Not to be Alarmist, But We Need to Pray Hard

crater battle postcard

Humble yourself like a child. Look around you for good people, not partisan allies. When we serve Christ, everyone striving for honesty and goodness is an ally. (summary of today’s gospel reading at Holy Mass)

One of the things I have studied in some depth is: 19th-century American life. In the last part of the eighteenth century, all of the thirteen colonies ultimately managed to agree on a structure for a federalized republic of states, each with its own proper internal laws and governments. But as the decades of the nineteenth century wore on, it became increasingly difficult for northerners and southerners to communicate in any kind of constructive manner.

They did not have alternative cable-news channels. But they did have alternative versions of what each side saw as evident facts. And the two sides had different absolute loyalties, to two different cadres of political leaders. The different groups of leaders ultimately accused each other of the kind of treachery that only war can settle.

I don’t mean to be alarmist. But it occurred to me this morning that I may get shot.

I have been a zealous pro-life priest since the day I was ordained, and I was a zealous pro-life seminarian for years before that. During the 2016 campaign, I made no secret of the fact that I thought Hillary Clinton was a fundamentally dishonest politician who rose to prominence solely because of her long-time insider connections. In other words, she became a presidential nominee through pure cronyism, not by some feminist triumph.

But, also back in 2016, I made no secret of the fact that I agreed with Armando Fuentes Aguirre. He wrote in a Mexico-City newspaper that Donald Trump’s nomination for president of the USA was something for which the human race ought to feel ashamed.

I know perfectly well that there are semi-rational individuals who have, can, and will frequent our parish buildings, who already have in their minds justifications for doing me violence.

We Catholics have a head start in understanding the danger that we face as a nation right now. The reality of a President Donald Trump has divided our Catholic parishes and dioceses in ways that most of us never could have imagined six years ago. Both our parishes here were growing bilingual families, in the process of building up trust and friendship—back in 2015. But in 2016 a dark cloud of distrust descended. The process of growth in friendship has stood at a standstill ever since.

Now, don’t get me wrong. There’s plenty of hope for the long-term future. Because the young people all communicate perfectly well with each other. We have plenty of Mexican-American girls with white boyfriends, and plenty of Mexican-American men with black wives. Not to mention the intermarriages with Filipinos, Vietnamese, and other Latinos. I have baptized a lot of beautiful cappuccino babies.

But these noble young family-makers are powerless to put the brakes on a runaway train of political antagonism. We need to pray extremely hard. May we Americans find a way through the mess that we have made for ourselves, without more violence. Please, God: help us do so.

Memorials

City Point down the James
down the Powhattan, aka the James, from City Point fishing pier, with the Benjamin Harrison Memorial Bridge in the mist

In 1864-65, two hundred boats a day coursed this water, delivering supplies for the Union lines around Richmond and Petersburg.  General U.S. Grant presided over it all, from his little cabin.

I know: remembering the soldiers of the Civil War hardly gives us a blithe and bonny patriotic Memorial Day, dear reader.  Forgive me.  History inevitably makes things complicated.

Let’s start with the original memorial:  the Mass.

What if the written documents of the New Testament never got collected?  What if the scriptures of the Old Covenant had been lost?  What if Rome had fallen before St. Peter ever got there, and the memories of all the ancients died when they did?

Not so outlandish, really.  The native people used to call the James River by a different name.  But their memories–of empires, triumphs, defeats, dynasties–those memories have all but vanished from the face of the earth.

But: Even if not a single book survived from the age of ancient Rome, we would still remember Jesus, because of the Mass.

Some people remember the Vietnam War.  During his visit to Asia last week, President Obama said he remembered when that war ended, when he was 13 years old.  Who remembers why that war was fought?  I think the Vietnamese exiles around the world probably remember better than anyone.

Because Catholicism involves people in the world, institutions, property, alliances, family ties, and stuff like that, we cannot exactly claim ideological purity, so to speak.  What we can claim is that we have remembered Jesus, through thick and thin, by celebrating Mass.

When the president visited Hiroshima, it served as an occasion to rehearse an argument that runs like this:  dropping nuclear bombs on Japan brought the end of World War II.  If we had not dropped The Bomb, the war would have lasted much longer, and many more people would have died.  Therefore, we did the right thing.

This is what you call “consequentialism”–the moral justification of inherently immoral acts by invoking anticipated results.  Consequentialism is the refuge of people hell-bent on doing something they manifestly should not do, but who try to find a reason to do it anyway.  Consequentialism neglects the one, all-important fact:  God runs history, not us.  Our job is to do good and avoid evil.  Dropping bombs that you know will kill countless innocents–women, children, old people sitting in their rocking chairs:  E-V-I-L.

Anyway, may all our beloved dead rest in peace!

