Sunday, May 19, 2013

Library of America Story of the Week Read-Along 26: William Howard Russell, Celebration in Charleston (#54)

William Howard Russell, "Celebration in Charleston" (1863) from The Civil War: The First Year Told by Those Who Lived It:

Histories labor under the difficulty that we readers know how things turned out; even more problematic, we know What History Means. Though, occasionally, we present-day luminaries may be at odds over what history meant, whether the people in it were terrible fools or noble martyrs.

Or maybe it's just histories of the Civil War that labor under that burden: some people hold to the idea that the South was defending freedom and rights and gentility. I think that's bullshit and I think William Howard Russell agrees. He doesn't come out and say it in so many words, but his constant refrain about Charleston after the surrender of Fort Sumter is, "look at these amateurs."

Sure, there may be something noble about volunteers (getting drunk), but when a military man fails to order these volunteers not to smoke near the gunpowder, you know you've got some trouble. And when one of his Carolinian hosts points out the cheerful black slave at his club, Russell basically notes that the best-organized military he's seen is the anti-black patrols that just now rang the curfew bell. So what are these people fighting for? Russell realizes that it may be freedom, but it's a freedom based on slavery.

Russell's essay on Charleston hits two major themes: the demographic and the architectural. The demographic:

Our Carolinians are very fine fellows, but a little given to the Bobadil style—hectoring after a cavalier fashion, which they fondly believe to be theirs by hereditary right.

But Secession is the fashion here.
Whenever Russell has a chance to point out how terribly unprepared the Carolinians are, he does so. And his architectural descriptions hammer this home, since he goes on (and on) about how Fort Sumter was barely damaged and could have done serious damage to Charleston's jerry-rigged fortifications if the Federal soldiers wanted to.

Combining the demographic and the architectural, Russell notices an unfinished building, which his Carolinian guide says is a federal custom-house that they're not going to finish because they believe in free trade and no duties. Later, Russell has the good manners not to bring this up when one of the Confederates notes that none of them have been paid. Is that a connection he doesn't make or a connection he avoids making to seem more neutral? 

But after all that, then Russell notes that the Carolinians' hate for Union has finished the US:
I am more satisfied than ever that the Union can never be restored as it was, and that it has gone to pieces, never to be put together again, in the old shape, at all events by any power on earth.

So after all that "amateurs" stuff, here is famed war-correspondent Russell opining that this is the end for the union simply because of Carolinian sentiment. It's a nice reminder that, while Russell and I may agree on the terribleness of slavery and the backwardness of feudal culture in the South, we disagree on whether the Union could come back from that--but only because Russell is still in that history.

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