Thursday, May 1, 2014

An American Olympus- Gettysburg, the Civil War and National Mythology


"Myths are stories of our search through the ages for truth, for meaning, for significance. We all need to tell our story and to understand our story. We all need to understand death and to cope with death, and we all need help in our passages from birth to life and then to death. We need for life to signify, to touch the eternal to understand the mysterious, to find out who we are." -Joseph Campbell

Gettysburg is a name that most Americans and, some non-Americans, recognize. It's a name associated with booming cannons, charging rows of people in blue and grey coats and other men in black and white photos with rather absurd looking facial air. 

Today, Gettysburg's cannons are silent. The men who fell there no longer litter the empty fields and gaps between rocky hillsides. They lie underneath white headstones; some in the national cemetery, others in graveyards in the American South. The men who led them to their death, men with names like Lincoln, Lee, Meade, Sickles and Pickett are also gone, living only as words and pictures in books and documentaries. 

Today, the small, rural Pennsylvania town is different from what it was in 1863, along with everything else. Yet the past ripples through here. It reverberates and resonates, it calls and knocks at the doors of many minds and many hearts. Time doesn't necessarily heal all wounds, but it can leave beautiful scars, scars that remind us of how much we humans can endure, scars that remind us that the rain comes and leaves as often as the sun.  

When I arrived in the small Pennsylvania town a few days ago, it was raining. It would remain cloudy and wet the whole time I was there. The lousy weather created the perfect mix of somber and melancholy needed to tour a battlefield where over a hundred thousand men stabbed, shot and bombarded each other over three days in July some 150 years ago. 

One of the first things that stood out to me was the historical nature of the town itself. Architecturally Gettysburg's streets remind me of 19th century London. The brick walls of buildings and roundabout in Lincoln square could easily convince someone who teleported there that they had landed in Europe. 

Yet this is not the Gettysburg of 1863. The neat sidewalks, paved roads and cozy boutiques are stark contrast to the large black and white photo of the town that greets you when you head past the ticket counter at the museum and visitor center. This Gettysburg is small, wooden with one church steeple poking out from it's center. 

The museum is informative, detailed yet succinct. The war is explained, the background of the war is revealed. Slavery, free-labor, Bleeding Kansas. 

The what and the how of soldiering life in Union and Confederate forces is covered in great detail here. I learned a lot about the time. 

But what about the why? Why did 600,000 men and several hundred thousand civilians die in five years of fighting between 1861 and 1865? Why did neighbors and families become divided? Why were hundreds of towns and cities destroyed across the South? Why did so many men feel compelled to die? Why was so much blood spilled?

The why is often the hardest question for we humans to answer when discussing wars of this scale or any tragic event in history where human kind eagerly, ravenously sheds the blood of others in numbers that we find excruciating to visualize.

The why is addressed at today's Gettysburg, alluded to at the museum, hinted at in pamphlets, implied in a section dedicated to Abraham Lincoln's Gettysburg address. All the facts remain, to the museum's credit, yet their meaning is given by the powers that be. And in giving us this meaning some facts become obscured or overshadowed by others deemed more noble and exalting.

'A new birth of freedom' a government 'by the people, of the people for the people' that 'wouldn't perish from the earth.' An end of slavery and mistreatment for those in bondage. A country divided, united. A land where everyone should be equal, a land for everyone to be included.

It's a story we Americans have been told many times. In elementary school, (in the Northern schools I attended anyway) the civil war was often summed up with the phrase 'Lincoln freed the slaves'. 'the war was about freedom.'

Yet this line is more than a story. It's part of what I call National Mythology.

I don't mean mythology in the sense of fable or fiction as it is so often utilized today. I mean myth as a foundational tale meant to explain the universe we live in and our place in it.

Like every country around the world today, we in the United States have a mythology. We are taught nationalism (aka patriotism) through these tales. George Washington is our Zeus. Thomas Jefferson, our Prometheus. Names such as these and the names of those such as Lee and Grant become demigods in their own right. We in the present infer meanings into their lives and into the lives of hundreds of thousands of other men and women we know so little. 

The myth that the war was abut freedom -of slaves- is taught and passed on and we believe it. It is passed on not because it is 100% factual as we would like it to be but because it is what we in the decades and century since would like to build off of.

Like early man watching the sun set and rise we humans need to assign purpose to what happens and has happened in our world. We want to give over a half a million erased lives meaning. We want to believe it was worth something. And often, when people are confronted with the vast, convoluted complicated grey nature of actual events, they prefer the myth.

I am not an expert on the history of the American Civil War. Like most Americans, I studied it briefly in school. Unlike many Americans I read books and watched many documentaries about the time period. As an avid student of history though, I know that the simple narratives and myths given by governments and society often don't truly capture the real story.


As someone who's historically minded, I have a strong distrust of nationalism and the national mythology I've started.

Yet as I've stated before the myth that Gettysburg represents is not a fable. There is something truly remarkable about the nature of America's Civil War. It may have only evolved into a war about freeing slaves and empowering black people. Union soldiers may have been more motivated by a day of food and more worried about losing their jobs to free black men and women than simple textbooks would let us believe. Reconstruction may have failed and brought about another 100 years of discrimination prejudice and bigotry that we are still trying to do away with.

And yet and yet, I can and was moved. After leaving the museum I drove around the battlefield, several miles of rolling hills interspersed with idyllic barns, chapels, forests and fences. Even a short jaunt around the area allows you to see a small selection of the 1,300 memorial statues scattered around the American Olympus of Gettysburg. Most of these statues are dedicated to specific army regiments that fought in the battle. Charges, counter charges and other essential events of the three day battle are marked by them.

There is a Greco-Roman style to these memorials, like many monuments in Washington DC. Stone men, some mounted, some standing, some charging, some aiming, Union and Confederate stand eternal drenched in icy Pennsylvania April rain. 

Seeing this moved me. It still moves me and reminds me.

It reminds me that in all the years since Confederate general Pickett sent 12,000 men across an empty field to certain death, since the Confederacy's demise, since the Emancipation Proclamation and the Thirteenth Amendment, there has not been a second American Civil War. A two century old, highly unjust and highly profitable institution, slavery, never reared its head again. Crops ravaged by Union soldiers in Georgia were replanted, cities rebuilt. The deaths of hundreds of thousands did not become a cry for victor's vengeance in the North nor a cry for a resurrection of the Confederacy in the South. 

This is truly remarkable. Remarkable and commendable and perhaps it makes the myth of Gettysburg one worth swallowing with a mouthful of cautionary, salty history.

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