Of the Devil’s Side (and Knowing It)
No doubt about it. What’s more, I would fight for the Confederacy today if the circumstances were similar. There’s a great deal of misunderstanding about the Confederacy, the Confederate flag, slavery, the whole thing. The political correctness of today is no way to look at the middle of the nineteenth century. The Confederates fought for some substantially good things. States rights is not just a theoretical excuse for oppressing people. You have to understand that the raggedy Confederate soldier who owned no slaves and probably couldn’t even read the Constitution, let alone understand it, when he was captured by Union soldiers and asked, What are you fighting for? replied, I’m fighting because you’re down here. So I certainly would have fought to keep people from invading my native state. There’s another good reason for fighting for the Confederacy. Life would have been intolerable if you hadn’t. The women of the South just would not allow somebody to stay home and sulk while the war was going on. It didn’t take conscription to grab him. The women made him go.
It’s not the answer here that surprises me—it’s the bluntness of it. (In fairness, I suppose it was a blunt question.) Reading Foote’s Narrative, you don’t picture him giving this response. Not because of any sense about being too “nuanced” to “fall” for the idea that one could fight for the Confederacy without two whits about the issue of slavery, but because he’s quite clear, at the end of the second volume, that slavery (the “stain on this nation’s soul that will never be cleansed,” as Foote calls it in response to the following question) was not only the South’s sin (original or otherwise) and its burden, but that it is through slavery that the Confederacy actively chooses to damn itself.
I think, though, that what Foote is trying to get at with his stories of the illiterate farmer and the women of the South is that even though the Confederacy was damned by this, obligations of place, of family, of community would have caused him to stand for its defense—he himself would be obligated to, and the community would itself obligate him to fight. (He may also be allowing for the fact that, in 1861, he would have likely pictured the relationship between “Mississipian” and “American” in a different way than he does in 1999, the time of the interview.)
Moreover, just as there’s a great deal to explore in the relationship between Foote and Proust (likely more than between Foote and Homer), there’s a great deal to explore in the relationship between Foote and Milton. This is a little different, because the primary means he employs are contemporary letters—but the utilization of primary sources is perhaps the key technique to the art of the Narrative (certainly to the artifice). From the outset (and at the close) Jefferson Davis is explicitly compared to Lucifer, and Foote draws on a mid-war letter from Sherman in which the South’s rebellion is compared to that of the fallen angels. Slavery might have been an evil that was at the core of the Confederacy, but Lucifer is compelling—indeed, in those first moments after rousing himself from the floors of Hell, he’s almost heroic and is shrouded in a kind of nobility, evil or not. Reading Milton leads to the question of what, exactly, is at the core of Lucifer’s rebellion against Heaven: is it purely evil, or a kind of (misplaced) love? It isn’t difficult to imagine that Foote wouldn’t rule out the latter.
I don’t mean this to be taken as an attempt to make the passage above, or a few other portions of the interview, less unsettling. (The failures of the government during and after the process of Emancipation as equivalent, or nearly so, to the institution of slavery itself? That was shocking–not that he called out the North, but that he did it in response to a softball question meant to allow him to add, “But of course they fought for slavery, which was evil, etc.” to the above.) But I do think that Foote was guilty of romantic attitude toward history and literature more he was guilty of being a Lost-Causer.
Foote’s Narrative attempts to understand the Civil War as a war; as politics with iron and horses and saltpeter fought by Great Men and lesser men. That this divorces it in great deal from the issue of slavery is a feature, not a bug. The narrator and Narrative would look askance at those who revel in the war itself–it is something awful and awe-ful. The sheer size of the work exhausts one; it feels interminable; it is an effort; at times a test of endurance — and this, too, I think is an aspect of how it explores the war itself. But I do find myself wondering whether it is proper to attempt to explore the meaning of that war, to truly attempt to understand it, without giving due consideration the issue of slavery. Even as a moral issue — and perhaps here it is because he assumes the moral question is long settled — slavery is not truly engaged, except when we see Pat Cleburne raise the prospect of Confederate emancipation, and Jeff Davis hides the idea in his desk drawer forgetfully.
On a final note, less related note, I recall from their published letters that Foote complained to Walker Percy throughout the production of Burns’ documentary about the whole process. I don’t remember whether he was worried about whether it would be too simple, or just being crotchety, however.