Grits and Tamales

Life in the Deep South, by Gabriel Aguilera

Category Archives: History

Lincoln’s Heir

The great man did not blink at the necessary blood, death, and devastation needed to defeat the Union’s slaveholding foes. The bloodletting worsened with Grant as General in Chief and this deepened the furrows on his saddened face during all his final weeks and days. Lincoln meditated on Macbeth, “Duncan lies in his grave…” and yet he eagerly approved of General Sherman’s scorched earth march through Dixie, to the sea. Among his companions he veered back and forth from melancholy reverie to mirth. Whenever not aloof he railed them with jokes and funny stories.

Today resembles not those days except perhaps by way of crude analogy. Then, Walt Whitman sang of an America encompassing myriad nations — “Here is not merely a nation but a teeming nation of nations.” But then only two de facto coalesced for war whose outcome bound them into union, leaving a bitter vengeful south, obdurate and wicked. We remain today two nations still in union thanks to Lincoln, evenly divided, even as the north spills south southwest, the south west and north midwest, led by a Black statesman.

Someone smartly called Barack Obama “Jefferson’s heir,” an introverted cosmopolitan who lives by mastering the written word. This is incorrect for our president is Lincoln’s heir and no one else’s. Unlike laconic Jefferson, Lincoln was a wordsmith and an orator too who sometimes made great songs even of state papers. Obama is among the most consequential English speaking orators since the end of World War II. Kennedy, Reagan, and even Thatcher — fine politicians all — do not come close to matching his fierce intellect, never mind the poetry of his own pen.


On “Duty,” by Robert Gates (forgot to post a couple of years ago)

I badly want this Gates book to end. You loved the troops, got it. You hate politics, got it. You’re a fantastic leader of big complex organizations and, ironically, a tremendous political and bureaucratic fighter, got it. You’re old, like fatty foods and booze, and are breaking down physically, got it. You’re forgiving towards people you like and will make excuses for them (i.e. you’re human), got it.

That said, it is full of sharp insights, good if tendentious critiques of the decision-making process and strategy, and a useful look at the Afghan policymaking decision-making process where Biden, who according to him, was wrong on everything (but, let it be said, Biden was right on this).

The Fragmentation of Italy Favored the Renaissance.

The snippets that follow are from Will Durant’s, The Renaissance. (Simon and Schuster, 1953, pages 44-48).


We have followed Petrarch and Boccaccio through Italy. But politically there was no Italy; there were only city-states, fragments free to consume themselves in hate and war…Partisans of the popes and partisans of the emperors not only divided Italy, they split almost every city into Guelf and Ghibellline; and even when the strife subsided the old labels were used by new rivalries, and the lava of hate flowed into all the avenues of life…The timid weakness of individuals, the insecurity of groups, and the delusion of superiority generated perpetual fear, suspicion, dislike, and contempt of the different, the alien, and the strange.

Out of these impediments to unity rose the Italian city-state. Men thought in terms of their city, and only a few philosophers like Machiavelli, or a poet like Petrarch, could think of Italy as a whole; even in the sixteenth century Cellini would refer to Florentines as “men of our nation,”and to Florence as “my fatherland.” Petrarch, freed by foreign residence from a merely local patriotism, mourned the petty wars and divisions of his native country…

The fragmentation of Italy favored the Renaissance. Large states promote order and power rather than liberty or art…Local independence weakened the capacity of Italy to defend herself against foreign invasion, but it generated a noble rivalry of the cities and princes in cultural patronage, in the zeal to excel in architecture, sculpture, painting, education, scholarship, poetry…

We need not exaggerate, to appreciate, the degree in which Petrarchan and Boccaccio prepared the Renaissance. Both were still mortgaged to medieval ideas…Petrarch properly and prophetically described himself as standing between two eras…he loved the classics with the troubled conscience at the close of the Age of Faith as Jerome had loved them at its opening…Nevertheless, he was more faithful to the classics than to Laura; he sought and cherished ancient manuscripts, and inspired others to do the same…he formed his manner and style on Virgil and Cicero; and he thought more of the fame of his name than of the immortality of his soul. His poems fostered a century of artificial sonneteering in Italy, but they helped to mold the sonnets of Shakespeare…

But again it would be an error to overrated the contributions of antiquity to this Italian apogee. It was a fulfillment rather than a revolution…Medieval men and women, despite an otherworldly minority, had kept, unabashed, the natural human relish for the simple and sensual pleasures of life. The men who conceived, built, and carved the cathedrals had their own sense of beauty, and a sublimity of thought and form never surpassed.

