What’s War Good For?






            I hadn’t planned on coming back to Richmond. But then I read about the miraculous discovery of General Lee’s papers in a trunk somehow left forgotten for a hundred years in the basement of an Alexandria, Virginia, bank. Never mind that the trunk obviously wasn’t Lee’s, or his daughter’s, Mary Lee. But it did contain Lee’s papers and I went to Richmond to see them.

         Escorted into the library of the Virginia Historical Society, I was shown to a table where several folders were laid out and left alone to peruse the contents. Lee’s papers are scraps really—no exposition in the General’s hand of his war-time thinking; just two and a half pages showing his calculations of how many men were killed here, how many wounded there. One page of General Lee’s notes, though, is interesting: he writes he thought the government of the United States was the creation of the States, and, therefore, it had no lawful power to force itself upon the States.

            Abraham Lincoln claimed to think otherwise, of course. It was a bleak day when Lincoln stood on the Capital steps in front of a small crowd of spectators and gave his first inaugural speech. Starting with lawyer talk he told his audience, “The government’s perpetuity is implied, if not expressed. . . It follows, then, that no State, upon its own mere motion, can lawfully get out of the Union.” Here Lincoln paused, and, his voice rising in timber, he shifted his argument to a more honest ground. The meager audience heard his voice ring with these words: “Whenever the people grow weary of the existing government, they can exercise their revolutionary right to change it.” Sure they can, if they have the power, he had said years earlier.

            And, of course, by 1861, the people of the Northern states had the power to change it and Lincoln meant to lead them to do it. Knowing he had a bad legal case, in his inaugural address, Lincoln had planted his stance on the ground of sound political science; given the history of the American Revolution, he knew it was silly to assert that the men who framed the constitution, in 1787, meant to authorize—by implication no less—the creature of their creation to use the force of war to prevent the secession of a State from the Union. Silly, because the framers could hardly have expected the people of the several States to ratify a constitution pregnant with legal power to use the armed forces of their new general government against them.

Certainly, the people of Virginia, whose delegates were the first to propose the substance of the constitution, would never have assented to the creation of such a government; and yet, American history having begun with a government being changed by revolution, there was precedent for the majority changing it by revolution again. General Lee certainly agreed with this principle of politics, as shown by this scribbled sentence found in his sparse writings: “The people of the states are themselves the judges of the government’s performance of its covenant.” Lee and Lincoln had ideas much in common.


Gaines Mill


Before dawn the next morning I was on the road, headed in the direction of my plane ride home which would be waiting at Dulles late that afternoon. Passing out of Richmond, by the Mechanicsville Road, I saw the sign pointing in the direction of Cold Harbor and decided on the spur of the moment to take a look at the battlefield of Gaines Mill. I pulled into the parking lot just as the overcast sky was beginning to show a dull gray, and, wrapping my thin California overcoat tight around me against the blistering wind, I stepped out of the car and stood for a moment looking at the scene.

It was cold and windy and I was alone on a wide plateau of farm land, fringed by a stand of leafless trees. A hundred yards to the west there was a building where the Watt farmhouse once stood, with a dirt road skirting it in the direction of the Chickahominy bottomland a mile away.

To the east, just beyond the rim of the plateau directly in front of me, a forest of oak and pine trees filled the narrow little valley that Boatswain Creek runs through. Here, in June 1862, twenty thousand men were killed or wounded struggling over possession of the ground.


I hiked down from the rim on a trail that led to the creek bottom and stood on the trunk of a fallen tree and sized up the tactical problems General Lee’s troops had faced. On the opposite side of the creek, not much more than a ditch really, with thick mud at the bottom, the ground rises to an elevation higher than the rim of the plateau behind me. General Lee’s soldiers had stormed down from the higher hill, down through the trees and scrub into the bottomland, and over the ditch and up the wooded slope where they encountered, in three successive tiers, the barricades thrown up by Fitz John Porter’s men.

First A.P. Hill’s division, brigade by brigade, carried the onslaught into the first line of Union barricades, fighting hand to hand in the trenches, being driven out, forcing themselves back in, driven out again until, finally, after hours of effort, their ranks were so thinned they lost their fighting force and the men could do nothing more but hunker down against fallen logs, lay in the ditch of the creek, or scramble out of sight in the scrub.

