President Obama is granting Lt. Alonzo Cushing, who played a critical role in repelling Pickett’s Charge at Gettysburg, the Medal of Honor. It’s pretty amazing he didn’t already have it since had Pickett taken the hill, it’s possible at least the war would have ended differently. Personally, I tend to not believe the world changes that much with an individual event, but I’ll grant the possibility. Certainly defeating the Confederates at Gettysburg did kill their chance of moving the war into the North and forcing a peace, something that would have kept millions of people in slavery for who knows how long. Decades at a minimum. Possibly until the present, who can tell.
Speaking of such things, I happened to visit Gettysburg last week. I had a great time. It was super cool to visit the key spots of the battle, try to imagine all the dead on the huge field that the location of Pickett’s Charge, below Little Round Top, and around the battlefield. Much credit goes to the National Park Service for not only emphasizing slavery as the core reason of the war but for enforcing that interpretation. What do I mean by that? For a very long time, the main attraction at the Gettysburg Visitor Center was the cyclorama of Pickett’s Charge. A cyclorama was a Gilded Age entertainment that tried to bring a scene to life through a 360-degree painting. These were a huge hit in France and were imported to the U.S. A cyclorama painter was hired to do one of Pickett’s Charge and people love it. It was a huge reason why people went to the site. You can still see it today and it’s OK. It’s cool as a Gilded Age relic. As something of value outside of that, it’s pretty silly, what with the sound and light show that goes along with it.
In recent years, the NPS built a very nice new visitor’s center. Now in order to see the cyclorama, you have to sit through the 15 minute film intrepreting the battle for you. Morgan Freeman narrates the video and it says in no uncertain terms that slavery was the cause of the war, which is great. I’m sure there’s a lot of people who hate that (one of the first people I saw there was a guy wearing a Stonewall Jackson t-shirt, which in my world is like wearing a Himmler t-shirt), but it was very well done, really expressing the complexity of the situation too. I also discovered that I find discussion of military maneuvers so incredibly boring that even Morgan Freeman can’t make me care. Anyway, the exhibits in the Visitor Center are good throughout, combining the old guns that are crack for American white men who like to wear camo as casual wear with real historical interpretation.
Of course the monuments are among the most interesting parts of the experience. They are all interesting relics expressing martial values at a time when the Civil War generation was beginning to pass away (turn of the century Americans had their own Greatest Generation crisis of masculinity). They were also part of the reconciliation taking place between the North and South during the period that erased the black experience from the war and helped underwrite Jim Crow and segregation. At Gettysburg, the memorials generally went up earlier, in the 1880s, so that meant that the Confederate monuments were put up later and are in one general area, more or less the Confederate lines as they embarked on Pickett’s Charge. But they are there. As you can imagine I find the Confederate monuments irritating. However, I have a foolproof way to deal with that problem. I mock the monuments on Twitter. A couple of examples:
Unfortunately autocorrect on my phone knocked the “i” out of that one.
My wife said that I was having entirely too much fun doing this. But it beat muttering curses toward the Confederacy under my breath. And I did not get accosted by a neoconfederate, so that was something.
There may however be an addendum to this post. I seem to have a mission to be the last Civil War death. While at Shiloh about 15 years ago, I came within a few inches of stepping on a copperhead slithering past the marker I was walking up to. Talk about jumping back! This time, I cut my hand messing around in my car trunk at the battlefield site. If there’s any justice in the world, the gangrene is setting in right about now.