Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Birthday Party, Cheesecake, Jelly Bean, Boom: The Easy Sesquicentennial Ends

This brand of sesquicentennial doesn't
sell; there's nothing sexy about man's
inhumanity to man.  But of anything
in the war, it's the most important
thing to confront.
There's been a good deal of digital ink spilled recently over whether the sesquicentennial is over. A provocative question can erupt into a torrent of thought.

But those thoughts have been brewing in my mind for a while now, since the whirlwind here in Gettysburg died down to a dull roar from the fever pitch of a few weeks ago. The tourist tide has subsided. The streets are easier to drive.

But most importantly, the press inquiries have died away. Nearly every day of the anniversary week, I had an e-mail or a voice-mail asking me to help a reporter with a project here or there, reporters who were clambering for some way to cover the sesquicentennial from a unique and intriguing angle. It was an amazing feeling, to have my vocation suddenly in the spotlight.

But that stopped July 4th. The press stopped beating down the doors, stopped calling the college's press contact list. The story was over.

Is the sesquicentennial over? From one perspective, of course not. Brooks is right; there are still two years of war left to fight, to commemorate (hell, even to celebrate if that's your bean). The war is far from over.

But what is over then? Because this sure feels like over if ever there were an over.

The end of Gettysburg means the spotlight, that powerful beam shone by the collective national attention, is gone. From April of 2011 until now, we in the Civil War community have had the benefit of that bright spotlight of attention, as the whole nation has been (to greater or lesser extents) focused on the war. Media has been seeking out the story. Culture has been buzzing. Hollywood has been filming and premiering.

But the war after Gettysburg morphs into that long, bloody, messy slog across Virginia or Tennessee and Georgia. It changes from prisoner exchanges into prison camps and the bloodiest ground on the American continent. Politics gets ugly, as Peace Democrats make a true, concerted effort (and nearly succeed) at unseating one of modern America's most beloved historical figures. Battles become racialized, as men are massacred in battle not simply because of the color of their uniforms, but because of the color of their skin. The war gets ugly.

And ugly doesn't sell.

So, the Sesquicentennial is over. The era of the media or culture shining a spotlight on us is at an end, for the sheer fact that they know that what that spotlight will show is bound to be ugly.

Glory gets replaced by horror after
July 1863. But even 150 years after, is
America willing to choose to confront
Fort Pillow or the Crater?
That spotlight we had was an amazing opportunity to sell the relevance of the war in amazing and powerful new ways. We had the opportunity, with little to no effort, to help Americans see the war as relevant to their daily lives, to who they are as a people and to what their nation is today. We can debate whether we squandered that 2-year-spotlight or not, and likely will for decades to come.

But the fact is, the spotlight has likely been doused.

This doesn't mean the commemorations stop.

It simply means the work gets infinitely harder. Where before culture and the media were amplifiers for the message that the Civil War is relevant to the average American, now we're going to need to make our own megaphone. The new messages will be harder to spread; the new audiences harder to draw. But the world can still go on turning if you let it.

As for me, I plan on continuing to keep trying to help Americans, all Americans and not just the folks who already come to our Civil War sites, to find their own personal relevances in these places. That battle just becomes infinitely harder, and the odds seem set against us as the last few days of July fade away.

Sort of like it did for a 87-year-old nation on the brink of collapse 150 years ago.

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Finding The Good: An Emotional Anniversary

I am an exacting judge of interpretive product. I realize this. My boss and I have had a few discussions about how both of our standards, sometimes, might be just a bit too high.

I still am not convinced that pure and utter excellence is not too much to ask for on every interpretive program. All too often, though, I don't find it.

When I do see amazing moments, it thrills me. I get outrageously excited. Through my entire experience as a visitor at the sesquicentennial celebration at Gettysburg, two programs stand out as verging on that sort of gleaming excellence.

The first one was on the afternoon of July 3rd. Standing at the wall, where fifteen decades before the United States was saved and slavery's ultimate demise was clinched, it would have taken effort to not offer up some meanings. They could have been rote, expected meanings. But what happened instead was something personal, something pressing beyond the simple bounds of battle mechanics and "boxes on a map."

