Sunday, June 30, 2013

Just Fields: 30 June 1863

Just a field; just a fence.
South of Gettysburg as midnight chimed on June 30th and the calendar flipped over to July, a quiet peach orchard sat at the corner of a narrow lane and the road to Emmitsburg. It was just a peach orchard.

Across the road from that orchard, a large wooden barn stood stocked with hay, wheat and other precious agricultural products from the fields of the Sherfy family. It was a sturdy barn, built to last decades. It was just a barn.

Down that narrow lane, John Rose's wheatfield swayed in time as wind gusted by, the small kernels the fruits of a farmer's hard labor. It was just a wheatfield.

In town, in the darkened streets after the streetlights were extinguished, shutters hung on a massive brick house on the square and cast shadows of stark lines across the red bricks as the Wills family slept inside. It was just a house.

North of the square, students doused their lamps and pulled their covers over their tired frames, a hard Tuesday's work done with more classes, worship and studying to look forward to on Wednesday morning. It was just another Wednesday.

The night dissolved into morning. Light peaked over the eastern horizon and cast a hazy glow through thick clouds on the town. When daybreak came that morning of July 1st, Gettysburg was just a town.

Nothing more.

Tuesday, June 25, 2013

There is Still Time: Contingency And History

...and it's all in the balance, it hasn't happened yet, it hasn't even begun yet, it not only hasn't begun yet but there is still time for it not to begin against that position and those circumstances which made more men than Garnett and Kemper and Armistead and Wilcox look grave...

This *did not* air on WGAL in June of 1863,
for obvious reasons.
William Faulkner's Intruder in the Dust has that beautifully evocative passage that anyone worth their salt contemplating a Pickett's Charge program has considered including in their ebb and flow. Faulkner was a master of language, and his passage about, "every Southern boy fourteen years old," is a particularly artful.

But it points to a particular ability of the child's brain that we seem to lose as we grow. The past is mailable in our minds when we are young. It might be because our imagination is so powerful as children. A stick can become a Springfield Rifle, a pile of branches against a tree trunk can become a fortress, a gust of wind can become a charging line of rebel infantry.

So what happens when we get older? Does our imagination fall to pieces?

We stand at the crossroads of war in late June, 2013, looking backwards 150 years and knowing the outcome. We know that battle is coming to Gettysburg. We know that 50,000 men will be killed, wounded or go missing over the course of three bloody days. We know how the story ends, we've read the last page of the book.

Which is a dangerous place to start from.

The men who splashed across the Potomac into Maryland in June of 1863 didn't know they were headed to Gettysburg. They didn't know they'd repel Confederate forces in a wheatfield, or rampage across some farmer's peach orchard on their way to slaughter Federal infantry. They knew battle might come, but when and where, even if, was up in the air.

John T. McIlhenny didn't know a battle
was coming. Otherwise, why even bother
laying out July 2nd's newspaper?
A battle at Gettysburg was not a foregone conclusion on June 25th, 1863. The Star and Banner boasted in its folds that, "This giving too much credence to mere rumor has done a great deal of mischief." Gettysburg was scared, but it was far from predestined a battle would come to its streets.

Nor was it foreordained on June 26th, when students of Pennsylvania College were stampeded from fields west of their alma mater back to the safety of Harrisburg.

June 27th or 28th or 29th? Still not destined. And the people of Gettysburg thought the worst was over. "Although the rebels have come and gone, (so far as our town is concerned,) we may expect to hear all sorts of rumors," the Star and Banner wrote in it's doomed July 2nd edition, "The big fright seems to be over, but it is natural to expect many little ones to follow." Gettysburg expected to see a few rebel stragglers, but the citizens were cautioned not to, "magnify every little squad into a regiment," and sound a needless alarm.

And on June 30th, with troops looming in the Cashtown Gap and cavalry swarming into Adams County? Sure, it looks like it's all planned ahead of time, but even on the eve of battle, there's nothing certain.

