Monday, July 30, 2012

Fled to the Mountains for Safety

As I have written before, my home occupies a rather unusual place in American historical geography. Although without doubt on the Southern side of the Potomac, in an unambiguously Confederate state, it was not, during the Recent Unpleasantness the Sesquicentennial of which we are now observing, Southern in any real sense.

One of the most telling insights I've garnered since moving out here is the fact that the caprice of history can deal out some really unfair but unavoidable realities. In about the spring of 1861, if you just happened to live where I do now, in northern Loudoun County, it was actually quite unlikely that you had any slaves, that you felt particularly strongly about secession over that Peculiar Institution, or that you wanted to have your own personal blood spilled fighting for what likely appeared to you to be a Very Bad Idea indeed.

And yet, one day, because you happened to live on this side of a river and not on that side, you suddenly found yourself forced to declare yourself loyal to this brand new Very Bad Idea -- and if you refused to so declare, you were newly minted a traitor to a cause in which you didn't necessarily believe. And you were treated just so.

I'd like to try to peel this onion a little bit, because I think it's very important even now. I'm quite convinced that that Very Bad Idea hasn't been entirely -- or even partly -- snuffed out yet, even 150 years down the road, and I feel a real kinship with the unfortunates who through accident of geography found themselves on the wrong side.

Let's try this idea on for size: The part of Loudoun County I now infest raised two militias to fight in the Civil War. One was E. V. White's 35th Virginia Cavalry, a Confederate brigade with a gallant and proud record. They were the first Confederate unit to enter Gettysburg in the summer of 1863, and (I don't vouch for this; it's just local legend) it is said that their nickname, the Comanches, gave rise to the war-whoop that became the Rebel Yell.

The other unit raised here was the Loudoun Rangers, which commander Samuel Means offered to the Union. It was one of the only militias in the entire eastern Civil War theater raised on Southern soil to fight for the Union side.

I just can't overstate this: these two militias were raised from exactly the same populaces.  Members of exactly the same families fought on one side or the other.

I gas on about this now because a book I find very important indeed was published last year, and I have been reveling in it since I first acquired a copy last fall. Written by two Quaker-descended Waterford historians, Taylor Chamberlin and John Souders, Between Reb and Yank: A Civil War History of Northern Loudoun County tells the story the in-between folks caught on this side of that horribly arbitrary boundary created by Secession.

Now, obviously I can't tell the whole story in one blog-post -- Chamberlin and Souders take a mere 400 or so pages of closely set, two-column text to do it justice -- but I can offer up a few morsels.

I live on the eastern slope of Short Hill Mountain, at its northern end. If you strike out directly uphill from my back yard, after about 45 minutes' worth of hard slog you will crest the hill at Buzzard Rock to find a thoroughly rewarding view of Harpers Ferry. A few hundred yards south of that spot, the old Ebenezer Church road comes up and over at what is now the service road for a radio tower. I've written about this spot quite a few times, I think most memorably in this post.

Well, let's see if this passage doesn't give some of the flavor of what I'm talking about. The time is the fall of 1862. Sharpsburg -- some 7 miles north of here as the crow flies -- has only a couple of weeks before been written into out national memory. The Union Army is probing into Virginia. Lincoln is beside himself with fury at McClellan for his hesitancy in so doing. The Confederate government, meanwhile, has instituted mandatory conscription, which.... Well. Let the story tell itself:

A more modest Union sortie into north Loudoun brought relatively better results. On 4 October Lt. Wesley McGregor of the 78th New York Infantry set off from Loudoun Heights with a squad of 20 hand-picked men to scour the valley between the Blue Ridge and Short Hill. The "reconnaissance" got off to a bad start when a "squad of Rebel cavalry" seized four of McGregor's soldiers as they approached Neersville.... The following day McGregor led 18 men on a trail across Short Hill [!!!] to capture a Rebel soldier thought to be hiding on the mountain's east side. As they passed the crest, the Yankees were surprised to find a group of 30 civilians who had "fled to the mountains for safety" after failing to report to the conscription officer at Snickersville. Squads of White's cavalry were said to be looking for them.
Have I made my point? Thirty guys, camped out up there so they wouldn't be found by the 35th and forced to join their glorious ranks. I imagine not a single one of them gave a rat's about the Big Issues at stake; they had mouths to feed and trade to husband and crops to tend. They'd just been getting word of the horrifically arbitrary mangling of human flesh that had just taken place a few days before just a few miles north -- the cannon-fire of Antietam would have been clearly audible, and quite possibly the wind brought the rotting death-stench wafting in on their farm and smithies and mills.

Would you have run joyfully off to the conscription officer in Snickersville to join that horror?

I know where I'd have been.

Sunday, July 22, 2012

Alexander Cockburn, RIP

In very nearly the first post I ever wrote on this blog, I mentioned my admiration for an observation made by the muckraking (and frequently very funny) journalist Alexander Cockburn.

It is now with heavy heart that I learn that Cockburn has joined the Choir Invisible at the age of 71. Well, we're all headed that way, but it's a sad thing to know that the guy who made the wisest, most insightful observation about human history that I've ever read (see link above) has himself passed on into the past that he was so insightful about.

