Chris Mason’s Blog

September 9, 1861 – And They Call Themselves Noble Savages

Mankind only suffers from one Original Sin, but our great nation suffers from two. One is the black stain on our soul that is slavery — we’re all paying the bloody price for that sin now. The other is the one we still don’t talk about — our treatment of the Red Indians who lived on this land before we got here. In my mind the black man and the red have both been victims of our willingness to wish away the other fella’s humanity in order to justify taking what we want from them.

That’s why I’m still so astonished to discover that a band of 1300 Indian warriors, all armed with rifles, tomahawks, and butcher knives, their faces painted black and red, have crossed into Missouri… to fight for the Confederacy.

I can see why an Indian brave might hate the United States of America. I look at our flag and I see the promise of our Constitution, the gift of freedom, the birth of modern democracy. If I were he, I might see nothing loftier than the slaughtered bodies of my wife and children, or the land that had been stolen from me. And so I might take up arms against this country, as many Indians did in previous wars.

But not if it meant joining up with the pro-slavery forces of the Confederate States of America. These rebels are driven by the same ethos that leads to the mass slaughter of Indian tribes — if they are willing to die in order to protect their right to keep human beings as property, they’re not going to hold off on massacring Indians when they decide that they want a chunk of grazing land.

You can hate God for inflicting so much suffering on the human race. But you don’t join up with Satan to knock Him out of heaven and hope the world will be a better place if your team wins.

July 20, 1861 – I Wish I Was Back In Hell

It’s been fifteen years, and I still wake up with nightmares of the Battle of Buena Vista. It was a great victory for our nation and it ended a savage war, but when my dreams take me back to my time as a war correspondent all I see is the rivers of blood and mountains of bodies torn apart. Yes, most of them were Mexicans, but when guts are spilling out onto the ground, does it really matter if the dying calls are for “water” or “agua”? I learned more about life and death in my few days in Coahuila than in all the rest of my years. Mostly what I learned is that I never wanted to be on another battlefield.

But after all this time I’ve finally found something worse. Somewhere in Virginia the Confederate and Union armies are moving towards each other. Sometime in the next few days they are going to collide. The fate of this nation could hang in the balance.

And I am stuck in this studio. Information dribbles in, only to be contradicted moments later by newer reports. I am studying hints, rumors and old maps, desperate for any sense of what might actually be going on out there.

I would hate to see the carnage that may be coming. But I hate even more sitting here, not knowing what’s going to happen, blind, deaf and lost. Put me in the field, or put me up in Professor Lowe’s balloon. I will live with another fifteen years of nightmares if that’s the price of knowledge.

July 15, 1861 – Cowardice or Common Sense?

There’s apparently some grumbling down in the deep South about the bravery of their Virginian compatriots. It seems that the Old Dominion hasn’t furnished her quota of men to the rebel army. Meanwhile rumors run rampant that a rebel officer from Western Virginia has told Union leaders that his forces serve unwillingly, and that they would happily swear allegiance to the United States flag.

That latter bit of news has a suspicious odor to it, but it can’t be denied that Virginians are not signing up to fight for the South in great numbers, and those who have may be rethinking their decision after the recent spate of reb defeats on the western slope of the Cumberland mountains. Now Governor Letcher is issuing a requisition for a thousand men from the eight north-eastern counties, and if they don’t volunteer within two days, he’s going to draft them.

Of course, these men are mostly Union supporters, and they’re already flooding into Washington and Maryland to avoid fighting for the other side. The only new soldiers who will end up in the Confederate army are the ones who are too slow or too dim to make it across the border. What kind of soldiers are these fellows going to make? I’m thinking the kind that throws down his gun and surrenders the first time bullets start flying.

I’m sure that down south they’ll be calling these men cowards. From up here they look a little different — they’re the only ones with any common sense.


July 13, 1861

When men plan for war, they count their soldiers. They count their guns. They look to see which side is better disciplined and which is on better soil. From all that, and many more similar calculations they determine whether they can win their battles.

But wars are fought with all sorts of weapons and on all sorts of fields. And it looks like the Union has just been given a huge advantage without firing a shot or risking a life.

It seems that demand for calicos and muslins has plummeted in England. And that’s taken the demand for cotton down with it. Now New York warehouses are crammed with the stuff, and if prices haven’t started plummeting yet, they will soon.

You might not think a war would be won or lost on the call for ladies’ frocks, but bullets and canon balls cost money. If Mr. Davis and his Confederate brethren can’t get a price for their cotten, how are they going to pay for their war?

July 7, 1861

The Southern Pacific Railroad is looking for a few hundred good men — just not men they have to pay.

There’s a fascinating ad in today’s Daily True Delta out of New Orleans.  The SPRR spends hundreds of words talking about how amazing they are — they’ve got land grant of a thousand acres for each of the 800 miles of track they’re going to build, they’ve got a construction bond that’s going to let them borrow the money for all their iron and rolling stock at what they imply is close to zero interest, and they’re guaranteed to make a fortune for everyone.

But even in the middle of this economic miracle, they’re calling out to slave owners across the South to lend them a hand — or a couple thousand hands. They want to borrow or rent a thousand slaves to build their railroad for them for free. In return, the railroad will pay rent to the slaves’  owners, or cut them in for a taste of the back end.