Ranger Caitlin Kostic was offering up a moment in time. She tried to help us live as Hays' brigade, if just for a brief moment. She wasn't trying to "teach" anything. Her aim wasn't to have us walk away with knowledge, but with a feeling, a visceral moment of the fear that rippled through those men's hearts on the afternoon of July 3rd so many years before.

She helped that field sing in a way I have rarely seen displayed by LBGs, historians and rangers alike. Her short program was the embodiment of a future for military interpretation, not bogged down by excessive quotes and mechanics, but embedded in human experience and universal emotion.

By Thursday, I was spent. Monday had found me spending six solid hours leading tour groups across the campus of the College. Tuesday I wandered from site to site from noon to (literally) midnight. Then Wednesday was the sapping heat at the Angle.

But I'm a sucker for civilians. I am convinced, as I've said time and again, that the last great frontier of Gettysburg research lies in the experience of civilians and their interaction with the military landscape. So a tour focusing on the civilians, starting at the Brien Farm, was too good to pass up.

Ranger Jared Frederick led us on a short walk down the ridge line where Ijust had stood the afternoon before.

When I am on an interpretive program, my mind usually races in a continual internal monologue of, "what would I do." It can be amazingly painful when you see an interpreter tripping and missing the obvious meanings, missing the opportunities.

I leaned to a friend as Jared was speaking about the Bliss Family's farm burning on July 3rd. "That farm. The damage claim he's using covers the things you can replace, the crops, the fences, the barn. What about the family photos? The heirloom quilt?"

Then something happened that barely ever happens. Jared said nearly the same thing I had whispered. He described the Bliss' beloved collection of books and family photos, the things that when tragedy strikes can't be replaced.

My heart soared. Jared saw it. He saw where his audience could find themselves in the story, in the Bliss' experience. He put their life into terms we could understand. Not flank movements, not laundry-list damage claims, but sorrow and loss.

It happened again and again as Jared walked us down the ridge.

He let the landscape drag him around by the nose (or rather by the heart). Each place we were standing dictated the perfect story as he guided the experience. He pointed; he made sure he had things to point at. Not one of his stops felt jury rigged or awkward. Everything just fit.

Gettysburg came to life for me for a few brief moments on this most meaningful of anniversaries thanks to Caitlin and Jared. Brother and sister, you speak my mind.

Thursday, July 18, 2013

Stewart W. Woods: A Peculiar Casualty at Fort Wagner?

There Be Squalls Ahead: This post deals with historical uncertainty and represents some research-in-progress. This story is still half-researched and needs some more work. Viewer discretion is advised.

Captured in the darkness of July 18th on a sandy beach in South Carolina was a native of Adams County. Stewart W. Woods, born in Heidlersburg around 1836, found himself in the hands of the rebels, among a handful of his compatriots in the 54th Massachusetts. The fighting of Woods' war was over and his fate was unclear. Stewart was a free man, born under the folds of the same American flag under which he now fought. At some point, he had drifted over the mountain range and called Carlisle home when the war erupted in 1861.

But in summer of 1863, Woods' native county was still stumbling bewildered, blindsided by the realities of war. Now Stewart Woods was blindsided by the realities of war too, far from home and excruciatingly vulnerable in the hands of the rebel army. In the 54th Massachusetts, Private Stewart W. Wood was an oddity, perhaps entirely unique.

Stewart W. Woods was white.

Are these the comrades of a white
enlisted man? / PD LOC
In his Compiled Service Record, Stewart W. Woods' complexion is listed as "white." His eyes were blue, his hair was brown. In the 1850 and 1860 census, although Stewart himself doesn't readily appear, there are no black Stewart households in Cumberland County.

One of the larger Woods families in Cumberland County in 1860 was headed by Richard Woods esq, a 56-year-old farmer. According to the shadowy and somewhat insubstantial world of the Underground Railroad in Pennsylvania, Richard Woods was purportedly a local conductor. Richard Woods' son Samuel was the same age as Stewart Woods.

Why might Stewart W. Woods have been marked down as "white?" Was his skin just very light? But it isn't marked as "light" in the CSR, but clearly "white."

