Our Ancestors’ Looting and Corpse Robbing Ways

Bruce Catton’s writing on the Civil War is every bit as fascinating as its reputation.  (I have read in several places that if he is not the best writer on the war, than certainly he is one of them.)  Right now I am reading his second book in his trilogy about the Army of the Potomac, Glory Road.

It’s really interesting getting into the lesser known details of this war, that we are still dealing with the political ramifications from.  This war is a large part of our country’s DNA, even if it is something not always dealt with. I often marvel at the lack of movies and TV shows that deal with this period in comparison to something like World War II, which is much more of an easy sell, as it is one of the few wars where people can be proud of.

Because the Civil War was a war of a people, there are many moments in the war when different sides strangely put down their arms, only to resume horrible bloodshed later.  Different sides would often trade with each other.  They also made deals where they would promise not to shoot each other at night so that they could get a comfortable nights sleep.  In one instance in the book, an argument between a Confederate and a Union regiment gets so heated, that they all put down their weapons for a fist fight between two members, only to pick up their weapons and go their separate ways once the fight was settled.

But for every story like this, there are also stories of typical wartime behavior that often don’t make it into the more popular accounts we see on TV documentaries and such.  Here is a passage that deals with the looting of Fredericksburg:

“The city had been rudely sacked; household furniture lined the streets.  Books and battered pictures, bureaus, lounges, feather beds, clocks, and every conceivable article of goods, chattels, and apparel had been savagely torn from the houses and lay about in wanton confusion in all directions.  Fires were made, both for warmth and cooking, with fragments of broken furniture.  Pianos, their harmonious strings displaced, were utilized as horse troughs, and amid all the dangers animals quietly ate from them.”  A solider in another Pennsylvania regiment noted “great scenes of vandalism and useless destruction of books, furniture, carpets, pianos, pictures, etc.,” and reported a grotesque carnival aspect in the streets still swept by Confederate shell as Union soldiers cavorted about in women’s dresses and underwear.  “Some of these characters,” he added, “might be seen with musical instruments, with big horns, violins, accordions, and banjos”; and he noted that his own regiment took several hundred bottles of wine out of someone’s cellar, a part of this wine appearing later on the colonel’s own mess table.  One illiterate private rifled an express office and carried off a huge bundle of receipts and canceled checks under the impression that he was robbing a bank and getting money.

It should be noted that some of the soldiers looking upon this were horrified.  It should also be noted that this kind of behavior was not by any means only on the Union side of things.  There is a passage roughly around this one where the Confederates rob a large amount of dead Union soldiers, leaving them naked by the time they are picked up for burial.  And that is only one story.  Both sides acted in surprising ways, good and bad, at times.  Catton does go into explanations for this behavior, but I will not get into that here.

The point, or question, that I wanted to make was that this is only 150 years ago, carried out by many of our ancestors against one another.  What kind of strange blood is flowing through our National veins, inherited from this time period?

As a side note, again, I don’t know why more films and shows aren’t made of this time period. Only a small way through this book, though I have read others, and there are endless scenes that one could fashion interesting story lines around.



War Makes a Mockery of a Benevolent God

The following describes how commonly held illusions were shattered by the Civil War:

Eighteen months after the first shot at Fort Sumter, there were certain truths that the soldiers had come to know.  Death in war was neither picturesque nor peaceful, and dying bravely didn’t make you any less dead, or mean that you would not be dumped into the cold earth of a mass grave with everyone else, brave and not brave.  Nor was there likely to be anyone to hear your last miserable words.  People of the era cherished the idea of a “good death” – a peaceful, dignified passing wherein God was embraced and sins repented and salvation attained, preferably in your own bed with your family gathered devotedly around to hear your last murmurs of Christian resignation.  War made a mockery of all that.  War made a mockery of the idea of a benevolent God.  It replaced the family home with the rank, powder-scorched horrors of the battlefield.  There were the new truths.  In war you lived outdoors like a wild animal.  You lived in blistering heat, drenching rains, and knifelike cold.  You were exposed and vulnerable.  The majority of men who died did not even have the honor of dying in a fight.  Two out of three were carried away by diseases that killed them just as surely as mine balls.  Those who survived did so on a quarter pound of bacon and eighteen ounces of flour a day – one-third the regular meat ration – with infrequent small issue of rice, molasses, or sugar.  (The rice ration was an ounce.)  Men lived without shoes or coats or blankets.  Food was short all over the South.  Soldiers hunted up sassafras buds and wild onions to ward off scurvy.  Horses died for lack of forage.  In Richmond, where much of the eastern army’s fare was gathered and transshipped, there were bread riots.   