Someday, when people pray for us, in languages different from any which we currently know, using new and different names for the places familiar to us–when they pray for us, we can hope for divine mercy through their prayers.  Provided it’s the memorial of Jesus, a Mass.

April 1865. by Jay Winik

My dad married a Northerner. But he could hardly be accused of having been one himself. The year I turned twelve, our family spent the muggy summer evenings reading aloud to each other Mark Twain’s Life on the Mississippi. Huck and Jim already had become close friends to the imaginations of my brother and me, not to mention Aunt Sally and Tom Sawyer.

Winik April 1865Yes, the Washington I grew up in had become the post-WWII ‘capital of the free world.’ But I never loved my hometown for that reason. I loved, and love her still, for the same reason that Robert E. Lee loved Virginia.

The land you come from deserves and demands your loyal affection, whether that particular land lies thick with trees and hedgerows or with streets and buildings. I never had any serious interest in the halls of national and international power near the places to which I delivered pizzas during high school.

Marion Barry meant more to me during the 1980’s than Ronald Reagan ever did. During the Grant administration, they debated moving the U.S. Capitol to Kansas. If they had, I wouldn’t love Washington, D.C., any differently than I do. My hometown, south of the Mason-Dixon, originally a swamp bordered by two slave states.

Just trying to explain why the month of April, 1865, fills me more with a sense of tragedy than triumph.*

Also, the end of the Civil-War Sesquicentennial, now upon us, fills me with guilt, because I haven’t paid more attention to it. And with sadness that it’s over.

Anyway: If you share any of these feelings, or if you simply seek a short, readable book with which to begin your acquaintance with Civil-War history, read April 1865 by Jay Winik.

Continue reading April 1865. by Jay Winik”

Petersburg Crater and Grant vs. Lee

crater battle postcard

Funny thing about the lovely trails through Virginia’s Civil War battlefields: the trees grow now in a photo negative of the way it was during the war. Now, there are many, many more trees. What was farmland then is now woods. But the one fort in the Petersburg, Va., siege line that offered shade in 1865 (Fort Stedman), site of the Confederacy’s last hurrah, languishes now without a single tree.

…I hardly like to think about the battle at the “Crater,” where Pennsylvania miners dug under the picket lines and blew a little Confederate fort sky high, only to see thousands of Union soldiers routed in the ensuing attempt to push through the Rebel line.

…You will have to forgive me for failing to blog the sesquicentennial like I should. I missed the 150th of Gettysburg last summer. Now the anniversary of the Overland Campaign will soon arrive.

150 years ago next month, Pres. Lincoln promoted General U.S. Grant and brought him to the eastern theater of the war. In and of itself, this marked the beginning of the end.

Because Grant, as we have celebrated before, understood how the war would be won.

Now, who am I to offer glittering generalities? But: As I strolled along the eroding siegeworks that have been lovingly preserved east of Petersburg, I thought, “There really is something to the idea that the Northern and Southern minds crystallized in these two men, Lee and Grant”–who faced each other across the creeks flowing into the Appomatox from June, 1864, to the end of March, 1865.

Grant at City Point
Grant at City Point
Lee: Dashing, infinitely more charming and romantic; too courtly to give direct orders to his old friends (of whom he had dozens); too realistic to risk anything less than everything, whenever he could–the man George Washington would have understood, and loved, and wished he could have been more like…

Grant: breathtakingly humble in his realistic understanding of what needed to be done; bone-crushingly organized; genuinely opportunistic–not only more decisive than any other Union general, but, IMHO, more genuinely resourceful and deft even than the fox Lee. Grant, the master of a colossal, utterly efficient industrial machine, conceived by his mind (the model of the ensuing Gilded-Age barons in this respect). Grant, humane in the unprepossessing, scientific manner of an MIT professor.

Grant knew he couldn’t lose any other way than by beating himself. He patiently and stoically refused to do that. (Many wars and battles of many kinds, I would say, get won this way.)

Grant of course wanted the war over sooner rather than later. Fate had conspired against him: The war could have ended in June, 1864, when Grant surprised Lee by moving his army south of Richmond en masse. But timorousness got the better of his vanguard.

So the general did his U.S. Grant thing. Assessed it all cooly and prudently. And won nine months later.

Many of us like to idealize the Civil War as a series of decisive, Napoleon-like battles, with heroic officers leading charges, a la Joshua Chamberlain at Gettysburg. But when Grant took the Union helm, 150 years ago, that came to an end. And WWI-style fighting began. The most–really the only–beautiful thing about the Civil War in 1864 is Grant’s prudent and laborious mind.

Sites Near I-95

The_Peacemakers_1868

“They come from another age. The Age of Virginia.” (The Killer Angels)

Can a guy have fun tramping around the nooks and crannies of greater Richmond in search of Civil-War sites with epic historic significance? Listening to Coldplay on the way to the Cold Harbor National Historic Battlefield Park?