Led away from Fort Wagner, Stewart Woods wasn't dragged to Andersonville or any of the other Southern prisons penning in hundreds of loyal American soldiers. Instead, he and his compatriots became the awkward nucleus of a truly weird set of legal circumstances, as he and his fellows were tried by South Carolina's governor that August for slave insurrection. The soldiers were stripped of their uniforms, treated as common criminals and held inside Charleston's City Jail, where forty years before Denmark Vesey and his co-conspirators had been held under identical charges.

But why would a white man undergo such torture? If Woods was white, might he have been in the 54th Massachusetts precisely because he was white? Perhaps as in the South for generations light skinned black men had attempted to pass as white for a measure of freedom, Stewart Woods attempted to pass as black (all it would take was 1/8th of your lineage) in order to fight in a unit truly fighting for freedom.

In August of 1863, a criminal trial was called and the captives of the 54th were charged under South Carolina law for conducting a slave rebellion. But the case fizzled; the court decided that the charges overstepped South Carolina's jurisdiction. The soldiers were marched back to the city's prison and held there like criminals for nearly another year and a half, no real trial or charges. And Stewart Woods got sick.

Whether Stewart W. Woods was a white man on a moral crusade isn't precisely clear. But that Private Stewart W. Woods was on some sort of moral crusade is clear. Just a month before he was captured, the 54th Massachusetts marched through Darien, Georgia. Though Robert Gould Shaw reportedly called the burning of the town a, "satanic act," Woods was content leaving a clear, proud calling card of who had torched the town in slave-holding Georgia. Woods plucked a book from some soon-to-be-charred shelf and scribbled his name in the cover. "STEWART W. WOODS, was born September 21, 1834... Hidlersburg [sic], Adams County, Pennsylvania. 54th Massachusetts Volunteers." He followed those lines with the name of the unit again, content with te flag he fought under and the men he fought beside: "54th regiment, Massachusetts Volunteers, of Col. SHAW." So proud was he of his commanders that he noted all of their names; Shaw, Pope, Higginson and Tucker all were mentioned in the inscription.

Then Woods left the book to be found by the citizens of Darien as they wandered back into their wrecked city, wood framed walls charred black like the slaves their state had brokered in for hundreds of years. The book became his calling card, the signature he wrote on the inferno-artwork.

Months had passed from that day when Woods proudly burned Darien, Georgia, set torch to sin. By the spring of 1865, he was a shell of a man, the swampy and insanitary conditions of a city jail cell in a tropical city did their worst. He and his compatriots were exchanged in March of 1865, but it was too little, too late. Just 10 days after coming back to Federal lines, in a general hospital in occupied Wilmington, North Carolina, Stewart W. Woods succumbed to typhoid fever.

Should one of these faces be white?
What else don't we know about the USCT?
Was Stewart W. Woods white? Was he the only white soldier in the ranks of the 54th Massachusetts? Did he do it for Abolitionist fervor?

He did seem to take glee from a town meeting the torch, a town in a nation fighting to enslave men who looked like those who marched beside him. And Stewart Woods, whether white or black, fought for the destruction of a cancerous institution which had, for centuries, been strangling the vital American organ: liberty.

Special thanks to Chris Barr from Andersonville National Historical Site for some clarification and fascinating info on the men of the 54th Massachusetts who were captured during the battle at Fort Wagner. Andersonville has been doing gangbusters work under leadership of Chief of Interpretation Eric Leonard. Check out their Facebook page later today for more about the weird and amazing story of all of the 54th's captured's odd journey to everywhere but Andersonville.

Undoubtedly, Stewart W. Woods will continue to bother my historian's brain until this story gets more solid evidence. There
is a mother's pension application at the National Archives submitted for Woods. Hopefully that application can help pin down more certain details about Woods' race, life and death. Stay tuned.

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

A New Theory for Battle Landscapes: Toward An Interpretive Future

There's a misunderstanding. The misunderstanding has been long and deep. It goes something like this:

Your crusade to destroy the current practice of military history on battlefields is a form of fundamentalism just like the supposed fundamentalism of military history you aim to change.