The above is an excerpt from S.C. Gwynne’s Rebel Yell: The Violence, the Passion, and the Redemption of Stonewall Jackson.

What illusions do we hold due to the relative comfort of our lives, when compared to humanity at large, both now and in history?



‘In the Garden of Beasts’ Review and Scenes that Should Be in the Movie

1933 Tier

I finished Erik Larson’s unbelievably great In the Garden of Beasts.  I’ve read and watched a lot about Nazi Germany, especially the period leading up to World War II, including most of William Shirer’s The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich.  I also took a history class that focused explicitly on that time period.  I have always been transfixed on how a culture that created so many great minds, from Beethoven to Goethe, could become perverted on seemingly every level.  As screwed up as the Weimar Republic was from a political and economic standpoint, the political period before the Third Reich, it had a lot to offer culturally.  What I have never read, and I’m not saying it doesn’t exist, was something with a novelistic quality that actually made one feel like they were there.

One of the most intriguing things about the Nazi Leadership is that they have become, through the looking glass of history, more than human.  They have become monsters when they were really men, even if they were men who possessed monstrous qualities.  While this book doesn’t completely close the gap between man and monster, it does as good a job as I have seen.  (Although there is one particular passage with Hermann Goring that is so strange that it seems unreal.)  These men are presented at dinner parties, private meetings, etc.  The book also makes the history of this time period accessible to those that might not have as great of a grasp of it as I do.  (Though I am by no means an expert.  I have simply read more than I imagine the average person to have read concerning this historical moment.)  It is written more like a novel than a history book and it is a true page turner.

There is a lot to recommend this book, but I want to focus on few things.  The first is that even the main protagonists are flawed.  This would be Ambassador William E. Dodd and his daughter Martha.  Larson does not attempt to trim away their moral failings.  However, this does not mean that, for their time period, they weren’t largely decent people.  Ambassador Dodd was one of the few to recognize the true threat of Hitler.  One of the things that Larson tries and succeeds in doing is to create a sense of the world as it was at that moment.  You can’t judge Ambassador Dodd by what we know now.  (Martha is a bit more complicated, but one could argue that she was also young and naive.)  A low level of anti-semitism was common in that period, even in some people that were otherwise decent.  (This does not completely excuse it as there are those, even in that period, that were not.  But I think the gay marriage debate is a good prism to view this through.  Even many people that were on the side of gay rights were often pushing civil unions instead of full marriage equality as short as a couple years ago.)  But in getting a sense of the failings of even some of the more decent people in this time period one gets an idea how Hitler, before his full qualities were shown, was able to rise to power.  (One last aside:  These kinds of things are endlessly debated amongst historians.  Hitler’s true nature was displayed in his autobiography, but because of other things going on, which are too numerous to mention, many people of that time period believed that Hitler would be more moderate once he had real power.)

Another thing that is really interesting, if not new in this book, is how big money stood in the way of challenging Hitler early on.  Germany owed America a large amount of money in debt. It has been widely documented that many of the now called one percenters had sympathies with Germany.  However, this book shows the continued pressure that Dodd was under to get Germany to pay its debts.  Because of this many of those in the foreign service, who were Ivy League graduates with ties to the upper class, tried to undercut Dodd when he chose to take a tougher stand against Germany that also risked the debts going unpaid.

If this time period interests you, and it should, this is actually a great place to start.  It’s not an overview by any means, but it is a vivid description of a time period when the world was on the verge of total insanity.  I could only think that this book would make you want to learn more.  At the very least it gives you an entrance point to this period in a highly compelling way.

There are rumors to make this into a movie.  If I would direct this movie I would choose the following two scenes to start and end the film, as a way of showing what Germany was and the destruction that Hitler brought to it.  Strangely enough for a country that was so cruel to people, they were extremely kind to animals, with laws preventing cruelty to those of the domestic variety.

Opening Scene:  Ambassador Dodd went to school in Leipzig, Germany, during his university years.  He found Germany charming, although he did sense its taste for militarism. But overall these were very fond years for him.  Later in the book Dodd remarks on how well cared for the horses in Germany were before World War II.  His specific remake is:

“Only horses seem to be equally happy, never the children or the youth,”he wrote.  “I often stop as I walk to my office and have a word with a pair of beautiful horses waiting while their wagon is being unloaded.  They are so clean and fat and happy that one feels that they are the point of speaking.”  

