7:30 a.m. May 22, 2013

The War Nerd: The Diary of Adam Gurowski

Every real American is a Civil War fan, and that’s the problem. It’s an all-American enterprise, our last domestic industry, a guaranteed domestic market. And just like Detroit, Civil War histories have gotten fat, sentimental and sloppy. We read historians like McPherson and Bruce Catton, Lincoln worshippers like Sandburg, and we end up thinking that the war was some kind of grand, necessary tragedy.

What we need is a good foreign slap in the national face. And luckily, there was a genuine world-class European intellectual on the spot in Washington D.C., writing down every day’s events with furious contempt. This guy was Adam Gurowski, and his story is a reminder that Europe was great once, truly great in ways that we’ve forgotten ever existed.

If you were a Pole in the 19th century you had this big problem called “Russia.” Russia occupied Poland although the Poles never stopped trying to get free. Gurowski, who was born into a landed aristocratic family in 1805, fought as a young man against the Russians. For that, his lands were confiscated and he fled with a death sentence on his head. He went to Paris — the Poles and the French have always been tight — and got very deep in European revolutionary politics.

So far, that’s a story that could’ve happened in the 20th or even the 21st century. We’ve got plenty of bitter conspirators even now. What’s amazing about Gurowski is that even though the Russians took everything from him, he didn’t — I don’t know how else to put this — he didn’t take it personally, or ethnically. He didn’t decide that Russians are evil and Poles are great. There’s no trace in his writings of any ethnic pride or resentment at all. In fact, five years after losing most of his friends and all of his possessions fighting against the Russians, he returned to Russia, worked for the government and wrote a book (in French) arguing for the union of all the Slavic people with the Russians in the lead.

He wrote that one in French because the Russian, Polish, and Serb elites were all fluent in French. Gurowski spoke eight languages and wrote books in at least three. He came to America in 1849 after discovering that the Russian government hadn’t really forgiven him at all. Even that didn’t turn him into a Russophobe. In his diary of the U.S. Civil War, he talks about Russia as “a true friend” of the United States.” This is a particular variant of greatness we’ve lost completely, and that bastard Nietzsche saw it coming a long time ago. Nietzsche talks about Mirabeau as an example of a man who couldn’t resent, couldn’t even forgive, because he just deleted any wrongs done him as too pitiful and insignificant to matter. Gurowski was like that.

In fact, the only people Gurowski truly seems to hate are the villains of his last book: the Southern slave-owning class. And that hate has absolutely nothing personal to it; those Dixiecrats hadn’t done Gurowski any harm. In fact, he talks constantly about their fancy courtesies, which work all too well on other European observers—but not on Gurowski, who was working as a translator in D.C., mixing with the few Americans radical enough to suit him.

We have a kind of half-assed idea that people back in 1861 were a little slow. You know: Brave as Hell, and with a steely simplicity we can’t match, but too primitive to get stuff like, well, the racial issues and such. Wrong. That might apply to most Americans in 1861, but that was only because we were a little out of touch with Europe, and I mean “Europe other than England,” because England in 1861 was a hardcore reactionary power, the most evil, far-right country in Europe, and getting our ideas from there meant we were tapping a tainted source.

Gurowski, coming out of a more wholesome, mainstream European tradition, won’t even use the common terms for our slaves. He calls them “Africo-Americans,” as if he almost anticipated we’d end up considering “African-American” the acceptable word. And he has pure contempt for any talk that there’s some deep, dangerous difference between them and all the other hyphenated American crowd. We take it for granted that Lincoln’s cautious tiptoe around race was inevitable and necessary, but to Gurowski, it’s just another product of Lincoln’s provincial ignorance:

“In his interview with a deputation composed of Africo-Americans, Mr. Lincoln rehearsed all the clap-trap concerning the races, the incompatibility to live together, and other like bosh…I pity Mr. Lincoln; his honesty and unfamiliarity with human affairs, with history, with laws, and with other like etceteras, continually involve him in unnecessary scrapes.”

