Today marks the 155th Anniversary of the Northern victory at Gettysburg, and tomorrow the same anniversary of the Fall of Vicksburg, these twin defeats marking, for all intents and purposes, the end of the experiment of self-government in America. Though the relative skill of its generals, and the desperation and valor of its people, led the Confederacy to hold out for two more years, whatever chance of victory the South ever had was long gone. In some respects, it would have been better not to bleed out so painfully for so long after.
However that may be, in reading Shelby Foote’s three-volume history of the Civil War, I came across this passage describing a Confederate cabinet meeting to which Robert E. Lee was called in mid-May, 1863, to discuss the best way to relieve Vicksburg, already invested and under siege by Grant. Vicksburg was a strong natural position, and the last Confederate stronghold on the Mississippi river. Without it, supplies of men and materiel could not effectively come from the trans-Mississippi, and the South would be cut in two. The excerpt is a bit long, but an interesting look at one of the fascinating might-have-beens of history:
Lee based his present advice on what was good or bad for his department and the soldiers in his charge. “I considered the problem in every possible phase,” he subsequently explained, “and to my mind, it resolved itself into a choice of one of two things: either to retire to Richmond and stand a siege, which must ultimately have ended in surrender, or to invade Pennsylvania.” Placed in that light, the alternatives were much the same as if the cabinet members were being asked to choose between certain defeat and possible victory. In fact, “possible” became probable with Robert E. Lee in charge of an invasion launched as the aftermath of Fredericksburg and Chancellorsville, triumphs scored against the same adversary and against longer odds than he would be likely to encounter when he crossed the Potomac with the reunited Army of Northern Virginia. Seddon and Benjamin, Secretary of the Treasury Christopher G. Memminger, Attorney General Thomas H. Watts, and Secretary of the Navy Stephen R. Mallory all agreed with the gray-bearded general “whose fame,” as one of them said, “now filled the world.” They were not only persuaded by his logic; they were awed by his presence, his aura of invincibility. And this included Davis, who had seldom experienced that reaction to any man.
It did not include Postmaster General John H. Reagan. He was by no means persuaded by Lee, and such awe as he felt for any living man was reserved for Jefferson Davis, whom he considered self-made and practical-minded like himself. Born in poverty forty-five years ago in Tennessee, Reagan had been a schoolteacher and a Mississippi plantation overseer before he was eighteen, when he moved to Texas with all he owned tied up in a kerchief. Passing the bar, he had gone into Lone Star politics and in time won election to Congress, where service on the postal committee prepared him for his present assignment. In this he already had scored a singular triumph, unequaled by any American postmaster in the past seventy-five years or indeed in the next one hundred. Under Reagan’s watchful eye, the Confederate postal department did not suffer an annual deficit, but yielded a clear profit. He accomplished this mainly by forcefulness and vigor, and now he employed these qualities in an attempt to persuade Davis and his fellow cabinet members that no victory anywhere, even in Washington itself, could offset the disaster that would result from the loss of the Mississippi. The only man present whose home lay beyond that river, he said plainly that he thought Lee was so absorbed in his masterful defense of Virginia that he did not realize the importance of the Transmississippi, which would be cut off from the rest of the country with the fall of Vicksburg. It had been claimed that Lee’s advance might result in Grant’s withdrawal to meet the challenge, but Reagan did not believe this for an instant. Grant was committed, he declared. The only way to stop him from accomplishing his object was to destroy him, and the only way to destroy him was to move against him with all possible reinforcements, including Longstreet’s two divisions from Lee’s army. As for the talk of co-operation expected from those with antiwar sentiments in the North—this too had been advanced as an argument for invasion; the peace movement had been growing beyond the Potomac—Reagan agreed with Beauregard as to “the probability that the threatened danger to Washington would arouse again the whole Yankee nation to renewed efforts for the protection of their capital.” In short, he saw everything wrong with Lee’s plan and everything right about the plan it had superseded. Grant was the main threat to the survival of the Confederacy, and it was Grant at whom the main blow must be aimed and struck.
Davis and the others heard both men out, and when the two had had their say a vote was taken. In theory, the cabinet could reject Lee’s proposal as readily as that of any other department commander, Bragg or Pemberton or Beauregard, for example, each of whom was zealous to protect the interests of the region for which he was responsible. But that was only in theory. This was Lee, the first soldier of the Confederacy—the first soldier of the world, some would assert—and this was, after all, a military decision. The vote was five to one, in the general’s favor. Davis concurring, it was agreed that the invasion would begin at the earliest possible date.
Pleased with the outcome and the confidence expressed, Lee went that evening to pay his respects to a Richmond matron who had done much to comfort the wounded of his army. As he took his leave, it seemed to a young lady of the house—much as it had seemed earlier to five of the six cabinet members—that he was clothed in glory. “It was broad moonlight,” she was to write years later, “and I recall the superb figure of our hero standing in the little porch without, saying a last few words, as he swung his military cape around his shoulders. It did not need my fervid imagination to think him the most noble looking mortal I had ever seen. We felt, as he left us and walked off up the quiet leafy street in the moonlight, that we had been honored by more than royalty.”
