Road Trip: Gettysburg

Monument to Gouverneur Warren

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There’s a McDonalds at the edge of the Gettysburg battlefield, visible from the high water mark of the Confederacy, where Pickett’s charge crashed against Union troops on Cemetery Ridge. The rebels got this far but none further, their invasion of the North coming to an end.

And, past the green fields, golden arches, a reminder that this momentous battle took place on some very familiar territory. It didn’t happen in history books, it happened across a Mid-Atlantic landscape of farms and towns that General Lee would recognize today.

The battlefield sprawls over a vast territory – hills, forests, corn fields, peach orchards – and is cut into pie slices by roads that converge upon the town of Gettysburg. Turnpikes drew the Confederates from the west and Federals from the east, pulled into a three-day slug fest of cannon and rifle.

It’s fitting that a road tour is the best way to experience Gettysburg. After visiting a very modern museum that puts the battle in its Civil War context, the auto tour takes you to the action, leading you in chronological order around the battlefield, from the first skirmishes on the edge of town to the bloody struggles for the high ground. The way is dotted with historic landmarks erected by the states to honor their sacred dead.

Being there gives you a three-dimensional perspective to the battle. Standing on Little Round Top, you can see, as Brigadier General Gouverneur Kemble Warren did, that this was the key spot that dominated that battlefield, a steep and virtually unassailable hill on the Union left flank. His prompt action in fortifying the hill saved the Union army from defeat.

The auto tour leads you back to the town of Gettysburg, roads radiating out from it like spokes on a wheel, returning you to an imperfect America, McDonalds and all, still striving to live up to the words of Lincoln:

It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. 

James Buchanan – Worst President Ever?

Buchanan Memorial

Covered in green pollen and tucked in a corner of Meridian Hill Park, it’s a monument that attracts little attention. Dog walkers and runners pass by the bronze sculpture without a second glance. A seated figure, looking down, on a marble plinth.

It’s James Buchanan, the worst President ever, according to a new biography by Robert Strauss.

If you remember Buchanan at all, it’s for doing nothing as Southern states seceded from the union after Lincoln’s election. But you don’t become the worst President though sins of omission; you become the worst by making a series of terrible decisions. In four short years, Buchanan:

  • Lobbied for the Dred Scott decision by the Supreme Court, believing that it would settle the issue of slavery. Instead, it spread the bacillus of this poison to the North, whose citizens now found themselves legally obligated to help slavers.
  • Failed to intervene during the Panic of 1857, an economic crash caused by Dred Scott, for it unsettled the issue of whether future states would be slave or free. Emigration to the west dropped, railroads failed and millions went broke.
  • Made a martyr out of John Brown by handing him over to Virginia to hang for his role in the Harpers Ferry raid.
  • Allowed Southern states to seize federal forts and armories after the election of Lincoln, arguing that while states had no right to secede from the Union he had no right to use force against them.

After the Civil War, Buchanan was condemned as a “doughface”, a Northerner with Southern sympathies. His photo hung in stores with “TRAITOR” written under it. In Worst. President. Ever., there’s a story, probably apocryphal, of Buchanan fretting in his Pennsylvania estate as Lee’s armies approached, finally realizing his misdeeds.

Buchanan has his defenders, however. John Updike examined the life of his fellow Pennsylvanian in Memories of the Ford Administration, a novel mixing fact and fiction, arguing that Buchanan and the malaise-filled 1970s were both misunderstood.

The life of Buchanan becomes relevant only when America faces a leadership crisis. Then, our thoughts turn back to history, to the worst possible outcome. By this point in his term, Buchanan had ushered in the Dred Scott decision, a very lawyerly interpretation of the Constitution that united anti-slavery forces. A deal was no longer possible. As Lincoln said in 1858:

A house divided against itself cannot stand.

The Buchanan Memorial remains, forgotten, overgrown, a convenient sleeping spot for the homeless. Worst President Ever, an ignominious title for James Buchanan and one that may soon be taken from him.

