This year, as part of our children's spring break, we decided to go to Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, the site of the most meaningful battle of the War Between the States. I was eager to see the new Museum and Visitor Center at the Gettysburg National Military Park, and our children had either reached, or were approaching, the age at which the experience could have meaning for them. So we launched northward towards Gettysburg, with a planned additional visit to Hershey's Chocolate World, a post-battlefield lure, just in case the children scoffed. I also let them know that a President (Eisenhower) had a farm at Gettysburg that we would visit. I omitted to mention that the president in question had died in 1961.
To my surprise, the Gettysburg experience held great interest for my children and my wife. My eleven-, seven- and even four-year-old were captivated by the museum, the powerful (but inexplicably non-purchasable) movie screened on site and the newly restored cyclorama. And, miraculously, they even listened without complaint to the personal guide during the three-hour in-car tour (at $50, a best buy). My wife, not a student of the American Civil War or military history in general, showed genuine interest and made one cogent comment after another. I did, however, have mixed emotions as our children frolicked on the rocks at Devil's Den, one of the bloodiest sites on the battlefield, but I took solace in the belief that if the soldiers who had sacrificed their lives there could have seen the joy of our climbing and exploring children, they would have encouraged them to play on.
But I take to the keyboard not to tell you about my children's spring break. As you have probably guessed, the trip to Gettysburg was really for me, even though I went through the motions of making it a collective family decision. Since childhood, I have been a student of the Civil War, and my military career made me even more interested in this, and other, military campaigns. Although I have read six books on the subject and I own Ted Turner's movie Gettysburg (to my surprise, I found Martin Sheen to be a better Robert E. Lee than Robert Duvall was in Gods and Generals) and the complete DVD collection of Ken Burns' television series The Civil War, I felt the strong desire to return for what would be my third visit.
To prepare, I sat my family in front of our widescreen television and made them watch Gettysburg (I did serve refreshments along with threats). To augment Turner's version (based on Michael Shaara's historical novel The Killer Angels), I played the portion of Burns' Civil War series devoted to Gettysburg. The preparation proved worth it - it enabled us to gain more insight into the details and the strategy, to appreciate more of the facts of the battle, and it caused me to be even more impressed with the valour displayed and the sacrifices made, as well as the terrible waste of human life.
But this isn't about my visit to Gettysburg, either. It is about the power that the place has over me. It makes me brood. The real issue is why that place stirs such feelings, even to the point that a law partner of mine once asked me if I was OK when he detected heaviness in my voice - which was attributable to my reading of Shelby Foote's account of the battle. Why is this place so powerful for me? Why does it affect me so?
My background sets the stage and provides the framework. I am a Southerner. I grew up with tales of the Civil War and knew its heroes (Southern) and its villains (Northern). I was thrilled by descriptions of the great battles of the war, and, as a youth, I pulled for the South. I had a Confederate uniform. I visited as many battlefields as I could. I went to the surrender grounds at Appomattox and Bennett Place, and felt sadness at each site. I believed the reports of the gentlemanliness of the Southern generals, especially Robert E. Lee. I shared the belief that if the South had had more industry and more people, and if England had come to our aid, we would have won. None of this was because my parents sat me down and instructed me thus - it just was there, in the air.
But it is at Gettysburg that the views of my youth - some of them with me still - are confronted by the modern me. There, where armies collided, reason, emotion, fact and story collide within me. It is there that I confront my history. There, I am presented with emotional and rational conflict; paradoxes that I am compelled to resolve so that I may understand my past as predicate for my future.
The first issue at Gettysburg is presented at the individual level. At the risk of committing heresy, it is obvious to me that the loss at Gettysburg was Lee's loss. Our heroic strategist and tactician made mistakes of omission and commission that cost the South a potentially war-changing victory. Lee, who had previously been responsible for the South's success - and continued apparent viability - is squarely at fault for fighting where the battle was fought, when it was fought, how it was fought, for not pushing his subordinates hard enough, and for not listening to them when they were right (one can look out across the field where on the third day Lee's troops made their frontal assault against entrenched Union forces, which General James Longstreet rightfully advised Lee not to undertake). In a dispassionate analysis of the battle, the blame falls squarely on Lee.
