Thursday, August 2, 2012

Extreme Decisions, Part 2

Robert E. Lee images entered my thoughts the other day as I pondered people making “extreme” decisions. 

When reading diary entries and letters from the Civil War, habitants of the ante-bellum era in the US, both northern and southern, write with repeated contextual references to “honor” and “noble causes”. Coupled with historic recounting of Lee, it is repeated of him that his love of Virginia and duty to serve there was the basis for his resignation from the US army to take command of Confederate forces. As Postmodern Redneck pointed out in his comments to the previous post, Lee undoubtedly altered the course of the war from short to protracted—five spring seasons in four years saw brother killing brother and friend killing friend—and he did so based on this strong sense of devotion to his home state.

We tend to think of ourselves today as members of one great nation, and we happen to live in one of its states. From what I gather in reading, during the first nine decades of US history, most folks saw themselves as citizens of their state first, then a US citizen. The first US constitution, the Articles of Confederation, outlined the way these sovereign states would work together without giving the federal government any real power over the states. Regional loyalties defined by state boundaries were common and strong. The developing divide of the early Nineteenth Century between North and South regions is rooted in these state loyalties.

So a noble and duty-bound man makes a momentous decision for himself that impacts the young nation profoundly. It is arguable his decision had the potential to rend the nation in two, throwing his military skills as happened to the Confederate Army. That was, afterall, the goal of the southern military and political establishment. Lee most likely didn’t calculate that his decision equated with the greatest loss of life in war the US would ever experience.

Never quite see the full consequences of our decisions, eh?


Craig Vick said...

That's a powerful reminder,Ded, of how even acknowledged "good" choices can bring great evil. When I first read of some of the battles of the Civil War I was shocked at how often victory had little to do with military strategy. With all the talk of genius, I expected something far different. We control, even in genius, far less than we think we do.

postmodern redneck said...

Don't know just why I am in this mood tonight, but the first thought into my head about this post was "The Law of Unintended Consequences." The second thought was this:

Lee was far back enough that he may have learned to write with a copybook, but maybe he forgot--not sure just when Kipling wrote this, but it was probably after Lee's military career.

postmodern redneck said...

Another thought on the military aspects: nobody, least of all the generals on both sides, understood the changes technology was going to make in that war. Most had been taught Napoleonic style combat. But the armies were adopting rifled muskets, capable of accurate fire at triple the range of the old smoothbores. Breechloaders (which could be loaded lying on the ground rather than standing up) and repeating arms (revolvers were already in use, but Spencers and Henrys (early form of the Winchesters associated with Western movies) were becoming available.

Changes in military firepower tipped the odds in favor of the defending side. Most of Lee's victories were primarily defensive battles; his worst defeats (Antietam and Gettysburg) were situations where he was the attacker.

Update: I looked it up--Kipling published the poem I referenced in 1919, just after WWI.

ded said...

Craig, we do control so little!

Postmodern Redneck, I enjoyed reading the poem. Good literary allusions and references are few and far between. Pop culture dominates what passes for dialogue today. Thanks for the input.