Robert E. Lee, Reconciliation, and Race. And Grandmothers

I just finished reading the fourth and final volume of Douglas Southall Freeman’s Pulitzer Prize winning (1935) biography R. E. Lee. Very well written, and extremely well researched, I highly recommend it to anyone with an interest in General Lee’s life or in a biography well-told. The four volumes encompass over 2,400 pages, but the read was smooth and never tedious, although it certainly will help if you are already somewhat familiar with the history of the War Between the States.

Robert E. Lee, photographed by Mathew Brady, taken shortly after the surrender at Appomattox.

Of course, “the General,” as Freeman often referred to him, is a controversial figure now, and many in the latest generation just do not understand how someone who fought for a cause that enslaved people could possibly be revered. An even greater question is how did someone who was indicted for treason by a Norfolk, VA grand jury in 1865 become, in five short years (Lee died in 1870) someone who was regarded as a prime example of American genius and gentility, and by Northerners as well as Southerners? I think the answer to both questions lies in the little considered history of just how the country reunited. After all, the North had just sent over 360,000 of its young men to their death in order to keep the Southern states as their neighbors. So, how DO you reunite with your neighbors, 258,000 of whom you just killed in order to maintain a filial relationship? It’s a question that resembles a Buddhist Koan. Certainly, there was no blueprint as to how this reunification was to be accomplished.

It was the soldiers themselves who blazed the path toward reconciliation. Jonathan Noyalas, Director of the Civil War Institute, right here in Winchester wrote an excellent account of the Union soldiers who had fought in the Shenandoah Valley, coming back to the scene of their battles some twenty years later. Eventually, their Confederate opponents began to participate in these reunions. Noyalas’ book, Civil War Legacy in the Shenandoah: Remembrance, Reunion and Reconciliation gives an excellent account of how this reconciliation unfolded through the years in the Shenandoah. It is representative of the reconciliation that was occurring all over the country.

Another work that demands consideration is Carol Reardon’s Pickett’s Charge in History & Memory, which as the title implies details the history of the history of Pickett’s Charge. (You read that right.) Indeed, the veterans of George Pickett’s division came to Gettysburg in 1887 for a reunion with the Philadelphia Brigade. Not all Northern veterans were pleased by the idea, annoyed as they were because they felt that the only thing anyone remembered about the great battle was the “valorous” charge by Pickett’s Division. That was a mere 24 years after the battle; by the 75th, and last reunion of veterans, the country was moved by photos of 90-something year old former enemies shaking hands over the stone wall along Cemetery Ridge. To put this in context, my dad served in the United States Navy from 1943-1945 and saw time in the Pacific, but his son has driven Toyotas for 35 years.

There was also a great deal of contention over whether the Confederate battle flags should be displayed at that 1887 reunion. As the years went by, there were arguments over whether captured Confederate flags should be returned to the states from whose regiments they were captured. (Ultimately, they were.) In time, the United Daughters of the Confederacy issued very stringent guidelines on the flag’s display as they regarded it as sacred symbol that represented the sacrifice of Southern sons. The last thing they wanted to see happen was for the flag to be slapped on every beach towel and shot glass at souvenir stands throughout the South and the rest of the country, for that matter. I won’t get any further into the flag controversy, but I would urge you to read this article on, “Embattled Banner: The true history of the Confederate flag,” and make sure you read the two accompanying essays that appear following the article’s conclusion.

In other words—and this is my own amateur historian’s judgment—the understanding that evolved in order to make permanent the bonds of reconciliation was that the North would accept the mythology of Lee as the chivalrous knight and Pickett’s Charge as the premier example of Southern valor and sacrifice, and Southerners would accept, not only the fact that they lost (an acceptance that Lee strongly urged), but that it was good that they lost.

This understanding completely omitted what the former slaves and their descendants understood about the whole matter. That took 100 years to begin to address, although Jackie Robinson and Harry Truman laid the groundwork in 1947 and 1948 respectively.

