Saturday, July 7, 2012

Brother against brother in the Civil War

I have been reading James M. McPherson's For Cause & Comrades, Why Men Fought in the Civil War. Confederate motivation is the most provocative (IMHO) but it is good to have Union motivation together with it on the same page for contrast and comparison.

Here is McPherson on page 14 contrasting brothers: ". . . James and John Welsh grew up as brothers in Virginia's Shenandoah Valley. In 1853 James moved to Illinois, where he became a Republican and voted for Lincoln in 1860. When Southern states in response to Lincoln's election formed an independent nation and fired on the American flag, James Welsh wrote to John back in Virginia that 'Jess Davis and his crew of pirates' had committed 'treason and nothing more nor less.' John replied angrily that he was 'very much pained to find . . . that I have a brother who would advocate sending men here to butcher his own friends and relations. . . . I have always opposed secession but I shall vote for it today because I don't intend to submit to black Republican rule.' John also told James that by becoming a Republican he had forsworn 'home, mother, father, and brothers and are willing to sacrifice all for the dear nigger.' Stung by this charge, James responded that he never dreamed a brother of his would 'raise a hand to tear down the glorious Stars and Stripes, a flag that we have been taught from our cradle to look on with pride. . . . I would strike down my own brother if he dare to raise a hand to destroy that flag. We have to rise in our might as a free independent nation and demand that law must and shall be respected or we shall find ourselves wiped from the face of the earth and our name become a byword and the principles of free government will be dashed to the ground forever.' The two brothers never wrote or spoke to each other again. John enlisted in the 27th Virginia and was killed at Gettysburg; James fought in the 78th Illinois, marched through Georgia with Sherman, and survived the war."

While these brothers obviously felt strongly about their beliefs, one can hardly, it seems to me, suggest that they came to them completely on their own, that is, without influence from peers. Freud insisted that we are affected by "subconscious" or "unconscious" influences. As an example, years ago when Existential philosophy was very popular, especially the philosophy of Jean Paul Sartre, one of the people I saw regularly on the job would stop occasionally to chat. On one occasion she voiced what she described as her deep-seated ideas, ideas she had come up with completely on her own. I was a bit surprised to hear the teachings of Sartre. At some point I stopped her and commented that she had said that her ideas were completely her own and without external influence of any kind but I was very familiar with the ideas of Sartre and assured her that her ideas were identical to his. She took offense and said she had never heard of Sartre and reiterated that her ideas were completely her own. Also, that it wasn't impossible for two people to come to the same conclusions without being influenced by each other.

Were I to speak to these brothers much as I did the Sartrean who had never heard of Sartre, I am convinced I would find the same thing. The brother who moved north entered whole-heartedly into that society and was influenced by it; so much so that their presuppositions became his own. The brother who stayed in Virginia doesn't quite know how to voice the idea that had his brother stayed at home, their presuppositions would be identical. He believes his Northern brother should have resisted alien influences and remained true to the influences that prevailed in the Shenandoah Valley.

It is worth noting that in this present age we are much less influenced by the society around us than the Welsh brothers were in 1860. Thanks to Radio, TV & the World Wide Web we can be influenced by ideas hundreds of miles away. Few of us take a Cartesian approach and try to come to conclusions uninfluenced by someone else. It is much easier to pick someone out, someone we respect, and accept his ideas. Many if not most of us do this without realizing it.

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