That's not a quote, it's a paraphrase of a very long and understandably upset missive from more than a year ago. I've heard similar criticism since I've begun evangelizing a different model than the one we've been practicing within military landscapes in the public sphere.

One of the phrases I've used on and off to describe the problem with the current state of military history as it is practiced on Civil War landscapes is "boxes on a map" history. Presentations and interpretive offerings tend to bog down in the details and minutiae of troop movements and tactical shifting across a landscape.

The argument is, admittedly, a strawman. But strawman arguments allow for discussion around the grand challenges that face us by looking at pure expressions of problems we all have to greater or lesser degrees. No one is always a sinner. No one is always a saint. To even intimate that I don't understand that (or anyone for that matter) is not fair.

So the strawman of "boxes on a map" history in Civil War landscapes doesn't exist in its pure form anywhere within the modern expression of Civil War interpretation. On the flip-side of the same coin, though, the "boxes on a map" model is expressed to greater and lesser extents everywhere on the landscape.

I went to a short orientation talk at a Civil War site a couple months ago. The talk was solid historically, discussing rebel forces striking a Federal defensive line in correct and honest detail.

But that's all it was. The battle was taken as significant as a foregone conclusion. The crucial argument was never advanced that we should care about that place personally. This battlefield was significant, the interpreter seemed to vainly say, because it was a significant battlefield. This battlefield deserved to be preserved, they said through the program they presented, because it was a battlefield worth preserving.

I'm not convinced this sort of argument from inherent relevance and significance will work with a modern audience worried about how their state and federal governments spend precious dollars. Why does this or that battlefield deserve to be preserved using tax dollars? Why should I contribute to a private preservation organizations' coffers? Why, in the basest form of the question, should I care?

So what does a new model look like?

At its heart, it is not throwing out military history like a baby with the bathwater. It's not even damning that baby as belonging to Rosemary. The model and shift is far subtler.

The argument for that shift has been forceful since I started this quest of talking about what the future of Civil War Interpretation needs to be over two years ago. To some extent, that has been because the problem seems so intractable and entrenched. To a greater extent, that's just my personal way of finding new ideas. I'll argue strongly for one philosophy, hoping and praying that others will do likewise. Then we can dialogue, discuss and start hashing and lashing our philosophies together into a workable whole.

But when it comes to talking craft, it seems like very few are joining that conversation. Maybe they feel it is improper to discuss how we do what we do. Maybe they simply have never thought about it, and doing some deep philosophical soul-searching is so foreign as to frighten. Most likely, they are simply tired at the end of a hard day.

Sometimes this blog feels like screaming into a void. One reaction (maybe the sane one) is to stop screaming and move on. My reaction has been to scream louder.

But the change I have been progressively screaming louder about isn't that radical or new, just an evolution of where the field of heritage interpretation has been heading as a whole for over half a century.

The new model for a truly meaningful and interpretive future for Civil War landscapes is about leveraging the military story in a way that is meaningful to a broad American audience personally and deeply. In the past, I've used the metaphor of a painter's canvas. The factual and functional elements of history, when one is practicing interpretation, is the canvas upon which the interpreter helps to paint diverse meanings using the paint of the visitor's heart.

Metaphors are really nice because they can make you feel warm and squishy. But what does this look like in practice?

It's about leveraging the past toward a meaning. It's about thinking interpretively first and foremost. It's not about stepping into a program with the stated goal of a visitor walking away knowing something, but instead feeling something on a visceral level.

An example helps. Take these two short pieces. Both talking about the same landscape. The first closely approximates the type of interpretation I've heard from a number of folks within a particular place, in this case Bolivar Heights, lurking above Harpers Ferry, WV. It will more than likely sound very familiar to those who lurk in the back rows of interpretive programs on any Civil War landscape:

In the darkness of the night of September 14th, 1862, Confederate General Thomas Johnathan "Stonewall" Jackson ordered A.P. Hill's to move his division of approximately 5,800 men around the left flank of Dixon Miles' defensive line on Bolivar Heights. Hill's men traveled by a wagon road and railroad tracks along the Shenandoah River, moving infantry and artillery into position for a final assault on the morning of September 15th. Lieutenant Colonel R. Lindsay Walker's brigade of artillery, comprising batteries from Virginia and South Carolina, unlimbered their guns in the darkness on the fields of the Chambers Farm.

