Why I’m Stuck on the Maya

Maya Girls

My first real trip outside the borders of the United States was to Yucatán in November 1975. I was so entranced with what I saw that I kept coming back to Maya Mexico for years, until 1992. During that time, I also wanted to go to Guatemala, but a civil war between the Maya and the Ladinos (Mestizos) was raging until 1996; and Guatemala was on the State Department’s “Level 4: Do Not Travel” list until just recently. Even now, the State Department as the whole country classified under a blanket “Level 3: Reconsider travel to Guatemala due to crime” warning.

Why is it that I am so fascinated by the Maya that I would risk flouting President Trumpf’s State Department?

For one thing, the Maya are incredible survivors. The Aztecs were ground down by Cortez within two years. In Peru, it took forty years before resistance was smashed by Pizarro and his successors. And the Maya? That took a full 180 years before the last Maya kingdom (at Tayasal in Guatemala) was leveled.

Today, there are 1.5 million speakers of Nahuatl, the language of the Aztecs. There are some 6 million speakers of the 26-odd Mayan languages and dialects. Of course, the Incan Quechua language has even more speakers: some 8.5 to 11 million speakers in several South American countries.

In recent years, there have been several disturbances in the Maya area:

  • In Mexico, there was a Maya war against the Ladinos in Yucatán that lasted from 1847 to 1901 and a Zapatista revolt in Chiapas that flared briefly in 1994.
  • In Guatemala, there was a violent civil war against the Ladinos from 1960 to 1996. It is estimated that tens of thousands of Maya were massacred by the army.
  • In El Salvador, there was a civil war from 1979 to 1981. (Only some of the indigenous peoples involved in that one were Maya.)

The Maya are still there, occupying large parts of Mexico (Yucatán, Chiapas, Tabasco, Campeche, and Quintana Roo); Belize; Guatemala; and parts of Honduras and El Salvador. It is no small achievement for them to have survived so much persecution for upwards of 500 years.

That is what interests me.

 

 

The Federal Republic of Central America

One Real Coin of the Federal Republic of Central America

Between 1823 and 1840, what we know of the countries of Central America was a single country, with the following two exceptions:

  • British Honduras (now Belize) has never officially been recognized by Guatemala.
  • Panama did not exist as a separate country, but was a part of the Republic of Colombia.

In 1839, a young American by the name of John Lloyd Stephens was appointed by President Martin Van Buren to be a special ambassador to the unified Federal Republic of Central America. The only problem was that, by the time Stephens and his artist companion Frederick Catherwood landed in Central America, the Federal Republic was in the process of splitting apart.

John Lloyd Stephens (1805-1852)

Stephens’s main interest was to visit the Mayan ruins scattered around Guatemala, Honduras, and Mexico—but going as a plenipotentiary of the United States was a big plus, especially since the countries of Central America were coming apart like a cheap suit.

I have just finished re-reading Volume i of Stephens’s Incidents of Travel in Central America, Chiapas and Yucatán. The only ruins Stephens and Catherwood were able to visit before presenting their credentials to the government were in Copán, Honduras.  Most of the rest of that volume concerns the efforts of the two to find the government, which Stephens does in El Salvador, quite by accident:

The next day I made a formal call upon Señor Vigil [Vice President of the Republic]. I was in a rather awkward position. When I left Guatimala [sic] in search of a government, I did not expect to meet it on the road. In that state I had heard but one side [that of Guatemalan rebel General Carrera]; I was just beginning to hear the other. If there was any government, I had treed it. Was it the real thing or was it not? In Guatimala they said it was not; here they said it was. It was a knotty question. I was in no great favor in Guatimala, and in endeavouring to play a safe game I ran the risk of being hustled by all parties. In Guatimala they had no right to ask for my credentials, and took offence because I did not present them; here, if I refused, they had the right to consider it an insult.

As I read Stephens, I was reminded of how great some of the 19th century U.S. historians were. Not only Stephens, but also William H. Prescott (History of the Conquest of Mexico), Francis Parkman (the volumes of France and England in North America), and John Lothrop Motley (The Rise of the Dutch Republic). They are unfortunately not read much today, but I am convinced they are, in their own field, among the lights of 19th century American literature.

 

Erasing the Confederacy?

Nathan Bedford Forrest (1821-1877)

For some reason that perplexes me, there seems to be a concerted attempt of late to eliminate all traces of the Confederacy: its memorials, its flags, and its heroes. I, myself, have nothing against Robert E. Lee, a man I regard as a legitimate American hero who just happened to fight on the losing side. I even admire the somewhat unsavory Nathan Bedford Forrest, a brilliant cavalry general who just happened to be one of the founding members of the Ku Klux Klan.

These are men who believed in slavery along with millions of their countrymen. In fact, Forrest had before the war been a slave dealer. Do I think slavery is evil? Yes. Do I blame people in the past for believing differently than we do? Not at all. Slavery was petty universal until some point in the 19th Century. It exists even today in the United States, where many prostitutes are in fact slaves of the men who pimp them. We are wasting our time when we are trying to reform our ancestors by pulling down statues, banning flags, and denigrating heroes of times past.

To a certain extent, I believe that much of this whitewashing the past is due to the fact that even the Solid South is not necessarily solid. Americans from Blue States have invaded part of the South, and Red Staters have returned the favor.  If I lived in Memphis today, I probably would be persistently annoyed by all the trappings of the War of the Southern Confederacy.

Let the South have their heroes. Does that mean that we should permit slavery in the 21st century? By no means. We just have to admit that times and mores have changed.

If you reject my reasoning, I suggest you read the three hefty volumes of Shelby Foote’s The Civil War: A Narrative.  It is written predominately from the Southern point of view. As I read it, I kept thinking, “These people were Americans, too!”

How the North Won the Civil War?