Unfortunately, we have currently deviated from what was admittedly a winding path towards including the black perspective. We have entered into a wilderness of extremism in which nuanced thinking is not permitted. “Lee fought for slavery; he was 100% bad,” is an example of that simplistic thinking.

Make no mistake: There is no going back. We cannot undue slavery or the delay in granting civil rights. To feel guilty about these things is also to go back. As Robert E. Lee told his fellow Southerners after the war, we must move forward. I can’t undo those things, but I can think critically, I can converse respectfully, I can judge my neighbors on the content of their characters.

So, what to do about all those statues honoring General Robert E. Lee?  My suggestion would be a Museum of Reconciliation. Appomattox Court House would be a good place for that. Maybe have statues of Lee, Grant, and Booker T. Washington all facing one another with their words on reconciliation ringing the base of those statues. Include information on the reunions of the soldiers and the Civil Rights Movement. I know this much: The one group of people who are bound to propose the worst possible solution area a gaggle of politicians.

Rather than politicians deciding this question, I would like to see three grandmothers from the NAACP and three grandmothers from the United Daughters of the Confederacy brought together to decide about the statues. First item on the agenda would be passing around grand-baby photos, then, it’s down to business. I bet it wouldn’t take them long to figure out a solution, and whatever it might be, I’d be willing to abide by it.

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Oh, that dirty dancing from the ’20s

There was scandal on the dance floor 100 years ago. The half-nelson, body hold, and shimmy lock were outraging dance masters to the point that some were enlisting, not only the aide of mothers and hostesses, but of local police as well in an effort to “exterminate” these and “other imported ballroom grips.” This, according to a clipping from the Winchester Star, which was sent to me by former Dance Club Shenandoah President, Bruce Jackson. Those who persisted in practicing such patterns would be handed cards reading, “You will please leave the hall.” While they were at it, the dance masters were also determined to exterminate “cheap and vulgar music.”

Begin reading at the bottom, left column.

My first thought upon reading this was what am I missing out on? Actually, my first thought was I like cheap and vulgar music, but my second thought was definitely a desire to know what these long-ago dance moves looked like. Unfortunately, I have failed in my quest to dig up any information on these three moves.

There is a tune by Miles Davis titled “Half-Nelson,” but that was composed in 1947 and clearly has nothing to do with a dance move from 27 years before. A search for “body hold” yielded nothing relevant, and a search for “shimmy lock” yielded a couple of videos on how to shimmy a lock and a couple of two-hour belly dance videos titled, “Pop, Lock, and Shimmy.” This might be close, but I’m not so sure. Last July, I wrote about the Commandant of the Virginia Military Academy warning his cadets that there would be no “shimmy or cheek dances” performed at the final ball—or else, so maybe “shimmy hold” is really just shimmying.

This is too intriguing not to pursue, however, and so I have e-mailed Jazz Mad London, a non-profit dance group dedicated to preserving the heritage of early swing dancing. Their performance and instructional videos are wonderful, by the way. Hopefully, they will shed some light on these dance moves for which you would have been asked to leave the ballroom 100 year ago. I’ll let you know if I hear anything.

On the other hand, it is easy to find crude and vulgar music, even from 100 years ago. In fact, Amazon sells a CD titled, The Naughty 1920s: Red Hot and Risque Jazz Songs, Vol. 1. Most intriguing to me, of course, is that this is only volume 1. The CD includes such hits as “No Wonder She’s a Blushing Bride,” “Doin’ the New Low Down,” and the relatively well-remembered “Let’s Misbehave” among its 25 songs. These tunes would barely rate a 1 on today’s Blush-O-Meter, but if you like your vulgarity subtle and sophisticated, these tunes are for you. Kind of like the difference between the fan dancers of burlesque and the all-nude pole dancer of today. But, I digress . . . Perhaps, my favorite song from the collection, and the kind that would have outraged the collective dance masters, mothers, and hostesses of a century ago, is one titled “Masculine Women, Feminine Men.” I find it hilarious, although I’m sure that some will find it quite politically incorrect. Which is even more reason why I find it hilarious. Some might even argue that it has a certain applicability to today. In any case, here is Irving Kaufman:

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Coming Up

Happy New Year!

