More Civil War
The story of a Confederate general who wouldn't surrender
If seventy-three years is a lifetime, the Civil War happened only a couple of lifetimes ago—and battles were fought near many Southern backyards. We’re unable to dismiss the war.
In the early nineties I was riding in a cab in California. I said something to the cab driver, and he, apparently noticing my accent, said, “Where are you from in the South?”
“You know much about the Civil War?”
“Not a lot. I know more than six hundred thousand soldiers died as a result of it, more dead than in all our other wars combined.”
We drove along for a bit, and then he said, “I think that’s a great tribute to the fighting spirit of the American people!”
My mouth started to open, then it did open, but nothing came out. I was left speechless by a Westerner.
Some Southerners (and Northerners) are obsessed with the Civil War. Others tend to ignore it. As I was growing up, my family occasionally spoke with hatred of Sherman, but figures such as Lee and Grant were rarely mentioned. Lincoln was never maligned. And while I knew that some of my relatives died in the Civil War, I was unaware of their names or the names of the battles that took them. But a story of my great-grandmother Elizabeth pouring boiling water on a Yankee for stealing meat from the smokehouse was told regularly, and I can never forget William Styron saying in a speech that one of his earliest memories was of his grandmother pointing to his navel and saying, “That’s where the Yankees shot you.”
Jo Shelby got involved in the Kansas-Missouri skirmishes that predated the Civil War, and then joined the Confederates for the duration. He led the “Iron Brigade” in battles and slashing forays behind Union lines west of the Mississippi. He thus fought far from the media scrutiny that might have householded his name. At the end of the war, he refused to surrender and took a few hundred soldiers of fortune to Mexico for an adventure that, in its social, psychological, and political intrigue—along with its instances of murder, mayhem, loyalty, and betrayal—seems to match sagas from the Hebrew Bible and the Christian Old Testament.