California Gold Paved the Way to Victory

This evening, I was reading John McPhee’s Assembling California when, suddenly, I came upon this quote by John Bidwell who wrote the following in his memoirs, first published in 1900:

It is a question whether the United States could have stood the shock of the great rebellion of 1861 had the California gold discovery not been made. Bankers and business men of New York in 1864 did not hesitate to admit that but for the gold of California, which monthly poured its five or six millions into that financial center, the bottom would have dropped out of everything. These timely arrivals so strengthened the nerves of trade and stimulated business as to enable the government to sell its bonds at a time when its credit was its life-blood and the main reliance by which to feed, clothe, and maintain its armies. Once our bonds went down to thirty-eight cents on the dollar. California gold averted a total collapse and enabled a preserved Union to come forth from the great conflict.

Bidwell should know: He was, in addition to being a California settler as far back as 1841, but was a member of congress and a candidate for Governor of the State of Califonia.

McPhee states that “by 1865, at the end of the American Civil War, seven hundred and eighty-five million dollars had come out of the ground in California, making a difference—possibly the difference—in the Civil War.”

The Infamous Shad Bake

Major General George E. Pickett, C.S.A.

Major General George E. Pickett, C.S.A.

He is most famous for leading a spectacularly failed charge against an entrenched elevated position at the Battle of Gettysburg. But he was not to blame for that: The charge was ordered by Lee and executed as ably as possible considering that it was foredoomed to end in disaster.

But that was not the last act of Pickett’s career in Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia. Pickett was commanding general of C.S.A. forces at Five Points, off the right flank of the Petersburg defenses. Lee had given his general direct orders regarding holding his position: “Hold Five Forks at all hazards. Protect road to Ford’s Depot and prevent Union forces from striking the Southside Railroad. Regret exceedingly your forced withdrawal, and your inability to hold the advantage you had gained.” [Italics mine]

The tone of this order did not sit well with General Pickett. Whereupon, feeling that he had covered his bases adequately in case Sheridan should attack, Pickett accepted an invitation from a fellow officer to join in a picnic of shad that had been caught in the Nottoway River. Both he and Fitzhugh Lee left their forces to subordinates and indulged in a nice shad bake.

Unfortunately, Sheridan picked that point to attack Five Forks and stage one of the most decisive victories of the long Siege of Petersburg, sending the defenders scampering for their lives.

Needless to say, that did not sit well with Robert E. Lee, who terminated Pickett’s command a few days later.

 

In at the Finish

Abe Lincoln Walking he Streets of Richmond in April 1865

Abe Lincoln Walking he Streets of Richmond in April 1865

It is not generally remembered that Abraham Lincoln was visiting the Union lines during the final breakthrough of the siege of Petersburg. Once  General Sheridan crushed the Confederate resistance at Five Points, there was no more holding back of the Grant’s army: Richmond would have to be abandoned.

Even before it was entirely safe to do so, Lincoln had Admiral Porter sail up the James River and land him in the Rebel capital. On April 4, 1865, he walked around what remained of the city (part of which was still in flames). At first, he was accompanied only by a few Naval officers and men, until General Weitzel, who controlled the Union forces in the city, provided an adequate guard for him.

It is a pity that Matthew Brady was not there to take photographs of the lanky President being approached by Black Virginians, who recognized him at once and sang hymns of thanksgiving. Of course, he received a much less welcoming response from most White residents.

I am close to finishing Volume III of Shelby Foote’s great The Civil War: A Narration, which covers the period from the Red River Campaign of 1864 to Lee’s surrender at Appomattox. Since the beginning of the month, I have read little else, and my mind is full of Civil War battles and the awful destruction of thousands of Americans of both sides. To this day, the butcher’s bill for the Civil War dwarfs the sum total of casualties of all other wars in which the U.S. has participated since its inception in 1776.

Marching Through Georgia

The Route of Sherman’s March to the Sea

The Route of Sherman’s March to the Sea

Much has been written about William Tecumseh Sherman’s March to the Sea in terms of its savagery—but almost nothing in terms of its ingenuity. After Atlanta was destroyed by Sherman’s forces, Confederate General John Bell Hood decided to attack toward Tennessee, destroying Sherman’s supplies.

But what Sherman had decided instead was to avoid Hood’s army altogether and march to Savannah, where he could be resupplied with Union ships waiting near the harbor. So he divided his army into two columns and, while marching, supplied his army with provender hijacked from plantations in the rich farm land along the route. In fact, Sherman arrived in Savannah with more cattle than he started from in Atlanta. And his men were well fed with turkeys, hogs, sweet potatoes, molasses, and corn that they were able to commandeer enroute.

William Tecumseh Sherman - 1893 Stamp Issue

William Tecumseh Sherman – 1893 Stamp Issue

It had been always been the Union Army’s strategy to fight and defeat the enemy’s army. Even Ulysses S. Grant, besieging Petersburg on the outskirts of Richmond, had doubts about the plan, but finally decided to give his approval. Sherman wasted no time in disappearing from the scene, fighting no battles until he re-emerged at Savannah.

The Confederates were thoroughly confused. Hood was marching his army into Tennessee, where it ran into George Thomas’s forces at Franklin and Nashville. Other Confederates thought that Sherman’s goal was Macon or Augusta, which they dutifully reinforced, only to be avoided by Sherman’s columns as they attacked no city larger than Milledgeville, which was until 1868, the State Capitol.

I am currently reading Shelby Foote’s The Civil War: A Narrative, Red River to Appomatox, which provides a Southern view of the end of the Civil War. Even Foote does not accept that Sherman’s soldiers were particularly brutal, though there was a considerable amount of agricultural theft, freeing of slaves, and destruction of property. It seems to have been under control, however, and Foote makes no claims of murder or rapine.