I hope 2020 is off to a rousing start for everyone. There are a couple of events, one  immediate, and one in April, that you should mark on your calendars, both of which are related to World War II.

First, I hope you can make it to the Winchester Book Gallery on the Loudon Street Mall, this Saturday from 11:00–1:00, where I’ll be signing copies of I’ll Remember You All, the final installment of The Secret of Their Midnight Tears series. Even if you have a copy, come on out, say hello, and browse the great selection at WBG.

Service & Sacrifice 75, an event honoring World War II veterans and home front contributors will take place April 17–19 at the Massanutten Military Academy in Woodstock, Virginia. A parade will kick off events late Friday afternoon, followed by a USO dance in the Memorial Gym from 7:30–10:30 featuring the musical stylings of Jump Alley.

Saturday will see a host of activities, displays, lectures, and music, highlighted by the recognition of Valley veterans and those who manned (or womanned) the home front at 11:00 a.m. in the Caskey Auditorium.

Jack Myers, Hagerstown, MD. Jack fought under Patton.

A field chapel service will be held Sunday morning.

A couple of additional, and very special, events are being planned. You can bet that I will keep you informed of what I believe will be a wonderful commemoration that will truly honor our World War II generation. Oh, and we are always looking for volunteers or folks who may have an applicable talent to share. Please message me if interested.

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The Affairs of Martha . . .

. . . Is the title of a delightful 1942 movie that without being a Christmas movie, nevertheless brought me great joy this Christmas season, and provided a wonderful escape from the insanity and inanity emanating from Washington, as well as a respite from that irritating Reese’s peanut butter cup announcer who’s not sorry but should be.

(BTW, were you thinking the title of this post meant something else?)

I saw The Affairs of Martha listed on TCM’s schedule, and DVR’ed it for two reasons. One, a woman named Martha is the title character, a fact which piqued my curiosity. As my wife will point out with understandable irritation, 99% of all cinematic Marthas are spinster aunts with about six lines of dialogue. So, a main character named Martha was unusual in and of itself. Two, one of the stars listed was Marjorie Main, probably best known for her recurring role as Ma Kettle in the Ma and Pa Kettle movie series, and one of my favorite comediennes.

I didn’t expect much—indeed, I’d never heard of this movie before—but I found myself laughing out loud throughout this 68 minute film.

Title character, Martha is a maid to the wealthy Sommerfield Family in Rock Bay, Long Island. Marjorie Main, that is Mrs. McKessic in the movie, is also a maid in the Sommerfield home. All their neighbors are well-off and all, of course, have maids. It comes to light however, that one of the maids has written a book, and every family is concerned that it is their maid who will be exposing family secrets. Every family except the Sommerfields, that is, but naturally it is Martha who has indeed written the book.

The plot was fun, even plausible, and the dialogue was witty. The actors in this little film (made on a budget of $240,000) gave full dimension to their characters, making them most memorable even if the film itself has been forgotten. Marsha Hunt, who appeared in everything from Pride and Prejudice (1940) to Johnny Got His Gun (1971), played Martha. Spring Byington, who won an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress in You Can’t Take It With You (1938), played Mrs. Sommerfield. Byington was in a host of movies, then transitioned to television with a recurring role in the early ‘60s Western, Laramie.

The cast also included Richard Carlson (The Creature From the Black Lagoon among many other films), Sara Haden (best known as Andy Hardy’s Aunt Milly), Barry Nelson (Johnny Eager and other films), Margaret Hamilton (the Wicked Witch of the West), Virginia Weidler, a child actor from that period who played the younger sister in The Philadelphia Story, and a host of other actors who will make you say, “Hey! I”ve seen that guy in a bunch of things!”

