Tuesday, November 02, 2004

The Rearview Mirror

The flu has a put a crimp on posting, but there is likely to be too much, rather than too little information out there on election day, so I will not be missed. My last comments on the matter come from a semi-comatose reading of U.S. Grant's biography. The election of 1864 bears an uncanny resemblance to 2004's on several points, a comparison that has not escaped others. After three years of war, victory in 1864 over the Confederacy seemed farther than ever. The Democrats, therefore, fielded ex-general McClellan as a candidate on a something of a peace platform, for many in the party intended to negotiate either a return to the Union of the seceding states (allowing them to keep slavery) or recognize the Confederacy. Lincoln himself thought it unlikely that he would win. In fact, he had made matters worse by issuing the Emancipation Proclamation, which made it abundantly clear that while he remained President, the South would be fighting not only for State's Rights but to preserve its entire social fabric. It was therefore true that Lincoln, by his obduracy, had made peace impossible in a war that had cost nearly half a million lives on a population base of 30 million. And all the Democrats were saying, was that after a failed war of three years, that it was best to give peace a chance.

Although the Union disposed of more resources than the Confederacy, it's armies in the West had to use a large part of their strength to guard supply lines against a restive population. Its attenuated vanguard had made some, but not dramatic progress against the South. To the embarassment of Union commanders, Confederate armies would sometimes raid deep into the North. Jubal Early actually reached Washington DC by slipping up the Shenandoah Valley past the Army of the Potomac and was only ejected by a rapid reaction. This was the picture as Election Day, 1864 approached and it was little wonder that many regarded Abraham Lincoln a failure.

Now we know that the coming months would bring Sherman's March to the Sea, Sheridan's campaign in the Shenandoah and Grant's relentless pursuit of the Army of Northern Virginia. The capitulation of Robert E. Lee at Appomattox followed with the inevitability that accompanies historical fact. But nothing was certain then. Not victory over the Confederacy; not Jefferson Davis' capture; not the end of slavery; not the survival of the Union. It is hard now, with all the water that has flowed under the bridge to imagine that it could have been different. Yet of necessity it could have been.

Going forward into the future with only the past as our guide is akin to driving down a road with a blacked-out windshield and only a fleeting glimpse of the rearview mirror to help us on our way. It is unfair that men should live thus; uncertain of their eternal fate; blinkered and ignorant even of the consequences of their well-intended actions. Perhaps the most we can hope for is to act with honesty and goodwill. Robert E. Lee is forgiven for choosing the wrong side; forgiven for his sincerity and manliness. Sherman is pardoned his brutality; pardoned him for being in the right. But the book has not yet been written of our days; yet tomorrow we shall write and be judged.