My response to Mr. Jones
Dear Mr. Jones:
I have Whitman’s work about his experiences during the war and he is definitely prejudiced against “Mosby’s guerrillas”, considering them to be outlaws and murdering bushwhackers though they were no such thing. Indeed, the command and its leader fell under G.O. 100 (the Lieber Code) definition of a partisan command and Mosby’s treatment of prisoners was such that many of his post-war friends were Union officers whom he had taken prisoner during the war – hardly testimony of vile treatment.
It may well be that Whitman was “even-handed” in his dealings with individual Confederate soldiers. That is easy enough to do, especially when they are wounded and no threat to you or your side. The problem here is that by the time Whitman wrote this particular work ( 1876) sufficient time – over 10 years – had passed making it possible for him to verify whether or not what he was “reporting” had any basis in fact. He chose not to do so, nor did he present the account as a possible “urban legend” as we say today. That, in my opinion, makes him guilty of intentionally stirring up hatreds that needed no further exacerbation under the circumstances.
When God gives one a talent – especially if it is in the area of communication – a certain responsibility goes with it if the individual has any interest in what is right and true. Propaganda and demagoguery are as old as communication itself and Whitman simply became another purveyor of falsehood in the furtherance of “a cause”. His talent does not excuse his actions; indeed, it makes them all the more deplorable.
Mr. Jones, Walt Whitman and me
Below is Mr. Jones’ reply to my point and my comment upon same (if you are interested).
Dear Ms. Protopapas,
I understand from Charles that you are an expert on Colonel John Singleton Mosby and I do not doubt the authenticity of your comments regarding Walt Whitman’s treatment of Mosby in his post-war writings. I don’t intend to make excuses for Whitman on this issue. My own limited understanding about Mosby has always been that he was a legitimate and highly successful partisan, a circumstance that contributed greatly to the rancor he incurred from some factions during and after the war. The clincher for me is the fact that Ulysses S. Grant wrote in his autobiography "Since the close of the war, I have come to know Colonel Mosby personally and somewhat intimately. He is a different man entirely from what I supposed. He is able and thoroughly honest and truthful."
In writing about two brothers who chose opposite sides, my challenge was to portray each brother fairly and to respect their motivations and conduct. Indeed, the few readers who have accused me of favoring one side over the other all have insisted that I am entirely biased toward the South in "Two Brothers." My intent in writing the book was to demonstrate to the reader that the soldiers of both sides were American Patriots and that included Clifton and William Prentiss who fell mortally wounded yards and moments apart in the Breakthrough Battle at Petersburg on April 2, 1865. They rest side by side in Green-Wood Cemetery in Brooklyn, New York.
Whitman wrote about William Prentiss in "Memoranda During The War" and that book served as the baseline for my portrayal of the poet. From the research I have done over the past few days, it appears to me that "Two Rivulets" is an obscure work and barely known beyond academic circles. I certainly knew nothing of it.
Whitman clearly viewed Southern soldiers in hospitals kindly and with respect and treated them as equal to the Union soldiers. In one of his notebooks he wrote "The expression of American personality through this war is not to be looked for in the great campaign, & the battle-fights. It is to be looked for . . . in the hospitals, among the wounded." I believe that he meant that statement to apply to both William and Clifton Prentiss . . . and all others regardless of whether they fought for the North or for the South.
My book is an historical fiction and is meant to be read by a broad spectrum of people. The intent was for the reader to judge the brothers equally . . . and thereby gain a better understanding of the war and its causes. I understand and don’t disagree with your premise in regard to Whitman’s poor treatment of Mosby . . . but I was trying to tell another and unrelated story.
I appreciate your sharing of thoughts with me and I’ve learned from the experience. Thank you.
David H. Jones
Dear Mr. Jones,
Thank you for your gracious comments.
You see, my problem is not Whitman’s treatment of individual Confederate soldiers and his comments thereupon, but rather what has come to be a very slanted and mendacious treatment of that entire period of history. This has directly led to assaults on the symbols of the Confederacy and Southern heritage under the pretence that the South fought for slavery and tyranny against a noble and heroic North’s effort to free the slaves and preserve the Union. Frankly sir, that is about as historically accurate as the Arabian Nights. And as a result of this politically correct noxious “version” of history, people are not only having their history, heritage, culture and families maligned, but they are having their constitutional rights violated all in the name of some sort of “noble cause.”
Obviously, there isn’t time to go into this matter in depth, but I can assure you that I have done some research and I can tell you that actions by the Union against Southern civilians make horror stories such as Whitman used here to stir up feelings against the impoverished and devastated people of the South, appear tame. Frankly, the greatest wrongs were committed by the side that Whitman championed, not the Confederacy.
Again, I say that it is easy to be kind to an individual soldier though the United States Congress placed upon the record its determination to put to death by starvation, disease, exposure and outright murder as many captured Confederate soldiers as possible. However, in publishing this “report” of a fictitious atrocity even in an obscure work, Whitman helped to foster the lies, half-truths and myths that continue to be presented as “history” right to today. Worse, because this “winner’s version” is accepted by academia, the educational system and most Americans – even those with Southern antecedents – the injustice and the deception has led to an assault on the First Amendment rights of those who wish to honor their noble heritage in the face of all opposition to their doing so.
I can only assume that Whitman was attempting to counter as best as possible the stories that started to come out at that time regarding the atrocities committed by Union forces against innocent civilians – atrocities that caused European nations at the time to consider the American government barbaric – and rightly so. I have seen the same type of assault against Mosby (a convenient target because of his notoriety) in another book, “Secrets of the Late Rebellion Now Revealed for the First Time” by Dr. Jacob Freese in 1882. Freese makes a monster of Mosby, but his reasons for doing so are easily understood when he tangentially makes the claim that the horrors committed in the Shenandoah Valley by Sheridan were the result of Mosby’s depredations. Of course, this is not true. If John Singleton Mosby had never existed, Sheridan would have burned the Shenandoah just as the war criminal Sherman burned his way across Georgia and the Carolinas. But Mosby made a handy sop for any possible guilt felt by the people of the North who had waged unconstitutional and inhuman war against people that they said were their estranged brothers. One has to wonder what sort of horrors would have been committed had the people of the South not been seen as “Americans”. Oh, I’m sorry! I forgot what Sherman and Sheridan did to the American Indians certainly answers that question!
No, Whitman’s fictional account of an atrocity committed by Mosby was like Freese’s equally fictional “reporting”: an effort to assuage any possible anxieties that Northerners might have begun to feel as some truth about the nature of the war began to surface. Apparently, Whitman, Freese and those like them then – and now – have been sufficiently successful to make villains out of victims and heroes out of monsters.
Again, thank you for your courtesy.