Vital Signs

Goodbye to Gold and Glory

“A crocodile has been worshipped, and its priesthood have asserted, that morality required the people to suffer themselves
to be eaten by a crocodile.”

—John Taylor of Caroline


“The Father of Waters now flows unvexed to the sea,” Lincoln famously announced in July 1863.  He was, according to a reporter, uncharacteristically “wearing a smile of supreme satisfaction” as he related the news of the surrender of Vicksburg.

Like many popular sayings about the war of 1861-65, Lincoln’s words rest on certain unexamined assumptions.  Why had the flow of the Mississippi been “vexed” to begin with?  It is true the Confederates had forts guarding passages on the river.  But these forts were not there to interfere with peaceful travel of the Mississippi—something which, in fact, Confederates devoutly desired and knew to be greatly in their interest.  The forts were there to interrupt invasion by heavily armed gunboats and transports which had already established a record of bombarding undefended towns and landing thousands of men to loot, burn out, and murder noncombatants.

In fact, Lincoln wanted the Mississippi to be “vexed” as long as he was doing the vexing.  The potential of New Orleans to become a Confederate free-trade port for the commerce of the world had been crushed...

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