Again Reagan had a different reaction. Unable to sleep because of his conviction that a fatal mistake had been made that day at the White House, he rose before dawn—it was Sunday now, May 17; Pemberton would be routed at high noon on the Big Black, and Johnston was advising the immediate evacuation of Vicksburg—to send a message urging Davis to call the cabinet back into session for a reconsideration of yesterday’s decision. Davis did so, having much the same concern for Mississippi as Lee had for Virginia—his brother and sisters were there, along with many lifelong friends who had sent their sons to help defend the Old Dominion and now looked to him for deliverance from the gathering blue host—but the result of today’s vote, taken after another long discussion, was the same as yesterday’s: five to one, against Reagan. Lee returned to the Rappahannock the following day, which was the first of many in the far-off Siege of Vicksburg.
Today is the feast of the Visitation of the Blessed Virgin Mary. It is one of the beautiful feasts of Our Lady, and Mary as usual gives us the example of discipleship.
The Gospel of St. Luke recounts how Mary, who had just learned that she was to be the Mother of Christ, did not merely dwell upon her own blessedness, but instead went with haste to Elizabeth, about whom the angel told informed Mary that she, too, was with child:
39 And Mary rising up in those days, went into the hill country with haste into a city of Juda. 40 And she entered into the house of Zachary and saluted Elizabeth. 41 And it came to pass that when Elizabeth heard the salutation of Mary, the infant leaped in her womb. And Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Ghost. 42 And she cried out with a loud voice and said: Blessed art thou among women and blessed is the fruit of thy womb. 43 And whence is this to me that the mother of my Lord should come to me? 44 For behold as soon as the voice of thy salutation sounded in my ears, the infant in my womb leaped for joy. 45 And blessed art thou that hast believed, because those things shall be accomplished that were spoken to thee by the Lord. 46 And Mary said: My soul doth magnify the Lord. 47 And my spirit hath rejoiced in God my Saviour.
The Lesson from the Canticle of Canticles describes the beauty of Mary and the Love God has for her:
Canticle 2: 8-14:
8 The voice of my beloved, behold he cometh leaping upon the mountains, skipping over the hills. 9 My beloved is like a roe, or a young hart. Behold he standeth behind our wall, looking through the windows, looking through the lattices. 10 Behold my beloved speaketh to me: Arise, make haste, my love, my dove, my beautiful one, and come. 11 For winter is now past, the rain is over and gone. 12 The flowers have appeared in our land, the time of pruning is come: the voice of the turtle is heard in our land: 13 The fig tree hath put forth her green figs: the vines in flower yield their sweet smell. Arise, my love, my beautiful one, and come: 14 My dove in the clefts of the rock, in the hollow places of the wall, shew me thy face, let thy voice sound in my ears: for thy voice is sweet, and thy face comely.
Sharing in the glory of this great feast are Saints Processus and Martinian, whose commemoration is today. These early Christian Martyrs were guards of Saints Peter and Paul in the Mamertine Prison, and were converted by the Apostles after a miraculous spring appeared in the prison. They were baptized by the Apostles in this miraculous water. They paid the ultimate price for their love of Christ and His Apostles and are buried in St. Peter’s Basilica.
May our lives, either before or during our imprisonment for the faith, be such a spur for the conversion of our persecutors.
Holy Mother of God, Our Lady of the Visitation, pray for us!
Saints Processus and Martinian, pray for us!
In the Office of the day, St. Paul earnestly invites us to correspond with Christ’s gift. “Jesus… that He might sanctify the people by His own Blood, suffered outside the gate. Let us go forth therefore to meet Him… bearing His reproach.” If we want the Blood of Christ to bear all its fruit in us, we must unite our own blood with it. His alone is most precious, so precious that a single drop is sufficient to save the whole world; nevertheless, Jesus, as always, wants us to add our little share, our contribution of suffering and sacrifice, “bearing His reproach.” If we are sincere we will have to admit that we do all in our power to escape Christ’s shame and disgrace. A lack of consideration, a slight offense, a cutting word, are all that it takes to arouse our passions. How can we say that we know how to share in Christ’s humiliations? Behold our divine Master treated like a malefactor, dragged amidst the coarse insults of the soldiers outside the gate of Jerusalem and there crucified between two thieves! And we? What part do we take in His Passion? How do we share His reproach?
To redeem us, “Jesus… endured the Cross, despising the shame…” and “you,” St. Paul reproaches us, “have not yet resisted unto blood, striving against sin” (Heb 12, 2. 4). Can we say that we know how to struggle “unto blood” to overcome our faults, our pride, our self-love? Oh! how weak and cowardly we are in the struggle, how self-indulgent and full of pity for ourselves, especially for our pride! Jesus, Innocence itself, expiated our sins even unto a bloody, ignominious death! We, the guilty ones, far from atoning for our faults unto blood, cannot even sacrifice our self-love. The blood which flows from sincere, total renunciation of self, from humble, generous acceptance of everything that mortifies, breaks and destroys our pride: this is the blood which Jesus asks us to unite with His! The Precious Blood of Jesus will give us the strength to do so, “for the soul which becomes inebriated and inundated by the Blood of Christ, is clothed with true and genuine virtue” (St. Catherine of Siena).
–from Divine Intimacy, by Fr. Gabriel of St. Mary Magdalen, OCD