Friday, April 16, 2010

Civil War Roundtable talk

When I heard the first question of the trivia contest at the monthly meeting of the Jackson Civil War Roundtable, I thought: Uh-oh.

I’d been aware, when I agreed to speak to the Roundtable about my book Sultana, that they might be a comparatively challenging audience. I’d be decrying the sufferings of Union soldiers, after all, to a group of obsessively knowledgeable Confederate sympathizers.

But I hadn’t anticipated that they’d cut to the chase so quickly, starting with trivia, which I’m terrible at. I’ve never been good at remembering dates or names, and here I was, the featured speaker at an event that was opening with a glaringly public test of everyone else’s numeric and nomenclature memory.

The first question was, “What was the name of the horse Gen. Longstreet rode during the Battle of Fredericksburg?” (The answer, in case you ever face interrogation by Rebel soldiers who suspect you of being a spy, is “Hero.”) Seriously, someone knew this, and when the audience heard the answer everyone nodded knowingly, as if to say, “Of course, I knew that.”

The second question concerned someone’s boot size. The answer was “Size 9.” Someone actually knew that, too.

This set the tone for what I knew would be a rather pointed Q&A at the conclusion of my talk. The truth is, I don’t remember half of what’s in my book. For me writing a book is like building a house. I pick out a site, research possible plans, consult extensively with experts, develop a blueprint, acquire the necessary materials, assemble them, make allowances for unexpected developments, then put a roof on it, paint it inside and out, get the power turned on and open the doors. Afterward there is a reception; actually there is a series of them. Then I move on.

The house is my creation, of course, and it has my name on it, but I don’t live there. After it’s finished I start another one. Which is to say that a year later I don’t necessarily remember the cornice mold in the guestroom, even if I spent hours selecting just the right one. Then I find myself speaking at a convention of probing, strangely sensitive cornice mold salesmen, and I am forced to admit that the guestroom trim was more or less a one-night stand. I don’t even remember its name.

Does it damage the credibility of the house? I don’t think so. But it does make me look like maybe I don’t really know what I’m talking about.

Considering the dynamics, it naturally followed, I suppose, that I would be unable to summon the name of the Sultana’s captain when asked by one of the Roundtable members. This was not, let’s face it, a trivial question. It’s something anyone familiar with the story should know, and particularly someone who had WRITTEN A BOOK about the disaster which said captain oversaw aboard his fated boat.

“I’ll think of it in a minute,” I sheepishly told the guy who asked. It seemed my brain had basically quit the field in the face of a superior opposing force. The group itself did not oppose me, of course, but we did start out with a test, and as part of my introduction Ron Stowers, the supremely likable guy who invited me to speak, had indicated, good-naturedly, that one of the source books I cited, a copy of which he held aloft before the crowd, was “full of lies.” Which was true. I said that in my book. But, still.

When I got up to speak, I prefaced my remarks by saying that I am not a historian. In fact, in the case of Sultana I wasn’t even the equivalent of an embedded journalist. I was more or less a time traveler who took copious notes. I researched the Sultana saga, evaluated my findings and recounted it in my book, which concerns the monumental sufferings and ultimate triumph of a small group of Union soldiers, and in which the Confederate army, it must be said, plays the role of “the enemy.”

“I grew up in Jackson,” I added. “When I was a boy I loathed the Yankees and wished the South had won the war, but then…” I could not bring myself to say, “I outgrew it,” though in fact I did. I came to see that the cause of the Confederacy was fatally flawed, and that there were good guys and bad guys on both sides, each with their own story to tell. In my book I set out to tell an epic story that had, for all practical purposes, not been heard. The dates and the names of the generals and the battles represented supporting information that I had located and included, and then, in some cases, had promptly forgotten. All of which drew blank stares. “Size 9!” I wanted to blurt out.

I enjoy interacting with audiences whose perspectives are different, in subtle or profound ways, than my own. It opens up the terrain. And it’s not as if these guys were speaking an alien language; I did grow up wishing the Confederacy had won. For white southerners they were our ultimate football team; we had ancestors who played for them. And there’s no doubt that the Rebels are far more romantic than the Yankees, many of whom were pressed into service and did not care a thing about freeing the slaves. All of which means there was common ground in the back room of the Picadilly Cafeteria, where the Roundtable meets, even if some of it was destined to be contested.

With the possible exception of one man in the back who asked a series of pointedly technical questions, everyone seemed to accept the fact that I was not there to compete with them in the realm of Civil War knowledge. I was there to talk about a story. Once the dynamic was clear, I was freed to tell that story, and they asked many thoughtful questions, most of which I was able to answer.

After my talk, as Stowers went over Roundtable business, I sat obsessively probing the moldering files of the Civil War sector of my brain and finally came upon the captain’s name: Cass Mason! I was so excited I blurted it out, which caused Stowers to stop talking and turn to me. Everyone else looked, too. “That’s his name!” I said. “Cass Mason.”

Then Stowers presented me with two books, one a defense of the notorious Confederate prison, Andersonville, by none other than Jefferson Davis, the other a defense of Andersonville commandant Henry Wirz, the only Confederate tried (and hanged) for war crimes. Again, I’m always interested in different perspectives, and I appreciated the gifts.

The implications, of course, were that this was largely an unreconstructed crowd, yet overall it was a very genial gathering. I respect reverence for the past, particularly because the current historical paradigm trends otherwise. We revere the early American settlers, after all, despite their systematic genocide of Native Americans. Secession and civil war were radical acts, and seem particularly disturbing in the context of the vitriolic and potentially violent political atmosphere of America today. But from this distance, in the back room of the Picadilly, it felt more like nostalgia, even faithfulness, to care so much about the details.

Before my talk, as I sat with two Roundtable members, we discussed how their group had sought to preserve a National Landmark house on the Champion Hill battlefield, not far from my Mississippi home, and their maintenance of the historic Greenwood Cemetery in one of Jackson’s blighted neighborhoods. And during Stowers’ remarks he noted that the Roundtable was raising money to replace markers at the Vicksburg National Military Park that had been melted down for the war effort during World War II. All of which represented important, valuable undertakings. It was about preserving memory, about storing, retaining and recalling history’s most telling information. On that front we could all agree, even if my own working memory sometimes fails me.

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