Fittingly, the 150th anniversary of Lee’s surrender to Grant at Appomattox Courthouse fell on the sixth day of Passover, “the season of our freedom,” when Jews celebrate God’s eruption into human history to free them from Egyptian slavery. Appomattox denoted the end of the American Civil War, which claimed 750,000 lives. The equivalent number proportionate to today’s population would be 7 million. Understandably, Americans remain obsessed with the conflict, by far the bloodiest in our history.
The American Republic which the Civil War renewed, purged with blood of the stain of slavery, arose from a biblical vision of governance in the English Revolution of the 17th century, as Harvard’s Eric Nelson, Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks. Rabbi Meir Soloveichik and others have shown.
For Jews, the primary goal of Passover observance is to make every Jew feel as if he personally had left Egypt with Moses and stood before Mount Sinai to receive the Torah. With respect to our Civil War, many Americans yearn to feel like participants. Europeans do not reenact the great battles of their wars, but thousands of Americans don blue and gray, learn to fire muzzle-loaders, and camp on the battlefields of the Civil War.
But for all the reenactments, films, books, ceremonies and memorabilia, Americans cannot place themselves inside the minds of the men who sacrificed themselves with such terrible abandon. Visitors to the Lincoln Memorial in Washington stare at the chiseled words of the Second Inaugural Address on the marble walls with as much comprehension as American tourists viewing hieroglyphs at Abu Simbel.
Our past may be lost to us, a matter of remote myth like the battles of the “fair-haired Achaians” in the eyes of contemporary Greeks. Perhaps we have become a different, lesser people, staring without comprehension at the relics of the race of giants that inhabited this land a century and a half ago. Perhaps we still can return to the moral grandeur of the generation of 1861. I do not know.
For black Americans, the Exodus once was their story as well, and their identification with the people of Israel persisted through the impassioned Zionism of Dr. Martin Luther King. It is a tragedy for African-Americans that black churches eschewed their affinity for Israel in favor of a variant of liberation theology that suborns Jesus of Nazareth’s testimony into an assertion of black Chosenness—for example, President Obama’s longtime pastor, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright of Chicago.
Black liberation theology as taught by the Rev. Wright’s mentor James Cone claims that “Jesus is not for all, but for the oppressed, the poor and unwanted of society, and against oppressors.” It is the old ethnocentric heresy that infected and nearly killed Christianity in Europe wrapped in the robes of a fight for freedom. Black theology substitutes rancor, resentment and rage for faith, hope and charity, and its consequences for black Americans have been baleful.
The white churches, though, were three generations ahead of the black churches in distancing themselves from the dangerous passions of the Civil War. When Julia Ward Howe of blessed memory sang in”The Battle Hymn of the Republic” of “grapes of wrath,” she invoked the terrible words of Isaiah 63, in which God comes from Edom with his garments stained red, saying, “I have trodden the winepress alone; and of the people there was none with me: for I will tread them in mine anger, and trample them in my fury; and their blood shall be sprinkled upon my garments, and I will stain all my raiment.” By the turn of the 20th century, the apocalyptic Protestantism of what Lincoln called an “almost-chosen people” had turned into Social Gospel and universal salvation.
The Civil War was a holy war against evil, a Crusade to free the slaves.For the likes of Barack Obama, who equated Christian violence with the recent atrocities of the Islamic State, this should be a cognitive dissonance: the last and bloodiest war fought under the banner of Christianity was fought to free slaves. It might not have been so at the beginning; it began as a war to suppress a rebellion and preserve the Union. But hundreds of thousands of men do not leave their farms and workshops and their wives and children and give their lives with such abandon except for a higher purpose.
John Courtney Murray’s concept of America as a “propositional nation” is surely true in a sense; Lincoln called America a nation “dedicated to a proposition” in his Gettysburg address. But this designation is far too thin: Masses of men do not die for a proposition, but because their hearts pound and their blood surges. America was not merely propositional but also impassioned. What were their passions? Can we evoke them from the dust of long-quiet battlefields and feel them again? I do not think we ever shall.
We see the world through different eyes and hear it through different ears. Even their songs sound different to us. That is not a small matter; to understand the passions that drive men into battle, one has to hear what they are singing. The South sang “We are a band of brothers/Native to the soil/Fighting for the property/We gained by honest toil.” Of course, they were not brothers; they were arrivistes rather than native; and they stole the property (human beings) rather than earned it. But that is what they fought for. The Union sang the apocalyptic vision of Isaiah, trampling the nations like grapes in a wine vat.
