Tearing down the Confederate statues

 

I remember as a child riding through Southern towns with my parents, and always searching for the statue of the Confederate soldier. When I was very young, my father had pointed them out to me and told me on road trips to look out for them.

To me, the statue was a tangible and expected memorial to the history of the War of the Rebellion, the war my father studied in the books sitting the table beside his chair; a war my great-great grandfathers fought in. The statues, to my young imagination, were a representation of my great-great grandfathers, one of whom donated his arm at Vicksburg to the cause of liberty.

I craved the statues of soldiers rather than a plain obelisk bearing only names, because in the faces of those statues I saw the faces of the dead in the old photographs from my father’s books. I frequently would lie on the floor and look at those picture in the books and try to imagine the lives of the corpses scattered on the recent battlefield; I would try to imagine who they had been and what they had lost.

The South was thoroughly beaten in the war. Sherman cut a swath through Georgia and the Carolinas, destroying property the entire way. The Army of the Potomac, and not much less the Army of Northern Virginia, ravaged the Virginia countryside. Veterans returning home near the battlegrounds in Virginia easily got lost as they found themselves in a landscape that in no way resembled the homes they had left in 1861. The men felled entire forests in service to their respective armies. Towns and homes and farms – all the familiar landmarks – were leveled.

Nearly all the battles fought happened in the seceded Southern states. Gettysburg and Antietam being the primary exceptions, the biggest fighting of the war occurred in Virginia, the Carolinas, Tennessee, Georgia, and Mississippi.

Like any beaten nation, the states that comprised the Confederacy suffered long after life in the Northern states returned to normal.

The Southern states were occupied and governed, at least initially, in the way that any victor would occupy and govern the land of a beaten foe.

Many efforts were made for swift reconciliation, and for some, that swift reconciliation came. Many of the South’s leaders went on to occupy elected office in the states or even the federal government. Others commanded black troops in service to the United States government.

But deep wounds festered in the South.

Politically and economically the South would not recover for two generations or more. Much of the South suffered in poverty for decades after the war. The blame, or much of it, can be laid not at the feet of the conquering Yankees, but at the feet of the Southern politicians who discovered that their political power was sustained by a weak and poor population. But so long as the Southern black was poorer than the Southern white, Southern politicians could be guaranteed reelection. Deepening the divisions of race to deflect attention from the solidarity of poverty was good business for white politicians.

Of course, the boll weevil and store credit played no small part in rural Southern poverty, but economics has a multi-faceted nature.

As the Confederate veterans aged, it became proper that they – and those who did not age – would be memorialized.

It does not require a vivid imagination to understand the motivations. Men and women who lost friends, cousins, brothers, sought to honor them. The sons and daughters of the aging Confederate veterans took up collections to raise statues to their fathers.

They did not erect statues to honor nameless and faceless heroes of the past, but to honor the people they knew and the people they lost.

In some instances, surely, the statues went up at the expense of the taxpayer and likely as not these were cynical (and successful) appeals for votes. Undoubtedly these statues also were intended as a defiant gesture against the Yankee government when Southern Democrats regained political control. That the statues were also intended as a message to freed slaves and their sons and daughters should not be ignored. That very defiance to the Yankee government told another tale to Southern blacks, a Jim Crow tale, and a warning of continued political oppression.

And so the question we must ask ourselves is whether it is right to continue to honor these Confederate dead, knowing as we do that their memorials in public places were often erected with the dual intention of telegraphing a message of defiance and oppression.

As much as some might want these statues to be lasting symbols of heritage and culture, the sad fact is that for many of our neighbors and our fellow Southerners, these statues are a constant reminder that their heritage at one time was the oppression of a people who equaled under the law only three-fifths of a man.

I cannot help but reach the conclusion that these statues should be removed from public squares and parks. I hate this, because for me personally these statues represent a tangible connection to the not-so-distant past, a past that thoroughly obsesses me.

But knowing that the statues hold a very opposite meaning for so many of my fellow Southerners, and believing that their view of these statues cannot be reconciled with mine, I see no way forward where everyone can be made satisfied and these statues left in place.

But it should not be the work of angry mobs, nor of politicians craving to garner the same cynical votes they craved a century ago.

The solution should come from the very people who erected the statues in the first place.

The Sons and Daughters of the Confederacy, the ones to whom the statues represent heritage and culture, should be given first right of refusal to receive back the statues they bought. And they should then mount the statues in private parks, or in museums or donate them to the Civil War Trust to put on battlefields where it might make sense.

And in places where these statues were erected by governments and not by private organizations, paid for by taxpayers, the Civil War Trust should be given the statues to put in appropriate places.

Whatever else these statues might have been, they are now forever a part of our history, a history that is complicated and often means vastly different things at the same time. The statues themselves are a part of our history beyond just what they represent. And history should not be lost nor ignored. But the place these statues occupy in our present should not be the places they presently occupy.

Public places – government places – must be places of equal access, and having statues of Confederate soldiers standing guard at courthouses and town squares is an inappropriate use of public property.

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Help a brother out, leave a Jackson Speed review

Help a brother out ... please leave a review if you've enjoyed a book.

