[Travelogue with some small-l liberal politics, so if you're just here for games and screenplays, this is maybe not the post for you.]
|The Angle, Gettysburg National Memorial|
So we went here yesterday.
About 150 years ago, a fellow named Bobby Lee thought it would be a good idea to send 12,500 of his bravest troops against the Union soldiers and artillerists behind this stone wall. It was a position that General Longstreet, who was responsible for the assault, felt could not be taken by any 12,500 men. ("Not with ten thousand men could you do this.")
The boys had to march from that line of trees back in the distance about a kilometer away to reach the Union boys behind the stone wall right in front of you. A few of them made it to the wall, and even across the wall, and then they broke, and they had to stagger back to the line of trees. Not quite half of them did make it to the trees. Pickett’s Charge has been called the high water mark of the Confederacy. In some ways, it was the beginning of the end of the Civil War.
The place has an amazing power when you are there. You cannot spill that much blood without leaving it in the ground. It is one of the few places I have been that really felt sacred. But then it has been hallowed by the dead, who fought "...that government of the people, by the people, and for the people shall not perish from the Earth."
Well, that was the North, anyway.
Gettysburg is a strange place, a Northern town populated by Southern tourists come to look at a field full of might-have-beens. Pickett's Charge was the doomed, impossible charge of July 3, 1863. Little Round Top was the all but impossible series of charges of July 2. At Little Round Top, a man told his two kids, who were carrying plastic swords and wearing little gray Rebel hats, that "If only we'd have taken this hill, the world would be a better place, and there wouldn't be so many liberals."
I don't think I could have had a fruitful discussion with him about, say, exactly when he figured the Confederate States would have freed its slaves and given them the vote. After all, the Civil War was about his rights.
It's not hard to feel that Pickett's Charge and Little Round Top are (they are
, for they have become eternal) a kind of microcosm of a certain culture of the South. They are all about glory and guts, in defiance of the distance, and the incline of the hill, and the range and number and accuracy of the Union guns, and the number of rounds of ammunition they were carrying. (Little Round Top also failed because of the guts and glory of the 20th Maine, but that's another story, and a great one.)
I never felt quite at home in Gettysburg, or on the road down from Gettysburg. I couldn't quite tell why, until we got to DC, and walked around, and I realized that for a day I had been walking entirely among white people, and I am not used to that. I was only hearing English, and I have lived my entire life in multi-lingual cities. In DC it was Friday night, and all the young people working for the Obama Administration were out partying on various government lawns, where various bands were playing rhythm and blues here and there. We were back among our people.
Meanwhile there is this shooting in Charleston, SC. Various folks have noted that the state flies the Confederate Battle Flag on the capitol lawn, claiming it is about "heritage" and not, of course, about keeping its black people down. Never mind that South Carolina's heritage is precisely
about keeping its black people down, and South Carolina started the Civil War precisely in order to be able to keep its black people slaves
. And the flag, after being used as a flag of secession, was used in the '30's as a flag of terrorism, and in the '60's as a flag of segregation (it was put on the state capitol in 1962). Various people on the left have managed to connect the dots -- flag of white terrorism, terrorist who shouted "you're raping our women and have to be stopped" as he assassinated a black state senator -- while most of the Republican candidates have pretended it's just some crazy person attacking "religion." Yep, this is all about the war on Christmas.
[[UPDATE: Looks like the Governor and Republican-controlled state legislature of South Carolina got it after all, and the flag will go in a museum where it belongs.]]
We construct our lives out of stories. We live for stories. We live in stories of our own making. It is fascinating, strange and powerful to me to meander down into this particularly historic bit of the country to see, on the one hand, a place that is frozen in four days in July, 1863, and on the other hand, the kids working in the administration of our half-Black half-White President. Some stories work. Some stories cause harm. Some stories mend lives. A story is a powerful thing, for good or evil.