Thursday, February 01, 2007

What is It Good For?

[posted by Callimachus]

"Well I'm as much agin killin' as ever sir. But it was this way Colonel: When I started out I felt just like you said, but when I hear them machine guns a goin' and all them fellas are droppin' around me, I figured them guns was killin' hundreds maybe thousands and there weren't nothin' anybody could do, but to stop them guns. And that's what I done." [Alvin York (Gary Cooper) in "Sgt. York"]

You know, I've spent a considerable amount of time, and made no little amount of money, writing about the American Civil War. As time goes by I am more amazed and moved by the heroics of average men at Spotsylvania and Kennesaw. The closer you get, in imagination, to where they stood and what they did, the more astonished I am by their devotion -- Lincoln's well-chosen word. Every summer, if I can, I walk the mile or so from the woods of Seminary Ridge in the steps of Pickett's men to the angle in the low stone wall where the 72nd Pennsylvania stood its ground.

I have a huge pile of research on two communities, one north one south, homefront and in service, that someday could be distilled into yet another book.

And the more I studied it, the more I realized it was an awful tragedy, a horrible mistake. Not just for the dead and maimed. Not least because of this: We watch American government career this way and that, now a swollen presidential head, now a renegade Supreme Court, now a meddling Congress, and yet we still foolishly revere the men who stripped the brakes off the thing back in 1861, the better to subjugate the South.

Saying the war was a mistake, a tragedy, a horror that should have been avoided, means saying American blacks should have remained in slavery, and in some cases suffered unspeakably, until 1900 or 1920 or who knows when. Saying "no" to war doesn't keep your hands above the stain.

I wish Gettysburg was just another run-to-seed central Pennsylvania county town, as obscure in the world's eyes as Carlisle or Hanover or Chambersburg. That field I cross every summer would have gone for a Target store years ago. No one would be any the wiser.

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