When fog lifted the next morning, Confederate artillery opened up from Loudon Heights, Maryland Heights, Schoolhouse Ridge and now the left flank of Miles' men at the Murphy Farm, completely enveloping his force. Infantry moved forward on Bolivar Heights from the new position on the Federal left flank, Branch's North Carolina brigade and Gregg's South Carolina Brigade putting pressure on the 125th New York Infantry and the Third Maryland (Potomac Home Brigade). Shot and shell rained down on the defensive lines that the Federal forces had established on Bolivar Heights and Camp Hill, trenches filled units from New York and Ohio.

Cut off completely from escape and their line of supply, Miles and his 12,500 men were forced to surrender to the superior Confederate force. Along with Miles' captured Federal soldiers, the Confederates also seized around 5,000 Contrabands and took them back south.

This is the story of the final phase of the battle at Harpers Ferry, a relatively straight forward affair. There is movement, there is outflanking, there is what some have described as Jackson's most brilliant victory of the war. But fundamentally there are boxes and bars, both red and blue, moving across the map in a tactical ballet.

And there is no meaning. There is no reason to care.

But it doesn't have to be that way. Taking the same moments, the same timescale, some of the same players and the same situation, you can find and present something truly powerful and moving toward a deeper feeling of the war's experience. You can move toward meaning by using the tactical flow simply as a canvas for the larger narrative:

War is dangerous. It's destructive. It tears people apart. As darkness fell on Bolivar Heights on September 14th, 1862, Federal commander Dixon Miles' men were in a tight spot. But it wasn't inescapable. There was still hope that their compatriots commanded by George McClellan might come to their relief. They might escape to fight another day and, God willing, to return home to their wives and sons and mothers in New York or Ohio or across the Potomac in Maryland. The sleep that night, with rebels surrounding you on three sides, would have been fitful if you got any at all.

The next morning, you would wake up. Thomas Johnathan "Stonewall" Jackson's men are still there in your front. To your right, they still loom on the crest of Maryland Heights, they still hover over you in the rear on Loudon Heights. But they are hidden behind banks of fog. The sun comes out, the fog begins to burn off. You glance to your left and see something new. There, on a low ridge, are batteries of artillery and infantry. Flapping above their shoulders are flags, not the Stars and Stripes, but a blue cross on a red field. A.P Hill's 12,500 men have outflanked you, gotten onto your left side and cut you off from the only possible escape. You've been out-thought, out-maneuvered and out-matched.

The guns open up on your lines. The fire is so tremendous and panoramic that you feel like the only safety would be to crawl under the earth. Now, you know your fate: either death or capture. White flags begin flying from hundreds of upturned muskets, swords and sponge-rammers all across the ridge. You're safe now. But for how long? Only your captors know.

And what about the nearly 5,000 men, women and children, former slaves who have run to your lines for safety?

War is dangerous. It's destructive. It tears people apart: soldiers from their wives and children and mothers with cruel bullets and red-hot iron; mothers from their children and lovers with the whip and the manacle.

This piece is moving toward meaning, toward attempting to feel and experience the place versus simply understanding it. In my professional work with the NPS, I've been advocating that interpretation is, at its heart, all about the emotional connection. Pure fact cannot be considered interpretive in any meaningful sense of the word. This is not revolutionary, it's a concept that Freeman Tilden piloted in 1957 with his Interpreting Our Heritage (“Information, as such, is not Interpretation”) and David Larsen echoed again in Meaningful Interpretation using the words of Tanaka Shozo (“The care of rivers is not a question of rivers, but of the human heart”). But it's key.

This is my fight. I am not Andrew Jackson. This is not a crusade where I earnestly scream platitudes (I may scream them in jest or for dramatic effect) like "The Bank Military History: I will kill it!"

This is a canvas model, a re-appropriation of military history for a grander cause. It is leveraging knowledge of military history as a canvas upon which a broader personal meaning for a landscape is painted for all Americans and not just a subset. It is broadening and finding a reason people should care about troop movements. Most times, that comes through personalizing them and finding the human dimension of the story in deep, pervasive and meaningful ways.

