Every war in history has produced people disgusted by the ugly realities of war. Their actions and voices are usually overlooked and forgotten, particularly if they live to tell their stories, since those who die attain the status of heroes no matter how they died. Some, like Ambrose Bierce, are later remembered for literary or artistic merits. Some, like our current Secretary of State or the Senior Senator from Arizona, succeed in reinventing their past to serve them well in a political career. Over time historians make forensic determinations but even those are subject to later revision Meantime, short memories and hate bombs abound and those of us in sympathy with the anti-hero hunker down and wait for the storm to blow over.
As the plot-line of Dances With Wolves and the memory of Jane Fonda's anti-Vietnam activities plays in the background, I remembered a post I wrote in 2005 which helped me remember how easily complicated issues of the past get oversimplified, often with important details forgotten altogether. (The current collective memory loss of the Tienanmen Square killings, now twenty-five years past, is a good example.)
Garrison Keillor's little five-minute radio spot is one of the few programs that I take a moment to listen to attentively, even in the middle of a conversation. There are few predictable diversions giving so much reward, having a beginning and end in the space of a few minutes.
Today we are reminded that Abe Lincoln's Gettysburg Address was delivered November 19, 1863. Keillor's remembrance and tribute are worth a few minutes of your time as well. If you don't have the time or inclination to read, there is a link to the audio.
It was a foggy, cold morning on this day in 1863. Lincoln arrived about 10 a.m. Around noon the sun broke out as the crowds gathered on a hill overlooking the battlefield. A military band played, a local preacher offered a long prayer, and the headlining orator Edward Everett spoke for over two hours, describing the Battle of Gettysburg in great detail, and he brought the audience to tears more than once.
When Everett was finished, Lincoln got up, and pulled his speech from his coat pocket. It consisted of ten sentences, a total of 272 words. Lincoln did not mention any of the specifics of the war or any of the details of the battle of Gettysburg. He did not mention the North or the South. He did not mention slavery. Instead, he explained, in ordinary language, that our nation was founded on the idea that all men are created equal, and that we must continue to fight for that principle, in honor of those who have died fighting for it.
Unfortunately for Lincoln, the audience was distracted by a photographer setting up his camera, and by the time Lincoln had finished his speech and sat down the audience didn't even realize he had spoken. Lincoln was disappointed in his performance, but the next day Edward Everett told the President, "I wish that I could flatter myself that I had come as near to the central idea of the occasion in two hours as you did in two minutes." The speech was reprinted in newspapers around the country, and it went on to become one of the most famous speeches in American history.It would be tacky to point out the parallels between that tragic time and events of our own time, but the similarities bear thinking about. We are again engaged in a great civil war, but this time it is that of another country. Today's cost in casualties is very small compared with the tens of thousands of past wars. [This was written in 2005, and there was no way to know we were commencing the longest war in US history. Many casualties would follow. Even now veterans are committing suicide daily, often due to war-related causes.] The Battle of Gettysburg alone took the lives of six or seven thousand men. I suppose civilization is creeping along, but there is a long, long way to go.
As an aside, the current debate over torture and atrocities can be put into historical perspective by knowing what has occurred in past wars. Lest we too quickly point the finger at our enemies, it would be wise to take a look at some of our own dirty linen. And I'm not referring to today's despicable but historically unremarkable reports.
Last year Donald Sensing did some research following the release of the movie version of Cold Mountain, coming upon some pretty disturbing history from our own Civil War era.
I am sort of a stickler for historical accuracy in movies that derive the context from history. I found the Home Guard portrayals very offputting. (Other Home Guard detachments of the state hound Inman as he makes his way home.) I had never read of such brutalities being done by during the war by Confederate states to their own people, and reacted to this part of the move - and a major part it is - with scorn. This, I thought, was a fatal flaw of the story. While I had no doubt that Confederate authorities did try to capture deserters, I dismissed the idea that Home Guard "brownshirts" ever had the authority simply to shoot down deserters on the roadside or savage Southern civilian families. So I Googled"confederate home guard" today. And discovered Cold Mountain is accurate. Consider:
Allen Lowery was born 1795 in Robeson County, NC. He died 9 Mar 1865 in Robeson County, NC from Shot to Death by the Robeson County Home Guard and was buried in Lowery family cemetery near Pembroke, NC.
... Allen and his son (William) was killed by the Robeson County Confederate Home Guard, because they where believed to have helped Union soldiers during the Civil War.
Confederate deserter Henry Tucker joined the Union forces following bad treatment by the Alabama Home Guard for failing to respond to the "callup" for men to fight for the Confederacy. He made the mistake of coming home for a visit where he was caught...
... arrested by the Home Guard at his home in Marion County and tortured to death. He was tied to a tree, castrated, his eyes removed and his tongue cut out before he was literally skinned alive. He is buried at Hopewell Cemetery, south of Glen Allen, Ala.
But Tucker's vicious death was avenged.
Home Guard leader Stoke Roberts who personally directed the torture of Tucker, was eventually caught by a group of unionists near Winfield. They took a long iron spike and drove it through his mouth and out the back of his head and nailed him to the root of a big oak tree.
We can be in denial, but there are apples today (uh, acorns?) that didn't fall too far from that tree.This, a personal footnote, now vanishes into the big cyber-swamp which is the Web.
But who knows?
At some distant place, long after I have gone, it may turn up like one of those fossils I once collected as a boy, enshrined as in fossil-ferrous limestone covering parts of Kentucky.