            Then came Jackson’s troops running in a great mass down the far hillside, leaping the creek, and charging up to the rim of the plateau like a comber rolling up a beach, only to be hurled back by the artillery barrage that came from the line of guns Porter had positioned in front of the Watt House.

            Regrouping again and again, the remnants came on, until, at last, Hood’s crazy Texans broke through the center of Porter’s defenses and swarmed over the guns, grappling in hand to hand combat with the Union cannoneers, while Longstreet’s men penetrated Porter’s left flank and D.H. Hill’s men broke through his right.


By the end of the day, Porter was forced back from the rim, back from the Watt House, his men running down the shelves of land that step down to the bog of the Chickahominy and onto the plank causeway that led to the Grapevine Bridge. That night George McClellan ordered Porter’s corps across the river and had it follow Keyes’s corps through White Oak Swamp to Malvern Hill, while the rest of his army held General Lee's at bay.


The Burke & Hebert Bank

            Two hours later, I reached Alexandria and stopped at the old Burke’s bank where General Lee’s so-called trunk had been found. It is a small building, with a stone foundation with window gratings evidencing a basement of some kind.

Walking in, I stood for a moment and looked around. The interior is a large room with brass grill work covering a teller’s counter that wraps like a horse shoe around the room. The décor hadn’t been changed, it appeared, since the building was constructed in the 1920s. I shook my head and walked out. It hardly seems possible that a trunk could be left unnoticed for so long in the basement of such a small busy place. Why the Lee descendants―they sit on the bank’s board of directors―practice the charade though, is beyond my ken completely; but charade it obviously must be as the surface of the trunk plainly shows it did not belong to Lee or his daughter.  Perhaps it belonged to the Mary Lee who was the daughter of one of Lee’s sons. (See, Mary Coulling’s The Lee Girls, John Blair Publisher 1987) Perhaps, it is just that they enjoy being dramatic as they let go of the last of General Lee’s effects.




With time still to kill, I drove through Alexandria and visited Arlington National Cemetery. There was something I was looking for. Entering the grounds, I walked up the circular path that leads to the bluff where Arlington House looms. The cold overcast day, everything silent and gray, with patches of snow on the ground, the exposed earth brown and wet, had kept the people away.

I made a loop, walking first into the hills east of Arlington House, and up to the amphitheater where the military performs a flag ceremony each year. A man was operating a back hoe, digging a trench in the ground among the long rows of white headstones as I made my way up the hill. In front of the amphitheater, there is a white marble esplanade which provides a view of the Capital Mall in the distance. A solitary sentry, dressed in crisp military uniform, was making a slow motion walk down the length of a mat of black rubber; back and forth he went in front of the block of white marble that is now the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, clicking the heels of his shoes as he came to a halt at the end of the mat.

Walking round the amphitheater, I looked up at the white-marbled colonnade and read the names of the battles inscripted there: Malvern Hill, Antietam, Gettysburg, Petersburg are there, sorts of Union victories; but no Gaines Mill, Bull Run or  Manassas, Fredericksburg, Chancellorsville or Cold Harbor.

            From the amphitheater, walking through patches of snow, I crossed more fields of white stones—the white stones look like the crop rows of some strange farm field―and went into the far back sections of the cemetery. Along the way I heard the sounds of musical instruments playing, and the slow rat tat, rat tat sound of drumsticks marking the cadence of a march. About fifty yards ahead, I saw a company of soldiers. At a staggered distance behind them, came first a team of six dapple-gray horses in polished leather harness, pulling a caisson on which lay a coffin draped in an American flag; behind this, at an interval of thirty yards, came another company of soldiers; and behind them, strung out in single file with yards of space between them, three women were striding purposefully. They were dressed in black dresses and coats, wearing black high-heeled shoes, with black mufflers drawn about their necks; following further behind, creeping along, came two black limousines. I stood still and watched the somber procession pass until the horses, caisson, and the women were out of sight among the hills.

Walking on, past the mast of the battleship Maine, I stopped again as another team of horses, these coal black in thick brass-capped traces, came clopping down the road I was crossing. A caisson was behind the horses, bearing on a wagon a coffin draped in black canvas. Soldiers were mounted on the horses and they looked steadily at me as they passed. Just beyond, the soldiers turned their team of horses off the road and, passing through an interval in the rows of white stones, they halted near an open grave. The grave was a black square cut in the snow. There was to be a burial here, this one with no one present to mourn the decedent and no fan fare to grace his internment in the black earth.

