Charleston 3

In American higher education of the past forty years, I have observed two American histories, and two American literatures – which teach different American ideals and values, resulting in different societies and different vision of what it means to be an American. Today we have a Northern history and a Southern history; we have a Northern literature and a Southern literature. As I write, there is no consensus, nor has there been for two centuries. The Northern perspective is dominant, even though it is an aberration and even though it has become increasingly intolerant. If you don’t like the Northern/Southern dichotomy, then use a Lincolnian vision of America versus a Jeffersonian vision of American.

There are numerous way to illustrate this conflict, but I want to focus on some lost documents and wisdom primarily from the pen of William Gilmore Simms. Needless to say, Simms is a spokesman for Southern history and literature, as we would expect from the Father of Southern Literature. Simms and the South were Jeffersonian. Simms consistently defended a Jeffersonian vision of America. Nowhere do we see Simms’s views of America and the South more clearly than in his literature on Mr. Lincoln’s War.

During the Invasion of the South, Simms wrote extensively about the two major military campaigns in South Carolina: the Burning of Columbia and the Bombardment of Charleston.

With four of his children, Simms took refuge in the capital city as Sherman marched through the heart of the state, burning and looting his way to Columbia. He was in Columbia when Sherman arrived on February 17, 1865, and he was still in Columbia when Sherman left four days later. One of Simms’s responses to Sherman’s destruction of Columbia was to write a 90-page historical narrative which he published in a tri-weekly he helped create out of the ashes of the destroyed city. In the Columbia Phoenix he recorded what he and other had witnessed and experienced. This compelling account is now being read and studied in A City Laid Waste: The Capture, Sack and Destruction of the City of Columbia. Some people – including Simms’s first biographer – claim that it is Simms’s best writing. Certainly it is a masterpiece on multiple levels, as I have argued elsewhere.

Prior to Sherman’s destruction of Columbia, Simms had spent a considerable amount of time in Charleston during the 587-day Yankee siege of the port city, a siege he criticized with passion in poetry. Simms’s response to the longest siege of the war included a series of poems, unpublished. In the following pages, I want to highlight six of these war poems. Among other things, they portray Simms’s vision of core Southern values which are consistent with a Jeffersonian vision of America.

As a war poet, Simms was exceptional, surpassing Herman Melville in Battle-Pieces and Walt Whitman in Drum-Taps, both of whom defended — even glorified – Lincoln’s invasion of the South.

Herman Melville wrote a short poem called “The Swamp Angel” to praise the 24,000 lb. cannon Yankees placed in the marshes almost five miles outside Charleston. To Melville’s speaker, Charleston is a proud city, a wicked city, guilty of secession and slavery. Melville ignored the fundamental involvement and complicity of Northern states in slavery. Facing this massive weapon of war, Melville’s Archangel Michael flees not only St Michael’s Church but also the whole city as Charleston women and children receive their just punishment from “a coal-black Angel with a thick Afric lip.” Melville’s North was establishing a consolidated, centralized, commercial Union, and not even God’s Archangel Michael could stop the power of the Northern superior white race. Melville, I remind you, was a middle-aged non-combatant who received his war news primarily from New York and Boston newspapers.

Simms’s “The Angel of the Church,” though, is a poem that portrays the Horrors of Invasion from the perspective of a Southern speaker who knows the realities of the siege. Crumbling walls, crumbling homes and crumbling churches – to Simms – would never crumble people’s spirits who had received their core values from Revolutionary War forefathers. Furthermore – Simms declares – the Biblical God of justice and righteousness is watching, and before Him no misdeeds go unpunished. Through prayer for God’s protection and through faith, the beleaguered people of Charleston can implore God to charge His guardian Archangel Michael to use his golden shield to protect the innocent, and to permit the Holy City somehow to withstand. (Today, I might add, the remains of the exploded Swamp Angel are in Trenton, New Jersey, but St Michael‘s Church still stands in the heart of Charleston.)