Gurowski never loves the “Africo-Americans” in the queasy, pitying way Northern abolitionists do. To him, they’re simply an oppressed peasantry, like German or Ukranian serfs. In fact, he thinks they’re better material than their so-called masters:

“Men like this [Jefferson] Davis…roar against the African race. The more I see of this doomed people, the more I am convinced of their intrinsic superiority over all their white revilers, above all, over this slaveholding generation, rotten, as it is, to the core. When emancipated, the Africo-Americans in immense majority will at once make quiet, orderly, laborious, intelligent, and free cultivators, or, to use European language, an excellent peasantry; when ninety-nine one-hundredths of slaveholders, either rebels or thus called loyal, altogether considered, as human beings…constitute caricatures and monsters of civilization.”

That was his view of the future of black Americans: give them land, like any European peasantry, and they’ll work it happily, gaining wealth slowly and cautiously. That was their dream, too: that’s where the cruel postwar Dixie joke about “40 acres and a mule” comes from. He’s explicit about the improvement in Southern civilization that will take place once the land is distributed among the freed slaves:

“The Africo-Americans are the true producers of the Southern wealth—cotton, rice, tobacco, etc. When emancipated and transformed into small farmers, these laborious men will increase and ameliorate the culture of the land; and they will produce by far more when the white shams and drones shall be taken out of their way. In the South, bristling with Africo-American villages, will almost disappear fillibusterism, murder, and the bowie knife, and other supreme manifestations of Southern chivalrous high-breeding.”

Notice the bluntness about what will happen to the traitors of the Confederacy: They’ll be “taken out of the way.” One of the most surprising things about reading Gurowski, for an American raised on sentimental tales of the Civil War as a tragic goddamn misunderstanding, is his willingness to be hard on the people who started the whole mess, the white Southern planters and their idiot dupes in the ranks. That’s something you never, ever see in domestic Civil War stories. And Gurowski’s toughness here makes a stunning sense in context, because as he keeps trying to tell us, there’s gonna be a lot of pain from a giant war like this, one way or another, so for God’s sake why not inflict it where it’s deserved?

Gurowski keeps talking about Lincoln’s unwillingness to hurt the “feelings” of demonstrably incompetent Union generals, who get to keep their commands and get thousands of good soldiers killed; the North’s unwillingness to hurt the “feelings” of the border states, or the planters, which results in millions of “Africo-Americans” being kept enslaved; and the universal American horror of hurting anybody who’s screwing up, while totally ignoring the huge numbers of better people who are being tortured and killed by those screw-ups.

This is a feature of American culture you can still see running strong. There are still people offended on W.’s behalf for all the mean things people said about him just cuz he blew three trillion dollars giving Iraq to our mortal enemy, Iran. His little-kiddie feelings’d got hurt, and that was what mattered.

In this way it’s kinda interesting that Gurowski’s favorite American civilian isn’t our hero Lincoln (he thinks Lincoln is a sad case, a nice enough guy but out of his depth and soft on treason) but Stanton, who’s usually the villain in our domestic accounts. And why is Stanton a bad guy? Well, he hurt people’s feelings. Which may be why Gurowski calls him the “last Roman” in America.

“When all around me I witness this revolting want of energy,—Stanton excepted,—this vacillation, these tricks and double-dealings in the governmental spheres, then I wish myself far off in Europe; but when I consider this great people outside of the governmental spheres, then I am proud to be one of the people, and shall stay and fall with them.”

For Stanton, there is one goal, and that’s to win the war. Everything and everyone else can go straight to Hell. That’s a little harsh for the James McPhersons and the Bruce Cattons, but it’s music to Gurowski, who’s sick of provincial manners, provincial intellectuals, and provincial “strategy.”

The finest passages in Gurowski’s journal are the ones in which he tears apart the provincial notions of “strategy” that dominated Federal military thinking before Grant and Sherman took over. After the battle of the ironclads, Gurowski, who’d been begging for the occupation of Norfolk since the start of the war, said,

“If Norfolk had been taken months ago, then the rebels could not have constructed the Merrimac. Norfolk could have been easily taken any day during the last six months, but for strategy and the maturing of great plans! These are the sacramental words more current now than ever. Oh good-natured American people! how little is necessary to humbug thee!”

