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Sunday, April 17, 2005

Son of the South

Every once in a while I have one of those experiences that, although small, makes me dust off my notions about existence and at least put them in the sunlight and look at them for a while. They make me think about Alaistair Crowley's assertion that what we now believe to be the products of science were once unexplainable and chalked up to magic, and that many of the phenomena that we relegate to the realm of “superstition” and coincidence are simply obeying laws that we do not yet understand.

I bring it up because I got the word that my cousin Billy Cole died this week. Bill had a farm in Cross Plains, Tennessee and I doubt he left it all too often during his long life. When I was a kid I used to cavort there in ways suburban kids from the north rarely get the opportunity to do, bottle-feeding calves and giving a wide berth to the huge smelly chicken coop on my Aunt Maud's farm across the street. He was always kind to me and I will miss him.

Bill liked to talk. And talk. And talk. Many people scoff at my contention that the South is forever re-fighting the civil war and that it is difficult to have an argument on the merits of almost anything with died-in-the-wool Southern conservatives who are dismissive of knowledge gained from book-learning and largely get their information from each other, and Bill was always one of my prime example of the above. When I was younger, as the family Yankee I actually used to get drawn into the favorite argument of most southerners, where they try to prove once and for all that the North did not fight the civil war to free the slaves as a way of justifying the Confederate cause. To which I always responded in the same unsatisfying way: “"Well the North may not have been fighting to free the slaves, but the South sure was fighting to keep 'em."” Needless to say, I never converted a single soul to my cause through the power of intellect.

But my favorite argument about "“the North was really fighting over (fill in the blank)"” came from Bill, who had heard it from some friend, that what the north really wanted was the south's ships. Now that one made me sit up. I asked Bill to repeat it. "“Yep, the north only attacked the south because they wanted all their ships."” I wanted to say “you're kidding, right? If they were such a naval strength, how come they didn't do a better job getting past the northern blockades?” But I didn't argue too vigorously. For two reasons. One, out of respect -- Bill was considerably older than me in the way that cousins often are in big southern families; in fact, all of Bill's kids are older than me. And two, I would be wasting my breath, because you will NEVER win that argument. But make no mistake, Bill knew where I stood.

Anyway, I've had Ken Burns' Civil War series sitting around the house for a few weeks from Netflix, and I decided to put it on yesterday. And wouldn't you know, what pops up but a segment on the Merrimack. Not that I didn't know about the Merrimack, but I'd never thought about it in that context. And just for emphasis, in case I missed the point, moments later there was a segment on the battle of Fort Donelson, in which both our mutual great-grandfathers were captured. I got a few chills, I have to say, at the timing. It's been years since I had that conversation with Bill, and now that thing comes on? It seems small. But I can't help thinking that Bill's got a slightly better reference library wherever he is now, and he's done me the kindness of educating me on my own terms in a way he couldn't have done during his earthly tenure.

Thanks, Bill. You were –-- well, enough right that I'm gonna give it up to you and use it as an excuse to say those magic words: I was wrong.

In honor of the passing of Bill Cole, I offer:

A Brief History of the Merrimack

The USS Merrimack was a Union frigate at the Norfolk Naval yard, scuttled by the Union when they pulled out of Virginia for fear that the Confederacy would use her against them. The Confederates raised her from the ocean floor and began some heavy mods: having heard of Union plans to build an iron-clad, they began bolting four layers of two-inch thick iron sheets to the entire structure. They added a huge battering ram to the bow, –the first ship so equipped in over a thousand years. They added ten 12-lb. cannons, and cut the hull down to the waterline. Nobody had ever seen anything like her, and she was likened to a “giant floating barn roof.” She was not predicted to float, and the only one who would command her was Captain Franklin Buchanan. She was rechristened the CSS Virginia, but the CSS Merrimack was the name that stuck.

And float she did. She made her combat debut in March of 1862 in the Battle of Hampton Roads, ramming and sinking the big US Navy sloop Cumberland, and shelling the frigate Congress into surrender. Her iron skin rendered her immune to conventional gunfire of the time. She then attacked the USS Minnesota, which had run aground. The Merrimack had sustained enough damage that she left with the expectation of coming back the next day to finish off the Union fleet.

However, the iron-clad that the Union had been working on,– the Monitor – arrived that night. Built by Swedish engineer John Ericsson, she was smaller, faster and designed from the ground-up for her purpose, as opposed to the retro-fitted Merrimack. In March, the two ships met in battle, but although the smaller and more mobile Monitor was able to outmaneuver the Merrimack, neither ship was able to do significant damage to the other.

The Battle of Hampton Roads lasted for two months, but the Merrimack was unable to draw the Monitor into battle again, despite repeated attempts. In May of 1862, fearful that advancing Union troops would capture her, she was ordered burnt. On May 11 her crew did so; flames reached her magazine and she was destroyed in a great explosion off Craney Island. But maritime warfare was never the same; Europe looked on and realized that their entire naval fleets were completely outdated and a new era of combat design was introduced.

Now, many naysayers would argue that it is hard to work up an argument that the North actually attacked the South for the recovery of a ship they already had at the outset of the war. But if Bill has moved on to a place where he is actually using reference materials I want to be encouraging, and besides, unless he has changed markedly in the course of his heavenly journey, the only part of this entire thing he will read anyway is the part that says I was wrong.

Rest in peace, Bill Cole.