For those who are politically correct, I have to offer a “trigger warning.” In this post I will refer to my ancestors who fought for the Confederate States of America.
A couple of weeks ago, my wife and I attended a wedding in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. One of the lawyers in my office was getting married there. Having not taken a vacation last summer, we made a long weekend out of the trip. We got to Gettysburg on Thursday evening before the wedding on Saturday.
On Friday morning, I headed out from the hotel to walk around the battlefield. I love to take long walks, especially in places that are new to me. All that was missing was my Labrador retriever. We were staying in the middle of town, so I headed out Baltimore Street toward Cemetery Hill. For those not familiar with the battle, it started on July 1, 1863, just north of town. The Confederates got the upper hand and the Union forces retreated through the town - not entirely in good order - and dug in on Cemetery Hill, the high ground just to the south of the town. My walk to Cemetery Hill retraced much of the path of the Union and Confederate forces on that bloody day.
It was early in the morning and cloudy when I got to the hill. What immediately surprised me was an eerie sense that the ground was haunted - and I am not all that superstitious either. I don’t have many details on my genealogy, but I know I had a number of ancestors who served in Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia. I have no idea whether they were there in the opening days of that battle or later, but I was struck with a keen sense of being connected to my past.
We all think that something like the Civil War is ancient history, but in some ways it really is not. The last widow of that war died just about ten years ago or so. (Yes, that veteran was very old when he married his very young bride.) My father was born in 1920 - only 55 years after the end of the war. As a child growing up in central Alabama, he knew veterans of the war and plenty of people who had been alive during it. There are still a few people today who had a parent born in slavery.
Both individually and collectively as a society our past - our history, that is - cannot be dismissed or compartmentalized. It always infuses and impacts the present and we ignore that at our peril. The Civil War was a tragic and bloody episode in our history. In so many ways, we live with its impact today. Like thousands of their colleagues, I hope my Confederate forbearers were dogged and brave men who served their cause honorably. I am pretty sure they were. As a boy, I considered generals like Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson to be heroes - and they were. That respect is not misplaced even now. Having said that, however, it was our nation’s great blessing that my ancestors lost the war and the Union won. The moral stain of legal slavery was removed - and no one can deny the rightness of that. Moreover, if what is now the United States had morphed into a collection of competing states, our history and the history of the world likely would have been different and even darker than it has been. And that is saying something considering the massive tragedies, injustices and wars that permeated the 20th century.
We are and the world is probably a better place because the United States came through that war united. We are not a perfect society, but for all our flaws and divisions I think there is more that should unite us than that which pulls us apart. That is a good thought to keep in mind even as we approach an election that is disturbing in some way or another for almost all of us.