Gettysburg didn't have to happen like it did. It didn't have to happen at all. It wasn't advertised. It was a relative surprise.

That doesn't change the fact that it did happen. But it needs to color how we envision the campaign. These armies weren't heading toward Gettysburg. They would simply end up there by chance, happenstance and the eventuality of war.

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Stormclouds Gather on the Horizon

The first few stanzas of a poem by Howard Glyndon from the folds of The Lutheran and Missionary from late August of 1863:

The days of June were nearly done;
The fields, with plenty overrun,
Were ripening 'neath the harvest sun
In fruitful Pennsylvania!

Sang birds and children — "All is well!"
When sudden, over hill and deil,
The gloom of coming battle fell,
On Peaceful Pennsylvania!

Through Maryland's historic land,
With boastful tongue and spoiling hand,
They burst—a fierce and famished band,
Right into Pennsylvania!

In Cumberland's romantic vale
Was heard the plundered farmer's wail;
And every mother's cheek was pale,
In blooming Pennsylvania!

With taunt and jeer; and shout and song:
Through rustic towns, they passed along—
A confident and braggart throng—
Through frightened Pennsylvania.

Thursday, June 13, 2013

George C. Wallace: Schoolhouse Door to Gettysburg

George Wallace as he appeared on the
Huntley-Brinkley Report in 1963.
In the days after his famed stand in the schoolhouse door, Alabama Governor George C. Wallace attended to the business at hand on his desk in Montgomery. Wallace served as chief executive in an office in the first home of the Confederacy. One of the things awaiting Wallace on his return from Tuscaloosa was a letter from Paul L. Roy of Gettysburg.

Roy was editor of the Gettysburg Times, and was endeavoring to get letters from each governor sending their tidings of goodwill to Gettysburg on the hundredth anniversary of the momentous battle. The idea was pure. And most governors responded with purity.

Governor Endicott Peabody of Massachusetts wrote to Paul about how, "All Americans look to the green meadows of a peaceful Gettysburg today and pray for the continued and strengthened union of all the states." Pennsylvania Governor William Scranton chimed in, noting that, "Our American family is the family of mankind, and our neighbors are our brothers, whatever race or accent. Those who fought at Gettysburg waged their lives in a bloody tenant of this democratic maxim. It prevailed, and America has grown great under its guidance."

In Montgomery, George Wallace prepared to write his own letter. In Tuscaloosa, he had just made a potent statement about his vision for America. "The unwelcomed, unwanted, unwarranted and force-induced intrusion upon the campus of the University of Alabama today of the might of the Central Government," Wallace read to a crowd gathered in front of the University's auditorium, "offers frightful example of the oppression of the rights, privileges and sovereignty of this State by officers of the Federal Government."

In his own letter, Texas Governor John Connally wrote to Editor Roy that, "Today we live in a changing world which generates perplexing problems. We must not condemn these changes, nor attempt to still the hands of the clock."

On televisions around the country, Americans were still watching Governor Wallace speak his words in the schoolhouse door. "My action," he told the nation through the sleek television microphone hanging from his neck, "seeks to avoid having state sovereignty sacrificed on the altar of political expediency." Americans were hearing the rhythmic harping of Wallace against, "the might of the Central Government," and, "unwarranted actions of the Central Government," and, "illegal usurpation of power by the Central Government."

Arkansas Governor Orval Faubus wrote to Editor Roy before Wallace made his stand, before Kennedy made his speech that same night, before Medgar Evers lay in a pool of blood in his driveway just a couple hours later. But his state had known strife over school integration as well. "I think it is also an appropriate time to re-dedicate ourselves," he assured the editor and his readers, "to those principles of freedom and democracy which Abraham Lincoln so aptly expressed in his now famous and immortal Gettysburg Address." If America was to deal with the real enemy, the world's, "external dissension," it would mean quitting petty squabbles and realizing together that , "we must remain united if we are to endure as a nation."

Letterhead for the State of Alabama rolled through a typewriter in Governor Wallace's office. Hammered out on that 26-key-piano was a familiar tune.

