Ambrose Bierce on American War Dead

CW Graves larger
“Is there a man, North or South, who would begrudge the expense of giving to these fallen brothers the tribute of green graves?” 

On Memorial Day, Americans honor those who died in all our wars. Traditionally, we honor the men and less the cause they fought for. There have been wars America fought which, in retrospect, may have been less than just: some were unnecessary, a few were futile; but we honor those who fell in them nonetheless.

Ambrose Bierce joined the Union Army the instant he heard of Lincoln’s call for troops; unlike many, he not only joined because he wished to preserve the Union, but because he and his family were ardent Abolitionists. His Uncle Lucius Bierce had supplied John Brown with the broadswords that Brown used to commit the Pottawatamie Massacre, and later eulogized Brown when he was executed. But after four years of war, killing his fair share of the enemy and after nearly dying himself, Bierce was no longer that idealistic young man. He had seen too much death, too much suffering, to gloat over his former foes defeat; he never regretted his war service, but neither did he rejoice in the victory achieved at such a cost. 

In 1903, Ambrose Bierce, still very much haunted by his experiences in the war, penned this essay after revisiting the scenes of his first experience of the war. He saw the ill- tended graves of his former foes and the neglect which they had fallen into. His eloquence on viewing the graves of not enemies, but fellow soldiers, remains an eloquent Memorial Day statement: 

A BIVOUAC OF THE DEAD

“Away up in the heart of the Allegheny mountains, in Pocahontas county, West Virginia, is a beautiful little valley through which flows the east fork of the Greenbrier river. At a point where the valley road intersects the old Staunton and Parkersburg turnpike, a famous thoroughfare in its day, is a post office in a farm house. The name of the place is Travelers’ Repose, for it was once a tavern. Crowning some low hills within a stone’s throw of the house are long lines of old Confederate fortifications, skilfully designed and so well “preserved” that an hour’s work by a brigade would put them into serviceable shape for the next civil war. This place had its battle–what was called a battle in the “green and salad days” of the great rebellion. A brigade of Federal troops, the writer’s regiment among them, came over Cheat mountain, fifteen miles to the westward, and, stringing its lines across the little valley, felt the enemy all day; and the enemy did a little feeling, too. There was a great cannonading, which killed about a dozen on each side; then, finding the place too strong for assault, the Federals called the affair a reconnaissance in force, and burying their dead withdrew to the more comfortable place whence they had come. Those dead now lie in a beautiful national cemetery at Grafton, duly registered, so far as identified, and companioned by other Federal dead gathered from the several camps and battlefields of West Virginia. The fallen soldier (the word “hero” appears to be a later invention) has such humble honors as it is possible to give.

His part in all the pomp that fills
The circuit of the Summer hills
Is that his grave is green.

True, more than a half of the green graves in the Grafton cemetery are marked “Unknown,” and sometimes it occurs that one thinks of the contradiction involved in “honoring the memory” of him of whom no memory remains to honor; but the attempt seems to do no great harm to the living, even to the logical.

A few hundred yards to the rear of the old Confederate earthworks is a wooded hill. Years ago it was not wooded. Here, among the trees and in the undergrowth, are rows of shallow depressions, discoverable by removing the accumulated forest leaves. From some of them may be taken (and reverently replaced) small thin slabs of the split stone of the country, with rude and reticent inscriptions by comrades. I found only one with a date, only one with full names of man and regiment. The entire number found was eight.

In these forgotten graves rest the Confederate dead–between eighty and one hundred, as nearly as can be made out. Some fell in the “battle;” the majority died of disease. Two, only two, have apparently been disinterred for reburial at their homes. So neglected and obscure is this campo santo that only he upon whose farm it is–the aged postmaster of Travelers’ Repose–appears to know about it. Men living within a mile have never heard of it. Yet other men must be still living who assisted to lay these Southern soldiers where they are, and could identify some of the graves. Is there a man, North or South, who would begrudge the expense of giving to these fallen brothers the tribute of green graves? One would rather not think so. True, there are several hundreds of such places still discoverable in the track of the great war. All the stronger is the dumb demand–the silent plea of these fallen brothers to what is “likest God within the soul.”

They were honest and courageous foemen, having little in common with the political madmen who persuaded them to their doom and the literary bearers of false witness in the aftertime. They did not live through the period of honorable strife into the period of vilification–did not pass from the iron age to the brazen–from the era of the sword to that of the tongue and pen. Among them is no member of the Southern Historical Society.

