Roofing Day


As I start this post, eight men are tearing the roof from my house with square-pointed shovels. The noise from yesterday’s shingle delivery was horribly upsetting to the cats, but it was nothing compared to this. It bothers me too, but at least I know that it serves a good purpose. There are so very many things that cats don’t know and might not wonder about, things like where their food comes from; why we let strangers poke thermometers up their asses; and what keeps the rain out of our house. Perhaps the cats don’t wonder about the source of the current noise; perhaps it’s noise itself that scares them.

Clearly, cats have thoughts, but I know tragically little about what they think. Cats also have feelings—joy, lust, rage, trust, terror, hunger, safety, happiness, affection, suspicion, uncertainty, and curiosity—and I think I do understand these. Descartes—the “father of modern philosophy”—regarded other mammals as “unfeeling automata” and thought he could prove it by publicly torturing dogs while assuring audiences that God had only given non-humans the appearance of emotion. Descartes’ view  persists among some modern scientists, especially in regard to so-called “lower forms of life.” Yet when an insect or a spider flees and squirms in apparent terror when I’m trying to take it outdoors, I doubt that they’re right.

I replaced the last roof in 1997 at age 48, but since it was hard for me then, I knew it would take all summer for me to replace it again, and by then the unused shingles and underlayment would have become glued together. Among his other skills, my father was a roofer. When he and I worked together—in the ’70s and ’80s in rural Mississippi—shingles had to be hand-carried to the rooftop in 80-pound bundles. When he reached his mid-sixties, Dad began sipping 16-ounce Miller High Lifes in order to keep going, plus he started carrying shingles up a few at a time. He was too impatient to teach me more than I needed to know to perform a specific task, so I relied on books to tell me how to replace the rather complicated roof on this house. It has served me well, but its end has arrived, and my end can’t be far off.

I didn’t how far ahead roofers booked, so I got estimates in December. The company I hired wanted to do the job in a month or two, but I didn’t want them working in the cold and wet, so I asked that they wait until May. They said fine, but that it might cost more. I considered the extra cost worth it because I know what it’s like to work in shitty weather, and I prefer that such work be done on someone else’s roof.

After hiring Huey and Sons, Peggy got to worrying that the crew might roof over nails that were left laying on their sides following the removal of the old roof, so she decided to warn them. I thought, oh, great, our roofing crew is going to start their day hating my wife, so I suggested that if journeyman roofers were stupid enough to make that mistake, our roof was going to be fucked no matter what she said, so she didn’t warn them. When they broke for lunch, she and I climbed onto the roof with the foreman (seeing a 72-year-old woman up there just had to impress the crew) to examine the work, and we actually did find one serious mistake when the foreman’s foot fell through an un-attached piece of decking.

The roofers have been at it for hours, and all but one of the cats have come out to eat
—our bravest is even sitting beside me as I write. I love it when cats prove superior to my fears for them.

A Son of the South Looks at the Civil War

Retreat from Bull Run (aka First Manassas)

On an average day, 425 men died during Americas four-year-long Civil War. Although the countrys total population was but 19-million (it now stands at 332-million), more Americans died in the Civil War than in the Revolutionary War, the War of 1812, the Mexican War, the Spanish American War, World War I, World War II, and the Korean War, combined. One in four men were killed, and 8% of those who survived had missing limbs. I was ten when the last Confederate soldier died, and I fell into despair that the greatest generation that ever lived was gone from the earth

On July 21, 1861, thousands of thrill-seekers walked or rode the thirty miles from Washington D.C. to witness the Civil War’s first—and many thought its last—major land battle near a Virginia creek named Bull Run. A Yankee army captain described the scene as follows: “They came in all manner of ways, some in stylish carriages, others in city hacks, and still others in buggies, on horseback and even on foot.” The sightseers cheered the cannons’ roar until late afternoon when the 35,000 man Northern army fled the field in their direction: “Pleasure-carriages, gun-carriages, and ammunition wagons…were abandoned and blocked the way, and stragglers threw aside their muskets and cut horses from their harness and rode off upon them.” Confederate newspapers labeled the event The Great Skedaddle.

Six months earlier, my home state of Mississippi became the second of eleven Southern states to secede from the Union. It explained its decision as follows:

“Our position is thoroughly identified with the institution of slavery—the greatest material interest of the world. Its labor supplies the product which constitutes by far the largest and most important portions of commerce of the earth. These products are peculiar to the climate verging on the tropical regions, and by an imperious law of nature, none but the black race can bear exposure to the tropical sun. These products have become necessities of the world, and a blow at slavery is a blow at commerce and civilization.”