Leave aside the “Battle Hymn of the Republic,” with its openly biblical imagery and self-consciously prophetic voice. A less exalted musical example illustrates the point:
As background music to Ken Burns’ Civil War documentary, released a generation ago but still a standard in popular historiography, the Civil War song “Year of Jubilo” is heard as background music, played in folk-song style with a simple chordal accompaniment, like this:
That is how we hear it today, with ears corrupted by the concept of “folk music.” To the generation of 1860, the music of the people was the Protestant church hymn, and popular literature was the King James Bible. That was American folk culture, not the impoverished pap peddled by the Proletkult of the 1940s and proceessed into popular music during the 1950s and 1960s.
The soldiers of 1863 would have heard something quite different:
The difference is in the bass: It drives the harmonic motion, and has a melodic character of its own. Americans who sang in church choirs would have gotten the joke in an instant. It is a variant of a common voice-leading structure in hymns, akin to this:
Or this, the opening bars of Bach’s chorale “Jesus Bleibet Meine Freude:”
That was the subject of a beloved Bach setting (complete performance here)
We don’t quote the text of Henry C. Work’s song “The Year of Jubilo” because it is written in dialect and uses the offensive, racist term “darkie” for black slaves, but it was at the time an anti-slavery song: The master of a plantation runs away at the first sight of Union gunboats, and the slaves take over, singing, “The master runs, he-he! The black folks stay, ho-ho! It must be that the Kingdom’s coming, or the Year of Jubilo!” They lock the overseer in the smoke cellar and throw the key down the well, and generally enjoy themselves.
There is a musical joke in the song. The well-known melody arpeggiates (in the example below) from d1 to f#2 as below:
But the flourish in the higher register is structurally an inner voice transposed into an upper register, a “reaching-over” in the terminology of music theory. It is a complex, or contrapuntal melody. Here is the same flourish as it would be heard in an inner voice:
That which was below, is now above! The musical pun reproduces the content of the text in strictly musical terms: the slaves who were subordinate now are in charge, and their joy is so great that it soars into the treble. The hymn-singing infantrymen who marched with Grant and Sherman could hear this, for it was a culture native to them, as native as the Bible itself.
Once thinks of Lorenzo’s words in Merchant of Venice:
There’s not the smallest orb which thou behold’st
But in his motion like an angel sings,
Still quiring to the young-eyed cherubins;
Such harmony is in immortal souls
But whilst this muddy vesture of decay
Doth grossly close it in, we cannot hear it.
But it is not a Platonic “vesture of decay” that stops our ears, but our moral decay.
We no longer have ears to hear or eyes to see. The eyes and ears of the Civil Warriors were taught during two centuries. Europe’s very first program of universal education began in Protestant areas of Germany in the second half of the 17th century, and the teachers’ manuals offered instruction in reading, writing, arithmetic and four-part harmony. As many German Protestants sought refuge in America as Englishmen, and the hymn-singing culture that produced a Bach or Haendel also informed the soldiers of the Civil War. That is America’s true popular culture, the adornment of its true Protestant mission.
No longer. As Joseph Bottum explains in a 2013 book that I reviewed here, the old American Protestantism has all but been replaced by a secular religion inspired by the old Social Gospel, in which religious categories are twisted to fit the narcissistic sentiments of the descendants of the old Puritans. How did this happen? Perhaps because the sacrifice of the Civil War was too great: it killed or crushed the spirit of the most enthusiastic members of that generation.
America’s mission hung by a thread at the outbreak of the Civil War. Even Abraham Lincoln did not understand at the outset where the war would take him. As Richard Brookhiser observes, a religious conversion separates the Lincoln of the Gettysburg Address from the Lincoln of the Second Inaugural Address, with its explicit reference to a Providence that directs human affairs, and not necessarily in a way that men find congenial. The evangelical historian Mark Noll argues that Lincoln did not receive his theology from his religious contemporaries, but rather rediscovered it and taught it to them:
Views of providence provide the sharpest contrast between Lincoln and the professional theologians of his day. The American God may have been working too well for the Protestant theologians who, even as they exploited Scripture and pious experience so successfully, yet found it easy to equate America’s moral government of God with Christianity itself. Their tragedy – and the greater the theologian, the greater the tragedy – was to rest content with a God defined by the American conventions God’s own loyal servants had exploited so well.
The grandchild remembers what the father never learned, a Yiddish proverb has it; Lincoln, the grandchild of the American Founding, remembered what the preceding generation had forgotten. That offers us a modicum of hope in an age which has forgotten how to remember.
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