I would start the movie with Dodd as a young man in his idyllic Germany.  I would make the focus of this scene Dodd noticing those beautiful animals which he later remarked upon.

Closing Scene:  For the final image I would create a scene based on the following paragraph (As the once city beautiful city of Berlin is left in total ruin):

Five years later, during the final assault on Berlin, a Russian shell scored a direct hit on a stable at the western end of the Tiergarten.  (The Tiergarten is a large park in Berlin.) The adjacent Kurfurstendamm, once one of Berlin’s prime shopping and entertainment streets, now became the stage for the utterly macabre – horses, those happiest creatures of Nazi Germany, tearing wildly down the street with manes and tails aflame.  

More posts that include In the Garden of Beasts:  When Entertainment Conquers Reality



Thinking Versus Evil

Hannah Arendt Lying

Hannah Arendt: Thinking Versus Evil

I was sent this very interesting article, by John Nixon, about Hannah Arendt, a famous thinker whose most famous book is Eichmann In Jerusalem, which I am very glad to have read.  The book is about the trial of Adolf Eichmann, one of the major organizers of the Holocaust.  The article above is an overview of Arendt’s ideas, as well as why her ideas are important, especially in concern to education.  A brief description of Arendt’s life, from the article:

Arendt was born on 14 October 1906 in what is now part of Hanover in Germany. Three years later, she and her parents moved to Königsberg. In the early to mid-1920s, she studied at the universities of Berlin, Marburg and Heidelberg. As an 18-year-old undergraduate, she embarked on a sexual and deeply emotional affair with Martin Heidegger – a 36-year-old married professor whose work had already received international acclaim. After the Reichstag fire in Berlin in 1933, she fled to Paris via Prague and Geneva and began 18 years as a stateless person. After escaping from the internment camp at Gurs in occupied France, she arrived in the US by way of Spain and Lisbon in May 1941. Ten years later, she gained US citizenship. In 1974, she suffered a heart attack while delivering her Gifford Lecture series on “The Life of the Mind” at the University of Aberdeen. A year later, she suffered another heart attack in New York and died on 4 December 1975 at the age of 69. Always – in thought as in life – she was on the move.

Here are some examples from the article, though I think the whole thing is worth reading.  This is one an example about her views in relationship to Eichmann:

That is why the notion of “thinking” played such an important part in Arendt’s analysis of totalitarianism, from her 1951 The Origins of Totalitarianism to her highly controversial coverage of the Adolf Eichmann trial, the latter culminating in her 1963 book Eichmann in Jerusalem. In this, she famously employed the phrase “the banality of evil” to describe what she saw as Eichmann’s unquestioning adherence to the norms of the Nazi regime. In concluding from the occasional lies and inconsistencies in his courtroom testimony that Eichmann was a liar, the prosecution had missed the moral and legal challenge of the case: “Their case rested on the assumption that the defendant, like all ‘normal persons’, must have been aware of the criminal nature of his acts” – but, she added, Eichmann was normal only in so far as he was “no exception within the Nazi regime”. The prosecution had, according to Arendt’s analysis, failed to grasp the moral and political significance of Eichmann’s “abnormality”: namely, his adherence to the norms of the regime he had served and therefore his lack of awareness of the criminal nature of his acts.

And on her views on education:

The second barrier relates to notions of academic categorisation. Arendt understood the importance of disciplinary and methodological boundaries, but was aware that these could all too easily become barriers. In her own life and work she insisted on the need to think outside – and between – the traditional academic categories: “thinking without bannisters”, as she called it. During an interview televised in 1964, she rounded on her interviewer who referred to her as a philosopher: “I have said goodbye to philosophy once and for all. As you know, I studied philosophy, but that does not mean that I stayed with it.” Having distanced herself from that subject, she never settled into an established discipline but constantly crossed and re-crossed the boundaries between historical analysis, philosophical reflection and political theory. As she put it in her lectures on Kant’s political philosophy, what matters is “[t]o think with the enlarged mentality – that means you train your mind to go visiting”.