Help a brother out … please leave a review if you’ve enjoyed a book.

If you have read and enjoyed any of my books, I would really appreciate a short review on Amazon. Reviews help sell books. Even if I handed you a copy and you didn’t buy it from Amazon, you can still go to Amazon and leave a review.

It doesn’t have to be long or thought out or grammatically correct. A word or two: “Fun read!” or “Enjoyed it!” would be very helpful to me. One of the best reviews I’ve received was from someone who said the book was so funny “I cried and almost pee my underwear.” Do I care that her pee is present-tense and her tears are past-tense? Not at all. I’m just glad she’s soaking wet from top to bottom.

Or, if you’re a bit more verbose, a longer review is always very helpful, too. If you can describe the book or what you enjoyed about it – even what could have been improved – all of these things are worthwhile and helpful to other readers who are considering reading the book.

Obviously, if you were ambivalent about the book (3 stars) then that’s not going to help me, and if you absolutely hated it (1 star or 2 stars) then I’d prefer you keep your opinion to yourself. But if you hated the book so much that you feel compelled to leave a one star review, I do hope you’ll be specific about why you hated it and give other potential readers an honest accounting of your opinion.

But I think I’d rather have an honest 1 star review than a fake 5 star review.

I know people are enjoying the Jackson Speed books because sales of all four of the Jackson Speed novels are consistent. Clearly folks are reading a book and coming back for the next book in the series.

I was recently lamenting the lack of reviews to a friend of mine. I told him that I’ve had more people email me through my blog to tell me they enjoyed the books than have posted a review on Amazon – and that’s something I don’t understand. Especially when Kindle readers get a prompt to post a review when they finish the book. For someone to email me through the blog requires at least another step or two.

It might be that people get to the end of a Jackson Speed book but never get the prompt because they don’t reach the last page after the endnotes. It may be that the endnotes are dooming me from getting reviews.

Based on my sales reports from 2015, it looks like I picked up somewhere in the neighborhood of 50 new readers in the United Kingdom and another 30 new readers in the United States who read all four of the Jackson Speed novels just in 2015. There were others, too, who read some but not all of the books. That doesn’t include the folks who bought books in 2014 (and we won’t talk about 2012 and 2013 when my sales were so poor I thought about never writing another novel again).

If half of those people who bought all four books in 2015 (and presumably did so because they enjoyed them) would leave a review, it would help me out so much. Instead, I only received one review on a Jackson Speed book in all of 2015.

All the conventional wisdom on novel writing tells me that reviews will improve my sales. Someone recently told me that Amazon has an algorithm that kicks in when a book reaches 50 reviews, and writers find it difficult to get traction before they have those 50 reviews. At the rate I’m going, I’ll be dead and gone before my books start getting traction.

I am deeply grateful to everyone who has read a Jackson Speed book and come back for a second one. Those people who have read all four of the books are the people who keep me writing. I love you folks more than I love my dogs (and you come in very close behind my children, and on some days you’ve got them beat, too). You can’t understand the feeling I get when I see a copy of El Teneria sell and a few days later I see a Blood Tubs sell and then an Orange Turnpike and then a High Tide. It’s like I can watch someone enjoying the Speed books (and yes, I realize, it may not necessarily be the same person, but I like to imagine it is).

So please don’t misunderstand me begging for reviews to think I’m not grateful. Every time I look at a sales report and see that people are reading my books, I am humbled and so very thankful.

But I really need some reviews, too.

Seriously, me begging for reviews is so much better than me begging for spare change on the side of the road. Help a brother out.

Not another Civil War book

I have recently finished writing “Jackson Speed and the Blood Tubs” and am currently writing “Jackson Speed at the High Tide.” Both are set just before or during the American Civil War.

This is hallowed ground I’m treading upon, and I know it. My family is eat up with Civil War (a family farm actually makes an appearance in “Jackson Speed at the High Tide”). My oldest son is named for his sixth great-grandfather who lost his arm at Vicksburg, serving with his father and four brothers. Nobody has more respect for the history of the Civil War than I do.

Jackson Speed was caught on the cover of Harper's Weekly resting a comforting hand on Kate Cherry's bottom during the bombardment of Fort Sumter.

Jackson Speed was caught on the cover of Harper’s Weekly resting a comforting hand on Kate Cherry’s bottom during the bombardment of Fort Sumter.

But let’s be honest … There are a hundred thousand fiction and non-fiction books about the American Civil War, and ninety-nine thousand, nine hundred and ninety-nine of those take an appropriately reverent approach to their subjects.

Even for the most fanatical of Civil War fanatics, you could never hope to read but the smallest percentage of Civil War books. I mean, it takes a couple of decades to get through Shelby Foote’s “The Civil War: A Narrative” (which comes in three volumes of a million pages each), and that’s required reading. If you haven’t read Foote’s Narrative, don’t even talk to me about the Civil War.

Of course, nearly all of it is required reading. Personally, I think the finest Civil War historian has been Glenn Tucker. His histories are incomparable in my opinion. I know a lot of people don’t care for Tucker, and he challenged some long-held views about Gettysburg and Old Peter. Nevertheless, for my money, Tucker does it better than most Civil War historians.