If you need a respite from Christmas stress or political stress; or if you’re stress-free, but simply enjoy good movies, I highly recommend The Affairs of Martha. The characters are pleasant, the humor is gentle, and in the end, the right guy gets the girl. I didn’t intend to write another movie review after posting one in my last entry, but I was inspired to because after watching this film, I felt refreshed. Maybe, cleansed is an even better word. Immersing myself in The Affairs of Martha was like taking a hot bath: I still had to step back into the cold world, but at least I felt better for the experience.

(I see the DVD is available from a couple of sources for $10.00 or so. The full-length movie is not available on Youtube, but I did find a clip from the film, which appears below. Of course, I still have it in the DVR player, so bring some snacks and watch it at my house. I’ll be happy to watch it again.)

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Midway: An Outstanding Movie

It will come as no surprise to any regular reader of this blog to learn that I recently saw the movie, Midway, a film that I highly recommend, as it achieved success on the three levels that matter in historical films.

First, it was quite historically accurate, at least, based on my reading. It was not only accurate in terms of the details of the battle, but also in terms of the details of everyday life. The filmmakers got the labels correct on the beer bottles, for example. The filmmakers also let the facts speak for themselves. A brief conversation takes place among several American pilots about the poor quality of American torpedoes. The conversation was not forced in order to cram in another fact. No attention was called to the faulty torpedoes solely in order to let the audience know that the filmmaker knows a bunch of facts. To this end, I found it helpful to have read about the state of the American Navy in the spring of 1942, and about the battle itself. You don’t need to read up on your history, however, in order to follow the story.

One nice historical touch worthy of note was incorporating filmmaker John Ford’s presence on Midway Island. He was there to film a documentary for the Navy and is caught on the island during the Japanese attack. What truly made this scene special was the fact that the theater in which I saw the film (Alamo Drafthouse in Winchester) showed Ford’s The Battle of Midway documentary before the feature began.

Second, the special effects were outstanding. I felt as if I was in an American dive bomber, and not at all as if I was in a theater watching a bunch of special effects.

Third, the special effects were enhanced because, as spectacular as they are, they were subordinated to the acting, which reminded me of what you might see in a movie from say, 1942. The anguished glance of a wife directed toward her husband; the sickened, but angry expression of a sailor cruising back into Pearl Harbor on December 8th; the worried look exchanged between commanders; the fear on a pilot’s face—this subtle, but superb acting is what brought the spirit of the time and the tension of the campaign and subsequent battle to life.

If you have any interest in World War II history, this is a must-see film. If you simply enjoy good film making and great acting, I highly recommend Midway.

One final note: Friends have asked me if I “liked it better” than the 1976 Midway, but this is not quite a fair question. Although the subject is the same, they are two different movies. The 1976 version is a bit broader in scope, while the 2019 film is more personal. The best thing I can tell you is to see them both.

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Restructuring the Minor Leagues is Long Overdue

Baseball for me has always been about the stories, and one of the game’s best, archetypal story is the ballplayer out there in some dusty ballpark in some small American town, who gets discovered by some world-weary scout who takes a chance on the kid. The no-bonus baby pushes his way up the minor league ladder until finally, he bursts onto the major league scene in a blaze of glory. That story is so appealing in part because as a fan, I can give myself a little bit of credit for his success: I can say that I was one of the few people in that dusty ballpark, sweating in the heat of a July afternoon, sitting on a warped bleacher, cheering him on before you even heard of him.

Yes, I’m a baseball romantic—after all, I did write Fathers, Sons, & Holy Ghosts: Baseball as a Spiritual Experience, and I can promise you that there is no mention of oWAR on any single page nor even in a footnote. With all that said, I will also say that the proposed contraction of the minor leagues makes complete sense, and is probably long overdue, and for all the reasons already cited in the proposal first revealed in Baseball America.