More Posts About Hannah Arendt Include: Black Death

Netflix Narcos Worth Watching

I meant to get a lot done here the last couple days, but unfortunately I have been sick for most of the week.  It did give me time to watch the entire first season of the new Netflix series Narcos.  I seriously recommend it.  At first it seemed like it might just be a watered down South American version of a Scorsese film.  However, whatever weaknesses it first appears to have end up serving the series in the end.  The show tells the tale of Columbia during the reign of Pablo Escobar.  You get a sense not only of Escobar and those close to him, on both sides of the law, but also of the politics of the time, not only of Columbia, but also of the U.S. and our role both politically and culturally in relationship to the drug trade.  In the first episode the narration by a U.S. DEA agent seems like the kind of narration that would be in a B-movie.  However, as the scope of the show expands, that same narration helps to make sense of what is going on as characters multiply.  One thing I really like about the show is how it uses real footage at times, even for people that are represented by actors, to give one a sense of the real history behind the show.  Nancy Reagan’s Just Say No campaign looks even more ridiculous than ever in light of what was going on.  If you want to watch a show that brings recent history to life in the most entertaining way possible, you will find it here.

Greek Fire: Setting Enemies On Fire at Sea and Ancient Flamethrowers


Greek Fire


On the road today, so posting will be slow.   In the meantime, through some internet wormwhole which started with a Game of Thrones article, I stumbled upon Greek Fire.  This was a kind of pitch that was so flammable it could even be used in sea battles.  It was also, unlike other similar weapons, able to be sprayed upon enemies.  In fact, it could even be used in portable flamethrower like devices.  Remember the good old days?  We humans sure were creative!

The History of Syphilis

Yesterday I was watching the move 1492: Conquest of Paradise, a movie about Columbus discovering the Amercas, by director Ridley Scott.  I didn’t expect the movie to be historically accurate, I just wanted to see what Scott did with it, as his movies always have some element that makes them worth watching.

While reading about the movie I stumbled upon the fact that it is most likely that syphilis was transported to Europe by the men returning from the Columbus expeditions. (Remember that on Columbus Day!)  Think about that possibility; the raping, enslaving, and massacring of indigenous people was rewarded with a sexual plague.  Almost makes you believe in divine retribution for a moment!

So after that I hopped over to the history of syphilis at wikipedia.  (I know wikipedia isn’t always 100% accurate, but it’s a good place to start.  We’re not writing a peer reviewed article here, just trying to get people thinking.)  There is some fun stuff there.  For instance, until the 1500’s the Italians called syphilis “the French disease” and in France it was called “the Italian disease”.  The Dutch called it “the Spanish disease”, the Russians called it the “the Polish disease”, and so on.  The best is that the Turks called it “the Christian disease”!  People have been blaming things on “the other” since the beginning of time.  I bet if syphilis were new that the Republicans would say that it was coming across the Mexican border.  I’m still not completely sure that won’t come up in a debate.

There is an even more detailed history of syphilis, where some of the wikipedia article was taken from, here.  

I find these kinds of things interesting.  When reading this kind of stuff one realizes how in the dark humanity has been for much of the time.  Also, it’s not too hard to see connections to present human behavior and realize how in the dark we are now.

More Posts On History and Syphilis Include:  Powdered Wigs, Syphilis, and Tradition



People Know Next to Nothing About Reconstruction

Eric Foner

People Know Next to Nothing About Reconstruction

There is a really interesting article over at Salon that deals with the misconceptions about Reconstruction, the period after the Civil War, and what really went wrong.  The article is an interview with esteemed historian Eric Foner.  A sample:

Among other things, it’s a story of attempts at interracial cooperation from below, which ultimately failed by 1900. It’s sometimes argued that the political failure of Reconstruction in the South was due to the fact that Republican support among Unionist whites, which was significant at the beginning, seemed to have disappeared or diminished by 1877. Why do you think that happened?

That’s one of the reasons for the failure of Reconstruction — it’s one reason. Of course, there were some states where they never had any white support, like South Carolina and maybe a couple of other places. Louisiana had very, very little.

The problem of getting poor white support was very difficult and was exacerbated by the difference between the Northern Republican Party and the Southern Republican Party. In some of these states, like North Carolina or Georgia, there were poor whites, Unionists, and so on, who were interested in supporting the Republicans for economic advantages like debtor’s relief.

But the Northern Republican Party was not interested in supporting them. They rejected Georgia’s Constitution because it suspended the collection of debts, and they said, “Hey, I’m sorry, you guys have got to pay your debts.” It’s like Greece, they were acting like Angela Merkel.

