Tremendous Fun With Cousin Edmund

I’m having tremendous fun with a book called Patriotic Gore by Edmund Wilson, my grandmother’s cousin. I’ve tried to read his books before, but they always seemed to be way over my head.

But Patriotic Gore (great book, dumb title) has chapter upon chapter of  scholarship about Harriet Beecher Stowe, William Tecumseh Sherman, Ulysses S. Grant, Mary Chestnut, Frederick Law Olmstead and so many other interesting characters of the period.

And the scholarship is nothing short of exhaustive. We get one description of Sherman from a letter by his niece.

Cousin Edmund (known to his friends as Bunny) even labors through the long boring apologies for slavery advanced by Southerners of the day. You wonder how he does it.

One argument that is consistently advanced is that slavery is ordained in the Bible. That both the Old and New Testament condone slavery. Jesus says a slave should serve his master and St. Paul sends a runaway slave back to his owner after converting him.

As Cousin Bunny wryly observes, Lincoln had a good answer to this argument. He said that if the United States were to adopt biblical precedents, we should allow white slavery as well. None of the Southern apologists, except one nutcase named Fitzhugh, would go that far.

“We revere the Bible, but not quite that much…”

I admire Cousin Bunny for sorting through all this stuff, even though it’s obviously bullsh*t, to find out how people could possibly believe this kind of cr*p.

Turns out a ban — under threat of death — of any discussion of slavery, plus an utter absence, noted by Olmstead,  of schools, libraries, and publications (all the Southern apologists had to find publishers in the North) plus the utter subjection of everyone to the slave-owning class were some of the contributing factors.

I’d throw inbreeding and fetal alcohol syndrome into the mix. And it’s interesting to see how oppression of slaves is justified by fear — “national security,” if you will.

I noticed, in his chapter on Olmstead, that Cousin Edmund seems to miss the fact that the breaking up of families was an integral part of the system as planters in the Eastern slave states, where the land had been exhausted, sent their slaves west to the cotton plantations.

From this book we also learn how many prominent Southerners were opposed to slavery for many years before the war: Robert E. Lee, Stonewall Jackson, the vice president of the confederacy, Alexander Stephens, among many others.

Mary Chestnut
Mary Chestnut

And the arguments that slaves were treated humanely are completely and utterly shattered by diarist Mary Chestnut, featured in Ken Burns’ Civil War documentary, who admitted her grandfather used to put his slaves in nail-studded barrels and roll them down the hill.

Another Dixie diarist, Kate Stone of Louisiana, writes, “As far as Mamma could, the slaves on our place were protected from cruelty and well cared for… Still there were abuses impossible to prevent.

“And constantly there were tales circulated of cruelties on neighboring plantations, tales that would make one’s blood run cold.”

We also learn where the dumb title comes from. It’s kind of funny, actually. It’s from the the first verse of the Battle Hymn of the Confederacy:

“The despot’s heel is on thy shore, Maryland!/ His torch is at thy temple door, / Maryland! / Avenge the patriotic gore / That flecked the streets of Baltimore, / And be the battle queen of yore, / Maryland! My Maryland!”

This has to do with some guy who got shot by Federal troops marching through Baltimore on their way to Washington. Maybe more than you wanted to know.

But that seems to be what Cousin Bunny is all about: telling you lots more than you ever thought you wanted to know. Like I say, tremendous fun. Did you know General Sherman’s son was a Jesuit priest who went insane? Here you can read all about it.