October 26, 2011

About that trip to Gettysburg

This August my friend Kara and I spent 3 days in Gettysburg, PA. This is the essay I wrote about the trip for The Millions.

There is a wonderful exchange in the documentary Moving Midway between the descendant of a North Carolina plantation owner, and the grandson of that same plantation owner’s mixed-race son. The documentary follows the moving of Midway Plantation, which sat across the road from a strip mall, to more secluded acreage. Godfrey Cheshire, the filmmaker (also a descendant of the plantation owners) starts looking into the history of Midway, including its slave families, which is why Abraham Lincoln Hinton, a 96-year old man from Harlem, is invited to the house’s re-opening party.

As he stands in the front hall, Godfrey tells him that the house had originally been built in 1848. “This house?” asks Hinton, “built then, and stood up like this?”

“That’s because your family built it,” says his host.

Everyone relaxes, including the viewer, with sheer relief that someone has said something candid. These two men, who are connected by a long, ugly history, but who weren’t personally involved, and both seem very gentlemanly, have such a strange, limited space in which they can relate to each other. Engaging the history of the South would be too sober a task and, quite frankly, not their responsibility, but acting as if they’re just two guys meeting on a porch is too flippant. The resulting atmosphere is cordial but constricted.

This is how I felt for the entire three days I recently spent in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. Just being there reminds you that, had you been born in a different time or place, there were people you would be expected to hate. Not everyone chooses to travel to the physical embodiment of racial and sectional conflict, but then I am a history fan. And, as I wrote in March, I’m in the process of reading a biography of each American president. Having recently arrived at the Civil War, I decided to celebrate, if such a word can be used, by visiting Gettysburg.
Along with everything else, Gettysburg is beautiful. The three-day battle spread itself for miles around the town, and because the battlefield is now a national park, Gettysburg is surrounded by woods and fields that have remained untouched except by monuments. As Kent Gramm writes in the opening of his book, Gettysburg, “It is the most beautiful place on earth. But death is everywhere — in every meadow, along every Virginia rail fence, all over those quiet, rocky hills at sunset.” My friend Kara, who traveled with me, and I spent our time learning and relearning the story of the battle. A topographically-based battle is remarkably easy to grasp, especially when the topography is preserved, and you are walking around on it.

There are two long, parallel ridges – Cemetery Ridge and Seminary Ridge – that extend southward from the edge of town and frame the second and third day’s fighting. Then there are the contested hills – Culp’s Hill, Oak Hill, Little Round Top, and Big Round Top – that provided more brief, concentrated action. The major events of the battle – Buford’s stand on the first day, the Wheatfield and the Little Round Top bayonet charge on the second day, Pickett’s Charge on the third day – cluster around these high grounds.

We spent the first day at the Gettysburg visitors’ center and museum, plus a visit to the room-sized diorama. The next day we went on the self-guided auto tour, for which you listen to a CD in your car that tells you what points to drive to and what to know about them (usually: the next stop is a spot where many brave men died), and walked in the National Cemetery in the evening. The third day I went on a horseback ride along the Confederate encampment lines with a Robert E. Lee impersonator. As Kara said, you can’t throw a rock in Gettysburg without learning a historical fact (did you know Union Major General Daniel Sickles shot and killed Philip Key – son of Francis Scott Key – for sleeping with his wife, and was one of the first people to be acquitted of murder via a plea of temporary insanity?). By the end of the trip we knew the narrative of the battle like the backs of our hands.

The town of Gettysburg is entirely dedicated to teaching you what happened there 148 years ago, but it avoids interpreting itself. The museum’s 15-minute orienting film introduced me to the Gettysburg gaze — a particular brand of narration (in this instance supplied by Morgan Freeman, impartial as the voice of god always is) that pervades the town, describing every skirmish as good vs. good. Good wins.

Michael Shaara’s Gettysburg novel The Killer Angels, which we listened to on our drive, is the champion of the Gettysburg gaze. Its film adaptation, Gettysburg, takes it even further. Scored like NBC scores the Olympics, the film features commanders in freshly dry cleaned uniforms who philosophize more than they command. One Union commander, marveling at General Lee’s success, says “It’s amazing what one honest man can do.” “One honest man,” his superior replies, “and a cause.”

This is freakishly off point. The Southern campaign for independence was not one honest man and a cause. It was the culmination of near a century of sectional conflict which, among others, The Missouri Compromise, The Wilmot Proviso, The Compromise of 1850, the repeal of The Missouri Compromise, popular sovereignty, and The Kansas-Nebraska Act all in turn failed to assuage, and finally escalated into a fury. Sure, it all started as Jeffersonian democracy versus Federalism, but those were hardly the rallying cries of the armies as they shot at each other.

The auto tour ends on the Union side of Pickett’s Charge, the foolhardy press of 12,000 Confederate soldiers towards the better-situated Union line, which decimated Lee’s troops, ended the three-day battle, and turned the tide of the war. You stand on Cemetery Ridge, looking at Seminary Ridge on the other side of town, and you try to imagine two armies watching each other across that distance, preparing to fight each other because the Constitution didn’t explicitly prohibit slavery. Your brain tries to fill in all the steps in between and obviously falters. In Gettysburg, Kent Gramm argues that the Civil War was fought for opposing abstract ideals — union and independence. As you stand on Cemetery Ridge, picturing 7,000 dead bodies scattered in the valley before you, it’s hard to comprehend that they got there because of opposing abstract ideals. So you stand with furrowed brow for a bit longer — that bizarre requisite time you spend standing silently at complicated historical locations, usually about two minutes — and go back to the car.

All our days ended this way. The stories and statistics would build up until it was impossible to grasp, so we’d go back to the hotel and collapse on the beds to read the AV Club and update our Facebook statuses. This is when the Gettysburg gaze comes in handy. Everything turned out fine, you tell yourself, everyone involved was brave and good and civil rights were just around the corner. (That sounds ridiculous, but one narration we heard drew a direct line from Gettysburg to Jackie Robinson.)

The closest encounter I had with partisanship during my visit was talking with the Robert E. Lee impersonator on a horseback tour of the battlefield. He bemoaned the fact that I was from Indiana, preferring to socialize with his fellow natives of “God’s country.” I told him, though, that my family had lived in North Carolina before settling in Indiana in the 1850s, and that the relatives who remained behind served for the South. He praised the brave deeds of the regiments from that state, to which I assured him he was welcome. Eager to use my outsized knowledge of 19th century politics, I chatted with him about George McClellan and John C. Calhoun, the presidential elections of 1852 and 1856, and the Mexican-American war (which he fought in, although he disagreed with policies of James K. Polk, who is a long distant cousin of mine, and this caused some tension). In all this he avowed Southern partiality, but in a passive, melancholy way.

The New York Times published an editorial in 1867 that read: “The contest touches everything, and leaves nothing as it found it. Great rights, great interests, great systems of habit and of thought disappear during its progress. It leaves us a different people in everything from what we were when it came upon us.” The greatest mercy of Gettysburg is that it releases you from culpability. It’s the American Mordor. Whatever the sins of the past, they were destroyed there in fire. Surely we continue to read about and visit Gettysburg to learn what happened, but just as much to confirm that it did.

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