In every Civil War book I’ve ever read, one thing was consistent and clear: The author understood that the American Civil War is sacred. Lincoln is to be revered. Robert E. Lee venerated. The warriors were honorable, the battles worthy, the cause of preserving the Union and freeing the slaves righteous.

The Jackson Speed books are not that.

“Jackson Speed and the Blood Tubs” is the first in the Jackson Speed Memoirs to get Speedy into the Civil War, and only the smallest bit of the book is set during the war.

Speed is there when the cannonballs trace their arc in the Charleston sky to explode among the Yankees in Fort Sumter (no Yankees were killed during the making of this bombardment). And when a cannonball lands at Bobby Lee’s feet on Marye’s Heights overlooking the Battle of Fredericksburg, it’s Ol’ Speedy who’s standing nearby.

If you’re looking for a definitive Civil War novel that captures the horror and tragedy and heartbreak, the courage and honor and dignity, I can recommend some fine books, but Jackson Speed will not provide you with those things.

While I take great pains to ensure historical accuracy and spend more time researching than writing, I do not pretend that “Jackson Speed and the Blood Tubs” or “Jackson Speed at the High Tide” fall into the category of Civil War fiction.

Instead, I’m writing Jackson Speed books set during the Civil War.

Those familiar with Ol’ Speedy from the first volume of his memoirs, “Jackson Speed: The Hero of El Teneria,” know that Speed isn’t your typical Civil War Southern Presbyterian officer who prays for God’s favor when he commences to killing his enemies. No, if Jackie Speed is praying for anything, it’s that God will help him find a hidey-hole to crawl into until the shooting is done.

Speed holds no man in esteem when that man’s goal is to get him at the death, and so Stonewall Jackson is a priggish Presbyterian who looks like a flapping duck any time he attempts to ride his horse; Sherman is a red-headed little devil. To Speed, they are all maniacs and madmen who enjoy the slaughter.

And, of course, his one motivating desire is to get belly-to-belly with any woman unfortunate enough to catch his eye, and so while the cannons are blasting, you can bet that Speed is likely as not hiding in some bedchamber and hoping to use the woman astride him for cover should a cannonball come bouncing into the room.

No, the Jackson Speed Memoirs are not Civil War novels, they are Jackson Speed novels with a Civil War backdrop. My brand of humor and Jackson Speed’s unique observations have no place in Civil War literature.

All my characters are dead

One peculiarity about writing historical fiction is that while your characters live in your imagination and on your page they are, in fact, dead. And when you write historical fiction that incorporates actual people as characters of your book, their lives go on beyond the pages of your book in a way that other characters do not.

In the first book of the Jackson Speed Memoirs, both Texas Ranger Ben McCulloch and A. S. Johnston appear as minor characters (Johnston much more minor than McCulloch).

Both men went on to serve as generals for the Confederacy in the American Civil War.

A.S. Johnston

Part of the research I am doing for the Jackson Speed memoirs is reading about that Civil War. I am slowly picking my way through the first volume of Shelby Foote’s “The Civil War: A Narrative.”

(To give you an idea of what I mean by slowly: Since I started reading Foote’s “The Civil War” I have written a book and a half and read three other books. For someone interested in the Civil War, it is a great and fascinating and massive retrospective of the war.)

In just a matter of pages – from the Battle of Pea Ridge to Shiloh – I read about the deaths of first McCulloch and then Johnston.

Though I’ve studied the Civil War for decades now, I could not have predicted either of their deaths at these places, so they came as a surprise to me. I’ve never read much about Shiloh, and though I knew Johnston was killed early in the war I did not know where, and prior to my research for “Jackson Speed: The Hero of El Teneria,” I’d never read anything about McCulloch.

Because these men appeared as characters in my novel, I felt like I knew them a little bit. I’d studied enough about both of them that I felt confident in writing about them. And so I was a little sad when I read of their passing (150 years ago) in the same way that you’d be a little sad when reading an obituary of an acquaintance you’d known a little and liked pretty well.

But I was also a little gratified when I read of their deaths, because I believe they died in exactly the same sort of way that the characters from my book would have died. Both of them were leading their men into battle: McCulloch feverishly at the front of a charge and Johnston (atop his horse) calmly and kindly, and also at the front.

When Jackson Speed meets these men from history, I try very hard to be as true to their memories as I can be. They are all seen through the filter of my character, who has his own notions about courage and leadership which may not correspond with what McCulloch or Johnston thought of courage or leadership, but I want my readers to be able to walk away from the book with the impression that they saw the real man.

Having read of the deaths of McCulloch and Johnston, I’ve decided from now on when I write about people who actually lived and incorporate them as characters in my novels, I will be sure – before I write about them, instead of after – to research their deaths.

As in the case of McCulloch and Johnston, I believe in some cases when you read of a person’s death you get a further glimpse into their true character. In both cases, I got it right by being lucky.

But also, I don’t want to get caught again reading a book and find out 150 years later that an acquaintance has died.