No city in the South was hated more by Yankees than the city of Charleston, not even Richmond. For 587 days, Charleston was under siege, including bombardments from land and sea. But firmly in the way were the Carolina Lowcountry’s defenses, which Robert E. Lee had helped conceive. (Most people do not know that General Lee began growing his famous beard while serving five months in Charleston.) These defenses included Fort Sumter, the most shelled place in the Western hemisphere. During the war, Union invaders hurled over six million pounds of projectiles at the pentagonal fort.

In “Sumter in Ruins” Simms pays tribute to the defenders who endured and saved the city. Historic Charleston would never have survived the Invasion without Fort Sumter. Simms’s speaker is a Southern patriot calling on the noble sons of freeborn patriots to resist. Even though Ft. Sumter was shelled into rubble, even though – figuratively – the lion’s den and the eagle’s nest were destroyed, still the soul of the freeborn lion and the soul of the freeborn eagle are neither defeated nor diminished, and remain fit to defend the people and to avenge the Invasion. The nobility, the courage, the inventiveness, the endurance, and the sacrifice of the Confederate defenders were monumental. Charlestonians, Simms reminds his readers, love liberty and home, receiving these gifts from their forefathers and recognizing them as the essential foundations of a humane, peaceful and virtuous society.

The other fortification that saved the wooden city of Charleston from total destruction was Fort Wagner. Simms praised the “terrible beauty” of the patriotic Southern struggle:

Glory unto the gallant boys who stood
At Wagner, and, unflinching, sought the van;
Dealing fierce blows, and shedding precious blood,
For homes as precious, and dear rights of man!

In “Fort Wagner” Simms is the national poet of the invaded South, commemorating the young men dying in defense of the sovereign Southern States in the face of unlawful, unconstitutional, and criminal Yankee invasion:

High honor to our youth – our sons and brothers,
Georgians and Carolinians, where they stand!
They will not shame their birthrights, or their mothers,
But keep, through storm, the bulwarks of the land!

Simms underscores the importance of the struggle. If Southerners were to lose their inalienable rights and be forced into a tyrannical union, then the “innocent races yet unborn shall rue it,/The Whole world feel the wound, and nations wail!” Our young patriots must succeed, but regardless our love for them will last, and we will never forget their sacrifices. To Simms, the defenders were brave; they were patriotic. Without their heroic actions at Fort Sumter and Fort Wagner, Charleston would have fallen, and at the very least the historic city we enjoy today would have disappeared. (Because of their efforts, Charleston currently boasts some 4,000 historic buildings.) Simms was not content merely praising Southern defenders at Fort Wagner; he wanted also to memorialize the grounds on which they fought. He wrote “Morris Island” to remember the Confederate defenders and the “good cause” of the South. He pays tribute to the barrier island which, he believes, will become “a shrine” to freedom “while liberty and letters find a tongue.” Now that the Lincoln Administration was invading the South, Southern men would resist the aggression, Simms claims, and defend the port city against all criminal attacks. During the long siege, this barrier island near the mouth of Charleston Harbor became the site of the fiercest fighting “against the felon and innumerous foe.”

Defending his home city against invasion was a cause dear to the heart of Simms, who spent much of his life learning about and praising Revolutionary War heroes. To William Gilmore Simms, Southern Confederates were also defending and preserving the original ideals of consensual governance, personal liberty, and prosperity based on the frugal and responsible use of natural resources. Charleston, Simms points out, had a venerable history of opposing tyranny and usurpation, and of defending American ideals.

In “South Carolina” he pays tribute to the State which had fought for freedom in 1776, 1812, and now in 1861. To Simms, South Carolina was again in a struggle for independence, similar to the struggle against Great Britain: a fight for freedom, for homes, for families. As a public voice, speaking for Southern history and identity, Simms praises his State’s “Great Soul in little frame.” As a South Carolina and Southern historian, Simms proclaims his State’s uniqueness:

To check the usurper in his giant stride
And brave his terrors and abuse his pride.
And for what?

Thou hadst no quest but freedom and to be
In conscience well-assured, and people free.

With the Lincoln Administration attacking the State and laying siege to his beloved city, Simms again calls on Southern Patriots to resist those who would do harm to the people and to the country.

