Faulkner’s Take

Here’s an oft-quoted passage from William Faulkner (from “Intruder in the Dust,” which no, I have not read) that grabs a lot of people:

For every Southern boy fourteen years old, not once but whenever he wants it, there is the instant when it’s still not yet two oclock on that July afternoon in 1863, the brigades are in position behind the rail fence, the guns are laid and ready in the woods and the furled flags are already loosened to break out and Pickett himself with his long oiled ringlets and his hat in one hand probably and his sword in the other looking up the hill waiting for Longstreet to give the word and it’s all in the balance, it hasn’t happened yet, it hasn’t even begun yet, it not only hasn’t begun yet but there is stll time for it not to begin against that position and those circumstances which made more men than Garnett and Kemper and Armstead and Wilcox look grave yet it’s going to begin, we all know that, we have come too far with too much at stake and that moment doesn’t need even a fourteen-year-old boy to think This time. Maybe this time with all this much to lose and all this much to gain: Pennsylvania, Maryland, the world, the golden dome of Washington itself to crown with desperate and unbelievable victory the desperate gamble, the cast made two years ago….

As a northerner and as someone who grew up believing (and who still believes) that the Civil War was fought in the most just of causes — ultimately, to end slavery — it’s probably impossible to fully appreciate the feelings Faulkner’s evoking there. Yes, history’s full of moments of barely missed opportunity, of heroes thwarted, of big “what if” moments. What if Lincoln hadn’t been at Ford’s Theatre? What if Bobby Kennedy had lived? But what Faulkner is talking about is where history blends into myth. In some important way, it doesn’t take into account a moral dimension of the event it interprets. What if Lee had prevailed at Gettysburg (that’s the premise for a series of historical novels being written by Newt Gingrich, by the way)? Yeah — and what if the Soviets hadn’t stopped Hitler at Stalingrad? Sure, we have a wish that true valor had some reward beyond a glorified version of “nice try” and a bullet in the chest. But part of the reason we can look back and daydream about these episodes is because they came out the way they did. The Faulkner quote reminds me of another that kicks around in my head, from Grant’s account of Lee’s surrender at Appamattox:

“I felt like anything rather than rejoicing at the downfall of a foe who had fought so long and valiantly, and had suffered so much for a cause, though that cause was, I believe, one of the worst for which a people ever fought, and one for which there was the least excuse. I do not question, however, the
sincerity of the great mass of those who were opposed to us.”

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