Despite such directness on the part of many Confederate states and statesmen, generations of Southern white children were taught that the war was caused by the federal government’s trampling upon state’s rights.” South Carolinian Presidential candidate Nikki Haley recently reflected this view: “I think the cause of the Civil War was basically how government was going to run, the freedoms and what people could and couldn’t do. Government doesn’t need to tell you how to live your life. They don’t need to tell you what you can and can’t do. They don’t need to be a part of your life. In her eagerness to make the South look good, Haley failed to mention that the freedom for which the Confederacy fought was the freedom to own people.  

When asked about Haley’s response, Biden replied: Slavery was the cause of the Civil War. There is no negotiation about that. When I was a kid, a Northern sixth grader would have answered like Biden, a Southern sixth grader like Haley; and while the former would have come closer to the truth, more needs to be said.

Robert E. Lee

Southerners justified slavery by quoting the Bible and arguing that black people were better off in America. In its 1857 Dred Scott decision, the U.S. Supreme Court agreed, arguing that blacks, were so far inferior, that they had no rights which the white man was bound to respect,” and that the negro might justly and lawfully be reduced to slavery for his benefit.” Robert E. Lee (General of the Armies of the Confederate States) held a similar view: The blacks are immeasurably better off here than in Africa, morally, socially & physically. The painful discipline they are undergoing, is necessary for their instruction as a race, & I hope will prepare & lead them to better things.” Slave-owners commonly argued that the more intelligent blacks recognized their inferiority and were grateful to their white masters for giving them food, clothing, shelter, security in old age, and most of all “the good news of the Lord Jesus Christ.”

Yet, few white Southerners owned a single slave (a good field hand cost $60,000 in today’s money) and most were financially harmed by their inability to compete with slave labor. This suggests that the rank and file Confederate soldier fought for reasons other than slavery (see addendum).

Although anti-slavery sentiment was strong in the North, most Northerners were as racist as their rebel counterparts, and so it was that they didn’t fight to end slavery but to preserve the Union. This is evident from the fact that before the Emancipation Proclamation (a document in which Lincoln freed the slaves in the rebellious states freedoing so had no immediate effect), anti-war sentiment had increased in the North due to the personal and financial cost of the war, but after the Emancipation Proclamation, it exploded. The poor feared that they would lost their jobs to former slaves, while soldiers and sailors so resented being told that they were fighting to free the slaves that desertions became commonplace

Northerners also worried that the Emancipation Proclamation would prolong the war. Hatred of blacks was especially strong among Irish immigrants in New York City, most of whom couldn’t afford the $300 legal cost of hiring someone to join the military in their place. During a five day rampage, they set fire to a black orphanage, looted and burned black-owned businesses, and lynched black peoplethe riots finally ended when troops from Gettysburg fired cannons at the rioters.

I had several ancestors who fought for the Confederacy but only onea 30-year-old Alabamian named Sarah Jane Newby—who opposed it. At war’s end, she successfully petitioned the federal government to reimburse her for a horse that its cavalry requisitionedone of her witnesses testified that her gender alone saved her from assault. 

Hip wound caused by a Minie Ball

While Sarah Jane was backing the Union, another ancestor26-year- Francis Marion Sideswas fighting for the Confederacy. After his hip was shattered by a .58 caliber Minie Ball at the Battle of Murfreesboro, Tennessee, (aka the Slaughter Pen) his comrades were forced to leave him behind when they retreated. After his capture by Northern troops, he died in an open-air prison. Weeks earlier, he had written his wife: 

“You said you and the children was all well and the baby was talking I cant tell how bad I want to see you and my baby Mary dont kill yourself working and dont grieve yourself about me for I will take care of myself Mary if you can send me a pare pants & a pare socks & a pare galles ses without taking it of you or the children do so So if not dont do it Mary I am as big as Sam Cooner I cant do without galles sis So write to me as soon as you get this letter So hug and kiss the children for me Nothing more at this time I will rite again in a few days Remains your affectionate Frank til death.

During the war, my first college was converted to a military hospital, and able-bodied men being scarce, the dead were buried in shallow graves on campus. At the front entrance to my second college stood a granite monument honoring the 103 students and teachers who fought for the Confederacy, 96 of whom died. The monument has been removed now that any respectful remembrance of Confederate troops is considered offensive.

The South pinned its hopes on two assumptions. One was that Britain and France would aid the Confederacy to assure access to Southern cotton. The other was that Northern men were unwilling to fight despite outnumbering Southern troops two to one and dominating the industries of war. As an example of what the South was up against, when the war started in April, 1861, the South had 30-seaworthy warships and the North 42; eight months later, the South still had 30, while the North had 264 ships with which to blockade Southern ports, depriving the South of guns, ammunition, medicine, clothing, and even coffee.

