Book Review: Storm over the Land. Part 1

Storm Over The Land – A Profile of the Civil War, 1939, 1943 by Carl Sandburg, Harcourt, Brace and Co, Inc.

It is not clear when my first ancestors set foot upon the soil that is my native land, but probably not until after the great struggle elucidated in this work by the eminent American writer that penned it.  So, in a very real sense, it it easy for me to say that I and mine had no part in the struggle and that we are not responsible for any of the sins that lead to it nor to any of the sins that sprang from it.  And yet, to the extent that we inherit the legacy that is the United States of America, we all continue to be responsible for it in some way.

The Civil War was the clash of many great ideals with the clash of other great ideals.  It is fair to say that each side felt the hand of providence on their shoulders and fought with a sense of justice that could be the only reason such a desperate conflict would rage so violently among brothers and sisters who shared so many common goals.  It is also amazing that the tides of the war turned so inexorably on the efforts of those who had no disagreement in principle with the other side.  The greatest of these enigmas must have been Robert E. Lee, who fought for the Confederacy even though he abhorred slavery and believed strongly in the union.  It is interesting that he really fought for Virginia.  As he understood that the Confederate States were a much more loosely joined than the Union states, he only chose to fight for his beloved Virginia, and he would readily have lead the Union cause, had Virginia voted to stay in the Union.

Mr. Sandburg, renowned as one of the great writers of his time, gives us, in his introduction, one of the most sublime examples of sentence structure I have ever encountered, and probably ever will.  The fact that he gives us an almost two-page paragraph is overshadowed only by the fact that it was necessitated by the length of the one sentence it contains.  And, in this one incredible sentence, we are provided enough fodder for the making of dozens of books on the processes and tensions that lead to the Civil War and that continue to shape our modern country even today.  As he said it so succinctly and better than I could ever reiterate, I now give you this one exquisite sentence in its entirety.

Only tall stacks of documents recording the steel of fact and the fog of dream could tell the intricate tale of the shaping of a national fate; of men saying Yes when they meant NO and NO when they meant Perhaps; of newspapers North and South lying to their readers and pandering to the cheapest passions of party and class interest; of the men and women of the ruling classes North and South being dominated more often than not by love of money and power; of the Southern planters and merchants being $200,000,000 in debt to the North; of the paradoxes involved in the Northern hope of the black man’s freedom in the South; of the race question that was one thing in the blizzard region of New England, where a Negro was pointed our on the streets as a rare curiosity, and something else again in the deep drowsy tropical South, where in so many areas the Negro outnumbered the white man; of the greed of Savannah and Mobile slave-traders; of how the prohibitory law as to fugitive slaves was mocked at by abolitionists stealing slave property and running it North to freedom; of abolitionists hanged, shot, stabbed, mutilated; of the Northern manufacturer being able to throw out men or machines no longer profitable while the Southern planter could not so easily scrap his production apparatus of living black men and women; of stock and bond markets becoming huge gambling enterprises in which fleeced customers learned later that the dice had been loaded; of automatic machinery slightly guided by human hands producing shoes, fabrics, scissors; of animalism of the exploitation of man by man North and South; of the miscellaneous array of propertied interests in the North which would stand to lose trade and profits, land titles, payments of legitimate debts, through a divided Union of States; of the clean and inexplicably mystic dream that lay in many humble hearts of an indissoluble Federal Union of States; of the certainty that the new Republican-party power at Washington would be aimed to limit extension of slavery and put it in the course of ultimate extinction; of the 260,000 free Negros in the South owning property valued at $25,000,000; of the Southern poor white lacking the guarantees of food, clothing, shelter, and employment assured the Negro field hand; of Northern factory workers paid a bare subsistence wage, lacking security against sickness, old age, unemployment while alive and funeral costs when finally dead; of the one-crop Cotton States’ delusion that New England and Europe were economic dependents of King Cotton; of the American system having densely intricate undergrowths, old rootholds of a political past, suddenly interfered with by rank and powerful economic upshoots.

There lies some four hundred succinct words that, I am bold enough to say, are all parts of the intricate puzzle that brought us to a civil war a century and a half ago, and that, more or less, threaten to bring us to civil war at many and various times and especially today.  Many of the same sores that were festering then continue to fester now.  And I believe we could find a dozen good books on each and every item mentioned.   Yet, were we to try to distill the conflict to, say, a question of slave ownership, as is most often done today, we cheat ourselves of any chance to see the larger and more complex picture, and we subject ourselves to the narrow and short-sighted vision that could not keep from the devastating results that Mr. Sandburg goes on the depict in his book.


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