Yes.

Continue reading “Sites Near I-95”

Easter-Octave Art

moses

Edmonia LewisNo I have not bopped over to Rome.

Edmonia Lewis went to Rome, back in 1865. And she made a copy of Michelangelo’s Moses (among other things, not to mention her original works). I think Edmonia Lewis might very well win my prize for most-interesting 19th-century American woman of African descent.

Anyway, her Moses can be found in a charming warren of display cases on the third floor of the American Art Museum in the old Patent Office building in Washington.

I must fault the Smithsonian on this score: They have Michelangelo’s original located in “St. Peter’s” in Rome. While this is, strictly speaking, correct, it misleads. The statue sits in the church of St. Peter in Chains, not in St. Peter’s Basilica in the Vatican.

Which Cardinal of the Roman Church holds the title of San Pietro in Vinculi? Yes. His Eminence Donald Card. Wuerl, Archbishop of Washington. Thus, he presides over the original and the copy.

Plus, we present a Winslow Homer Civil-War painting, “Prisoners from the Front.”

Prisoners from the Front Winslow Homer

Civil War Posts Compendium

Timeline (with Vatican II)

Abe Lincoln, the American Thomas More?

Camden Station, Baltimore

Buckhannon River or Tygart Valley River?

Shiloh

Peninsula Campaign, Seven Pines, and Seven Days battles

Richmond Drive-bys (1862 and 1864)

The movie “Gettysburg”

“Chasing Chattahoochie” series: Dateline Atlanta, Ghosts of Kennesaw

Grant vs. Lee and Ending the War

Palm Sunday, 1865

Peninsula, Seven Days, Fortnight for Freedom

I don’t drink tea, so I’m not really sure how much it costs. But I guess a person could pay $10/lb. for tea these days.

As it happens, that is also how much it cost exactly 150 years ago, in Richmond, Virginia. Shortages led to outrageous price inflation.

But let’s back up…

Countless eons ago, the water came down and filled up the oceans. Some of it became the York and James Rivers. Between these rivers: a peninsula.

John Smith & Co. made camp on this peninsula back in May of 1607. Later, colonists built Williamsburg on it, and from there the statesmen governed the vast Commonwealth that extended to the Ohio River basin and gave homesteads to countless Scotch-Irish families.

Thomas Jefferson studied on the peninsula.

Then he and some others signed the Declaration of Independence, and war ensued.

After an inconclusive battle campaign, the British, under Lord Cornwallis, holed-up in a town on the north side of the peninsula, a town named for the river on which it sat. Their king had the best navy on earth, so it made sense to secure a sea port. Yorktown offered an ideal situation.

To defend the town from land attack, Cornwallis and his army piled up enormous earthen tranches around the town.

But they never counted on the French navy fighting for the Americans, keeping mother England’s ships at bay at the mouth of the river. Nor did they anticipate that the French army would attack their stronghold, alongside George Washington’s Continentals.

The British did not bring siege cannon for their campaign. They travelled with only portable field cannons. The French and Americans showed up with long-range siege artillery. Cornwallis could not answer fire. The British surrendered.

…Eighty years later, Virginia seceded from the Union. Richmond became the capital of the Confederacy. The city between the James and the tributaries of the York had more wealth and power then any other southern town.

If you wanted to defend Richmond from invasion from the sea, from the Chesapeake—you might well decide to garrison an army at Yorktown. You could easily build up the trenches. Much of the earth that the British shoveled still remained in big piles around the town. From Yorktown, your Confederate army could cover the river with batteries of artillery and prevent Federal ships from sailing up close to Richmond via the Pamunkey, which fed the York.

If you thought along these lines, you would be thinking like Confederate President Jefferson Davis’ military advisor thought in 1861. Namely, Robert E. Lee.

The following spring, if you were like U.S. General-in-Chief George McClellan, you might decide to get the meddlesome, apish chief executive off your back by formulating a grand plan to ferry all your troops down the Potomac, to the storied peninsula. Then you could slowly lay an elaborate siege on Yorktown. Once it fell, on to Richmond!

Honest Abe, a prudent man if ever there were one, did not think that this made for a very good plan. Why not just march south to Richmond over land? But the President was desperate for McClellan to something, anything. ‘Okay. Go for it.’

So: Once again, eighty-one years after Cornwallis, the besiegers of Yorktown outgunned the besieged. Massively.

But, this time, the besieged had somewhere else to go. Confederate General Joe Johnston didn’t even wait for the shooting to start. He craftily allowed McClellan and Co. to spend weeks lining everything up for an extended siege. Then Johnston evacuated Yorktown under cover of night and retreated to trenches around Richmond. (George Armstrong Custer, scouting from a hot-air balloon, was the first Federal to learn that Johnston had cleared out.)

