War Never-ending

July 23rd, 2015


Grant in the Field


A hundred and thirty years ago, Ulysses S. Grant, the general who led the Union to victory during the Civil War and went on to become the 18th president of the United States, died of throat cancer. The day before, he had completed the memoir whose writing occupied the final year of his life. He wrote it from the edge of bankruptcy, in sickness and great pain. Today Grant’s Personal Memoirs are regarded as one of the great American memoirs: I often teach them. They were also popular at the time, as Mark Twain anticipated when he persuaded Grant to break his contract with the Century Company and give him the publication rights in exchange for a 70 percent royalty. The first check he sent Grant’s widow was for $200,000, the equivalent of $1.4 million today.


I have a proprietary interest in Grant, since I’m writing a novel centering around his bankruptcy and death. I’ve spent much of the past three years reading the memoir and his papers. In early May I spent two weeks in the Manuscript Room of the Library of Congress, where I got to see many of Grant’s letters, as well as those written about him by his contemporaries. IMG_0568One thing that stands out are his attempts to enforce Reconstruction. I say attempts because even after he became president he was often hampered by forces beyond his control:

When white mobs in Memphis marched on the city’s black neighborhoods in May 1866, killing 48 people and injuring dozens, Grant called for the ringleaders to be placed under federal arrest. The Andrew Johnson administration ignored him.

In New Orleans 2 months later, white vigilantes targeted delegates to a black suffrage convention and killed 40 before federal troops arrived to restore order. An official report on the incident by General Phil Sheridan summed it up as “no riot, [but] an absolute massacre by the police.” When Sheridan had the city’s racist mayor and other colluding officials removed from office, President Johnson tried to fire him.

In that same year, six Confederate veterans in Pulaski, Tennessee organized something purporting to be a social club, giving it a name derived from the Greek kyklos (‘circle’). Very quickly, the Ku Klux Klan metastasized into a vast terrorist network extending throughout the entire South.

It burned black schools, beat teachers, and kidnapped and murdered civil rights activists of both races.

Following Grant’s election, he urged Congress to enact a series of laws designed to ensure civil liberties and prosecute the Klan and allied militias. The most ambitious of these was the Ku Klux Klan bill of 1871, the first law to make private acts of violence punishable in federal court. (It also, controversially, allowed the president to use the army to enforce the measure and to suspend habeas corpus in areas that he declared to be in a state of insurrection.) In a single year, federal grand juries issued more than 3,000 indictments and convicted some 600 Klansmen. In 1874, the Supreme Court gutted the bill. It also ruled that the Fifteenth Amendment, which guaranteed suffrage to black Americans, applied only to national elections but not state or local ones.

The Civil War is said to have ended on the day General Lee presented his sword to Grant at Appomattox:

it did not.


What ended was the organized rebellion of the Confederacy against the federal government. The rebellion had no other cause but slavery, and those who remained loyal to it continued to fight—not against the United States but against the freed slaves and their descendants, as well as their white allies. They did so in Memphis and Mobile, in Colfax, Louisiana, where on Easter Sunday 1873, following a bitterly contested election for governor, whites armed with rifles and light artillery took over the county courthouse and massacred more than a hundred of its black defenders. In a second coup attempt in New Orleans, 3,500 members of the White League fought a pitched battle against police and black militia commanded by General James Longstreet, who had fought for the South during the Civil War. Longstreet himself was wounded.

We can understand the current wave of judicial and extra-judicial killings of African-American citizens as a continuation of this war, sometimes by white police, sometimes by ‘lone wolves’ like Dylann Roof. That most of these killings have taken place in the former states of the Confederacy doesn’t mean much. Racism has no homeland. Police have killed black men (and black children) in Cleveland and New York.


It’s likely that Grant himself was a racist, in the manner of most white people of his time. But those who would condemn him for failing to put an end to the organized killing and disenfranchisement of black people should consider how successful President Obama has been.

Some of this is almost surely bound up with the way the Civil War was allowed to end—with a parole of the defeated army of the CSA and the restoration of the rights of all, or nearly all, of its leaders. Even Jefferson Davis only had to endure two years in prison, and today his name and image can be found on public buildings, statues, and memorials throughout the former Confederacy and even in the U.S. Capitol.


Tennessee still has a state park dedicated to the memory of Nathan Bedford Forrest, the founder of the Klan.


More pernicious is that the South—that America as a whole—was permitted to view the war as a tragic family dispute, a war of brothers, and forget why it was fought: for the right of some human beings to own other human beings and do with them what we do with livestock or machines. Today, this amnesia continues. Even among the comments on the New York Times, one comes across the bilious argument that the war was about tariffs.

I like to imagine an alternate ending to the war in which the political and economic leaders of the Confederacy, along with planters, slave-traders, and slave-catchers, were put on trial. The point of the trial would not be to punish the vanquished but to establish that a crime had occurred, that crime being the crime of slavery. The primary witnesses would be freedmen, those who had passed through the ordeal of bondage and could say what it had been like, in such detail that no one who heard them could walk away unmoved.

But this is probably my sentimental fantasy. Many Germans of the late 1940s are said to have dismissed the Nuremburg trials as victors’ justice and to have been skeptical of the testimony that unfolded there. It wasn’t until Israel kidnapped Adolf Eichmann and put him on trial, enlisting hundreds of survivors as witnesses, that the tide of opinion shifted. Possibly, it was because that testimony was broadcast live on German television, and everybody saw it.

It may also have helped that not 15 years before, Germany had been broken as a nation, with millions of its people killed and its cities bombed to ash. There are still people who are bitter about the burning of Atlanta, but they forget that Sherman ordered its citizens to leave. This is more than the allies did in Dresden.

Frankly, I don’t know what it would take to rid us of our fictions about slavery and race. There are still those comments in the Times. There are still those people who, confronted with the killing of Mike Brown and Eric Garner, will argue that one of them was guilty of stealing some cigarillos and the other guilty of selling unlicensed cigarettes. Some hearts can’t be broken by anything short of a hammer.

This isn’t about the South, but I can’t help thinking of ‘Dixie,’ and of something I wrote about the song in The Book of Calamities: forgive me for being self-referential: “There are moments in history when the suffering of the neglected and despised is seen for what it is, as if the hatch of the slave ship had been thrown open, forcing those above decks to gaze down at the faces in the hold, and meet their eyes. The trouble with such moments is that the feelings they inspire—outrage, revulsion, shame—may be too easily dispelled. The normal human impulse is to look down into the hold, then look away. Perhaps this is the secret meaning of the refrain of “Dixie”: Look away, look away.”

2 Responses

  1. Siona says:

    You write so beautifully, and yes, and now I want to re-read CALAMITIES.

    (The normal human response is also to identify with the eyes in the hold. This if nothing else gives me hope.)

  2. ptrachtenberg says:

    Thank you, Siona. It’s good to hear from you.

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