Great Things Happened Here

Over the July 4th holiday I got to visit the biggest civil war battlefield in the US, the one in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. Looking at those huge, wide-open fields, you could imagine the Union army and the Confederate army lined up on each side, shooting and lobbing explosives at each other. (The many civil war enactors, dressed for duty, were a great aid to the imagination). The whole business of warfare seems mind-bogglingly primitive.

I kept thinking, in a hopelessly naïve and probably dim-witted fashion, couldn’t disputes be settled in another way? Why couldn’t the generals agree on a chess tournament, for example, and do away with all the death and carnage? They’d just have to make up their minds to treat wins and losses at the game just like wins and losses on the battlefield. Sadly, I suppose it wouldn’t work. The humiliation of losing at chess just isn’t excruciating enough. People don’t give in unless they’re being slaughtered, beaten black and blue, raped, pillaged, and plundered.

I’ve been finding it awfully disappointing to learn this is just what union soldiers did to the south. The March, a novel by E. L. Doctorow, is about General Sherman’s march through Georgia, South Carolina, and North Carolina late in the war. I’ve always thought of the union soldiers as the “good guys.” Well, that was the side that was against slavery, and in fact they did liberate slaves as they marched along, 60,000 strong. What I didn’t know is that the union soldiers lived off the riches of southern plantations, stealing not just what they needed, but everything they could get their hands on, and setting fire to what was left. It seems they freed black women by day and raped them by night.

More uplifting was Independence Hall in Philadelphia. My husband and I got downright misty-eyed looking upon the very room, with original tables and chairs, where the founders signed the Declaration of Independence and wrote the constitution. Great things happened here! The sense of holiness or sacredness is surely not the exclusive preserve of people who believe in gods or goblins. If the reverence of us pilgrims was merely for human inventions (checks and balances, rights, liberties, equality, and the people who dreamed them up), well, so be it. Some inventions are worth being awed by, as others (slavery, raping, pillaging) are worth finding completely repulsive.

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