Wednesday, January 20, 2010


In which we see Ms. Bradstreet run out of ammunition amid a catfight

The Maria Chronicles, # 35

Maria begins class by walking to her desk, sitting down, bringing her splayed fingers together and placing her index fingers against her lips. "Thank you for coming today," she tells the class. "I need your help. I've been getting some very troubling reports from General Scott, and from Major Robert Anderson, who has moved his men from Fort Moultrie to the more secure Fort Sumter. That buys us some time. But we remain in a bit of a pickle, and I'd like to get some opinions as to how to respond to the current situation."

Some quizzical looks. "Who are you?" Mia asks.

"She's a politician," Peter answers. "Like a president."

"Yeah, but which one?"

"She's Abraham Lincoln," Willie answers. "She's looking for help with how to deal with the crisis at Fort Sumter."

"What crisis at Fort Sumter?" Mia asks.

Count on Willie to have read ahead in the textbook, Maria thinks. Let's just hope she doesn't reveal the ending of this story. For now, she's glad to have Willie to do her work of advancing the plot. But she'll jump back in now.

"Here's the problem," she says. Major Anderson has a detachment in the fort, which remains in government hands. But it is effectively surrounded and under siege. Eventually, they'll run out of food and supplies. If I do nothing, I'll look weak, and encourage even more insubordination by other rebels. On the other hand, I could send a naval vessel or two and force our way in, but that will be seen as aggressive, as striking the first blow. We will be seen as the ones who started a civil war."

"So let me get this straight," Kenny says. If you do nothing, you lose the fort and look weak. If you do something, you start a war and it's your fault."

"Yes. That's about the long and short of it."

"Well, what the hell," Vanessa says. "You might as well just go in, then."

"Well, perhaps that is the best choice. But if so, it's a bad one. Maria turns around and points to the map mounted on the all behind her. "Remember, there are a series of border states -- Missouri, North Carolina, Virginia -- that have not yet joined the seven in rebellion. If I'm seen as the aggressor, they may well join the insurrection. The situation is bad enough already, and I don't want to make it worse. I'd like to have God on my side, but I must have Kentucky."

"That's pretty funny," Ali says without laughing.

"What about the Southerners, the rebels," Kenny asks. "Can we lure them into firing first?"

"Well, if we have to have a war, that would be the way I'd like it to start. Certainly they have their so-called "Fire-Eaters," hotheads who want nothing more than to have a war. But for now they seem to be keeping their powder dry. The question is how to lure them into making the first move. Which, of course, may still not prevent other states from joining the rebellion."

There's a long silence.

"I still think you should go on in," Vanessa says. "Sure, it will piss some people off. But I bet some will respect you more. You're not going to take any of their crap."

"I think Vanessa's right," Mia says.

"Well, again," that's a plausible way of looking at the situation, and it may well be the right one. I just can't help but think that there might be a better way."

Another silence.

"Is there a way of, like, helping the guys in the fort without turning it into an aggressive thing?" Kenny asks. "Like saying you just want to make sure they're OK?"

"Hmmm. That's very interesting. So how would that work?"

"Well, you would like say to the Southerners, 'Hey, we don't want a fight. We're not going to attack. We just want to like feed them."

"They're never going to go for that," Peter says. "What would they gain? It would only allow the guys in the fort to hang on longer."

"Well yeah," Kenny says. "I know. The point is, you say that and they say no, then they're the aggressors. They're the ones starting it. That's the point."

Maria is very happy with Kenny. "Son, that's a brilliant idea. Let's do it."

Her purpose served, Maria breaks out of character. "And that's exactly what Lincoln does," she explains. "Just what Kenny suggests. He sends word to the rebels that he's sending a ship to resupply them, which in effect puts the ball in the Confederates' court. Now they have to choose between being ineffectual or overly aggressive. The Fire-eaters prevail, they fire the first shot, the Fort surrenders, and now the war is underway, though it's not Lincoln's fault. It's a brilliant strategic move on his part, and one of the reasons why he's considered a great president."

"But to continue: In the days that follow, four more states secede -- Maria goes to the map and moves her finger across Arkansas, Tennessee, North Carolina and Virginia -- which brings the total up to eleven. So Lincoln calls for volunteers and -- "

"Wait a second," Vanessa interrupts. "Four more states leave?"

"Yes," Maria answers. "Four. Including Virginia. Now where was I? Oh yes. Volunteers. He asks for 75,000 of them for the three months he figures it will take the end the war. Lincoln goes to a leading Virginian, Robert E. Lee, and offers him command -- "

"I don't get it," Vanessa persists, and now Maria is annoyed. "If four more states leave anyway, why is it such a brilliant move?"

"Because he didn't start it."

"So? Why is that so important? I mean, maybe if he had been more aggressive maybe those four states wouldn't have left. Like Andrew Jackson. You told us he made South Carolina back down with that, what was it called -- the Nullification thing. Maybe Lincoln could have done the same."

Maria opens and closes her mouth. She knows there's an answer to this, but she doesn't know what it is. In her peripheral vision, she sees Derek in the back of the room, his expression inscrutable. Damn it: will he ever yield?

"You're not being realistic, Vanessa," Willie jumps in, irritated. "Lincoln wasn't supposed to be the aggressor. In his inaugural, he said he wouldn't. It would look really bad."

Yes, Maria thinks, that's right.

"I think you're putting far too much emphasis on not pissing people off," Vanessa says. "It's a war! They're out of line!"

"You want more states to secede? Kentucky? Missouri? How about Ohio or Indiana while you're at it? That's your solution. To tell everybody to go to hell."

"Better than kissing everybody's ass, Willie. You think you can make everybody like you? Good luck with that." There are smirks and laughter and Maria hears the phrase "suck up." "Whoa," some voices say, as if goading a cat fight. Willie looks furious. Maria is astounded how quick the class is to express glee at a catfight.

"Hey, that's brilliant, Vanessa." Willie responds, clearly wounded, but still putting up a fight. "I can so see you as president some day."

"Girls!" Maria interjects, embarrassed. It's not simply that Willie is doing a better job than she is at the moment. Or that this disagreement has a personal edge. It's mostly that Willie's stalwart defense is not of Abraham Lincoln but of Maria Bradstreet. She can see it, and she can see it on the faces of the other kids, and they're not impressed.

"All right, all right," Maria says. "Let's step back for a moment. Willie, you make some good points. But I think Vanessa has a good one, too. There's more than one way to look at this. That's exactly why we had this discussion. So let's agree to disagree and move on. We have a lot more to cover today, so let's get to it."

And Maria does. Knowing that she's lost some ground.