            I moved on. A hundred yards further into the deepest section of the cemetery, back where the stone wall border is found, I came upon what I was looking for. Set in a circle of grass, inside a loop in the road and surrounded by concentric circles of white headstones, a huge urn or bell-shaped jar loomed against the gun metal sky. The names of the dead were unknown, only the names of Confederate states were inscribed on the white stones: Mississippi, North Carolina, Tennessee, and Virginia.

Made of what looks like iron, the urn is black as tar. On the tapering top of it, a woman stands on a pedestal; super human in height, she is dressed in a flimsy gown and stares benignly down at you, holding in her right hand a wreath which she extends over you. In her left hand she holds the handle of a plowshare, the base of which sits on the pedestal behind her. A line of figures, like those you see carved in the archways of old cathedral doors, wrap around the fat girth of the bell-jar. They are images of soldiers and wives, mothers and children, caught in poses of sorrow and suffering. Beneath them, a bold inscription is cut―”To Our Dead Heroes:” (erected by the United Daughters of the Confederacy)

            Below the figure of the woman standing on the pedestal, there is the life-sized form of another woman. Standing in front of the urn on the edge of its block base, she is dressed in the garb of an Athenian warrior; a helmet on her head, a spear gripped in her right hand, she resembles the image of Virginia seen on the State’s blue flag. Her left hand cradles the forearm of a stooping woman by her side. It is as if she wants the other to stand up. Half hidden behind the crouching woman is a shield she is clinging to. Looking closely, you see the letters of a word inscribed on the rim of the shield, and you realize, squinting to make them out in the grayness of the day, the letters spell “constitution.” Oh, you think, the Athenian warrior is the symbol of the Confederacy and she is helping the Union stand up? It’s as if Virginia were saying: “”It’s all right. We forgive you your trespasses.” Or does the scene mean something else? “Let it go, let it go,” she might be saying, as she pulls the woman up.

            On the back side of the urn―this is the side that faces the Capital Mall―these words are cut in the black stone: “We came in simple obedience to duty as we understood it, dared all and died.” An echo of Lincoln’s speech to the New Yorkers at Cooper Union, in which he closed with these words: “We must not be scared from our duty by false accusations, nor frightened from it by threats of destruction to ourselves. Let us have faith that right makes might, and in that faith let us to the end dare to do our duty as we understand it.” Easy for Lincoln to say, when he knew the North had the might: had the might because Virginia gave away the brace of states that held the balance of power.

            Yes, with her gesture Virginia seems to say, let the old constitution go. Indeed, what Americans living cannot see that the ultimate question we can ask about the Civil War, is, Did it change the Constitution? Yes, the answer must unequivocally be. It provided the forum in which the new framers rewrote the constitution with their blood, making African Negro slaves citizens of the United States. As General Lee is said to have put it: "The war was the result of the people's displeasure with the covenants of the Constitution as the framers wrote it, which they resolved through their force of arms on the battlefield."

            Now I was walking over the dismal fields again, and came upon the old rose garden of Mary Custis Lee’s. Here, hidden behind a wall of evergreens sits a small gray stone sepulcher. Inside it are the bones of two thousand unknown soldiers, scraped together from the field of Bull Run and the route to the Rappahannock. It is the nation’s original Tomb of the Unknown Soldiers, placed here, in spite, by Secretary of War Stanton, in 1864, while Grant was losing the lives of fifty thousand soldiers, trying to break through Lee’s lines.

            Walking on, past Arlington House, I saw a small sign at a gravel path behind the slave quarters. The sign read simply, “museum.” I went down the path to a square brick building. Passing the plot of ground that used to be the Lee family’s kitchen garden, I opened the door and stepped in to the interior. On the wall as you enter, there is shown the text of a resolution, passed by Congress in 1955, the year after Brown v. Board of Education, making Arlington House an official federal government memorial to the memory of General Lee, and the little brick building a depository of Lee family possessions. Unlike the exhibits in the prominent slave quarters, featuring photographs of Custis family slaves, few visitors are likely to notice the sign that leads to this obscure little building on the grounds of Arlington.