But it's not a baby-and-bathwater argument.

Tuesday, July 9, 2013

Hopkins and Anthony: A Struggle Over Freedom

This piece is the original draft of a piece I wrote for the Philadelphia Inquirer, which appeared last week as part of the paper's Gettysburg sesquicentennial coverage. Here's the full, uncut piece for your perusal:

Standing in the pleasant countryside of Gettysburg, Pennsylvania in the early summer of 1863, it might not have hit you just how quickly the world was changing. That blissful ignorance might have been doubly powerful if you were a young white man, as were the students of Pennsylvania College.

For decades before the Civil War, students from Pennsylvania had mingled with students from Maryland, Virginia, North Carolina, and other southern states at Gettysburg’s local college. In classrooms and laboratories, sons of slave-owners studied right alongside the native sons of the Commonwealth, cradle of liberty and birthplace of Independence. The fact that many of those students from Virginia and Maryland were now gone, their educational endeavors the cruel victims of a terrifying war, was one bruise among many which Pennsylvania College bore because of its close relationship with slavery.

Gettysburg’s carriage industry drove the ties to the South’s peculiar institution. Fine carriages made in local workshops rolled south into the palatial stables of wealthy planters in the Old Dominion and further south. In turn, the South sent her sons and tuition dollars northward for a fine Lutheran education.

As the nation seemed to shudder and crack in 1860, during the tumultuous election that would see Lincoln ushered into the White House and South Carolina and her friends ushered out of the United States, North Carolinian William D. Anthony sat at his desk in Pennsylvania College studying Latin, Greek and analytical geometry. America was fracturing over the question of slavery as he sat in Gettysburg alongside classmates from Pennsylvania, Maryland and the capitol at Washington City.

Back in North Carolina, John B. Anthony, the toiling student’s father, preached the gospel of love in a Lutheran Church outside of Charlotte. At home, he had a wife and five other children. He also owned one human being who worked around the family's home: a 45-year-old black woman.

In the College Edifice in Gettysburg, William Anthony could have glanced out the window and seen John "Jack" Hopkins working in the grove of trees surrounding the school’s buildings. Hopkins, the college’s janitor, and his family lived in a small home on the north edge of the campus. Whether Anthony paid heed to Hopkins, noticed the man at all, is unknown. But in just a few years Hopkins and Anthony would be set at odds, opposite ends of a convoluted and dangerous spectrum.

The college has a yearbook from the 1860s in its historical collection, still available to view, touch and leaf through in the library’s special collections department. Underneath Jack Hopkins’ picture is the smiling hand-written notation, “Our Vice-President.” A joke to us because the janitor of a college almost certainly could never become this college’s vice-president.; a joke in the 1860s because an African American almost certainly could never become any college’s vice-president.

Who exactly wrote the joke, be they southern son or local Pennsylvanian, is not exactly clear. But that joke would shortly be upended. War was coming and the gears of a mighty machine of progress would be set in motion that would mean men with skin the hue of Hopkins’ could be the leaders of colleges, businesses and even the United States itself.

And the war came. William Anthony returned home to the south.

When Confederates invaded Pennsylvania in June of 1863, Anthony came along with them. He was astride a horse, the bright yellow chevrons of an Ordnance Sergeant on his shoulder. In charge of dolling out weaponry and ammunition to the soldiers in his regiment, William D. Anthony rode back into the Keystone state along with the 1st North Carolina Cavalry.

As the horses and wagons of the Confederate Army poured over the border into Pennsylvania, Gettysburg saw an exodus. Hundreds of black citizens from the town and surrounding countryside disappeared. They ran for their lives. The oncoming Confederate tide meant capture and slavery, it meant never seeing home or family or friends again. It meant torment and maybe death at the hands of the South’s Peculiar Institution.

“Among the most forlorn and pitiable of the victims of the recent invasion,” a Lutheran newspaper in Philadelphia reported, “were many of the colored people, who fled from our border towns and took refuge in our city.”