"We must do our part to see that we remain a nation united in peace, retaining individual rights and liberties." Individual liberties, that was, save for those of Vivian Malone Jones and James Hood when they wanted to register as students at the University of Alabama. "Individual liberties must be safeguarded, for without freedom and liberty for each of us, we are traveling down the dead-end road of destructive centralization."

Wallace made a second stand in June of 1963, this time in the pages of the Gettysburg Times. And it wouldn't only be in the folds of the newspaper that Wallace would make his stand. The Governor had plans to make a special trip to Pennsylvania the first week of July.

In the Times' press room in the borough, Governor George C. Wallace's words rolled off the line inside the newspaper's anniversary edition. There his words were printed for all to read in stark lines of black and white, much like the nation that his words envisioned.

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Memory and Meaning: Civil Rights in Lee's Backyard

I walked up the long winding path named for Mary Custis and her family home. As I ascended the steps I stopped to quickly pay my respects to Robert Todd Lincoln. But he wasn't my quarry for the day. As I came to the top of the steps, Robert E. Lee's home hove into view. I've been inside Lee's house a few times. Each time has been interesting, but relatively hollow. Those four walls lack the raw power that the surrounding acres seem to ooze.

There is a supreme irony that Lee's palatial home and estate became the resting place for thousands of soldiers who died under the flag of the nation he fought to destroy. Arlington has always seemed to me like the ultimate act of comeuppance.

I hadn't taken the day off of work to wander through the halls of Lee's mansion, though. I walk around the house to the back. Two neat stuccoed buildings flank a courtyard. Back there, I feel a bit more comfortable. Ostentatious shows of wealth and privilege tend to chafe me. When I find myself at a big, fancy function, I tend to talk to the folks serving drinks and hors d'oeuvres more than the folks wearing slick suits and speaking smartly.

Behind Lee's house are the quarters where his slaves lived. The sorrow that the ground right behind Lee's mansion must have felt could fill volumes. That ground must have soaked tears from the vocal sobs of families torn asunder and men dreaming of freedom that might never come. Some of that sorrow was pent up in hearts, unexpressed lest retribution come at the slightest mention of unhappiness at centuries of systematized forced labor.

I kept wandering westward, through Mary Custis' rose garden and the ossuary full of unknown Federal dead, sacrificed on the altar of the freedom of 4-million slaves. I settled into a seat in the Old Amphitheater and waited in the sun. A woman brought programs around. Jake sat next to me and we wondered why there was so much security. Jake pointed at the program.

"It's because Secretary Holder is here," he said.

I moved his finger. "No," I said, "Bill's coming too."

It was a surprise for both of us. We weren't there to hear President Clinton speak, we were there for Medgar Evers. Fifty years ago, as the clock rolled over from June 11th to June 12th, Medgar Evers was unloading t-shirts from his car after a Civil Rights rally when an assassin behind a nearby bush shot and fatally wounded the 37-year-old activist and father. Kennedy's televised words of assurance that Civil Rights would be ensured were still echoing across America. And now a gunshot was echoing across America too.

I sat transfixed by Clinton during the other speakers' words. I was paying attention in the same way he was paying attention: I was processing and thinking. Every so often, his hand went into his coat and drew out his pen. He would look up at whoever was speaking, think for a moment, then scribble a line or two on his draft.

Then the 42nd President rose to speak.

"But I think we should also try to avoid... the trap that all of us, particularly those of us who are no longer young, fall into when we remember. I am elated that the NAACP is trying to make sure that a younger generation of America knows and remembers, but we must avoid the temptation to confuse memory with meaning. There was meaning in Medgar Evers' life and death."

My ears perked up at the idea. Memory, commemoration, what we were gathered to do that day was not enough. Remembering, Clinton said, was not simply the answer. It was the meaning behind the past that mattered more. It was the opportunity to find inspiration to modern action in those who came before, not simply chant the old stories once again.