Take our former hometown team, the Hagerstown Suns of the South Atlantic League. Our first-born daughter’s first game was in Municipal Stadium in Hagerstown, a game which she attended in a stroller. Eventually, she became part of the promotions crew while in high school and even threw out the first pitch one night when the Suns honored her for becoming Williamsport High School’s valedictorian. I love Municipal Stadium and cherish the memories it contains.

Even through rose-colored glasses, however, it is easy to see that Municipal Stadium is a dump.

Lovable, awful Municipal Stadium in Hagerstown. That’s Adley Rutschman at the plate for Delmarva, September, 2019.

The clubhouse is cramped and the field is rough. This past August, we went to a game there to see the Delmarva Shorebirds, and Orioles’ affiliate play the Suns, primarily because we wanted to see first-round draft pick, Adley Rutschman play. The Orioles invested $8 million in this young man only to have him play on a field that was not as good as most of the high school fields in Florida. And what good does it do Adley Rutschman or Casey Mize or Bobby Witt, Jr. to compete against teams that are comprised largely of suspects instead of prospects?

Adjustments to swings and arm slots are now being made—quite successfully—in laboratories. Independent hitting coaches armed with the latest technology certainly improved Justin Turner’s swing, and turned Cody Bellinger from a good player into a Most Valuable Player. Travis Sawchick raises this point in his September 9, 2019 piece for FiveThirtyEight in an article aptly titled, “Do We Even Need the Minor League Baseball?” Time in “the lab” is time away from meaningless games against inferior competition. Interestingly, however, by reducing the number of minor league players, more attention can be given to those players who will remain in a team’s system, resulting not only in more efficient development, and hopefully, an increase in major league-ready talent, but also higher quality of play throughout the remaining minor leagues.

As the original Baseball America story indicates, the money saved by paying fewer players would be used to increase the salaries of minor leaguers. Major league baseball should have addressed this years ago, but it seems MLB is finally realizing that it is being penny-wise and pound-foolish to invest millions in its most valuable commodity, i.e. the players, and then pay them poorly, feed them poorly, and have them play in decrepit ballparks.

The part of the new proposal that deserves far more attention than it has received is the effect it will have on college baseball, particularly the wooden bat summer leagues. I love college summer baseball, having served on the Board of Directors of the New Market Rebels of Virginia’s Valley Baseball League, and webcasted their games for four years. I wrote a book about that, too. (For the record, it is Safe at Home: A Season in the Valley.) There’s no place like Rebel Park to take in a game, unless it’s League Stadium in Huntingburg, Indiana, the home of the Dubois County Bombers. Such leagues abound with “dusty ballparks” in which some discovery may take place. Nevertheless, as much as I love the wooden bat leagues, college summer ball might be an idea whose time has passed. There are now over 60 leagues and the talent is so thin that the rosters on most teams in most leagues feature only the occasional Division I player, a few Division II players, and a great many local Division III and junior college players. The coaching is sometimes suspect and the facilities are often lacking, as is the umpiring. Teams often struggle to find host families to provide room and board for the players who come to play for their town.

Leagues keep proliferating because owners of college summer teams have one great advantage over the owners of minor league teams—their players command no salaries whatsoever, and they are not on the hook for workman’s compensation insurance. In fact, in the vast majority of leagues, the players have to pay to play. Maybe the best of these leagues, such as the Cape Cod League and the Northwoods League (where an expansion franchise will cost you a cool $1 million) will survive or become part of the Dream League, an idea which is also part of the MLB proposal. Rounding up undrafted college players and paying them, however modestly, to play in what would essentially amount to a showcase league makes eminent sense. The competition would be even and a certain coaching standard would be established. This ultimately benefits the players, which in turn, benefits their potential future employers. Critics may deride the Dream League as the Last Chance League, but that sure beats playing in the No Chance League.