On Morris Island, the fighting to destroy the city was fierce:

Earth reels and ocean rocks at every blow;
But still undaunted, with a martyr’s might,
They make for man a new Thermopylae;
And, perishing for freedom still go free!

The allusion to Thermopylae is one Simms would use again. Charleston was the front line of the phalanx, the wall of shields to protect the few against the many. The campaigns in South Carolina would determine the future of the American experiment in consensual governance, he believed, because the Invasion of the South was targeting the liberty, the rights, and the prosperity bequeathed by our Revolutionary forefathers. When Simms wrote of the two South Carolina campaigns, he consistently recorded and eulogized the courage, the honor, and the sacrifice of the Confederate defenders. This new Yankee-conceived union, “The Blessed Union,” would not be consensual, but would be conceived in deceit, and would be founded on coercion and exploitation and usurpation.

To Walt Whitman singing in Drum-Taps, though, Unionism was the new American virtue, greater than all others, sealed by the life and death of Lincoln. And secession, Whitman would chant, was “the foulest crime in history, known in any land or age.” And so a new view of American was being proclaimed by Melville and by Whitman, a view that began with the barbaric Invasion of the South.

As a war poet, Simms was defense-minded. He was involved and informed, praising Americans who continued to advocate a Jeffersonian view of America – as Simms says in his poem “Sacrifice” – not for crimes against humanity, not because they were greedy or materialistic, not because they were ambitions or crazed for power. Rather, Southerners were sacrificing and dying because they were defending the glorious republic of Thomas Jefferson, which was being attacked, vilified and replaced by a consolidated Lincolnian unitary empire. Simms’s poetic testimony is that Southerners were sacrificing and dying in great numbers only because they chose to be free and to leave a legacy and a history of freedom.

What then are those Confederate core values: morally, socially and politically?

Again, William Gilmore Simms is the one to tell us in his eyewitness account of the burning of Columbia. A City Laid Waste includes Simms’s historical narrative of the destruction of Columbia. Simms opens with an allusion to Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence. How can Americans claim that governments should derive “their just powers from the consent of the governed” when they destroy our State Houses of government? How can Americans believe that we have inalienable rights of life, liberty and pursuit of happiness when they destroy our homes and rob and kill our people for plunder? How can anyone claim that Americans have inalienable rights of freedom of expression and inalienable rights of freedom of worship when they loot and burn our presses and our churches? Lincoln and Sherman are undermining the fundamental principles of what it means to be an American. Their invasion, unlawful and unconstitutional, is a death blow to American rights won for us all by the founding generation, despite the cover-ups and despite continuous propaganda to the contrary. Southerners were defending their homes, their families, and their liberties. Southerners were also defending their natural resources – their fields, their farms, their forests.

By conducting campaigns against civilians, the Lincoln Administration was undermining International Law, the Geneva Convention and Christian decency. They were also setting an example of scorched earth and total war which would become the norm and model for 20th century warfare.

In order to justify and defend these criminally immoral acts, Americans would begin to romanticize the Invasion – to distort, to obfuscate, to ignore, to destroy, to dismiss, to lie, to willfully misrepresent and to deliberately misplace blame. The victims of the Invasion would be vilified and demonized, and the Invaders would glorify and deify themselves.

The Lincoln American would begin to bow down above all else to unity and to the Leviathan State. Over the years, the Old American and Confederate values of self-defense, Biblical and Classical ideals, green harmony with nature, inalienable rights and consensual government would fall by the wayside; and Southerners, too, would be called upon to relinquish a noble history, a superior morality, and a visionary philosophy.

I begin my conclusion by quoting from an unpublished letter by a Yankee Invader in the 10th Illinois Infantry. Private Grundy writes on 26 April 1865, returning to his unit:

“I could see the routes the Army traveled by the smoke above the forests in the distance . . . which seemed to extend for many miles, and the nearer I approached the more dense and suffocating became the atmosphere all around, for we passed through burning forests & past burning cotton, cotton gins . . . barns, outhouses, rails and in fact everything in the shape of wood which came in their path.”