Their valor was not the fury of the non-combatant; they have no voice in the thunder of the civilians and the shouting. Not by them are impaired the dignity and infinite pathos of the Lost Cause. Give them, these blameless gentlemen, their rightful part in all the pomp that fills the circuit of the summer hills.”

 

For more on Ambrose Bierce and the Civil War, see Ambrose Bierce and the Period of Honorable Strife, University of Tennessee Press.

 

Ambrose Bierce and the Period of Honorable Strife cover
Ambrose Bierce and the Period of Honorable Strife chronicles the author’s wartime experiences in the Army of the Cumberland and his coming of age in the crucible of war.

 

 

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The Long Road to Secession: Part IV The Nullification Crisis

The US lost the War of 1812 but won the Battle of New Orleans, and so claimed victory.  The battle also assured Andrew Jackson's political career.
The US lost the War of 1812 but won the Battle of New Orleans, and so claimed victory. The battle also assured Andrew Jackson’s political career.

As we have seen previously, beginning with the very foundation of the nation, there have been successive movements to split apart the Union, none of which had anything to do with slavery per se.  In this installment we shall look at one episode which had a direct bearing on the 1860 Secession Crisis, yet which did not directly impinge on the issue of slavery versus abolition.  This was the Nullification Crisis.

After the War of 1812, the country entered a period of renewed national unity, which some historians have labeled as an age of Nationalism.  Although the United States had done poorly in the war, Andrew Jackson’s spectacular victory at New Orleans gave the country the perception that we had actually won it.  To foster American industry, Congress had instituted tariffs to prevent foreign, mainly English, imports.  The Tariff of 1828 was particularly stiff in restricting imports, earning it the sobriquet, “The Tariff of Abominations.”  Many in the South opposed the tariff, but so did many New England merchants.  In South Carolina in particular, opposition to this tariff was very strong.  When Andrew Jackson ran for President in 1828, many in South Carolina and elsewhere hoped that Jackson would repeal the hated import duties.

John C. Calhoun, of South Carolina, was the leading proponent of the Theory of Nullification, which proclaimed the rights of the states as superior to those of the Federal government.  The Nullification Crisis 0f 1832 was a predecessor to the Secession Crisis of 1860
John C. Calhoun, of South Carolina, was the leading proponent of the Theory of Nullification, which proclaimed the rights of the states as superior to those of the Federal government. The Nullification Crisis 0f 1832 was a predecessor to the Secession Crisis of 1860

When, after taking office, Jackson did not take immediate action to repeal the tariff, the radicals in South Carolina became even more militant in their opposition.  Vice President John C. Calhoun resigned his office to run for the Senate, where he felt he could more effectively oppose the tariff.  President Jackson did in fact pass a reduced tariff in 1832, which had the support of New England and much of the South, but it was not enough for either John C. Calhoun or the radicals in South Carolina.

Here’s where the situation grew from a simple political dispute into a potential threat to the Union.  John C. Calhoun proposed the Theory of Nullification: that the individual states had the right to overrule any Federal law which that state considered unconstitutional.  In essence, if accepted, nullification meant that no law passed by Congress would be able to be enforced, returning the country to the same chaos which had caused the downfall of the Confederation government.  The separate and individual states were to be the ultimate arbiters of what was and was not constitutional, not the Supreme Court.  Nullification flew in the face of both the Supremacy Clause of the Constitution, as well as Article III, which gave the Federal judiciary the right to rule on constitutionality.

A less than flattering portrayal of Calhoun and where his political ambitions would lead.
A less than flattering portrayal of Calhoun and where his political ambitions would lead.

Andrew Jackson, it should be borne in mind, was a slave holder and was not opposed to reducing tariffs to the benefit of the planters and shipping merchants; but he was also a nationalist and felt a sense of betrayal by the actions of his former vice president, who was the main proponent of what was tantamount to an act of rebellion.  Previously, as the controversy was still brewing, at a Democratic Party celebration in honor of Jefferson’s birthday, Jackson had famously proclaimed, “Our Federal Union: It must be preserved.”

