Archive | September, 2012

To Winston Churchill

10 Sep

Students of the past are perhaps more aware than most how complicated and intertwined are the events that influence the course of history. We understand and appreciate context and circumstance as important elements in any watershed moment. Very occasionally, however, individuals we study seem to have temporarily risen above their circumstances and almost single-handedly altered the course of world history with their actions. While many of these people have used their influence to further evil causes—such as Hitler and Osama Bin Laden—there are an exceptional few that have used it for unquestioned good on an international scale. I believe Winston Churchill is one of those people. I have recently read two biographies on him, and have come to admire him as never before.

Churchill was among the first world leaders to recognize Hitler for the deranged totalitarian which he was, and consistently urged Britain to arm itself in preparation for his inevitable offensive years before World War II. As the Wehrmacht steamrolled much of Europe and the fate of the entire continent teetered in the balance, it was Churchill who rallied his people to singlehandedly stand firm. He did this even as many in his own government urged compromise and appeasement. Long before America was drawn into the war by the attack at Pearl Harbor, the people of Britain were enduring sustained and deadly attacks on their homeland that swept away lives, buildings, and hope. The onslaught threatened to overcome one of the world’s two meaningful advocates of democracy. The significance of such an occurrence simply cannot be overstated.

Yes, the British Channel played as much a role in Britain’s resistance as the will of its people. Yes, the skill and daring of the RAF during the Battle of Britain bought precious time. Yes, it was ultimately through the involvement in the war by the U.S. and Russia that Germany was defeated. But for over a year Britain stood alone in the fight against tyranny, and it was largely due to Churchill’s steely determination and masterful use of oratory. When the contest began he forthrightly stated that he had “nothing to offer but blood, toil, tears, and sweat.” When German forces threatened to overwhelm the country, he had the nerve to remind his people it was their “finest hour.” When everything was going against the British and no relief from allies appeared in sight, he had the resilience to confidently declare that “We shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender!”

Of course some of his words must be taken as just that, but it is apparent that they were just what his beleaguered people wanted and needed to hear at the time.His emotional and powerful rhetoric, drawing on Britain’s proud history, became the nation’s rallying point. When compared with the same tactics being wielded for opposite ends by his country’s enemy, it becomes apparent just how exceptional an influence Churchill was on world history. All who cherish the ideals this country was built upon should honor his memory.


The Battle of Shiloh in Quotes

6 Sep

Earlier entries on this blog have discussed the use of quotes in historical writing.  Quotes should be used when they add something significant to the narrative or perhaps a quote helps flesh out the story or expresses some sort of emotion or even humor.  Sometimes the words from the past do the best job of conveying the story or message. In far too many cases, writers weaken narratives with over usage of quotes and many history books have become nothing but paragraph after paragraph of quotes which appear to be the author’s way of proving to his readership that he performed adequate primary research. Too often the story gets lost in these never ending waves of quotations which decimate the narrative.

The epic battle of Shiloh, which took place on April 6-7, 1862, has provided historians with a cornucopia of fascinating quotes which allow the reader to feel closer to participants and be filled with awe over their accomplishments. It is the powerful words of witnesses to history, such as these below, that we as historians should be utilizing.

“Take your damned regiment back to Ohio. There is no enemy closer than Corinth.” Union General William T. Sherman railing against one of his regimental commanders who insisted that an attack was imminent. I bet Sherman wished he had never said that.

“I would fight them if they were a million.” Confederate General Albert S. Johnston. Johnston proved indefatigable when discussion on canceling the attack was held with his fellow generals on the eve of battle.

“My God, we are attacked!” Sherman, whose list of quotes could fill a book, stating the obvious. Sherman had denied for days the possibility of an attack only to see the Union army get nearly overwhelmed the first day.

“Well, Grant, we’ve had the devil’s own day, haven’t we?” Sherman. “Yes, lick “em tomorrow, though,” Union General Ulysses S. Grant. Suffering through a rainstorm after the first day’s battle where almost everything went against him, Grant vowed to fight on the next day. Perhaps no other quote better symbolizes Grant’s dogged determination.

“Captain, give me a gun – The blamed fight ain’t got no rear.” Unknown Ohio private who after attempting to retreat to the rear of the army concluded that in this fight, there was no place of safety.

“We will be whipped like hell before ten o’clock tomorrow.” Confederate Colonel Nathan Bedford Forrest who witnessed thousands of Union reinforcements arrive at night after the first day’s fighting.


A Sign of the Times

5 Sep

Earlier this summer, I posted an entry on this blog entitled “Monuments to Men,” in which I stated that all public memorials to historical figures might stand in danger of being one day deemed irrelevant as the ideas our society values changes over time. I questioned whether or not this was a good thing. There is a fight currently going on in Selma, Alabama, that illustrates the point rather well. I think it is worth our objective contemplation as historians.

In 2000 a bust of Nathan Bedford Forrest, famed Confederate cavalry leader and member of the early KKK, was placed in a Selma park. (Forrest fought one of his larger battles in Selma in 1865.) Vandals repeatedly damaged the bust. It was later moved to a private cemetery but a few months ago was apparently stolen. A local group soon announced plans for building a new monument that would be larger and less susceptible vandalism. A large number of people adamantly opposed the placement of a new marker, most of whom protested that, as a member of the KKK any public memorial to Forrest was offensive. Those in favor argued that he was a “Southern hero.” The debate is not unique in Southern history, but its occurrence is, I believe, timely.

As is the case in so many debates of this sort, both sides seem to have exaggerated their case. I am not an expert on Forrest but I do know that he was a slaveholder and Confederate leader who did become heavily involved with the early KKK, but that he apparently later left the group as it transformed into something with which he was uncomfortable and that in his later years he seemed to show a sort of conciliatory spirit toward blacks that I can only describe as similar to the public pronouncements of an aging George Wallace in modern times. You have to take them for what they are worth. This doesn’t make him a great humanitarian. I do think it makes him more in the mainstream of his times than is comfortable for either detractors or advocates, though. Opponents of the marker have equated him to Hitler, which I find a preposterous statement. Proponents of the marker have described him as among the South’s most praiseworthy historical figures, which I find totally unconvincing.

What is lost in the hyperbole over his memory is at the core of the debate over who we venerate as a society and why. Forrest has been celebrated in virtually every Southern state on some level since the Civil War, overwhelmingly for his rise from humble circumstances to become a remarkably accomplished military leader. With our society’s growing sensitivity to its racist past, that veneration has become increasingly uneasy to the point that to say or allow to be said anything positive about the man or his place in Southern history is to be deemed as racist as him. I do not think it is a good thing for our society to deify historical figures whose memory is associated with the very worst of human nature. But neither do I think effacement and reconciliation are necessarily linked parts of a healthy understanding of the past. The emotion-filled arguments over the memory of Forrest are filled with cherry-picked facts that conveniently ignore inconvenient truths and it is clear that Forrest the symbol now overshadows Forrest the man.

I am certainly not going to make the case that we need another monument to a controversial leader who at his core represents ideals we thankfully no longer espouse. But I do wonder what historical figure is next to be held up to scrutiny for selected facets of his or her life, and at what point political heat from those who are offended by them today overwhelms objectivity. No person is without flaws or beyond the influence of his time. Forrest may be more flawed than most, but were many of the heroes of our early republic so different in their outlook?