Southern Monuments

Confederate War Memorial in Sylva, NC
Confederate War Memorial in Sylva, NC

Monuments tell the story of a people. Overlooking the town of Sylva, North Carolina, stands a Confederate War Memorial. The statue was erected in 1915, at the height of Jim Crow in the South. Bands played and dignitaries came from as far away as Asheville. The copper soldier stands guard atop a stone base in front of the courthouse, with a commanding view of the town below. Inscribed on the monument reads:

Back (west), plaque: TO OUR VALIANT FATHERS:- / CHAMPIONS OF RECONCILIATION WITH / JUSTICE, OF UNION WITH MANHOOD, / OF PEACE WITH HONOR; THEY FOUGHT / WITH FAITHFULNESS, LABORED WITH / CHEERFULNESS, AND SUFFERED IN SILENCE. / TO OUR HEROIC MOTHERS:- / SPARTAN IN DEVOTION, TEUTON IN / SACRIFICE, IN PATIENCE SUPERIOR TO EITHER / AND IN MODESTY AND GRACE / MATCHLESS AMONG WOMANKIND.
Front (east), plinth: 1861 CSA 1865
Front (east), base: OUR HEROES / OF THE CONFEDERACY

If you read Cold Mountain (or saw the movie), then you know that the people who lived on the slopes of the Blue Ridge were reluctant participants in the Civil War, for the conflict brought nothing but chaos, murder and starvation to this remote corner of North Carolina. It took decades to recover. Northern money brought the region back, as Sylva became a manufacturing center, its paper mill belching white smoke into the valley up until the present day.

I was in Sylva for a job at interview at Western Carolina University. I’ve been coming to the region for twenty years, ever since friends moved here from Florida – a very common story. The mountains are filled with Floridians retiring from Florida to North Carolina.

Trump supporters are proud of a map colored red, all those counties away from the coasts voting for a new kind of war against the federal government.

All-Gender Restroom

But the red states are red just barely. In Asheville, which went for Clinton, restaurants and coffee shops make a point in identifying their bathrooms as “all-gender,” appalled by their legislature’s bumbling efforts to regulate toilets.

The cities and towns are blue, while the rural areas are red. A man who worked in a remote valley said that people just assumed that he voted for Trump. After all, he was in his 60s and white. But he didn’t. Old enough to remember segregation, he recognized wrong then and he recognized it now.

“We fought the civil war once already,” he told me, not interested in another red versus blue battle.

I-26 east of Johnson City

On the way home, I took I-26 from Asheville, NC, to Johnson City, TN, a four-lane highway soaring over the Eastern Continental Divide and down into the green valleys of Tennessee. It’s a monument to the genius of American construction, with passages blasted through granite and tons of concrete used to create ramps and bridges, allowing me to drive 70 mph over mountains that formed an impassable barrier during the Civil War.

I nearly had the road to myself, just me and a few other drivers enjoying the monumental views of the Blue Ridge. Where other generations valued segregation and identity, this generation values progress, as memorialized in the monuments that they build. Rather than crafting fictional depictions of a lost cause, they’re connecting cities with highways.

During my interview, I kept being asked professors and university staff, “What’s going on in DC?” Even in the mountains, people recognized that calamity in the nation’s capital would eventually touch their lives. Research depends on grants from the government. Retirees can only afford to live in these red counties with Social Security. The federal government battles the opioid epidemic that plagues trailer parks in the hollows. And highways like I-26 are only possible due to the largess of the federal government. Progress is only possible due to the federal government.

But the federal government is a monument that some would tear down upon themselves, happier to live among the rubble of a destroyed system. Like those who precipitated the Civil War, they would rather see the country burn.

A great America is only possible with a great American government. If you truly want to make America great again, then you need to make the federal government great again. It’s the monument that we all depend upon – and one that we build together.