Anatole France used to tell a story about his professor reading to them a passage from Chateaubriand. Chateaubriand told of seeing three blue eggs in a blackbird’s nest. The professor stopped reading and the class could hear him saying to himself, “I’ve seen blackbird’s eggs and they’re grey.” He stood there repeating: “They’re grey. They’re grey.”
Then he said with a sigh, “Chateaubriand was very fortunate to see them blue.”
One of my pet peeves is the snobbery of people who insist on reading the past from the infinitely superior wisdom of the present. One could pick any period, but let’s look at the Civil War. They look at the 2:1 ratio between Civil War deaths from disease as opposed deaths from wounds in battle and speak condescendingly of the “primitive” medicine of the day. They speak of the slow pace of change in that period compared to the “rush” of innovation that modern man confronts. They declare that Abraham Lincoln was a racist who opposed abolition because he feared white America would not be willing to live and work alongside freed slaves.
As a corrective (just in case any of you were nodding along with any of the above), let me point out a few things.
First, America and the rest of the world was in the middle of a major medical revolution when the Civil War was fought. It is true that pathogens such as bacteria and viruses had not been discovered. It is also true that the whole “germ theory” of infections was virtually unknown. But mankind had finally learned the connection between infection and dirt. Hospitals (or what passed for them) had been filthy, stuffy, pus-filled pestholes for millennia. In the Civil War they were as clean and airy as conditions allowed.
And it worked. No matter what you make of the lousy, diarrhea-ridden condition of far too many of the troops, consider this: The ratio of disease deaths to combat-related deaths was more like 7:1 in the Mexican War and a horrendous 15:1 in the Napoleonic Spanish Peninsular War. The “modern” science of hygiene alone had wrought a miracle that changed reality for the common soldier.
And the Civil War had wonderful new things like morphine to ease the pain and quinine that eased the attacks of malaria and ether and chloroform that changed surgery from a scream-filled horror into the blessedly insensible butchery we still know today. We may wince at gruesome pictures of piles of amputated limbs. What we do not appreciate is that the wounded soldier, because of medicine’s new skill at amputation, had a pretty good chance of surviving what had once been a fatal wound.
A greater age of miracles lay ahead, but they did not know that. What they did know were the fantastic wonders already achieved. For them, their medicine was at the cutting edge of their new technology. They were both confident in it and proud of it.
Second, let’s look at that matter of “pace.” For uncounted thousands of years, there were only three sources of power in the world: muscle (human and animal), wind, and water. The Egyptians transported their stones by wind-driven ships. They used men with ropes and levers to maneuver them on land. So did the Romans. And so did the men who built the Capitol in Washington, DC. Somewhere along our way humans learned to capture the wind for their windmills and guide the water to their water wheels, but that was about it: Muscle, wind, and water.
Then it all changed.
No human revolution, no technological wonder, no triumph of science has ever had the impact that the steam engine had. Ideas of distance that had lasted thousands of years were wiped out. People who had lived and died within twenty miles of home suddenly found themselves thinking about going off to America. Or India. Or Australia.
Shipping rates went down by a factor of ten. Farmers in Ohio suddenly could afford to ship their grain to New York. Mercantilists in New York suddenly could afford to ship that grain to Europe. Factories in Massachusetts suddenly could make iron machines weighing tons and afford to ship them to farmers in Ohio. Voyages that used to take unpredictable weeks or months became scheduled things measured in days.
In 1830 the first railroad in the United States began with a rickety, primitive, feeble steam engine traveling on a short spur of wooden tracks. By 1860, the United States had over 33,000 miles of rails, forming a huge network that would shortly be shipping soldiers, rations, horses, cannons and giant quantities of ammunition to serve armies of over a million men.
Talk about pace! The world had never seen such a revolution in human life wrought by technology, and it never would again. Everything new that we have seen in our own time is trivial compared to it.
And what about Abraham Lincoln? Was he a racist? Did he free any slaves? Did he even want to?
Were Abraham Lincoln a contemporary of ours with the same ideas he had back then, we would call that contemporary a racist. But he is not a contemporary of ours. He was a man of his time and only a lunatic can truly escape the framework of his time.
First off, it was the common wisdom of his day to view all men as belonging to a hierarchy. Not too surprisingly, Western common wisdom placed the white Westerner at the top of that hierarchy. And they commonly talked in terms of race. But it was not race as we would understand it today. It was some sort of a melange of biology and culture and divine blessings. They would talk about the German or French race in one minute and the European race in the next. They would talk about the Negro race in one sentence and the African races in the next.
The idea of race, as we understand it, had not yet been defined in his time. It was left for the Nazis to do that much later. To judge someone by a standard that did not exist in his own day is the very worst sort of cultural chauvinism as well as being a crashing anachronism.
Now, there is no question that Abraham Lincoln viewed the Negroes as an inferior race. The truth is that virtually everyone else in America did, too. It was another part of the “everybody knows” variety of accepted common wisdom. What is less clear is how much of that inferiority he thought biological, how much cultural and how much a matter of divine blessings withheld (that curse of Ham business). That is, no one knows whether Lincoln thought that their inferiority was something they could overcome.
What is certain is that Lincoln, who held a darkly pessimistic view of his fellow man, did not believe they would be willing to live with freed negroes, give them fair jobs, and pay for the education that would allow them to reach whatever their potential might be.
Pardon me for saying that our last century’s history suggests Lincoln’s pessimism hardly seems misplaced.
Finally, glib revisionists like to point out that the Emancipation Proclamation did not, when issued, free a single slave. True enough. It only applied to those slaves in Southern hands, where no damned Yankee Proclamation was likely to be obeyed.
But Abraham Lincoln was arguably the most intelligent President we ever had. It is unthinkable that he did not understand two very important points: 1) That if the North won the war, all those slaves then in Southern hands would be freed by the Proclamation, and more importantly, 2) The political reality was that freeing the Southern slaves meant every slave would inevitably have to be made free.
So we can say that while Lincoln did not exactly free the slaves on January 1, 1863, he took exactly the action that would inevitably result in their freedom. He wasn’t sanguine that his fellow white citizens would make the great experiment a smooth or happy one, nor was he certain the people being freed were ready for it, but he made sure the experiment would happen.
Finally, while I am beating my tub about how we misapply the present to view the past, let’s look at war itself.
The twentieth century brought some pretty miserable wars. Millions of soldiers and millions more civilians died in the very worst sort of squalor and misery. It may be to our credit that we look back on all that and fail to see anything wonderful in it. Perhaps it speaks of a certain maturing of civilization itself.
But other things happen in war. There is courage and nobility and self-sacrifice as well as misery and death. There are moments like the flag raising on Iwo Jima that makes the heart rise in the throat. Sadly, we have lost sight of most of that. In our relentless pursuit of proving how humane we are, we have made it unacceptable to focus on the adrenaline-pumping, spirit-lifting side of our own actions.
I am not saying we should go back to celebrating war. But I know that many of those who lived through the very worst of it saw something in it we deny ever existed: glory.
Maybe seeing glory in wars was a bad thing. Maybe it made them easier to start. But maybe, just maybe, in our narrow, puritanical focus on all that is worst in man and his wars, we have also blinded ourselves to that sublime best he can achieve in that most severe of self-inflicted tests.
Maybe there is no such thing as that kind of glory. Maybe we are correct to say there can be no real glory in war and that all those who bled for it and died for it were simply deluded.
But maybe it is we who are wrong. In our superiority, we think it moral to see it all like the blackbird’s eggs…grey. I think they were very lucky to see them blue.