I actually think the failure of Reconstruction was not solely or even primarily on that basis. Rather, you have to go to the federal level and look at what was basically a failure to enforce the law. There were these constitutional amendments — the Thirteenth, Fourteenth, and Fifteenth — but you get a withdrawal from enforcement after a while, and that reflected changes in Northern society — political, economic, and intellectual. And without a willingness to enforce the law, the power structure in the South — the economic power structure — is going to take over eventually.

It’s possible to imagine continued federal intervention — not, you know, military intervention for forty years, but enough to make it clear that these laws will be enforced. Like what happened in the Civil Rights Movement. There was a social movement, but there was also the National Guard, federal courts, other things just making it clear to people, not that they have to love each other, but that they have to act in certain ways and they can’t act in other ways. That if people act in ways that are in violation of federal law, they will be punished. And if that becomes clear, then people eventually abide by the law.

More Posts On History Include:  Death, Mortality, Abraham Lincoln, and His Secretary Of War

“This is a Night for Americans!” – Republican Version 2015

billthebutcher flag

I was reading the article over at Huffpo about how certain Republicans want to repeal the 14th Amendment, ending birthright citizenship.  I started thinking about the film Gangs of New York, where Daniel Day Lewis’s character, Bill the Butcher, represents nativist sentiment in America at that time.  Only at that time Hispanics weren’t the target, but Irish Roman Catholics.  Here is a brief history of nativism in the United States over at wikipedia.  My family, going back, was partially Irish Roman Catholic.  The groups that are deemed outsiders change, but the story remains the same.  Certain groups think that they have more of a right to America than others.  Sure, there needs to be some kind of fair and sane way to bring new groups into America, to make them part of the social fabric of the country, but that is far different than what shenanigans the Republicans constantly seem up to.  Not only is the Republican strategy a losing one over the longterm, but don’t those at the base level realize they are part of a long line of people that lost out in the end, only to see the group they demonize enter the American mainstream? I’m sure once it becomes politically untenable to demonize Hispanics there will be some new group to suit their need to divide.

This is a long serving and predictable political tactic, to divide and conquer, bait and switch.  A group in economic power will make groups with less economic power fight it out, so that those groups don’t unite and take a larger slice of the pie.  Income inequality goes up, and poor whites, many that are of Irish, German, and Italian descent, all of which are groups that were scapgoated in the past, are lead to believe that it is poor Hispanics that are destroying their way of life.

Republicans will scream some version of Bill the Butcher’s line in Gangs of New York, “This is a night for Americans!”  But which Americans are the ones really winning out by such a thing?

Is Our Environmental Past Prophecy of a Dark Future?

In reading about whaling in the book In the Heart of the Sea, by Nathaniel Philbrick, a great example is made of what happens when human beings destroy nature for economic pursuit.  I’m not talking about the whaleship Essex being sunk by a sperm whale, which is what the book is largely about, the true story that Moby Dick was based on.  I’m talking about how Nantucketers, in their ever increasing greed for more whale oil and their stubbornness in following tradition, built an entire economy that was doomed to eventually collapse.  The real story, which if you are interested in you should read the book, is more complex, but basically Nantucketers over-hunted whales and had to keep going further and further to find them.  Also, because they had such a closed off culture, when it did become apparent to others to seek even new hunting grounds, the Nantucketers could not adapt fast enough.

This is a story that has been seen again and again.  The fur-trade wore itself out from overhunting of beavers.  Almost any American school child knows about how the Buffalo almost became extinct from overhunting.  On a different note, with something like mountaintop removal in places like West Virginia one can see how whole economies rise and fall around something environmentally destructive, leaving a populace with nothing left to show for something other than a small few making a lasting fortune.

I don’t see how one can look at something like the oil industry and climate change and not expect the same to happen on a much larger scale.  This time it will be more than a single species almost driven to extinction, a single region driven through a boom and bust cycle.  While it is true that those species mentioned did manage to rebound somewhat, the ways of life they were based on never did.

As the old quote goes, “Those who don’t know history are destined to repeat it.”  Humans, now more technologically advanced than ever, also have greater destructive powers than ever before.  The game we are playing is much bigger now, but the story is old.  Are we, as a species, truly capable of learning from our past?  Or is the past merely a series of small prophecies of what is to come of our future?

More Posts On the Environment Include: Entertainment Shows Growing Environmental Concerns