"When the chaplain was up here speaking at the beginning of the program, I thought all over again, it gave me chills, what we said to African-American soldiers from World War II: 'you go fight, get yourself killed, we'll give you a medal, bury you in Arlington. But if you're lucky enough to live, don't come home to the south and expect to be able to vote. Much less run for office and get elected, even if you live in a town where there are more African Americans than whites.'"

My mind skipped back to Lee's slave quarters, to the black men and women that worked the fields of Arlington and waited on Mary Custis in her palatial mansion house overlooking the fetid swamp that was (and sometimes still is) Washington City. Did some poor, enslaved black man till a field or harvest grain where Medgar Evers would one day be buried? What if he had known that long after he was dust, and his children were dust, a man would be assassinated because he thought that no matter what color your skin you should be thought of as a man first and foremost? And that man would be buried in Arlington National Cemetery as a war hero.

"The meaning of Medgar Evers' life and death is that he embraced the fundamental struggle that the great southern writer Eudora Welty said grew out of our sense of place which shapes us all psychologically, the struggle between those who believe their lives only count if they control the lives of others around them and those who feel better when they share the life around them with others, between those who think they really only count when they can dominate and those who've got sense enough to know that things only really work when they cooperate."

Change is hard. America tried to change in 1863. She desperately tried, as Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation, as black men poured into the ranks, as the fight for Union morphed into a fight for freedom. And a century later, Medgar Evers crawled bleeding to his doorstep from his car, a stack of blood-soaked t-shirts scattered across the driveway in his wake reading, "Jim Crow Must Go." As Secretary of the Navy Ray Mabus noted earlier in the ceremony, "Medgar Evers, a century after the Civil War, died fighting that same battle, died to make men free. While African Americans were the obvious beneficiaries of his life's work, in a real sense, he set us all free."

Clinton continued: "It is easy to be for yesterday's change. It is easy to sanctify somebody's bones. And soon enough, we'll all be where people can sanctify ours. But the meaning of Medgar Evers' life was that he came home, and even though he had a gorgeous wife and beautiful kids and an unbelievable life to look forward to, he said, 'It can't be that I was a soldier in the American Army and I stood up for freedom and I can't vote, my neighbors can't vote. We're going back into a system that favors control over sharing, domination over cooperation and that'll never do.'"

"So the meaning of Medgar Evers' life is for all of you to say when you're confronted with any challenge today, look for the control side, look for the cooperation side and choose the right side."

I looked up at the Interpreter-in-Chief, making meaning and not simply recounting the facts of the past. I smiled. This wasn't simply commemoration or memorial for that man, that man who spent 8-years at the helm of a nation built of contradictions and fighting to overcome them everyday. This was a rededication, not of a grave or a monument, but of himself and through him ourselves to the great task remaining before us which Medgar Evers left tragically unfinished as he lay dying in a driveway in Jackson, Mississippi fifty years ago. Where does our world need change today?

That's meaning.

And a Clinton spoke, thousands of black Civil War soldiers, long gone, stood to applaud their comrade Medgar, a fellow martyr for freedom. And as Clinton, a native son of the south, spoke, Robert E. Lee rolled over in his tomb in Lexington. The nation he forsook 150 years ago, today honors a man he might very well have enslaved, all in his own backyard.

That's meaning.

Thursday, June 6, 2013

Meanings: Where This Is All Headed

Human tragedy, human triumph and continuing struggle, each of its own epic
proportions.  One convoluted war holds inside the tripartate meanings of sorrow
for 620,000 lost, joy for 4 million saved and the uneasiness that
the struggle for freedom would still continue 150 years later.

I've started to see the giddy reaction across the internet as June's dates fall off of the calendar and July looms. Folks are excited about the guns, the battles, the tactics, the camping, the reenactments, the fun, the festivities and the revelry.

But we, a community of people who all find a fascination in this awkward and cumbersome truth that we call "the Civil War," need to remind ourselves that it all had meaning, it all had a higher purpose and a greater outcome that hung in the balance.

