Monday, April 15, 2024

Literary Corner: So Vicious, So Horrible, So Beautiful


Martin Sheen as General Lee cheered by the brigades under his direct command, the Army of Northern Virginia, played by unpaid Civil War reenactors, I'm unable to determine at which point in the story (but probably near the beginning, when these troops arrive in Pennsylvania), in Ronald F. Maxwell's 1993 film Gettysburg. It's part of the lore of the movie that the whole sequence is entirely spontaneous, not part of the script but improvised unbidden by the extras, filmed only because the camera operators realized something exceptional was happening and Sheen was responding in character, which he does, as you can see, really gorgeously.

Never Fight Uphill, Me Boys

By Donald J. Trump, 45th President of the United States

Gettysburg, what an unbelievable battle
that was. It was so much, and so interesting,
and so vicious and horrible, and so beautiful
in so many different ways—it represented
such a big portion of the success
of this country. Gettysburg, wow—
I go to Gettysburg, Pennsylvania,
to look and to watch. And the statement
of Robert E. Lee, who's no longer in favor—
did you ever notice it? He's no
longer in favor. "Never fight
uphill, me boys, never fight uphill!"
They were fighting uphill, he said.
Wow, that was a big mistake. He lost
his big general. "Never fight uphill,
me boys," but it was too late.
So for one thing, there is no evidence that Robert E. Lee ever said "Never fight uphill, me boys!" 

Opinions differ as to why Lee might be "no longer in favor", I guess depending on whose favor you're talking about. A lot of us who were raised to think of him as a true gentleman and an opponent of slavery, concerned only about the constitutional issue of states' rights, have found out that he may have owned only a few humans himself (four as of 1835), and referred to the institution as a "moral & political evil"—
He however notes that it is “a greater evil to the white man than to the black race” and that “the painful discipline they are undergoing, is necessary for their instruction as a race, & I hope will prepare & lead them to better things.” 
—but managed up to 197 enslaved people at three estates owned by his father-in-law, George Washington Parke Custis, Martha Washington's grandson, and didn't hesitate to treat them as property in the way the law allowed, having them brutally whipped when they tried to escape and renting them out to other plantations to stop them from trying again, in 1859. He really did execute a deed of manumission for all of them, or all the ones who hadn't already made it to Pennsylvania, in 1862 (just a bit before the Emancipation Proclamation, as it happens), according to the terms of Custis's will, but only after five years of fighting against it (i.e., he was less opposed to slavery than the court system of Confederate Virginia, which forced him to carry out Custis's instructions).

The other question is about whether Lee was a good general or not, which I'm not qualified to judge, but I'll note that the case against his being a good general makes Gettysburg its main example, specifically because he insisted on sending attacking forces uphill, against his staff's advice, all three days of the horrible battle, again and again, defying the advice of commanders more in the field. "Never fight uphill" could have been a good summary of what he did wrong in the battle, but there's no evidence he ever recognized it. Also, lots of generals died in this awful battle, six on the Confederate side alone, but I don't find any suggestions that there was one "big general" whose death made the crucial difference.

Interestingly enough, when you try to find out what story Trump is trying to tell here, you find only examples of Trump trying to tell the same story, three times, going back to May 2018, when he was presenting Navy SEAL Britt Slabinski ("That means he is a physically very strong person, and that also means he is a mentally very strong person. That’s tough.") with the Medal of Honor, for heroism in Afghanistan, and interpolated a crude version of it into Stephen Miller's narrative:

Neil Roberts, the man thrown out of the helicopter, was probably still alive. The team faced a choice: to wait for reinforcements and pretty much safety, or to return immediately to the enemy stronghold in the hope of saving Neil’s life. They would be outmanned, outgunned, and fighting uphill on a steep, icy mountain. And every solider [sic] knows you don’t want to fight uphill. They learned that at Gettysburg — you don’t fight uphill."

Then in a campaign rally at Bemidji, Minnesota, in September 2020, where the poem begins to emerge in a passage of pure Trump:

September 18 2020 But Robert E. Lee won many, many battles in a row and it was supposed to be over in one day. You know, it was supposed to end immediately because the North was too powerful for the South. But it just shows when you have leaders, when you have a great general. And Robert E. Lee, he would have won except for Gettysburg. And that was because his general was killed who's going to lead Gettysburg. "Never fight uphill, me boys. Never fight uphill." He heard they were going uphill. "Stop them, stop them." But we had no cell phones in that day, right, congressmen? No cell phones.

It's a Lost Cause story, clearly, about how Lee's genius really was going to achieve the impossible, except for this dead general who failed to tell him about the uphill fighting thing before he died. If only he could have called! He was the one who said, "Never fight uphill, me boys!" But the message never reached the commander. (Incidentally, I'm pretty sure the one who really said "Never fight uphill" was the Western Zhou–dynasty master strategist Sunzi, in his Art of War: "It is a military axiom not to advance uphill against the enemy, nor to oppose him when he comes downhill.")

And finally that Halloween, at Newtown, Pennsylvania, chopping his way like he's wielding a machete through Miller's extended tribute to the state's history:

When you think of the great history of this state, from Washington’s crossing and Independence Hall in Philadelphia, to the Quakers who ran the underground railroad. From the Union soldiers who lay at the rest and you lay at rest, they lay at rest in Gettysburg. What a place, Gettysburg, one of the most beautiful places and so gruesome for a period of time, never fight uphill my boys, right? He said, ”Never fight uphill me boys, never fight uphill.” They fought uphill.

It's brought on there by another trap for Trump's reading disability, I think: Miller has written of the "Union soldiers laid to rest in Gettysburg" and Trump has never heard this expression. He can't guess what such an alarming sequence of words is supposed to be doing there, in three desperate attempts, but as he clambers out of the hole, there's the word "Gettysburg" and he snatches at it, and the safety of a story he's told before.

The evidence, then, suggests that he's made it up himself, over the years, and my guess is that it comes out of that 1993 movie (he goes there "to look and to watch"), the result of a vain attempt to follow the plot through its four-plus hours, continual shifts in point of view, and multiple bearded protagonists.

Nobody in the film says "Never fight uphill, me boys," as far as I can tell from a very rough transcript of the screenplay, but the phrase "my boys" appears eleven times, and the uphill concept gets plenty of play, particularly in what I think must be exchanges between Lee and General James Longstreet pleading with him to reposition the troops:

Sir, the federal army has fallen back
through Gettysburg.
They're reforming on the ridges
outside of town.

Very well.
This is almost perfect.
We got them where we want them.

Let's move south and east,
get between them and Lincoln...
find some high ground...

Sir, any attack we make
will be uphill over open ground.
How do we communicate?
How do we coordinate attack?

And I'm sure there are scenes where a general dies and it looks really portentous.Only now, in 2024, he’s forgotten that Lee was the one who wanted to fight uphill.

So these are the materials from which Trump crafted his own story (which I'm sure he believes is basically the story of the movie itself, as well as the historical fact), that plus, secretly, the scene of blond Lee on horseback being mobbed by his adoring, death-bound troops, his boys, his eyes wet with the dictator's self-regard and self-pity as Sheen interprets him, the exact person Trump sees when he looks in the mirror, but he doesn't want anybody to know about that because of Lee being no longer in favor.

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