Saturday, January 18, 2014

The Second Battle of Olustee

I didn’t know I was a Yankee until I was nine years old. This is because I was raised in the north. In New Jersey in 1he 1950s, the Civil War wasn’t on everyone’s mind. The situation was quite different in Florida.

My family moved to Cocoa Beach in 1956, and during recess on the first day of fourth grade there, I was excitedly asked by one of my classmates, “Are you a Yankee or a Rebel?”

“I don’t know,” I answered.

“Where are you from?”

“New Jersey.”

“Yer a Yankee! Git over there,” my classmate said, with a great deal of energy but with no apparent hostility, and he pointed to a pack of fourth grade boys that had formed up about 100 feet away.

So, I joined my fellow Yankees and we spent the next 30 minutes of recess re-enacting the Civil War as each group charged the other shouting with feigned ferocity. There seemed to be no real anger in this game, but it stoked up our spirits of tribal loyalty to blood-boiling intensity.

One year later, when our family had moved to Lakeland, the Civil War was once again re-enacted when my fifth grade teacher, Mrs. Tolle, required that every morning after the pledge of allegiance to the flag, we remain standing to sing “Dixie.” By then I had learned to identify enough with my Yankee tribe that I would always insert the word “Jersey” in place of “Dixie” as I sang. In any case, it didn’t seem quite honest for me to sing, “In Dixieland where I was born in…” since it was Lafayette, Indiana, that I had actually been "born in," which is hundreds of miles away from Dixie.

Mrs. Tolle also introduced me to Southern manners when I answered “Yes” to a question she had posed, and she, with hot indignation, demanded that I answer her with “Yes, ma’am.”

Yes, ma’am.

My Yankee upbringing had never specified that ma’am and sir distinguished courtesy from rudeness, but Mrs. Tolle made it clear that this was part of the new code I had to learn, lest I invite myself to a real down-home whuppin’.

Years later, when I moved to California to attend graduate school, my fellow students there identified me as a Southerner. I didn’t object to this, since they seemed to think being Southern made me interestingly exotic. Also, by then I had learned to love grits and red beans and rice, so I felt I was Southern enough to pass in the greater Los Angeles area.

I see from Lizette Alvarez's article in today’s New York Times that the Civil War is still not over in Florida. The issue is the famous Battle of Olustee (well, famous in North Florida), where a detachment of 6,000 bluecoats got shellacked by a slightly smaller contingent of rebs and had to skedaddle back to Jacksonville in February of 1864. 

           Lithograph from 1894 depicting Florida's Battle of Olustee

What’s making Jefferson Davis tremble in his grave is the recent proposal by the Florida chapter of the Sons of Union Veterans of the Civil War to place an obelisk in the Olustee Battlefield Historic State Park. Currently three monuments commemorating the Confederate soldiers already stand there, but there's nary a one for the Yankees.

The Confederate response? No go.

According to the Times story, John W. Adams, a former division commander in Florida for the Sons of Confederate Veterans declared, “Old grudges die hard. And feelings run deep.”

Well, I reckon they surely do.

The Times story continues:

“…the request has enraged many in the Sons of Confederate Veterans, which views the state’s decision as a betrayal of the small park’s legacy. As word spread, an online call to arms was issued by the national Confederate group’s leader to oppose the ‘Darth Vader-esque obscene obsidian obelisk’ in what the group’s members see as the Second Battle of Olustee. Reinforcements were drafted, namely State Representative Dennis Baxley, the Republican chairman of the House Judiciary Committee and a member of the Sons of Confederate Veterans.”

I suppose that in the eyes of the Sons of the Confederacy, Darth Vader was a fairly typical Yankee.

The “Second Battle of Olustee” reminds me of the argument made by Joshua Greene in Moral Tribes, his study of the ways in which morality is often intimately linked to one’s sense of tribal loyalty. Greene’s book, by the way, is quite good, and I would recommend it to anyone interested in the psychological roots of human moral systems. He offers a barrelful of evidence from psychological studies that show how a wide range of human motivators are apparently rooted in our genetic make-up and responsible for our capacity to survive as cooperative group members. These include “empathy, familial love, anger, social disgust, friendship, minimal decency, gratitude, vengefulness, romantic love, honor, shame, guilt, loyalty, humility, awe, judgmentalism, gossip, self-consciousness, embarrassment, tribalism, and righteous indignation.”

Despite his scientific credentials and good intentions, I’m afraid Professor Greene would never win the approval of Mrs. Tolle nor the Sons of the Confederacy. His main argument, ultimately, is that the best thing we can do when tribes collide is to hold our loyalties in check and seek a neutral basis on which to build a pan-tribal moral framework. And as far as the Confederate Sons of Olustee are concerned, a pan-tribal framework would be a desecration of the sacred site. “After all,” they seem to be saying, “the Yankees took a hard lickin’ here some 150 years ago, and that’s the one thing folks need to remember when they visit this park.”


On a related topic, I have made the argument that my Great Great Grandfather Flynn may have actually won the Civil War. (Culture World, July 31, 2010)