…And a revolution in art had begun when Giotto abandoned the mystic rigor of Byzantine mosaics to study men and women in the actual flow and natural grace of their lives.

In Italy all roads were leading to the Renaissance.




Meet General Philip H. Sheridan: “I intend to make the cavalry an arm of the services.”

Philip H. Sheridan is one of my favorite Union generals during the war. Perhaps only Sherman was more colorful. Perhaps only Forrest was tougher.

What follows is from Volume 3 of Foote’s The Civil War: A Narrative (pages 135-136):


In conference with Lincoln and Halleck, soon after his return from Tennessee and before he established headquarters in the field, he [Grant] had expressed his dissatisfaction with cavalry operations in the eastern theater. What was needed, he said, was “a thorough leader.”… Halleck came up with the answer. “How would Sheridan do?” he asked. This was Major General Philip H. Sheridan, then in command of an infantry under Thomas near Chattanooga. His only experience with cavalry had been a five-week term as colonel of a Michigan regiment after Shiloh, nearly two years ago, and he had not only never served in Virginia, he had never even been over the ground in peacetime, so great was his dislike of all things southern. But Grant said that he would do just fine in command of the eastern army’s three divisions of 13,000 troopers. “The very man I want,” he said, and Sheridan was sent for. He arrived in early April, checked into Willard’s, and went at once to the White House, much as Grant had done the month before. The interview was marred, however, when [Lincoln] brought up the familiar jest: “Who ever saw a dead cavalryman?” Sheridan was not amused. If he had his way, there were going to be a great many dead cavalrymen lying around, Union as well as Confederate. Back at Willard’s with friends, he said as much and more. “I’m going to take the cavalry away from the bobtailed brigadier generals,” he vowed. “They must do without their escorts. I intend to make the cavalry an arm of the services.”

Sheridan was different, and he brought something different and hard into the army he now joined. “Smash ’em up, smash ’em up!” he would say as he toured the camps, smacking the palm with his fist for emphasis, and then ride off on his big galloping horse, a bullet-headed little man with close-cropped hair and a black mustache and imperial, bandy-legged, long in the arms, all Irish but with a Mongol look to his face and form, as if something had gone strangely wrong somewhere down the line in Ireland. Just turned thirty-three, he was five feet five inches tall and he weighed 115 pounds with his spurs on; “one of those long-armed fellows with short legs,” Lincoln remarked of him, “that can scratch his shins without having to stoop over.” Mounted, he looked about as tall and burly as the next man, so that when he got down from his horse his slightness came as a shock.” The officer you brought on from the West is a rather little fellow to handle your cavalry,” someone observed at headquarters, soon after Sheridan reported for duty. Grant took a pull from his cigar, perhaps remembering Missionary Ridge. “You’ll find him big enough for the purpose before we get through with him,” he said. And in point of fact, the under-sized, Ohio-raised West Pointer held much the same views on the war as his chief, who was Ohio born and had finished West Point ten years earlier, also standing about two thirds of the way down in his class. Those views, complementing Sheridan’s even more succinct “Smash ’em up, smash ’em up!” could be stated quite briefly, a staff physician found out about this time. They were sitting around idle after a hard day’s work and the doctor asked the general-in-chief for a definition of the art of war. Grant turned the matter over in his mind — no doubt preparing to quote Jomini or some other highly regarded authority, his listeners thought — and then replied, as if in confirmation of what his friend Longstreet was telling Lee’s staff about now, across the way: “Find out where your enemy is. Get at him as soon as you can, and strike him as hard as you can. And keep moving on.”

That was to be the method…




Lincoln Selects John Pope

From Foote’s, The Civil War (V1), a passage on the selection of General John Pope for command of the Army of the Potomac. It shows Lincoln’s slyness, his willingness to task war-fighting to a class of men that Churchill tagged as “stinkers and cheats,” because these were sometimes necessary to win wars (see below).

