Thursday, July 31, 2014

Our Compromised Understanding of History

A few hours into our visit to Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, T and I realized that our view of the Civil War is shaped by the fact that neither of us come from states with deep associations with the war.  The first time I saw Civil War battle sites was when I lived in Tennessee and was 22 years old.  At places like Shiloh and Franklin, I experienced the horror of the war in a firsthand fashion.  I’ve been to several Civil War  battlefields over the years, but I had never seen Gettysburg.  As I contemplated my fall history class, which will start with colonial settlement and end with the Battle of Gettysburg, I decided that it was time to see the place where the tide of the war turned.

It’s a war I know well, having taught the story of the battle for years.  To see these famous places in person was unexpectedly powerful.  T and I opted for a horse-drawn carriage tour of the battlefield.

Seeing these now quiet battlefields with a guide at the pace of a horse-drawn carriage turned out to be a great choice, because it gave us time to really appreciate the depth of the horror of those 3 days at Gettysburg.  

The carriage drew us up through the peach orchard to the site of the wheatfield battle, where we saw Culp’s Hill, Little Round Top, and dozens of the monuments that dot the now-preserved battlefields.

The battle surrounded the small town of Gettysburg and north of the town we saw more monument-filled fields that seemed so distant from the violence of those days in 1863.

Of course, the horror of the Civil War is that such violence could break out between people who were part of the same nation; people who shared a national identity but were frozen by their disagreement about slavery.  That  is a troubling fact in the current political climate, where we also seem frozen, this time into a state of permanent disagreement and dislike, unwilling and unable to see that we must shake-down together to attend to the business of our nation.  We need reminding that conflict need-not be our natural state of political affairs.

At the National Park Service Museum, we sat in a theater and watched a film about the Civili War, a discussion of its causes, the conflict, and the aftermath.  The film concluded with a recitation of the Gettysburg Address and Lincoln’s passionate defense of self-government.  As the film ended, the crowd clapped in a manner that seemed proud of the experiment in self-government that is the United States.  I clapped too; I am often very proud of my nation.  It isn’t a blind pride.  I am also aware of our failings.  

One of the best explanations of the Civil War comes from historian Shelby Foote, who argues that the war broke out because the American talent for compromise finally failed us and we instead set our powerful resources to work in an effort to destroy one another.  These days, as Republicans in the House of Representatives sue the executive and the President vows to undertake executive action where Congress has failed to legislate, we are once again failing to compromise.  Of course, we aren’t in danger of another brother-upon-brother bloodbath.  But neither are we determined to embrace our historical destiny and listen to the instructions of President Lincoln who reminded us to respect the notion of a government of the people, by the people, and for the people.  If there is just one lesson from Gettysburg, it’s that we are all in this together.  If history tells us anything, it’s that this is a terribly difficult lesson to learn.  Gettysburg is a reminder of the terrible costs of such a failure.

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