Somewhere in the forlorn and pitiable throng escaping Gettysburg and running for safety to the north or east were Jack Hopkins and his family. The janitor was perhaps one of the wealthiest black men in the entire town. But his prestige could not save him from the oncoming tide of rebel troops. His skin color was a giant target drawn on his freedom. So he ran.

Both Anthony and Hopkins would survive the invasion unscathed. Anthony survived the campaign, fighting on July 2nd at the Battle of Hunterstown only five miles from the desk where he had studied Greek and plane trigonometry a few years before. The 1st North Carolina Cavalry limped back to Virginia along with the rest of Robert E. Lee’s battered army.

Jack Hopkins and his family returned home after the rebel tide subsided to find their home on the college’s campus in shambles, but their lives together in freedom safe and intact.

And as the smoke drifted away from the battlefield at Gettysburg, America continued changing. The machinery of Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation ground slowly, deliberately away against the institution of slavery. A war to save the nation, “a nation conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal,” as Lincoln would phrase it that fall, was welded onto a war to destroy slavery once and for all.

And even viewed from the now blood-soaked fields of Gettysburg, that war was obviously changing. Jack Hopkins’ son Edward would join the United States Colored Troops that winter, heading south to fight the army that had invaded his hometown and threatened his family’s freedom. And America took one more tenuous step forward on the long road toward equality.

Tuesday, July 2, 2013

To My Great Great Grand Uncle - On the Occasion of the 150th Anniversary of your Death

To: My Great Great Grand Uncle
From: John

On the Occasion of the 150th Anniversary of your Death

Dear William Henry,

I'm writing this standing near the spot where you died, exactly 150 years ago nearly to the second. Im typing on a tiny screen, a technological marvel that lets me share the stories of men like you with the world instantly.

They've put up a monument to you and the 17 other men who died along with you along the banks of Plum Run creek. We call this place "The Valley of Death" now. I think you among all people who have walked this green earth would understand why.

I mourn your death. I don't rightly understand why, to be honest (no offense). You've been dead a century and a half, anyone who ever loved you and hugged you and lectured you and scolded your transgressions and looked up to you as their honest son or brother is long gone.

I never knew you. And yet I mourn.

I stand in front of this cold slab of marble and bronze and I can't help but cry. I still can't tell exactly why.

God, how things have changed since you died. No, not simply since. Because you died. Men walk free because you died. Out nation is whole because you died. I can stand here and mourn you today a free man in a free nation that is always trying to extend that freedom to the darkest corners of our own nation and the globe because you died.

I wish I had known you. Not a day goes by living in this town I don't wish I could have met you. I live just up the road from where you die; your blood in this soul brought me to plant my feet here.

I am who I am because of you.

I don't know why you fought. It pains me that I don't know. Maybe it was to free 4 million men held beneath the cruel yoke of a terrible and deadly institution. You certainly grew up in a hotbed of progressive thought on who in America should be free an why we all should fight for that freedom. Maybe not.

Maybe it was because you wanted adventure. You certainly found it here, a terrible, horrific adventure from which you couldn't escape. A British author, in a children's book he wrote long after your blood mingled with this dust, wrote that, "to die will be an awfully big adventure." Maybe it was.

Maybe it was to defend your nation. You did, after all, join the U.S. Regulars, not some fly-by-night volunteer unit from Madison County. I've always thought that meant something, like you had more of a dog in this fight than just defending home or hearth. You defended that Constitution, that Declaration, that beautiful flapping flag.

I do know you wavered. I've read your private letters, and for that I apologize. Hopefully you won't mind the prying eyes of a nephew descendent glancing at your words. I know you thought about desertion in 1862.

I respect you all the more for that. Fear is natural. It's the right reaction to war. I'd be more worried if you weren't fearful, weren't scared, didn't have trepidations.

The flag I put on your monument on Memorial Day is gone, someone plucked it from its perch here. Memorial Day is the day we've set aside to honor you and all the other sainted dead who have died defending our nation.

I forgot to get a new one at the store, so I visit flag-less today. I hope you don't mind. I'm here. I hope that's enough. It's beginning to rain, big salty drops on the screen of my phone and I don't think they're coming from the clouds, but they're making it very hard to type.

So I will close for now, thanking you for everything you gave that this nation might live.

Your nephew,