I didn’t go to Gettysburg

This weekend I have been taking a break from my usual study of British history to watch the Ken Burns’ Civil War documentary. I ordered the episodes from Netflix and am now up through the year 1863, as I have been watching it in between sessions of General Conference this weekend. Tonight, when Sarah Vowell opened up her show to audience questions, I asked from my seat, “Who is your favorite Civil War general?” She answered emphatically, “I can tell you who it is not…General Meade.” Sarah Vowell doesn’t like how he didn’t finish General Lee off during his retreat from Gettysburg.
I realized a couple of things this weekend from watching the Civil War documentary. The first thing that I realized is that BYU would probably benefit alot more from having Ken Burns speak at a forum on campus this past week than they would from having Vice President Dick Cheney speak at graduation.
The second thing that I realized is the Civil War is even more complicated than I previously thought. Of course, I probably haven’t done a whole lot of thinking about the Civil War since my AP American History class my junior year of high school. When I was an intern in Washington DC in college, I skipped all of the trips to famous Civil War battlefields and re-enactments. It wasn’t my scene. Give me a Library of Congress lecture on Ralph Ellison anyday over a bloody battlefield, I thought.
I think that I have always felt partially embarassed by the Civil War. After all, my heritage is just about as Southern as it comes. I always thought that the Civil War from the point of view of my anscestors, was a fairly humiliating experience. I mean, they were fighting to save an institution which was truly one of the most evil things that human beings have ever done to other human beings on the planet, even though they may have thought that they were fighting to save their homes and land. And of course, they lost, and as a result, generations of Southerners, such as myself, have been constantly reminded of our backwardness and foolishness, whether perceived or real.
The problem with the Ken Burns documentary is this . . . It makes me like Robert E. Lee. If you can excuse for one minute that he was fighting on the side of slaveholders (which is not something that is ever excusable), he was actually a pretty decent human being apart from being a great military tactician. I like that Lee took upon himself the blame for the South’s biggest military fumbles, ie Gettysburg, and he always was a person of honor and dignity. I also think it is admirable that after the Civil War he slipped quietly into the world of academia, vocalizing his support for reconciliation and even supporting educating freemen. He thought education was his most important calling in life, which is an interesting take after a life on the battlefield. Fredericksburg and Chancellorville were his biggest moments, by they were followed up by his biggest failure, and I think he probably understood what the ordering of those battles meant to the possibility of his cause’s success. He accepted the inevitable at Appamatox, but at the same time showed unwaivering loyalty to his home and the soldiers who fought on his behalf.
Once the North began fighting for the cause of freeing the slaves, clearly they had morality on their side. But I have always wondered to what extent it is okay to perpetuate a moral and just cause through immoral acts. Sieges of civilian populations, “scorched earth” policies, these types of tactics by the Union generals certainly remind me that no population has a monopoly on morality. Good men can end up defending horrible things (Lee defending slavery), and just causes can be led by unjust men (too many Union generals to list here). I guess that is what makes war so terrible and so complicated. It is a complication that I don’t think that reasonable human minds can ever make sense of. That is probably why wars only make sense in six grade history books, because once you start to look at the nuances of the men and women who fight wars, the tactics they use, the politics that underly them, you start to realize that wars can never really be just and good. In the course of wars, people believe they must do horrible things in order to bring about just ends. But sometimes I doubt whether goodness can really be born from terrible acts.
I don’t know. Was there another way to end slavery? Could there have been less bloodshed? Could there have been more compassion, more civility? Or were we stuck with the fact that because slavery was so immoral and inhuman that only something similarly immoral and inhuman could stop it in its tracks?
The older I get, the more worried I get that time is passing too quickly and that I will never learn everything that I need to know. The more I do a peripheral study of all of these historical events, the more questions I have, and the more in depth I need to go. Now I am trying to read the diary of Mary Chesnut, and then at the same time I feel like I need to study more about the Draft Riots in New York City.
But I also have a stack of other books I am trying to get through. I realized that I needed a better historical understanding of the Great Lakes region of Africa last week and picked up Jean-Pierre Chretien’s book about 2,000 years of history there. I am still trying to make it through A People’s History of the Third World, and now I also feel this pressing need to study the English War of the Roses.
If I could just focus on one thing for longer than five minutes, then maybe I would be able to figure out answers to some of these questions, rather than just clogging my head with more questions.
But one thing I do know is that now if given the opportunity to visit a Civil War battlefield or two, I just might go to pay my respects. Maybe next time I am in Mississippi, I will go to Vicksburg.

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