A battle between the Federal vanguard and the Confederate rear erupted just south of sleepy old Williamsburg. They re-enacted the battle nine days ago. (Your servant had the pleasure of encountering one of the re-enactors.)

You may be wondering, does Father have a point here? Do I need one? Listen:

McClellan moved his armies up towards the Confederate capital. He planned to besiege it with all the might he could muster. He had plenty of guns and troops to beat the Rebs. But a pathological timidity would soon overcome him.

In a battle east of Richmond on May 31, Johnston suffered severe wounds. Who would replace him in command of the army defending Richmond? Jefferson chose to put his military advisor in command. Robert E. Lee.

It rained and rained. Lee knew that he did not have time on his side. If he faced a more reasonable man than McClellan, then the Confederate capital almost certainly could have been taken during the summer.

So Lee planned a dangerous, complicated offensive maneuver. It required Stonewall Jackson to come east from the Shenandoah Valley.

Jackson had just conducted a campaign with the dexterity of a magician, keeping Federal troops occupied to the west, making McClellan crazy that he couldn’t have a juggernaut as big as he wanted for the peninsula.

Jackson’s biographer James “Bud” Robertson titles his chapter on this phase of the war “Fatigue.” Jackson managed completely to bungle his role in Lee’s plan. Stonewall never really even understood Lee’s orders. Robertson recounts how Jackson was fighting off sleep when Lee was explaining his plan.

What ensued has come to be known as “The Seven Days.” Bloody battle after bloody battle, every day for a week, June 25 to July 1.

Panicky, paranoid McClellan ran for a secure route of retreat. He did this even though he had more men and much more firepower. Lee again and again tried and failed to make himself understood by his generals—men who would eventually become legends right alongside him: “Pete” Longstreet, J.E.B. Stuart, John Bell Hood, and Jackson.

Tiny twists of fate could have changed things so that July 1862 could have seen Abraham Lincoln walking the streets of Richmond—almost three years before he actually did. Or July 1862 could have seen the Federal war machine ruined, for all intents and purposes. Such a victory lay within Lee’s grasp. But he could not get his generals to do what he thought he had told them to do.

In other words, the war could have ended, with either side the victor, but for a few details one way or the other. If Little Mac weren’t there, and Grant was: Richmond taken and war over in 1862. Or: if Lee, Longstreet, and Jackson really understood what they were saying to each other: Federal army crippled, Northern morale crushed, and war over in 1862.

Instead, it all came to nothing in the short run. By the end of the summer, the Union army was back in Washington.

I really do have a point. Kind of.

I would like to be the first blogger on the interwebs to point out that: The “Fortnight for Freedom” declared by our Bishops coincides with the 150th anniversary of the Seven Days battles.

I leave it to you, dear reader, to interpret the significance of this fact.

War Begins in Earnest

A dyed-in-the-wool Easterner has a hard time featuring the idiosyncratic watercourses of the Ohio River basin.

We natives of the original thirteen have been raised to understand the earth to curve a certain way. But, west of the Appalachians, the ground slopes differenty. The water moves in inexplicable directions.

Who can comprehend the way the Cumberland or the Tennessee Rivers amble over the surface of the earth? Only God, the ancient Cherokee, and–perhaps–“Unconditional Surrender” Grant.

Did you think that we would let the sesquicentennial anniversary of the Battle of Shiloh pass unmentioned? The turning point of William Tecumseh Sherman’s life? Hardly. We would hardly blow it off, Holy Saturday or no.

The fighting Bishop took part. Confederate General Albert Sidney Johnston died, as did 13,046 other men. The United States had never known a bloodier day.

But eight bloodier days were yet to come during the ensuing three years.

Battles Royale + Promised Land Locale

Seems somehow fitting that the Hoyas should fall in double overtime on the 150th anniversary of the Battle of Hampton Roads.

…Today at Mass we pray part of Psalm 105. This psalm recounts the history of God’s faithfulness to His chosen people.

His great faithfulness towards Israel began with _____________. Abraham had a son named ______________. And a grandson named ______________.

Moses led the people back to the ______________ _________.

This is review, right? We went over this twelve days ago.

Now, Psalm 105 and our Lord Jesus’ Parable of the Wicked Tenants agree on one very important point.

Where is the Promised Land? Where is the land flowing with milk and honey, where God’s chosen ones may live in peace? Where is the well-cultivated vineyard where fruits grow at the proper times?

Psalm 105 concludes with these words:

He gave them the lands…that they might keep His statues and observe His teachings.

The Promised Land cannot be found on any earthly map. Only in heaven do they have the full Promised Land road atlas.

The Promised Land is where people obey God.