Here’s a thought. Why doesn’t the Southern Pacific Railroad do what companies up in the North do when they need workers? Offer to pay men to work. True, it cuts into the owners’ profits a little bit, but who told these fat cats that they were entitled to get even fatter off another man’s labor? If they want people who will work for free, they can roll up their own sleeves and pick up a hammer. Otherwise, they can share a little of their great fortune.

But men like these can’t be expected to give up one cent of what they believe is solely the fruits of their own genius. And because of them, we’ve got men and boys dying and a nation falling into chaos.

It’s that simple: Just pay the guys to build your damn railroad. Then we can put the country back together again, and we can all get back to work.


July 4, 1861

Over the seven years the Mason Dixon Report has been on the air, I’ve written the same post every Independence Day: a tribute to the wisdom of our Founding Fathers, made up primarily of their own words — excerpts from their essays, from the Federalist Papers, from the glorious documents that are the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution.

Not this year.

Because for all the wisdom these great man posessed, they turned a blind eye to the bleeding wound at the heart of their great experiment. Had they dealt with the issue of slavery back then, we would not be facing the bloody end of the United States. Instead, they left it to later generations to fight and die over it.

So today I don’t feel much like praising the genius of our Founders. Maybe I’ll feel more generous next July 4 — if the nation is still around to celebrate it.




July 3, 1861 – Omens Near and Far

Since the  kitchen at Willard’s Hotel still hasn’t re-opened since the fire that burned down its neighbor several weeks ago, I find myself wandering further afield all the time in search of a decent dinner after the show. Last night’s hunt took me to a neighborhood I was barely able to differentiate from the surrounding swamp. As I was making a hasty retreat. a strange man in a long white robe grabbed me and pointed up at the comet that has been illuminating our nights all these many weeks.

“Look above!” he said. “It is a sign from God, a sign that great misery and suffering are about to come to us.” Then he asked me for a coin.

I said: “You want an omen that great misery and suffering are about to come to us? Yesterday Union and Confederate forces met in the Shenendoah Valley. It was just a skirmish, but seventy-five good men died and another twenty-five were wounded. I think that’s a better augury than some ball of dust flying around in space.”

Then I asked him for a coin.


July 1, 1861 – At Least There’s One Sane Leader in America

Imagine if one of our two presidents said something like this:

They should not be alarmed with false reports, thrown into circulation by designing men, but cultivate harmony among themselves, and observe good faith and strict neutrality between the States threatened with civil war, With these means alone can the  people hope to maintain their own rights unimpaired, and to have their own soil and firesides spared from the hateful effects of devastating war. There has not been a declaration of war between the opposing parties, and the conflict may yet be avoided with a compromise or a peaceable separation.

Of course, those words came from neither Mr. Lincoln nor Mr. Davis, but from the head of what may be the last sane nation within our  borders: John Ross, principal chief of the Cherokees.

I know I should just get over it, but I can’t get yesterday’s closing of the university in Louisiana off my mind. In the Dark Ages, monks in monasteries hoarded the wisdom of the centuries, keeping it safe until the world was ready to embrace it again. Who will do that for us now that we’re closing our centers of knowledge?

And what will we get in place of education? I think the former superintendent of the Louisiana Seminary of Learning said it pretty well:

You people of the South don’t know what you are doing. This country will be drenched in blood, and God only knows how it will end. It is all folly, madness, a crime against civilization! You people speak so lightly of war; you don’t know what you’re talking about. War is a terrible thing! You mistake, too, the people of the North. They are a peaceable people but an earnest people, and they will fight, too. They are not going to let this country be destroyed without a mighty effort to save it… Besides, where are your men and appliances of war to contend against them? The North can make a steam engine, locomotive, or railway car; hardly a yard of cloth or pair of shoes can you make. You are rushing into war with one of the most powerful, ingeniously mechanical, and determined people on Earth—right at your doors. You are bound to fail. Only in your spirit and determination are you prepared for war. In all else you are totally unprepared, with a bad cause to start with. At first you will make headway, but as your limited resources begin to fail, shut out from the markets of Europe as you will be, your cause will begin to wane. If your people will but stop and think, they must see in the end that you will surely fail.

That was a former military man turned educator named William Tecmseh Sherman. Now he’s a military man again. And so we continue the march to madness. Here’s my thought — let’s impeach both Lincoln and Davis and give their jobs to Chief Ross.


June 30, 1861 – Ain’t Gonna Study Nothin’ But War No More

There’s an old Negro spiritual, one of those haunting songs the slaves sing out in the field, that says “I ain’t gonna study war no more.” Apparently in the two nations that used to be the United States of America, war is all we’re going to study.

We’ve already seen far too many brave Americans cut down in our nascent Civil War. But today saw a casualty that may turn out to be more terrible than all the others put together. It wasn’t a man who died, not even a woman or a child. It was civilisation itself. Today the Louisiana General Assembly shut down that state’s fine Seminary of Learning because of the war.  Will it ever reopen? Or have we decided that killing our brothers is the only thing that matters, and we will turn our back on the wisdom of the ancients until that bloody task is done?

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