            Passing the old Custis mansion again, going back down the side of the hill, I came upon the horseman statute of Philip Kearny who was killed every early in the war. Kearny was not a particularly successful soldier, never commanding more than a division and that only for a month. Yet, in 1908, though he hardly was a citizen of the state, New Jersey erected the statute here, with the inscription: “New Jersey’s most distinguished soldier.” What? Does George McClellan, the commander of the Army of the Potomac, the victor at Antietam, and once governor of New Jersey and buried in Trenton, lay forgotten in his grave, or just insulted?

The ribbon of battlefield names on the Amphitheater’s colonnade, the Confederate Monument in the back section, the abandoned tomb of the unknown soldiers, the hidden little museum, Kearny’s statute―why would Congress promote the placement of these things in Arlington National Cemetery? Because of all things else in American history, it is the Civil War that has shaped―through the great battles General Lee created―the nation we have inherited.

            Turning down the last lane, I came back upon the place where the backhoe operator had been digging a trench earlier. Now there was a row of well-dressed people sitting on chairs as a bronze casket was being lowered into the grave. A stretch limousine was parked at the curb. On the opposite side of the road, standing in scattered positions among the white headstones, were eight soldiers: as I passed toward the cemetery gates, they raised their rifles to their shoulders and fired a salute.

            I walked to the gates and stopped and looked back at the brown hills of Arlington, at the thousands of stones aligned like proud soldiers on parade. As I walked out the gates, looking back at the mansion on the hill, I thought again of the field at Gaines Mill and General Lee’s scribbling of the numbers of the dead―thousands and thousands and thousands he had tabulated with his pencil, like an accountant balancing his books. At his core he was a solitary man, an arrogant man, a hard taskmaster: with his children, the cadets at West Point where he served as Superintendent, with the slaves his wife owned, and with his soldiers; but in large measure we must thank him as much as Lincoln for giving us the civil war, because it was out of the horrible fire of the battles he created that the Constitution we live by was forged.

               And yet what must count most—more than the strategies of generals and the policies of presidents—is the fact that both sides to the argument came to a common ground through the willingness of the young men of their country to sacrifice themselves in the endeavor.

                All through the South there are brick-walled cemeteries adjacent to the battlefields, where the fallen soldiers of the Union lie, beneath whites stones as at Arlington. The lawns are manicured, with grand trees providing shade, and beautiful wrought-iron gates stand sentinel at the entrances. For the young men of the South, though, who died in the fighting—the thousands and thousands counted up by Lee in his ledger—the poverty of their country left most of them in mass graves, with a lucky few buried together in groups of four where numbers mark their remains.                   Unlike with the soldiers of the North, whose Federal Government survived the war to take care of them, the soldiers of the South have nobody to care for them but the people of the places where they fell.

Oakwood Cemetery, Richmond

(The trace of a wagon road can be seen leading down into the ravine, at the back of
Oakwood Cemetery, where thousands are buried)

Come you masters of war
You that build the guns, the planes, the bombs
I’ll watch while you’re lowered down to your deathbed
And I’ll stand over your grave til I’m sure your’re dead
(Bob Dylan)

I don’t need your civil war
It feeds the rich while it buries the poor
Your power hungry sellin’ soldiers
In a human grocery store
I don’t need your civil war
(Guns & Roses)

What is it good for
Absolutely nothing
(Edwin Starr)

Joe Ryan

"I had seen nothing sacred, and the things that were glorious had no glory and the sacrifices were like the stockyards at Chicago if nothing was done to the meat except to bury it. There were many words, like sacred, glorious, sacrifice, that you could not stand to hear and finally only the names of places had dignity. . . Abstract words such as glory, honor, courage, or hallow were obscene beside the concrete names of villages, the numbers of roads, the names of rivers, the numbers of regiments and the dates." (Hemingway's ambulance driver in  A Farewell to Arms.)

Confederate Dead
Confederate Dead

The Bones of the Dead in Shallow Graves

Africans in the employ of the Union, gathering the bones of the dead

The gathered bones were placed in the Tomb of the Unknown Soldiers

LA Times Editorial

The Opinion of the Los Angeles Times

March 27,2011
Los Angeles Times Editorial

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Joe Ryan

Joe Ryan Original Works

@ AmericanCivilWar.com

About the author:
Joe Ryan is a Los Angeles trial lawyer who has traveled the route of the Army of Northern Virginia, from Richmond to Gettysburg, several times.

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