Later 20th-century works (Thomas Lawrence Connelly's The Marble Man: Robert E. Lee and His Image in American Society and Alan T. Nolan's Lee Considered: General Robert E. Lee and Civil War History) provide a psychoanalytical view of Lee, his family and his human shortcomings, respectively. The goal of both works is to bring Lee down from his mythical status and return him to mortality. Granted, some of my initial surprise at discovering Lee's failures at Gettysburg can be traced to friendly historians and sympathetic organisations, but it does not mean that the almost universally held favourable view of Lee is without foundation.
Despite a good deal of psychobabble about him and his family (his wife never got over the loss of Arlington House - but who could?) and much trivia (eg, Lee didn't always refer to Union soldiers as "those people" but actually sometimes called them "the enemy"), these authors present a truth that becomes real at Gettysburg: Lee was, after all, human. Good, and great, men (and women) sometimes perform dreadfully and make terrible mistakes. To grasp that intellectually is one thing, but it is another to confront it on a battlefield, where young men died and were maimed because of what one man decided. Lee was simultaneously a brilliant general and one who made terrible military mistakes. His conduct in the war undeniably caused the death of thousands of the enemy and many of his own men. Yet the clear historical consensus is that Lee was a virtuous and honourable man, who himself thought war "terrible".
The other issue that Gettysburg presents is at the corporate level. How is it that here I feel a funereal sense of loss for the South? Why is it that a large part of me still feels that we, meaning the South, lost here? Why do I yearn for it to be 1 July 1863 all over again, so I could persuade Lee against the course he took?
Part of it can be explained the way it is explained for Lee - I would have had great difficulty fighting against family, friends and my home state. How could I have possibly fought against North Carolina, and killed and maimed my fellow Tar Heels? But lurking over this convenient answer is the fact that "the cause" was fatally flawed. Although Southern gallantry was real there and elsewhere, victory would have meant that slavery would continue. I doubt that individual "Johnny Rebs" were fighting for slavery, and I know that slavery was not the raison d'etre for the Southern cause. But the continuance of slavery would have been the tragic effect of a Southern victory. There is no way around it - to fight for North Carolina was to fight for slavery; to fight against slavery was to fight against North Carolina.
Again, background is necessary. My family was unwittingly at the forefront of the fight for civil rights, at least practically. My grandfather hired an African-American shoe repairman in the 1940s because he was skilled, and I don't think he cared one way or the other about the colour of his skin. This man waited on the customers and actually took their money (unusual at the time, as it was simply expected that the black employee would slink away when it came time for payment, in an ingrained ballet). I was the only white shoe-shine boy in my small Southern town, and my pals on my work days were the other shoe-shine boys. One day in the 1960s my father was challenged by another businessman who told him people were talking because it was wrong to have "the nigger with his hands in the cash register and the white boy shining shoes". We abhorred that word in our family. After we left the man's store, I asked my father why he simply walked away calmly without saying anything. He responded: "What do you think I could have said to that ignorant sonofabitch that would have made any difference?" Enough said. He stood for quiet progressivism, where actions spoke louder than words.
This is why Gettysburg matters to me - why it grabs my soul. I am a populist, a progressive and a liberal. I find it abhorrent that I ever had favourable feelings towards a society that approved of the terrible institution of slavery. There, at the very moment when I am saddened by the North Carolina troops' repulsion at the Confederacy's "high-water mark" on the third day of the battle, and where I become melancholic at the fact that Gettysburg was lost when it could have been won, another part of me says: "Thank God our side lost." But this only means the paradox endures - and the disparate emotions continue their problematic coexistence.
You see, at Gettysburg, I confront my humanness - my own and life's imperfections, contradictions and imbalances. It is there that I most clearly realise that the world is not symmetrical; life is not fair, and there are no square corners and clean fits. If our lives fit at all, they fit as a jigsaw puzzle, with erratic, uneven edges that we try to arrange to make sense. The difference is that with a puzzle the jigsaw pieces ultimately fit, whereas in life they often don't. When they do, they do so in great tension, threatening to fly apart.
So I struggle to live with contradictions that can never be resolved. I try, as a human being, to exist with my wholly incompatible parts. I acknowledge that to be human is to simultaneously accept and to reject, to forgive and to begrudge, to think and to feel, to love and to hate, to have faith and to doubt. I understand that to live is to be uncomfortable - if we think, if we analyse, if we are honest. Maybe it all starts with the ultimate cosmic dichotomy of our humanness: we are born both to live and to die. Then, I believe, and I doubt, that we go on.