And can we all agree that the current practice of holding the draft in June, before the College World Series has barely begun, is ridiculous on its face?

Today’s major league players go about their craft in vastly different ways than did the generations who proceeded them. Conditioning, strength training, diet, skill-drills, and video study have become a staple of the modern players’ training methods, and it only makes sense that Major League Baseball wants to bring such modern methods to its developing players as well. After all, hot dogs, beer, and Marlboros are no longer part of the post-game spread.

The purpose of the minor leagues is not to entertain the citizens of Hagerstown or any other minor league city. It is to develop players into major leaguers. Given the fact that the players represent a team’s greatest asset and, ultimately, its greatest expense, it is only natural that teams want this talent to develop in the most profitable manner possible, which is to say efficiently and quickly. The entertainment provided to us fans of the minor leagues is a by-product of this development. The only surprising thing about this new proposal is that it hasn’t been proposed sooner.

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Thanksgiving, 1945

I’ll Remember You All is now available from Amazon in paperback and for e-readers. I have ordered copies as well, so if you are local, feel free to get a copy directly from me, inscribed, of course! (Don’t forget Christmas is coming and a book inscribed to your loved one, certainly makes a very nice, personalized gift.)

The climax of I’ll Remember You All, and really of the entire The Secret of Their Midnight Tears series is V-J Day, August 14, 1945. That day was Christmas and New Year’s Eve all rolled into one, but as the summer turned into fall that year, celebration turned into reflection, and joy turned into gratitude; gratitude that was as quiet and deep, as the celebration had been loud and long.

It would do us all good to reflect on the sentiments expressed by President Harry Truman in his proclamation of November 12, 1945, declaring November 22nd as the official day of Thanksgiving. His words of reflection for the Greatest Generation should serve as inspiration for all generations.

By the President of the United States of America
A Proclamation

In this year of our victory, absolute and final, over German fascism and Japanese militarism; in this time of peace so long awaited, which we are determined wit all the United Nations to make permanent; on this day of our abundance, strength, and achievement; let us give thanks to Almighty Providence for these exceeding blessings.

We have won them with the courage and the blood of our soldiers, sailors, and airmen. We have won them by the sweat and ingenuity of our workers, farmers, engineers, and industrialists. We have won them with the devotion of our women and children. We have bought them with the treasure of our rich land. But above all we have won them because we cherish freedom beyond riches and even more than life itself.

We give thanks with the humility of free men, each knowing it was the might of no one arm but of all together by which we were saved. Liberty knows no race, creed, or class in our country or in the world. In unity we found our first weapon, for without it, both here and abroad, we were doomed. None have known this better than our very gallant dead, none better than their comrade, Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Our thanksgiving has the humility of our deep mourning for them, our vast gratitude to them.

Triumph over the enemy has not dispelled every difficulty. Many vital and far-reaching decisions await us as we strive for a just and enduring peace. We will not fail if we preserve, in our own land and throughout the world, that same devotion to the essential freedoms and rights of mankind which sustained us throughout the war and brought us final victory.

Now, Therefore, I, Harry S. Truman, President of the United States of America, in consonance with the joint resolution of Congress approved December 26, 1941, do hereby proclaim Thursday November 22, 1945, as a day of national thanksgiving. May we on that day, in our homes and in our places of worship, individually and as groups, express our humble thanks to Almighty God for the abundance of our blessings and may we on that occasion rededicate ourselves to those high principles of citizenship for which so many splendid Americans have recently given all.

In Witness Whereof, I have hereunto set my hand and caused the seal of the United States of America to be affixed.

Done at the city of Washington this 12th day of November, in the year of our Lord one thousand nine hundred forty-five and of the Independence of the United States of America the one hundred and seventieth.


(The above may be found at the Army War College’s website.)

circa 1945: A father, mother and their serviceman son stand around a dinner table with their heads bowed in prayer, preparing to eat Thanksgiving dinner.

Giving heartfelt thanks, November 22, 1945.

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