Thursday, July 4, 2013
Actually, I'm not in Gettysburg, or in Pennsylvania. I haven't even left my apartment. But, I am at the Memorial in spirit.
I bring up the memorial because, while we celebrate the Independence Day today, the just-concluded 150th anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg deserves some note. That's because, while moderately educated Americans can be conversant about the Civil War, it's sometimes hard to understand what motivated the men who fought on the Union side and preserved the union. After all, they could have just as easily said, screw it, let the Southern slave masters keep their plantations and peons. There were plenty in the North who counseled peace, and could not abide the thought of a civil war against their countrymen.
Well, if you want to understand you should visit the Pennsylvania Memorial.
The Gettysburg Battlefield is famously covered in monuments, memorials, statuary, markers, etc. Most of them are dedicated to the exploits of the Union troops, although there are some Southern markers, including one at the top and one at the bottom of Cemetery Ridge. Most of the Gettysburg memorials were placed there by private subscription, rather than by gov't money. Often a regiment or company would get together, raise some funds, and plop something down on whatever scrap of hallowed ground they had fought over. This contributes to the hodge-podge quality of the battlefield, but it also gives you a sense of what the people at the time considered important. The memorials really do follow the lines of battle. There's no way the Park Service, or some academic board, would have managed to do better.
The bigger ones were installed by states to commemorate the veterans among their citizenry. And the biggest one of all of these is the Pennsylvania memorial.
The memorial itself is not some grand aesthetic masterwork. It is, as they say, "busy," covered in friezes depicting battle scenes, statutes of Union generals from PA (and the PA governor who valiantly signed the bill appropriating funds to construct the memorial), and all sorts of other gimcrackery. It's never really achieved national iconic status, but it should. Because the most important part of the memorial can be found wrapped around it: the names of every Pennsylvanian who was on active duty in the Army of the Potomac at the time of the battle. To look at those names, and then turn around and look down Cemetery Ridge is a moving moment for any American. These men fought and died in America, for America, to preserve America. Immortality doesn't get much better than that.
Best of all is a prominent plaque installed by the men of Pennsylvania and dedicated to the ladies of Pennsylvania. We're all familiar with the stories of Confederate gallantry - that was one of the few things we can all agree they had going for them - but the Union side had plenty of gallantry and bravery too, as this charming plaque testifies.
And, with all apologies to my Southern brethren, those gallant men didn't just win a war. They were on the right side of history and humanity. The Confederate armies were as brave and tough as they come. Many of the generals were brilliant, making more out of much less than their Northern counter-parts. The southern gentry were dashing and gallant. Etc. But, for all of that, they were fighting for the absolutely worst cause imaginable.
Slavery - a barbaric system that didn't even rise to the level of feudalism in terms of economic sophistication - was bad enough. The methods that the South used to enforce slavery spread its oppression beyond the plantations and into the wider world. It was against the law to teach blacks to read or write. It was illegal to even disparage slavery as an institution. An ounce of African blood would render one's relatives as little more than chattel. Sally Hemings, for example had less African blood that George Zimmerman. Imagine a system where your cousins or half-siblings - products of a randy relatives sexual exploits with concubines - could be bought and sold, and then worked to death.
Apologists who claim that slavery was "contained" to the South ignore the very real ways in which slavery reached North. There were the hated fugitive slave laws, which eventually cast such a wide net that free blacks could be dragged South against their will.
It wasn't just about slavery. The Antebellum Democrat Party was dedicated to not just preserving, but also spreading the "peculiar institution" throughout the territories, the Northern states, and beyond. Southern Democrats were, of course, up front about this, while Northern Dems like Stephen Douglas, Franklin Pierce and James Buchanan tried to accomplish this through stealth and silence. Many Republicans from Lincoln on down argued that the Democrat presidents of the 1850's had, through benign neglect, created the legal and political atmosphere in which the Missouri Compromise broke down and the Supreme Court rendered the notorious Dred Scott decision.
If you haven't read Dred Scott, you should. It's an amazing document from the authority with the supposed final word on interpreting the Constitution. For several years, in the United States, it was a matter of constitutional law that blacks were so inferior as to be literally inhuman, and not deserving of constitutional notice. Imagine being an 1850's-era Irish immigrant, freshly arrived from a life as a serf on some English estate. Now, you're in the Land of the Free and the highest judicial authority in the land is making distinctions about who is or is not constitutionally inferior. That might make you more than a little nervous, maybe even send you off to fight in a war to resolve the question once and for all.
July 4th celebrates the birth of freedom in this country. Gettysburg and the Pennsylvania Memorial celebrate the new birth of freedom that came 87 years later. We would do well to remember both.