A Confederate aside

On the subject of daring offence, raised in our last post, we had occasion to be discussing Gettysburg recently with a certain gentleman in Texas. Our great hero from that American Civil War (the Third American Civil War, by a Canadian reckoning) was Robert E. Lee. As a schoolboy we first read of his exploits, presented to us in simplified form through a reader used at Saint Anthony’s School in Lahore, then West Pakistan. He was presented alongside Nelson, & Wellington, & Florence Nightingale & Grace Darling, as a figure larger than life.

It will be recalled that the British, & British North Americans, mostly cheered for the South during that war; though the descendants of the progressive types who had dressed ostentatiously as “American Patriots,” in London after 1776, naturally cheered for Lincoln. But in the main, especially up here in the Canadas, we were “in the bag” for the South; so much that Southern statesmen would come up here, to raise money.

Slavery wasn’t the issue for us, from either side. The Royal Navy had eliminated the slave trade on the open seas, & Governor Simcoe had made it illegal in Upper Canada from the first day. We did not hesitate to receive escaped slaves; for how many escaped slaves had fought bravely beside us as United Empire Loyalists during the First American Civil War; & for God, King, & Country during the Second Civil War, after the Invasion of 1812. Indeed, slavery was, by 1861, illegal throughout the British Empire. The attitude was, “Of course we’re against slavery, everyone is against slavery”; & “everyone” knew it would soon disappear from the U.S. republic. It was unsustainable in a Christian realm. (It had always been illegal in the Papal States, & been condemned by Catholic priests throughout the Western Hemisphere.)

As General Lee himself stated, emphatically, “This war is not about slavery.” One might enter into controversy on what it was actually about: in hindsight, the imposition of a more thoroughgoing “democracy” on an unwilling South, & of central governance on the naive defenders of “States’ Rights” under the U.S. Constitution. Lincoln & company were creating — unknowingly, to be fair — the basic condition for a Nanny State. It is homogenous rule over a vast area, from a single central location, by an agnostic power. (Lincoln himself was only dubiously a Christian.)

In France, as we have argued elsewhere, & will argue again, the major achievement of the Revolution was the transformation of local government. The French nation was changed, overnight in historical terms, from a polity of 60,000 parishes, each under its own unique & long-established customary form of self-government; to one of 36,000 “communes” governed absolutely identically, & answerable directly to an ever-increasing volume of decrees from Paris. Totalitarianism requires no less.

The South had remained agrarian, & varied, & in some respects almost feudal. The North was growing industrial, & urban, & attracting immigrants for its new “working class.” In effect, new forms of “wage slavery” were being invented for new methods of machine production, to replace superannuated forms of plantation labour. There was a clash of cultures deeper than any specific point of public policy, such that “slavery” became the political football. It could be used in the conventional political way: to demonize an opponent & thus avoid having to argue with him on questions that might be subtle.

Or so we were taught by Irish Patrician brothers in a backward school, modelled on British “public” (i.e. private) pedagogic traditions, in what had until recently been British India. And incidentally, this was taught to eight-year-old schoolboys. In retrospect, we feel ever more indebted to those seemingly demented green-sashed Catholics for their acuity. (Our post-Protestant father had sent us to them only because their academic standards were so high.)

As military tactician, General Lee stands accused of commanding Pickett’s Charge, uphill at Gettysburg to the centre of the Union’s forces. For it didn’t work. Our grandfather’s general, Arthur Currie, could equally be condemned for commanding the Canadian charge, up Vimy Ridge to the centre of the German forces. Except, that did work; & grandpa was rather proud of how it worked all the rest of his days, even though his horse was among the casualties. It is indeed surprising how often in history the uphill charge has worked, with the benefit of surprise. Unfortunately, at Gettysburg, General Meade was expecting it.

But we have wandered from our intention, which was simply to provide the following little packet of sayings, from Robert E. Lee. We found them on the Internet, but they made our hair stand, not only because they expound the teaching of the Bhagavad Gita, but because each was first encountered half a century ago, whenas we were a schoolboy at Saint Anthony’s, & first took Lee aboard as one of our biggest heroes.

Item, “Duty is the most sublime word in our language.”

Item, “Obedience to lawful authority is the foundation of manly character.”

Item, “Get correct views of life, & learn to see the world in its true light. It will enable you to live pleasantly, to do good, & when summoned away, to leave without regret.”

Item, “In all my perplexities & distresses, the Bible has never failed to give me light & strength.”

Item, “Never do a wrong thing to make a friend or keep one.”

Item, “It is good that war is so horrible, or we might grow to like it.”

Item, “I have been up to see the Congress & they do not seem to be able to do anything except eat peanuts & chew tobacco, while my army is starving.”

Item, “We failed, but in the good providence of God apparent failure often proves a blessing.”