Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Courage In Many Guises

One of the works friends thrust at me lately has been Margaret S. Creighton's "The Colors of Change: Gettysburg's Forgotten History", a work which has angered and and upset some readers. But only because these readers have not yet accepted the fullness of the Gettysburg event. Professor Creighton has undertaken in her book--an extremely smooth read, and hard to put down--to tell the story of many of the people who were caught up in the battle, but whose contributions have been lost, forgotten, or twisted and scorned to this day.
Some of these people were Union soldiers--to be specific, the men of the largely German Eleventh Corps of the Army of the Potomac. This Corps, attacked with fierce brilliance by Stonewall Jackson at the Battle of Chancellorsville, ran. It seemed the rational thing to do at the time. And it no doubt was, so total was Jackson's surprise. But the Eleventh, to this day, has not lived down Chancellorsville. That the men became unjustly known as a corps of cowards was hard for them and their leaders, Oliver Otis Howard and Carl Schurz among them, to bear. Howard and Schurz were both men of high principle and great personal courage who could not stand each other. Both were also on the feckless side as generals. These personal factors did not make the situation of the Eleventh any better or more secure. One of the factors in this slur that seemed never to end was nativism. The men were Germans, foreigners. So they were disliked, considered cowards, dismissed. The scorned groups and their languages may change; the heart of humanity seems to remain the same forever. That we have learned nothing after millennia does not speak well for us.
Other "outsider groups" at Gettysburg included black men and women who lived in or near the town, and whose situation was uniquely precarious. Some were escaped slaves who had come via the Underground Railroad or by other means. Others were freemen, born in Pennsylvania, and sometimes the owners of farms, land, or businesses. None were safe. Their individual reactions ranged from fleeing to hiding, to fighting against Lee's troops if they had the chance. If they were caught, they might be killed or raped, or kidnapped and sent South to areas where slavery still held sway. It did not matter whether they had ever been slaves or not; they were now.
Black women were in the worst of all possible situations. That is because they suffered from both the social strictures against Blacks and those against women. But white women, too, were in a situation in which they were in constant danger--young Jennie Wade, for example, was killed on the first day of the battle while baking bread, and while her sister Georgia Wade McClellan lay nearby in labor. And, no matter how the women acted or reacted, whether they were white or black, whether they survived or not, they literally could not win in the court of their neighbors' public opinion. Ms. Wade herself soon was believed to be "no better than she should be," and her sister Georgia spent the rest of her life trying to vindicate her dead sister's reputation.
Were women patriotic, or did they collaborate with the enemy? Was their work of nursing and preserving important or not? (In the case of the second question, the implied answer was often "no.")
I'd suggest you read this entire book. It will not make you happy; but it may in some small way make you determined that humanity will do better next time.
I plan to feature some stories from Creighton's book from time to time, if only to remind you to look the book up and read it.

No comments:

Post a Comment