South Carolina passed the Ordinance of Nullification in November, 1832, unilaterally repealing the Tariffs of 1828 and 1832 and the state began to make military preparations to resist the Federal government.  In response, in December of 1832, President Jackson issued the “Proclamation to South Carolina” as his response to the Ordinance of Nullification, which categorically refuted Carolina’s claims.

Another anti-nullification political cartoon, showing the English John Bull waiting to devour a fragmented "Union Pie."
Another anti-nullification political cartoon, showing the English John Bull waiting to devour a fragmented “Union Pie.”

Andrew Jackson was in a high rage at both Calhoun and the radicals in South Carolina; Congress passed the Force Bill, which authorized the President to use military force against South Carolina to compel it to submit to Federal authority.  Jackson threatened to personally lead an army into the state to enforce his will and hang all the state legislators who had passed the rebellious acts.  But at the same time, Congress also passed the Tariff of 1833, which substantially reduced the import duties to a level which even the radicals in South Carolina could live with.

In the end a military solution was averted and South Carolina backed down, although they continued to argue their right to nullify Federal laws.  In retrospect, the Nullification Crisis was very similar to the situation which existed during the Secession Crisis of late 1860 and early 1861; but there were important differences.  As in 1860, it was South Carolina that was the most militant and aggressive in seeking to undermine Federal authority; but unlike 1860, none of the other Southern states sided with Carolina in the crisis, even though there were many in the South who disliked the high tariffs.

A political cartoon from the time of the Civil War, comparing the Nullification Crisis to the Secession Crisi and Civil War.
A political cartoon from the time of the Civil War, comparing the Nullification Crisis to the Secession Crisi and Civil War.

Moreover, it was not strictly a North versus South issue, as there were many in New England who were equally unhappy about the protectionist tariffs.  On another point, although South Carolina talked of defying the Federal government to enforce its “rights” in truth they were not militarily prepared to do so.  In 1860, contrary to all their talk about being the offended party and of Lincoln’s aggression, South Carolina had in fact been secretly stockpiling arms and ammunition, including heavy artillery, for a decade or more.

The Nullification Crisis was not directly about slavery; it was about free trade versus protectionism.  But in pursing their militant theories of states rights, Calhoun and other Carolinians of his ilk were setting the groundwork for the later Secession Crisis.  Slavery was not the issue at stake in this fight, although it was lurking in the background, to be sure.  The Age of Jackson was considered a period where Nationalism was triumphant over sectionalism; indeed, even the though Jackson was from Tennessee, at this time Tennessee was still considered The West and not The South, a perception which would change after he left office.

An overly optimistic view of how Secession would be "exploded" by the Federal government.  Civil War was averted in 1832, but not in 1860.
An overly optimistic view of how Secession would be “exploded” by the Federal government. Civil War was averted in 1832, but not in 1860.

Following the Jacksonian era, the country would increasingly divide itself over the issue of slave versus free.  But the notion that one or more states had the right to go their own way was not fundamentally tied to the issue of slavery; it was very much tied to whose economic interests were threatened at any given time.  Or, to quote James Carville: “It’s the Economy Stupid.”

In 1860, despite what many Secessionists tried to claim in their ordinances of Secession, and which modern writers have taken out of context, Lincoln had no intention of abolishing slavery, nor did he run on that issue in the presidential election.  Nor could Lincoln have abolished slavery even if he had wanted to on taking office in 1861; President Lincoln was simply too good a lawyer to think so.  Slavery was built into the Constitution and it would take Constitutional amendments to abolish it—which only came about because of the hubris of the Southern States and the “Fire-Breathing” Secessionists in South Carolina and elsewhere, who goaded the South into rebellion and war.

Ambrose Bierce's experiences with the Army of the Cumberland, due out Summer of 2016.
Ambrose Bierce’s experiences with the Army of the Cumberland, due out Summer of 2016.
The Paranormal Presidency of Abraham Lincoln (Schiffer)
The Paranormal Presidency of Abraham Lincoln (Schiffer)
Ghosts and Haunts of the Civil War (HarperCollins). True uncanny tales of the Civil War.
Ghosts and Haunts of the Civil War (HarperCollins). True uncanny tales of the Civil War.

For more esoteric and interesting aspects of the Civil War, see The Paranormal Presidency of Abraham Lincoln and Ghosts and Haunts of the Civil War.  Coming out later this year is Ambrose Bierce and the Period of Honorable Strife, an in depth look at the Civil War in the western theater and the famous author’s participation in it.