Speaking of Sherman in Columbia, Private Grundy says,

“Some things I saw done in that Campaign would have shocked a demon, and what more the world will remain ignorant of it, save such as the most important events, but the horrors, atrocities & crimes, I guess they will never be known save as the soldiers relate them to their friends . . . I never could describe the scenes on that night the light of the conflagration, the shrieking and weeping of women and wringing of hands, the crackling of the flames which tore mercilessly through the doomed city sparing neither the abode of the poor or the magnificent dwellings of the rich, of the shouts and yells of the drunken soldiers, and the indiscriminate plundering and pillaging of houses and stores . . . it beat anything I ever saw since the War began.”

Then Private Grundy interprets the Invasion:

“I do not care if they come to terms in such a way that their entire concern may have to be swept off the face of the earth . . . Crush them, pulverize them. Drive them into the Ohio River . . . I want to say it and do it. Either give up the Union and disgrace the National flag at once, or crush the Rebellion. Tampering with them has played out. Command them to surrender, and if they refuse to do so, let the dogs of war of the North go for them and show them no mercy, nor ask any; for as such as we are now in the field, its my opinion they of the South will always be hostile towards the North and if we don’t have another war we shall be constantly annoyed by them . . . for the Southerners are proud people and their spirit is not broken, even tho they have been overpowered, and so long as the present generation exists, just so long will there be an antagonistic feeling towards the North & its my opinion they will try and avenge this humiliation at some future day.”

This assessment comes from the mouth of a soldier in Sherman’s Army.

If you go to New York City today, you will see on Fifth Avenue a larger than life equestrian statue of Sherman, led not by Liberty, but by Victory, an apt reminder that no matter how much the invaders of the South proclaimed their love of liberty, their actions proved they loved Southern wealth and imperial dominance much more. Nothing exceptional about the motives of Lincoln and Sherman: they coveted money and power.

If you go to Washington, D.C. you will see a whole Sherman Square with a huge statue to Sherman in the center. These “half-acre monuments” were unveiled at the beginning of the 20th century, the so-called American century (more accurately the Yankee century, because it was the bloodiest in the history of mankind, when governments killed over 360 million people).

Where are the monuments to those who opposed the crimes, the atrocities, and the usurpations of the Northern invaders? Where are the monuments to those who suffered in the Burning of Columbia, the monuments to those who resisted and endured the Bombardment of Charleston?

Cultural, moral and philosophical differences between the North and the South were prevalent from the first, but it was the Invasion that created two Americas – not American slavery, nor Southern secession, but the Bombardment of Charleston and the Burning of Columbia. Yes, the brutal and unconstitutional Invasion of the South forever created two Americas.

During this Sesquicentennial, you have heard many people blame the South, blame South Carolina, and blame Charleston for the Civil War. But it was the Invasion to Prevent Southern Independence that changed America, not the efforts of Charlestonians to save their city and not the actions of Southerners to defend themselves against brutal aggression. The Northern Invasion created a Southern people and a Southern civilization forever different and forever superior, yes, superior morally, superior spiritually, and superior philosophically. Simms and Private Grundy were right: Southerners are proud; Southern spirits were not crushed by the Lincoln Invasion, and by the Grace of God, Southerners may still be free, still independent and still a sovereign people within their free and independent states.

The final Southern author I want to emphasize is Basil Lanneau Gildersleeve of Charleston. (The following pages are quoted form my book Fire in the Cradle: Charleston’s Literary Heritage.)

“After graduating with a Ph.D. from the University of Gottingen, he was elected at the age of twenty-four professor of Greek at the University of Virginia, where he remained twenty years. During the war he fought for the Confederacy, serving as aide-de-camp in Gen. Fitzhugh Lee’s command in 1861, as a private in the First Virginia Cavalry in 1863, and as an aide on the staff of Gen. John B. Gordon in 1864. As he said, he had earned ‘the right to teach Southern youth for nine months . . . by sharing the fortunes of their fathers and brothers at the front for three.’ He fought the war on another front as well, writing over sixty editorials for the Richmond Examiner. In September 1864 he was wounded in a skirmish at Weyer’s Cave and carried off the field. With a crippled leg as a constant reminder of the war, he began to refer to himself as the ‘lame Spartan school master Tyrtaeus.’