Let's not let the fact escape us this time that battle doesn't happen in a vacuum. Armies don't appear out of thin air. They are things that are formed with a purpose and goal. That goal can shift and change as a war progresses, which is a key thing to understand as well. Events need context, and not just the context of the battle before and the battle after. They need placement within a narrative flow of history, the "why should I care?" of the present must meet the "you should care because" of the past and the two need to cogs must mesh. If we can't help America find that sort of real, personal relevance, preserving the special places of the Civil War will always be a game of diminishing returns.

For me at least, this time, 50 years on, must be about meaning and not simply memory. But more on that distinction (as well as Bill Clinton, Medgar Evers and Robert E. Lee) next week.

Tuesday, June 4, 2013

Inside the Resource: Interpreting is Pointing at Things

Ranger Fox pointing at things...
We preserve the places of the past for a very specific reason: they are places. They are physical manifestations of the past, either landscapes where that past was played out or the remnants of the people who made that past happen.

That was clear to me last week as I watched David Fox, one of Harpers Ferry's premier interpreters, twiddle a shaving mirror in the sunlight and shine a twinkling beam on the gravestone of Rev. Alexander Morrell in the cemetery at the end of Fillmore Street.

We preserve places because of their place-ness, their raw physicality. And in that cemetery, David was conjuring Alexander Morrell for us from beyond the grave, using his tombstone as a stand-in for the reverend and teacher who died in 1885. Without that tombstone warmed by a beam of sunlight, Morrell would have remained dead for us as we stood in the cemetery.

This all swims into mind because it's getting to be that time of year, when interpreters head out into special landscapes and talk history with the public. It also means I've been soaking up some interpretive programs over the past few weeks and they've started my gears turning.

I've seen a few programs that used some decent techniques, but lacked the magic of David's tour through the cemetery. Many of the interpreters were telling what could have been compelling stories. They were really trying to show that their landscapes are relevant.

But something wasn't working quite right. I started recognizing it because when I'm excited or "on a roll" I fall into the same trap. The story was drifting away from the resource.

I have to stop myself sometimes and ask that crucial question every interpreter should ask themselves every single moment they are helping people move through a resource: "Why did I choose to stop here? Why am I standing right here?"

Everything in an interpretive program is a choice. And choices are supposed to be deliberate. It's not enough to stand in front of a landscape and lecture. It's not enough to stand in front of a house and talk about the man who lived there. It's not enough to be proximal to the resource while talking history.

We have resources so that we can be immersed in the past. We preserve places so we can visualize the past recreated on those landscapes.

In short, interpreters and rangers need to point at things.

It's not a joke. If the presentation I choose to give in front of the President's House at Gettysburg College or atop the crest of Camp Hill in Harpers Ferry doesn't reference that landscape, use it as my primary tangible to help the people I'm speaking with connect with the past in a visceral manner, I'm not doing my job.

Doesn't that landscape just beg
to be pointed at and interpreted?
So I point when I speak. I move. When I'm in front of the President's House, I intentionally gesture toward the door as I tell the tale of Robert E. Lee's July 2nd visit, touch the doorknob when I mention that a letter arrived at that door in 1862 warning that a beloved son was dying in far-off Illinois, I gaze in the windows as I'm recounting the tale of a College President and his student cum rebel soldier sitting down to a cordial meal in spite of their hatred for the beliefs of the other.

I bend in the National Cemetery and touch the stone of an unknown soldier as I talk about the black men who found opportunity in digging those graves. I grasp the pipe railing of the Rostrum as I tell my students about LBJ's radical 1963 speech advocating a new birth of freedom in a divided nation. I point and use the landscape I'm standing in nearly every sentence of every stop of every tour I conduct.

We have resources for a reason: we should explore them, point at them, imagine inside of them and touch them when we can to feel the past.

Sometimes you touch that landscape with your hands. Sometimes with your mind's eye. And sometimes, it just takes a simple pocket mirror to help illuminate these special places.