I haven’t been posting book reviews lately because I’ve been focusing on The Civil War. I’m slogging through the last volume of Shelby Foote’s history of The Civil War and with luck I’ll finish it in a month or two. I read it a few pages at a time in the evenings shortly before turning off the light next to my bed.
The whole Civil War is fascinating, appalling, complicated, and messy and much of it was poorly executed. Everyone agrees though that The Civil War reached its ghoulish zenith in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania in early July 1863. The town of course is infamous for the bloodiest battle of The Civil War fought in there from July 1-3, 1863. There were over 46,000 casualties and nearly 8,000 soldiers killed in the battle. It was a rare union victory at a time when one was needed, and one of the few battles ever lost by Confederate General Robert E. Lee.
My wife and I toured the battlefield today, about a ninety minute drive from our home. It was not my first visit, having toured it briefly some thirty years earlier. Today we paid Gettysburg a proper visit. The battle may have been horrendous, but at least the National Park Service can say with pride that tourists visiting the battlefield will have a first class experience. Unlike some battlefields, this one has been meticulously preserved. It is not hard at all to imagine what the battle was like. While certain places like the peach orchard are gone, the terrain is still intact and largely undeveloped. Visitors like us can take a driving tour of the battlefield where there are ample opportunities to park the car and look out over the battlefield from various Confederate and Union positions. The only problem getting good views of the battlefield were due to the thousands of monuments on the grounds to various battalions, regiments and soldiers who participated in the battle. The visitor center offers a first class experience for tourists, with a twenty minute film about the battle, followed by a presentation of the huge cyclorama made in the late 19th century by French artist Paul Philippoteaux, and an extensive museum about the battle, its origins and its aftermath. Touring Gettysburg turns out to be a full day experience. It should be hard for anyone but whiny children not to be moved and a bit awed by the experience. There were ample park rangers and people in period costumes to help cement the experience as well. The theater, cyclorama and museum do not come free and cost about $18 a ticket, but it is money very well spent. The tour of the battlefield is free unless you take a chartered bus tour. Most people do it with their cars, but there were some bicyclists and even some people touring the battlefield in Segways. Blue skies and hot but dry air made visiting the park tolerable and even pleasant when there was a breeze.
While Lincoln preserved the Union and freed the slaves, I left Gettysburg realizing that we are still waging The Civil War. We fight about largely the same issues. Back then it was North vs. South, slavery vs. freedom and state rights vs. federal rights. Today it is Red State vs. Blue State. The issues today are not that much different than they were in 1863. Some people, mostly in red states, believe they should have more power than other people by virtue of their place in society, money in the bank, and yes, sadly, based on being white and male and will do their damnedest to make it happen. One of them, Paul Ryan, was picked today as Mitt Romney’s running mate. They have used the last 150 years to erode the gains that were cemented in the 13th and 14th amendment. It came early in the guise of Jim Crow laws and the Ku Klux Klan. Today it comes in the erosion of the Supreme Court’s Brown vs. Board of Education decision and through blatantly discriminatory voter disenfranchisement laws, such as those in Ohio which gives red counties extended voting hours but prohibits them in many blue counties. See it also at work through gerrymandering of legislative and state districts.
The Battle of Gettysburg was fought, in part, to provide a new birth of freedom for Americans, at least according to Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address. But freedom remains unequal and new freedoms are often acquired only by tooth and nail. Sometimes we get them through fiat, such as when the Supreme Court invalidated state sodomy laws. Most of the time they are granted begrudgingly and haltingly, as with gay marriage. So many people who talk the line on freedom want to grant it only to people a lot like them.
When does this game end? Many of us hoped it ended at Gettysburg, or at least at the conclusion of The Civil War. In reality, it never ends because so many people simply don’t want others unlike us to have the freedoms they enjoy. The privileged vs. the non-privileged must seem to them a natural order, and freedom seems unnatural. At least for the moment, the battle is fought through largely democratic means instead of through horrendous acts of violence that we tuned into today at Gettysburg.
It is a long struggle, but the bloody battle in Gettysburg nearly 150 years ago was sadly just one small step towards true freedom for all.
Next up on our vacation: Philadelphia, where our nation’s new birth of freedom began.