Yes, he was cranky and unpredictable. His views on global warming, for example, could evince an impatient syllable or two. And the Ralph Nader thing... Ugh. But that very crankiness was exactly what made you anticipate his columns in The Nation or The Village Voice. Go ahead, Andrew, you'd say, make me uncomfortable. I can take it.

Jeffrey St. Clair, Cockburn's partner at the Counterpunch website, has written a short eulogy that's worth reading:

Alex lived a huge life and he lived it his way. He hated compromise in politics and he didn’t tolerate it in his own life. Alex was my pal, my mentor, my comrade. We joked, gossiped, argued and worked together nearly every day for the last twenty years. He leaves a huge void in our lives. But he taught at least two generations how to think, how to look at the world, how to live a life of joyful and creative resistance. So, the struggle continues and we’re going to remain engaged. He wouldn’t have it any other way.

How to think... how to look at the world.... I think that's just about exactly right. I, for one, will miss him.

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Endless Self-Reinvention

If ever I manage to delude myself into thinking I've written a sure-fire Number-One-with-a-Bullet country song, and that the next step is to record it and release it to a slavering world, I will do it under the stage-name that I just invented:

Gulfstream Walters.

"That Gulfstream, he sure could write a tearjerker, couldn't he. Right up there with Willie Nelson and Ernest Tubb, that boy. Remember his 'She Stopped Loving Him Before She Even Met Him'?" 

Walters. Gulfstream Walters. An American original. Him and that licorice hat. Classic.

Sunday, July 15, 2012

What Passed for Porn

My perusals of Modern Literature have led me to a book of short stories by George MacDonald Fraser (he of Flashman fame) called McAuslan in the Rough. These are semi-autobiographical stories of Frasier's time in the Highland Regiment in the Middle East just after the end of World War II, centered on a spectacularly incompetent subordinate of the narrator's, a lump of gristle and pocket-lint named Private McAuslan. The stories are very funny and well worth seeking out.

In the story "General Knowledge, Private Information," the regimental brass take it into their heads that a homemade quiz show would be just the thing to boost morale and entertain extremely bored troops stuck in the desert. The topic of subject-matter for such a quiz comes up, and the Colonel speaks:
"So just keep your digestions regular, no late hours, and perhaps brush up with...well, with some of those general knowledge questions in the Sunday Post. I don't doubt the education officer will draw heavily on those. Anyway, they'll get you into the feel of the thing. Apart from that — any suggestions?"
The Adjutant said he had a copy of Whitaker's Almanac in the office, if that was any use.
"Excellent," said the Colonel. "That's the sort of practical approach we need. Very good, Michael. No doubt there's some valuable stuff in the battalion library, too." (I knew of nothing, personally, unless one hoped to study social criminology through the medium of No Orchids for Miss Blandish or Slay-Ride for Cutie.)
This last title caused my spine to stiffen and my pupils to dilate, much as if a house-cat had detected a whiff of mouse in the air. I may even have switched my tail a few times, I don't know. What is this Slay-Ride for Cutie thing? That sounds far too familiar to be left alone....

We have, of course, a current rock band named Death-Cab for Cutie, which us Beatle cognoscienti know to be named for a song performed by the Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band in "Magical Mystery Tour." As far as we think we know, the phrase was just psychedelic nonsense dreamed up by Neil Innes or Viv Stanshall. But now...this...this thing! Hold on a minute!

It turns out this Hank Janson bird, whose books seem to have commanded one shilling and sixpence in the 50's in Britain (and a bargain at twice the price, if you ask me), was a sort of Mickey Spillane manqué, author of hundreds of these penny dreadfuls. There was, of course, no one person named Hank Janson; instead, there was a stable of extremely poorly paid hacks pooching this stuff out by the barrelful. One imagines these books weren't exactly freely available at your usual respectable lending library, and it's equally easy to picture them as, er, food for the intellect at a remote military outpost circa 1951.

To the young Beatles and Bonzos, of course, this is what passed for porn.

Here is the Magical Mystery Tour  scene in which "Death Cab for Cutie" appears. Watching it now, with knowledge of the origins of "Slay-Ride," doesn't it aaaaaaall just come together? (Shoot me!)

And with that, I'm taking Cutie upstairs for some enlivening conversation and perhaps a touch of slap and tickle...

Saturday, July 14, 2012


So two years take me through depression, sadness, the whole nine yards.

I couldn't post to save my life.

Every time I tried to post, I got side-tracked by the very thing that got me depressed in the first place.

Well, guess what -- FUCK THAT THING!

I hate that thing, and I wish it gone. That thing was doing me no good. Now (I hope) it is gone.

I desperately hope that the silly adult-entertainment foolishness that I last posted will descend down the posting list, to be replaced by this link  to RealLoudoun, which deserves much more of my attention than my depressed ass merits.

This guy is the Real Megillah. While I (at least until I got depressed) make fun of the Loudoun County Board of Supervisors, RealLoudoun (whoever he may be) pulls no punches and afflicts the comfortable.

I only wish he would allow comments. He'd get some positive ones from me.