As it turned out, Britain and France never entered the war, and the textile workers of Manchester, England, even went so far as to vow to Abraham Lincoln that they would refuse slave-produced cotton even if it cost them their livelihoods. A statue of Lincoln still adorns a Manchester city park, and their letter and his response can be seen at its base.

During my childhood and adolescence, the South remained bitter over a war that wrecked its economy, burned its cities, destroyed its infrastructure, caused large scale theft and vandalism, and killed 258,000 of its young men (the Union lost 360,000). By my birth in 1949, the 58% of Mississippians who were white had erected thousands of monuments to honor “our boys,” and held to the belief that the Old South could never die because God loved it above all other places on earth. Yet, Mississippians knew that the rest of America regarded the South in general—and their state in particular—as a backwater of ignorance, poverty, and bigotry. In 1968, Jerry Lewis delighted his Tonight Show audience by boasting that he had recently fulfilled a lifelong dream by using the toilet when his plane flew over Mississippi. Like many of my generation, Ive yet to forgive him.

As did many twelve-year-old Mississippians in the 1960s, I proclaimed my loyalty to Dixie by tying a Confederate flag to the antenna of my parentscar. Having never met a Yankee, I sometimes dialed Northern directory assistance to learn if they really were rude as I had heard and talked faster than they could think. I never found that they were even when I later spent a month in that Southern version of deepest hell, New York City. In fact, upon hearing my accent, New Yorkers took pains to make me feel welcome.

An Afterward

The time was 4:30 a.m. when Edmund Ruffin, a wealthy 67-year-old planter, had the dubious honor of firing the opening shot of the Civil War. His target was Fort Sumter, a federal installation in the harbor of Charleston, South Carolina. During the following four years, Ruffin lost his wife and eight of his eleven children to war. Weeks after Lee’s surrender at Appomattox Courthouse, Virginia, Ruffin wrapped himself in a Confederate battle flag and stuck the muzzle of a rifle in his mouth. As he prepared to push the trigger, a visitor knocked, and Ruffin went to greet him. After the visitor left, Ruffin returned to his room to kill himself. This time, the percussion cap exploded but the main charge didn’t, but he managed to reload before his daughter-in-law could investigate the noise. Beside his corpse were these words:

“And now with my latest writing and utterance, and with what will [be] near to my latest breath, I here repeat, & would willingly proclaim, my unmitigated hatred to Yankee rule—to all political, social and business connections with Yankees, & to the perfidious, malignant, & vile Yankee race.”

The North and South Unite at Gettysburg, 1913

The above photo was made at the fiftieth reunion of Pickett’s 6,500-casualty charge at Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. During the event, the remaining Confederates charged the Union lines as they had on that disastrous day in 1863, but instead of waiting for the Southerners to reach them, their former enemies ran forward in friendship.

Yankee-hating Ruffin couldn’t have imagined that 150-years after the war, the South would unite under an incendiary politician from New York, but rather than dwell upon words of hatred, I will share the healing words of a New Hampshire infantryman named S. M. Thompson: 

I remember now how we sat there and pitied and sympathized with these courageous Southern men who had fought for four long and dreary years, all so stubbornly, so bravely, and so well, and now, whipped, beaten, completely used up, were completely at our mercy.” 

As the words of former Confederate generals and the actions of the men who attended the Gettysburg reunion suggested, many of those who fought for the South were also eager for reconciliation. Perhaps if the people of America can find it in their hearts to forgive one another for our present day wrongs, a second Civil War can be prevented.

I have set before you life and death, blessing and cursing. Therefore choose life, that both thou and thy seed may live.Deuteronomy 30:19


Appendum: Why the South Went to War:

(1) Cultural tensions between the industrial North and the agricultural South had been worsening for years with both sides perceiving the other as hypocritical and degenerate. This was true in that many laborers were legal slaves in the South and de facto slaves in the North).

(2) Many 19th century Americans put loyalty to their state above loyalty to their nation. As Robert E. Lee expressed it: “I have not been able to make up my mind to raise my hand against my relatives, my children, my home…. If Virginia stands by the old Union, so will I. But if she secedes…I will follow my native State with my sword, and, if need be, with my life.” 

(3) Because their states had entered the union voluntarily, Southerners believed they were free to leave it voluntarily. 

(4) When U.S. troops and ships entered the South to protect military installations, Southerners believed that they were being been invaded and responded accordingly. 

(6) While parts of the South were strongly pro-Union, men in much of the South were under enormous social pressure to join the Confederate military. 

(7) No one anticipated the war’s incredible misery and expense, most people having believing that war would either be avoided or that it would end within days.