“John Pope was the man. Halleck had praised him so highly he had lost him. Indeed, for months now the news from that direction had seemed to indicate that the formula for victory, so elusive here on the seaboard, had been discovered by the generals in the West — in which case, as Lincoln and Stanton saw it, the thing to do was bring one of them East and give him a chance to apply it. Grant’s record having been tarnished by Shiloh and the subsequent rumors of negligence and whiskey, Pope was the more or less obvious choice, not only because of Island Ten and Halleck’s praise of his agressiveness during the campaign against Corinth, but also because Lincoln, as a prairie lawyer pleading cases in Pope’s father district court, had known him back in Illinois. There were objections. Montgomery Blair, for instance, warned that old Judge Pope “was a flatterer, a deceiver, a liar and a trickster; all the Popes are so.” But the President could not see that these were necessarily drawback characteristics in a military man. While admitting that the general’s ‘infirmity’ when it came to walking the chalk-line of truth, he protested that “a liar might be brave and have skill as an officer.” Also, perhaps as a result of a belief in the Westerner’s ability to combine effectively the several family traits Blair had warned of, he credited him with ‘great cunning,’ a quality Lincoln had learned to prize highly as a result of his brush with Stonewall Jackson in the Valley. So Pope was sent for.”

Contrast Lincoln to Churchill, who remarked to Field Marshall Dill during WWII: “It isn’t only the good boys who help to win the wars; it is the sneaks and the stinkers as well.” Another officer later wrote of Churchill: “Churchill had a weakness for sneaks and stinkers of all kinds…”


Louis Hartz: The Liberal Tradition in America

Here is an excellent review of Louis Hartz, “The Liberal Tradition in America,”on the fiftieth anniversery of its publication. This is a hard hard book and still do not understand too many of the references that Hartz makes. Nonetheless, it was an extremely important and formative book that motivated me to study US foreign policy and politics. For me, even today, it helps answer America’s unfavorable views of social revolutions. The answer lies in understanding Lockian liberalism in America. America, he argues, was born free and therefore cannot understand nations that have to become so through revolution.

Globalization Inevitable?

International economic integration is not ineluctable, not by a long shot. The challenge is making it more sustainable politically, socially, environmentally, and morally. This is the work of politician-statespersons who will need political capital to craft newer, better, and fairer deals. As for the one-percenters and the well-to-do, they need to understand that they benefit disproportionally from public goods so they have to pay more — a lot more than they have been paying while squirreling away gazillions in tax havens. Without better deals and more public investment, the pitchforks will come out and darker days of populistic violence, wars, environmental catastrophes, and dystopia await. We’ve been there before in the wake of a long globalization boom.

Finding Shelby Foote

I actually ran across Shelby Foote quite by accident several years ago when I was living in Los Angeles.  I spent a lot of time on the freeways so I was always in the market for something good to listen to in the car.  At the time I was reading presidential biographies and had read up quite a bit on Lincoln, TR, and several others.  I pretty much picked up The Civil War: A Narrative on a whim.

Foote’s Civil War, on audio, floored me for several reasons. I did not notice when I first listened to it — I have listened all the way through 3Xs and read it once  — that Foote is actually a novelist in addition to, as James M. McPherson notes, a fine historian. [Side note: McPherson pays Foote the highest compliment in his Battle Cry of Freedom by closely following several of his battle accounts].  Foote brought the Civil War’s politics, battle scenes, and, above all, the characters to life in my mind’s eye.   All is told from the perspective of soldiers, citizens, and statesmen.  Their views are moderated and edited by an a narrator who relates the story while giving the impression that he is taking it all in with the reader as he goes.  He too, it seems, is entertained, angered, bemused, awed and heartbroken as events unfold.  He, too, develops strong views on the characters and events.  For example, he manifests a deep sympathy to Jefferson Davis that I found difficult to share but readily understood.  He makes you appreciate why Lee was so beloved, but also forces you to appreciate how utterly human he was.  Later, Foote says that Gettysburg is the price that the South paid for Lee.  This is palpable in the narrative.  He also has abiding, albeit grudging, respect and admiration for Grant.  Lincoln’s star shines brightest in the Civil War even though the narrator’s sympathies lean slightly towards the South.

The Civil War, let it be said, is a literary masterpiece filled with one gorgeous sentence after another. It is clear that Foote is steeped in Homer and Shakespeare.  Others note that it is most like Proust – which I have never read. My  Shelby_Foote_Q  Twitter feed lets me pick out snippets of things in the book that I love. It gives me an excuse to keep perusing those gorgeous sentences and paragraphs that really do succeed in putting you right next to to Lincoln and Davis every bit as much as Grant and Lee.

About a month ago,  I finally caught a bit of the Burns documentary.  What I saw was wonderful, but what I watched paled in comparison to the imagery and beauty that Foote stamped on my brain.  Burns, too, pays Foote the highest compliment by outlining pieces of the documentary closely on Foote’s narrative.  The friend I was watching with was startled when I anticipated lines, quotes, and events throughout the show.

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