Private, 56th Virginia
“Should We the youngest and brightest nation of all the earth bow to traters and forsake the graves of our Fathers? No no never never.”–Illinois farm boy

McPherson ends the book this way:

“Americans at the end of the twentieth century are also children of that heritage. Whether we are worthy of it will remain a matter of constant reexamination. Civil War soldiers willingly made extraordinary sacrifices, even of life itself, for the principles they perceived to be at stake in the war. Whether Americans today would be willing to make similar sacrifices is unanswerable. One hopes that it will remain unanswered.”

For Cause and Comrades makes the reader keep quiet, or should. Stop talking about what we really know that the Civil War was all about, or the Iraq War, or Vietnam. Let the soldiers have their say about why they fought.


Ancient Ireland: Life Before the Celts, by Laurence Flanagan

May 26, 2010

Wine comes in at the mouth
And love comes in at the eye;
That’s all we shall know for truth
Before we grow old and die.
I lift the glass to my mouth,
I look at you, and I sigh.

–“A Drinking Song,” W.B. Yeats

Sometimes, you don’t know what you’re going to find when you pick up a book off the library shelf.

Flanagan is an archaeologist and the former Keeper of Antiquities at the Ulster Museum, Belfast. As the subtitle says, this is about life in Ireland before the Celts. As far as how people really lived, it’s all pretty speculative, but there is some evidence–mostly from tombs and hoards. There are some human remains to examine, but not many. The author says that the acidic soil dissolves most bones unless they were from cremated remains.

Settlement of Ireland is thought to have begun at Mount Sandel. The author never explains where that is or puts it on any of the numerous maps in the book. I had to look it up on Wikipedia–it’s in the north, in County (London)Derry. Some scholars speculate that the first colonists came from Scotland, but if Sandel truly was the first landing site, it would not have been visible from Scotland. But Flanagan also points out that no ancient settlements contemporary with those found at Sandel have been located in Scotland.

There are chapters on manufacturing, nutrition, clothing, but the bulk of the book is devoted to what is actually known–the daggers, axes, and tombs that were left. The cover has a photo of a “portal tomb” or dolmen–the way that the makers of Stonehenge wrote pi.

An Army of Davids, by Glenn Reynolds

May 4, 2010

Generations have trod, have trod, have trod . . . .
–Gerard Manley Hopkins, “God’s Grandeur”

Musicians don’t need studios. Writers don’t need newspapers. Car bombers don’t need generals. The little guy (“David”) is taking over from Mr. Big (“Goliath”).

There–you’ve read the book. There are some new things here, at least for me. I knew about the ease of writing on blogs without the intermediary of editors, newspapers, or magazines; but I hadn’t really thought about the way that musicians can now mix and record their work without renting an expensive studio (so why did that screechy Irish street musician have to take out a loan in Once?)–and even distribute it at low cost. The economies of scale that made the Industrial Revolution inevitable are no match for the laptop and the Internet. The book was written in 2006, before many of us were forced into entrepreneurship; look at the bright side–it’s not the “gig economy,” it’s the “free agent economy”!

There’s no company health plan for the solo. Reynolds lets on that his wife has a heart ailment, so his libertarian love of small government from time to time yields to a pang for a national health service. But that way madness lies.

Reynolds takes a funny turn halfway through and spends his time on technical subjects that don’t really fit the title or the first half of the book–space exploration, nanotechnology, anti-ageing dreams. You can hear him straining to shove these matters into the Davidian frame, but he breaks a harp string or two in process.

The book is not elegantly written and could almost be laid out in PowerPoint.