In Gurowski’s view, the word “strategy,” from the mouths of idiots like Winfield Scott and George McClellan, meant delay, piling up of superfluous artillery and reserves — any excuse to avoid just going in and dismantling the rebellion before it had time to organize itself. Over and over, he brings a hard, cold, European veteran’s take to all the puffery from the amateurs running the Army of the Potomac. And after a brief honeymoon, when he thought that anybody would be an improvement on Scott, he sours on McClellan, who he actually calls “McNapoleon.” Which let us pause for a moment and acknowledge for about the best insulting military nickname in history.

Gurowski had actually been on those European battlefields and seen what was involved in suppressing a rebellion, as in he’d had it done to him and his cousins and his friends by the Russian infantry. His Napoleon wasn’t the post hoc version West Pointers got out of Hardee’s translation of Jomini but the officer who made his bones blasting royalist rioters with heavy artillery in the streets of Paris. He knew that it’s a matter of quick brutality — “the bayonet” applied in a timely fashion. The very last thing you do with a rebellion is give it time to simmer, try to suck up to it and ask it if it can be placated. But that’s what he had to watch Lincoln, McClellan and Scott do, until the straightforward commanders lucky enough to be far from D.C. took over. “Strategy” turns into the worst obscenity in the language as Gurowski grinds his teeth through his entries for the bad years, 1861-62. You can hear the rage every time he has to spit out that word:

June, 1861

“Strategy — strategy repeats now every imbecile, and military fuss covers its ignorance by that sacramental word. Scott cannot have in view the destruction of the rebels. Not even the Austrian Aulic Council imagined a strategy combined and stretching through several thousands of miles.

The people's strategy is best: to rush in masses on Richmond; to take it now, when the enemy is there in comparatively small numbers. Richmond taken, Norfolk and the lost guns at once will be recovered. So speaks the people, and they are right; here among the wiseacres not one understands the superiority of the people over his own little brains.”

You’ll notice that Gurowski is so angry here at the dotard Scott that he uses the worst insult any European military commentator can think of: He compares Scott to the Austrians. Notice also that he says the ordinary American is a better soldier and a better military theorist than the half-bright West Point products who are running the war. Gurowski doesn’t say this in a cheap populist way; he’s the ultimate intellectual and has a deep respect for true professionals. But he understood long before anyone in D.C. did that a regional rebellion has to be crushed quickly and mercilessly, or it will turn into a long and disastrous war. It wasn’t until Sherman finally figured that out and acted on it that the war was finally decided.

He’d seen all-out war, practiced on Poland. He knew this war would come to that too. So for him, “strategy” becomes a euphemism for something like cowardice, as practiced by provincial military pedants who don’t have a clue what it means to be wholly engaged with anything. He says this very clearly, long before anyone else got it:

“McClellan is ignorant of the great, unique rule for all affairs and undertakings, — it is to throw the whole man in one thing at one time. It is the same in the camp as in the study, for a captain as for a lawyer, the savant, and the scholar.”

Gurowski didn’t know Forrest, but if he had, he would have endorsed Forrest’s view totally: “Get there first with the most men.” It’s the opposite of what McClellan meant by “strategy,” but it reflected the European reality much better than the distorted, British-centered notion of European war that Lincoln’s advisors used. Gurowski soon realizes what a lousy grasp of European military history Americans have:

“Most of the thus-called well-informed Americans rather skim over than thoroughly study history. Above all, it applies to the general history of the Christian era, and of our great epoch (from the second half of the 18th century). Most of the Americans are only very superficially familiar with the history of continental Europe, or know it only by its contact with the history of England. Many of them are more familiar with the classical wars of Alexander, Hannibal, Cæsar, etc., than with those of Gustavus, Frederick II., and even of Napoleon. Were it otherwise, strategy would not to such an extent have taken hold of their brains.”

What he means is not just that the technique of making war has changed since the Classical era but that all wars get cleaned up as they age in our memory, getting more chess-like and less bloody as they’re copied and re-copied into chapters to be studied. If you’re reading about Hannibal in your study in New York or Pennsylvania, it all looks very neat and clever. If you’re remembering what it was like to flee Poland with columns of smoke showing where the Russians were advancing, you have a much more realistic take on war.

European war was never the clean business a lot of American war buffs consider it. The problem is that we learn about it from the British, cuz we’re too goddamn lazy to learn any other languages. And the Brits had one huge advantage: They fought their wars on somebody else’s land. Somebody else’s village got burned, somebody else’s sister got raped and bayoneted. Which was almost like nobody’s house got burned, nobody’s sister was impaled.

