It is hard to bring my mind back to our corner of the world this week. By the time you read this column, it will have been about 10 days since I stood on a particular spot on the Gettysburg battlefield.
The occasion was scattering the ashes of my special friend, John, who died last summer. His family had asked me to place him somewhere on a Civil War battlefield back East. Antietam, Bull Run, Fredericksburg and Gettysburg were all in the running, but only the last one on that list seemed right.
John was a military historian, defense analyst, military journalist and war game designer, and those were only his major hats. He was responsible for a lot of people developing a real interest in the Civil War, and Gettysburg in particular.
The morning after John’s service, I walked along Cemetery Ridge, the spot where Union forces put an abrupt stop to Pickett’s Charge and, in the end, the hopes of the Confederacy. That was 154 years ago, but we still have people today who want to keep refighting that war.
Stand on Cemetery Ridge and you can see America from up there.
All I could think about was what some of the major players from July 1863 did afterward.
The best-known was Robert E. Lee, riding off to supposed obscurity in 1865, his coat plain and absent the brass buttons and insignia he had worn for more than 30 years. He had accepted a position as president of a small and struggling military college in the foothills of western Virginia rather than conducting a guerrilla campaign against the Union.
”We are all Americans now,” he said.
Call him a traitor, call him a hero, call him an icon. He was merely a class act.
His best commander at Gettysburg was James Longstreet, a man reluctant in the extreme to give the order which set Pickett’s Charge in motion. Longstreet, for many reasons, became persona non grata among diehard Confederates, especially after he and his old friend, Ulysses S. Grant, worked together after the war to glue the pieces of the country back together.
He got his own Gettysburg monument only about 30 years ago as a result. It was very satisfying to stop by and say hello.
There were others who did similar things, among them Joshua Chamberlain and Winfield Hancock. Those were the more famous warriors. Most were much humbler and unknown.
Even as old men, the boys in blue and the boys in gray marked what were the defining days of their lives. There are any number of photos that survive from the reunions of those former foes, white-bearded and hoary-haired. Those young-old boys shook hands and sat down for a smoke with one another some 40 years after trying to kill each other over who controlled a patch of dirt.
So here we are, more than a century and a half later, and our country is divided again, not geographically but philosophically. That last word is a good catchall because you can put any kind of opinion or political point in it and walk away.
Of course, there are cynical puppet masters who eat up this sort of thing, fanning the flames of discord and peddling chronic outrage about one thing or another.
”America has never been more divided.”
”What side will you take during the next civil war?”
And those are the milder hot-button slogans.
I’d call the entire country shooting at itself pretty darned divided, and harsh words are pretty much sticks and stones by comparison. And the next one? It doesn’t have to happen if nobody shows up.
I think I would be more concerned if Americans never disagreed among themselves. Not having any growing pains means that, errrr, you aren’t growing.
You know, that just kind of takes the air out of all the media gas bags, doesn’t it?
America is still a very young country, barely out of babyhood. Growing up can be painful when you’re only 240 years old.
Meanwhile, in other parts of the world, there are Western European countries that began forming in the 800s after the old Roman Empire fell apart. There are far older ones elsewhere.
These people scratch their heads at our squalling and wonder what all the fuss is about.
”Sheesh, you kids really need to grow up. Pull yourselves together all ready.”
You can blame John for putting this stuff in my head. He opened many doors and I walked through willingly. I’m a wiser and better person for having known him.
Not bad for a guy whose favorite holiday was the Fourth of July.