“As a champion of the Southern cause after the war, Gildersleeve continued to defend the South with his pen. Two essays ‘The Creed of the Old South’ and ‘A Southerner in the Peloponnesian War’ are particularly eloquent defenses of his Southern countrymen. In ‘The Creed of the Old South,’ he says:

“At the Centennial Exposition of 1876, by way of conciliating the sections, the place of honor in the Art Annex . . . was given to Rothermel’s painting of the battle of Gettysburg, in which the face of every dying Union soldier is lighted up with a celestial smile, while guilt and despair are stamped on the wan countenances of the moribund rebels. At least such is my recollection of the painting; and I hope that I may be pardoned for the malicious pleasure I felt when I was informed of the high price that the State of Pennsylvania had paid for that work of art. The dominant feeling was amusement, not indignation. But as I looked at it, I recalled another picture of a battle scene, painted by a . . . French artist, who had watched our life with an artist’s eye. One of the figures in the foreground was a dead Confederate boy lying in the angle of a worm fence. His uniform was worn and ragged, mud-stained as well as blood-stained; the cap which had fallen from his head was a tatter, and the torn shoes were ready to drop from his stiffening feet; but in a buttonhole of his tunic was stuck the inevitable toothbrush, which continued even to the end of the war to be the distinguishing mark of gentle nurture – the souvenir that the Confederate so often received form fair sympathizers in border towns. I am not a realist, but I would not exchange that homely toothbrush in the Confederate’s buttonhole for the most angelic smile that Rothermel’s brush could have conjured up.”

“Speaking for himself and his fellow countrymen, with the weight of his learning and experience behind him, Gildersleeve then vouches for the feeling that ‘right or wrong, we were fully persuaded in our own minds, and . . . there was no lurking suspicion of any moral weakness in our cause. Nothing could be holier than the cause, nothing more imperative than the duty of upholding it.’ He concludes his tribute to the Confederate defense of states rights and civil liberty with a prediction:

“That the cause we fought for and our brothers died for was the cause of civil liberty, and not the cause of human slavery, is a thesis which we feel ourselves bound to maintain whenever our motives are challenged or misunderstood, if only for our children’s sake. But even that will not long be necessary, for the vindication of our principles will be made manifest in the working out of the problems with which the republic has to grapple. If, however, the effacement of state lines and the complete centralization of the government shall prove to be the wisdom of the future, the poetry of life will still find its home in the old order, and those who love their State best will live longest in song and legend – song yet unsung, legend not yet crystallized.”

According to these sources (Simms, Grundy, Gildersleeve), Southerners fought to defend homes and families, and to preserve American ideals. The values of the founding generation were wholeheartedly embraced by Southern Confederates, including the heroic defense of American inalienable rights.

The Northern invaders fought for money and power. Simms called them “monsters of virtuous pretension.” Furthermore, Simms proved that any schism of Christianity which targets innocent civilians, — women, children and the infirm – is a “deformed Christianity.” Private Grundy confessed that what he saw done to the people of South Carolina would make even a demon blush. But then to justify the consolidated Union formed by these atrocities, he proclaimed his willingness to exterminate everyone in the South in order to control the land and to seize Southern wealth and to establish a new imperial American Union. And Basil Lanneau Gildersleeve declared Southern Confederates were motivated to defend Civil Liberties and to preserve consensual government within the various and diverse free and independent states.

I have presented only three primary historical sources; not one of them is readily available or well known. Which defended and embodied the core values of a true American? The Northern American shown to be imperial, intolerant, greedy, deceitful and destructive or the Southern American whose core values are stated in Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence, and who defended those values in the War for Southern Independence.

David Aiken

David Aiken received a B.A. in History, Philosophy and English from Baylor University, a M.Div. in Biblical Studies and Christianity and Culture from Duke University, a M.A. in Southern Literature and Classics from the University of Georgia, and a Ph.D. in American Literature and Modern British and American Literature from the State University of New York at Stony Brook. He has written, edited or introduced more than fifty articles and books on William Faulkner, Flannery O'Conner, William Gilmore Simms and other Southern authors, and is a founding member of the Abbeville Institute and the William Gilmore Simms Society.

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