Wednesday, November 23, 2011

"To the living we owe respect, but to the dead we owe only the truth." --Voltaire

The Sons of Confederate Veterans, the group behind the ongoing attempt to get the Confederate battle flag displayed on specialty license plates in Texas, is one of the groups responsible for desecrating the grave of Silas Chandler, a former slave, with Confederate paraphernalia.  The group also figures in Confederates in the Attic, one of our Civil War Project shows, and is one of the prime movers behind the Big Lie about the war:  that the Confederacy was not a deeply racist slavocracy which went to war to protect its financial interest in human chattel.

To you, Sons of Confederate Veterans, we submit 
the vindication of the Cause for which we fought; 
to your strength will be given the defense of the Confederate soldier's good name, 
the guardianship of his history, 
the emulation of his virtues, 
the perpetuation of those principles he loved 
and which made him glorious 
and which you also cherish. 
Remember, it is your duty to see that the true history of the South is presented to future generations.
Lt. General Stephen Dill Lee, C.S.A.
April 25, 1906

The Sons date from 1896 and is one of several organizations of the period founded for the perfectly respectable reason of honoring the group's actual fathers who had served valiantly in the Confederate army, risking (and many of them giving) their lives.  Even today much of their work involves the upkeep of gravesites and assistance with genealogy research and so on.  The more visible part of their work, however, is insidious:  to bring into the mainstream and make respectable the false idea that the Confederacy itself deserves to be honored.

Much of this work depends on minimizing the Confederacy's commitment to slavery as a foundation of its existence.  So we are told that Robert E. Lee hated slavery: he didn't; he saw it as a necessary evil that the white race had to bear in order to do God's work benefiting the black race.  We are told that thousands of blacks enlisted in and fought for the Confederate Army: of course they didn't; not only did Confederate law prohibit this until the CSA was gasping its last, the Confederate army refused to recognize even captured black Union troops as legitimate POWs but instead executed some of them as rebellious slaves.  The fact that the Emancipation Proclamation, as a product of Lincoln's war powers, could only free slaves where the rebellion existed, while emancipation in the loyal states had to wait for the Thirteenth Amendment, is twisted so that we can be told, hey, slavery was abolished in the South before it was in the North!--as if emancipation at the point of a Union bayonet is a credit to the Confederate slaveowner.

The license plate controversy represents another aspect of their work: to (1) get the Confederate flag displayed in official auspices of any sort, and (2) equate Confederate soldiers in the general mind with the soldiers who fought at Normandy and Khe Sanh and Lexington, as well as with the soldiers they fired upon at Antietam and Shiloh and Gettysburg.  "These veterans need to be honored too," a Sons spokesman testified to the Texas Department of Motor Vehicles Board before the Board voted 8-0 against allowing specialty plates displaying the Sons logo, which features the Confederate battle flag.  The Sons have said they plan to appeal, and in fact have won such appeals in a number of other states.

A number of years ago the Civil War documentarian Ken Burns, himself descended from Confederate veterans, caused a furor in neo-Confederate circles when he discussed the eternal Civil War paradox of American respect and affection--North and South--for the valiant men who tried to destroy the country. ''I said it was interesting to note that a man held responsible for more loyal American deaths than Tojo or Hitler became our most cherished general,'' Burns recounted later.  For this statement of verifiable fact concerning Robert E. Lee, he ended up stripped of the CSV membership the organization had bestowed on him.  Verifiable facts are not the friends of neo-Confederates.

Alexander Stephens T-shirt, available in four styles
  Our new government is founded upon exactly the opposite idea;
its foundations are laid, its cornerstone rests, upon the great truth that
the negro is not equal to the white man;
that slavery subordination to the superior race is his natural and normal condition.
This, our new government,
is the first in the history of the world
based upon this great
physical, philosophical, and moral truth.

Alexander Stephens
Vice-President, Confederate States of  America
March 21, 1861

"I think I have no prejudice against the Southern people," Lincoln said in 1854.  "They are just what we would be in their situation."  True enough now as then, and if our beloved ancestors had been on the wrong side of the two great moral questions of the age, slavery and treason, we would not be eager to acknowledge the fact either.

That said, a tribute built on lies is no tribute at all, and the neo-Confederate disinformation campaign does the Confederate dead no honor.  Most Southerners might not choose U.S. Grant as the eulogist for the Confederate army, but his recollection of  Lee and his men at Appomattox Court House has more truth, and more tribute, in it than any part of the tissue of lies put forth by neo-Confederates:
Whatever his feelings, they were entirely concealed from my observation; but my own feelings, which had been quite jubilant on the receipt of his letter, were sad and depressed. I felt like anything rather than rejoicing at the downfall of a foe who had fought so long and valiantly, and had suffered so much for a cause, though that cause was, I believe, one of the worst for which a people ever fought, and one for which there was the least excuse. I do not question, however, the sincerity of the great mass of those who were opposed to us. 
The last word here goes to Rev. George V. Clark, testifying before the Texas DMV Board on November 10:

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Other than that, Miss Keene, how'd you like the audience?

I should pay closer attention.  Here at City Lit we have closed our Hallowe'en show, The Legend of Sleepy Hollow, and our next production, a world premiere adaptation of Shirley Jackson's novel We Have Always Lived in the Castle, doesn't open until late February.  In the meantime, we have booked the stage out to a series of itinerant companies for their productions.  First up is a company we like a lot, Project 891.  But I hadn't even noticed that the show they're producing here is a Civil War-related play!

It's Our Leading Lady by noted high-camp farceur Charles Busch, about Laura Keene, the producer and star of the performance of Our American Cousin at Ford's Theatre on April 14, 1865.  I'm not familiar with it, except by reputation, but I'm told that the first act is a backstage comedy showing us Keene's company in rehearsal for that performance, focusing on Keene as larger-than-life diva; Busch's play turns more serious in Act Two after John Wilkes Booth has interrupted the performance.

Laura Keene, circa 1856
Comedically seems like the right way to approach Laura Keene.  Though she is a genuinely important figure in 19th Century theatre--she was the first female actor-manager in America, she helped establish New York City as a commercial theatre center,and she came up with the idea of Saturday matinees so women could attend the theatre unescorted--there is a certain amount of dark farce to her cameo role in the Lincoln assassination.  She was backstage waiting to make an entrance when the shot was fired, and is credited with doing much to calm the crowd in the immediate chaos that followed.  But then she seems to strive to make the evening's big event about her:  she commandeered a jug of water, which she used as her ticket past the throng of excited rubber-neckers into the presidential box where Lincoln and Major Rathbone were being treated by doctors who had been in the audience.  Accounts differ as to what happened next, but the most reliable witness seems to be Dr. Charles Leale, who had just performed mouth-to-mouth resuscitation on Lincoln and was the doctor who pronounced Lincoln's wound to be fatal:  "Laura Keene appealed to me to allow her to hold the president's head.  I granted the request, and she sat on the floor of the box and held his head in her lap."   This was within five minutes or so of the shot. 

You've got to give Charles Busch credit for recognizing the self-serving grande dame at the bottom of Keene's remarkable presence of mind that night, and for being brave enough to make it the subject of a comedy.  It's hard to see how shifting Lincoln's wounded head could have provided the president with either comfort or medical benefit.  But it did put Laura Keene back at center stage where she was used to being, and there's certainly something darkly comic about her drive to do that.

Our Leading Lady runs November 4 through December 4.  Don't call City Lit for tickets; it's not our show.  Project 891's box office number is 773-853-3210.