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CATTON, Bruce



Waiting for the Morning train

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In the 1860s the leaders of the cotton belt made one of the most prodigious miscalculations in recorded history. On the eve of the era of applied technologies, in which more and more work is done with fewer people and less effort, they made war to preserve the day of chattel slavery - the era of gang labor, with its reliance on the same use of human muscles that built the pyramids. The lost cause was lost before it started to fight. Inability to see what is going on in the world can be costly.
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Go up along the eastern side of Lake Michigan, steer northeast when the land bends away at Point Betsie, and you come before long to Sleeping Bear Point–an incredible flat-topped sand dune rising five hundred feet above the level of the lake and going north for two miles or more. It looks out over the dark water and the islands that lie just offshore, and in the late afternoon the sunlight strikes it and the golden sand turns white, with a pink overlay when the light is just so, and little cloud shadows slide along its face, blue-gray as evening sets in. Sleeping Bear looks eternal, although it is not; this lake took its present shape no more than two or three thousand years ago, and Sleeping Bear is slowly drifting off to the east as the wind shifts its grains of sand, swirling them up one side and dropping them on the other; in a few centuries it will be very different, if indeed it is there at all. Yet if this is a reminder that this part of the earth is still being remodeled it is also a hint that the spirit back of the remodeling may be worth knowing. In the way this shining dune looks west toward the storms and the sunsets there is a profound serenity, an unworried affirmation that comes from seeing beyond time and mischance. A woman I know says that to look at the Sleeping Bear late in the day is to feel the same emotion that comes when you listen to Beethoven’s Emperor Concerto, and she is entirely right. The message is the same. The only trouble is that you have to compose a planet, or great music, to say it persuasively. Maybe man–some men, anyway–was made in the image of God, after all.

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Mr. Lincoln’s Army

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They were learning the reality of war, these youngsters, getting face to face with the sickening realization that men get killed uselessly because their generals are stupid, so that desperate encounters where the last drop of courage has been given serve the country not at all and make a patriot look a fool.

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In the four years of its existence the Army of the Potomac had to atone for the errors of its generals on many a bitter field. This happened so many times—it was so normal, so much the regular order of things for this unlucky army—that it is hardly possible to take the blunders which marred its various battles and rank them in the order of magnitude of their calamitous stupidity.

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The barn by the Roulette house was jammed with wounded men. Screams, prayers, and curses made it a horrible place, with hundreds of anguished men packed together on the straw begging the surgeons to attend to them—surgeons bare-armed and fearsomely streaked and spattered with blood, piles of severed arms and legs lying by the slippery operating tables, the uproar of the battle beating in through the thin walls.

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Nobody was ready for it, and nobody could quite understand it now that it was happening. But somehow it was being determined that democracy henceforth, perhaps for some centuries to come, would operate through a new instrument. Sovereignty of the states was dying, North as well as South, and going with it was the ancient belief that the government which governs least is the government which governs best.

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The whole brigade took a queer, perverse pride in the regimental band of the 6th Wisconsin—not because it was so good, but because it was so terrible. It was able to play only one selection, something called “The Village Quickstep,” and its dreadful inefficiency (the colonel referred to it in his memoirs as “that execrable band”) might have been due to the colonel’s quaint habit of assigning men to the band not for musical ability but as punishment for misdemeanors—or so, at least, the regiment stoutly believed. The only good thing about the band was its drum major, one William Whaley, who was an expert at high and fancy twirling of his baton. At one review, in camp around Washington, the brigade had paraded before McClellan, who had been so taken with this drum major’s “lofty pomposity” (as a comrade described it) that he took off his cap in jovial salute—whereupon the luckless Whaley, overcome by the honor, dropped his baton ignominiously in the mud, so that his big moment became a fizzle.

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… was the Civil War term for rookie. The idea was that some of the new recruits were of such fantastic greenness that they did not know the left foot from the right and hence could not be taught to keep time properly or to step off on the left foot as all soldiers should. The drill sergeants, in desperation, had finally realized that these green country lads did at least know hay from straw and so had tied wisps of hay to the left foot and straw to the right foot and marched them off to the chant of “Hay-foot, straw-foot, hay-foot, straw-foot.” Hence: straw-foot—rookie, especially a dumb rookie.

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And a wild, primitive madness seemed to descend on the men who fought in the cornfield: they went beyond the limits of sanity and endurance at times, Northerners and Southerners alike, until it seems that they tore at each other for the sheer sake of fighting.

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Kearny had probably seen more fighting than any man on the field. He had served in Mexico as a cavalry captain; had remarked, in youthful enthusiasm, that he would give an arm to lead a cavalry charge against the foe. He got his wish, at the exact price offered, a few days later, leading a wild gallop with flashing sabers and losing his left arm. He once told his servant: “Never lose an arm; it makes it too hard to put on a glove.

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From first to last the Army of the Potomac was unlucky. It fought for four years, and it took more killing, proportionately, than any army in American history, and its luck was always out; it did its level best and lost; when it won the victory was always clouded by a might-have-been, and when at last the triumph came at Appomattox there were so very, very many of its men who weren’t there to see it.
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