But Gurowski isn’t like some 21st century resentful survivor, muttering that he’s from the mean streets of Warsaw and he’s seen some shit. He doesn’t take this personally at all. That’s what’s so alien and magnificent about him. It just helped him to understand the nature of actual war. If anything, he’s anti-Polish and very definitely anti-Catholic; disgusted with the Irish-Americans’ pro-Southern leanings, he says:

“The pro-Romanist clergy is more furiously and savagely pro-slavery than are the Rhetts, the Yanceys, in the South; the poor Africo-Americans are, if not the truest Christians in this country, at any rate their Christianity is sublime when compared with the pro-Romanism.”

In everything he writes, Gurowski shows how totally he’s passed beyond the personal, tribal, local consideration. It’s kind of sad to try to think of anyone like that now. His first doubts about McClellan, who, he figured, had to be better than the quasi-traitor Scott, come when McClellan appoints a relative to an important job:

“McClellan makes his father-in-law, a man of very secondary capacity, the chief of the staff of the army. It seems that McClellan ignores what a highly responsible position it is, and what a special and transcendent capacity must be that of a chief of the staff—the more so when of an army of several hundreds of thousands.”

The whole idea of favoring a mere relative when so much is at stake seems to shock him:

“American nepotism puts to shame the one practised in Europe. All around here they keep offices in pairs, father and son. So McClellan has a father in-law as chief of the staff, a brother as aid, and then various relations, clerks, etc., etc., and the same in some other branches of the administration.”

Reading Gurowski, you realize that “nepotism” and “feelings” are connected; they’re both part of the personal, familial, ethnic, national series of concentric circles that Gurowski has stepped through in his own life — very painfully, at very great cost — and now expects Americans, who he considers “the best people in the world,” to transcend too. I’m afraid we kind of let him down, there. And he seems to know it, now and then, in his diary:

“Now, for the first time in my life, I realize why, during the last stages of the dissolution of the Roman empire, honest men escaped into monasteries, or why, at certain epochs of the great French revolution, the best men went to the army.

Ah! to witness here the meanest egotism, imbecility, and intrigue, coolly, one by one, destroy the honor and the future of this noble people. Curse upon my old age! above all, curse upon my obesity! Curse upon my poverty! What a cesspool! what a mire! Only legal slaughterers all around! O, could I go to a camp! but, of course, not to one under McClellan.”

Gurowski’s call for a simple, blunt, ideological war had a few American adherents, like Thaddeus Stevens, but we’ve managed to forget most of them; and even the best of them were tainted, from Gurowski’s perspective, with an ignorant, largely unconscious proto-white nationalism — which, like the rest of their fallacies, comes from having a little learning, rather than honest ignorance or true erudition:

“If those would-be knowing arguers on slavery, race, etc., were only aware of the fact that such people as the primitive Greeks, or the ancestors of classical Greeks, that the ancestors of the Latins, that even the roving, robbing ancestors of the Anglo Saxons, in some way or other, have been anthropophagi, and worshipped fetishes; and even as thus called already civilized, they sacrificed men to gods,—could our great pro-slavers know all this, they would be more decent in their ignorant assertions, and not, so self-satisfied, strut about in their dark ignorance.”

That line from Pope about the dangers of “a little learning” could be Gurowski’s epitaph for America. There was something great here, out among the honestly ignorant people, he thought, but it was spoiled, like the war itself, by going halfway — halfway toward equality, halfway toward true learning, halfway to crushing treason. He wished we were hot or cold, for we were, and are, kinda lukewarm. Lukewarm and sentimental, nostalgic and parochial.

From Wilson on, we’ve actually fostered the belittling of the world back into those old categories, those circles of autobiography, family history, ethnic identity and sentimental nationalism. Hell, we’ve even added gender identity, and the only one we’ve subtracted, class identity, is the only one that Gurowski would have endorsed. It’s a roller-coaster of a read, this magnificent dinosaur’s diary. First he takes you up for a little while into the world you can sense in those late Victorian Gods, the world that might have been, but over and over you follow him down the big dipper into the petty world of local loyalties and sentiments, “feelings” and cheating, that ended up winning the peace.