I have been at Gettysburg this weekend and yesterday was spent doing the Staff Ride on the battlefield. Normally we get all of the first two days of the battle done and conclude at Culp’s Hill and East Cemetery Hill before retiring to dinner. Yesterday, the weather got in the way. Thunderstorms came through and while we were able to finish the final assault of the Confederates on Cemetery Ridge, the storms became worse, so I altered the plan. Instead of pushing on and ensuring that my students would be too wet and miserable to learn anything I changed the plan on the fly and took them to the Visitors Center, where we normally begin our Sunday.
This was a good choice because it also got them more time there than if we had done it today. While there I went the the Cyclorama of Pickett’s Charge, which I had not visited since 1997. The cyclorama is the largest oil and canvas painting in the United States. It give a 360 degree view of the battle. Painted in 1883 by Paul Phillipotaux it is 42 feet high and 377 feet in circumference. It was restored between 2005 and 2008 when it was placed in the new Visitors Center. In all of my trips since then I had not re-visited it. Yesterday I did and it was spectacular, far better than it used to be.
I also spent time in the museum. One of the displays was a video display of Northern and Southern leaders comments about slavery and abolition in the years leading up to the war and shortly after secession. I stopped and watched and listened, as the words of speeches that I had only read were spoken. One of the statements was that of Confederate Vice President Alexander Stephens in his “Cornerstone Speech” of March 1861. In it Stephens laid out the what he called the “cornerstone” of the Confederacy, that it was a nation conceived on the superiority of the white race, the subordination of the black race, and the error of the founders of the United States in the proposition that “all men are created equal.”
This was an assertion that Stephens to believed was in error, and he noted that the new Confederacy was “founded on exactly the opposite idea; its foundations are laid, its cornerstone rests, upon the great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery, subornation to the superior race, is his natural and normal condition…”
Now I have read that speech many times and it always sends a tremor of revulsion through me. But yesterday was different. I heard an actor speaking those words, and not only did that tremor of revulsion go through me, but I had an emotional reaction, terms filled my eyes in sadness and anger such as I had not experienced when simply reading the words. To hear a voice utter them was to make them real, because I hear all too similar expressions of the racial superiority of the white race from many supporters of Donald Trump, to included prominent White Supremacists, like David Duke and Pat Buchanan as well as many others including the KKK and bro-Nazis.
Likewise, it struck me because many people I know who call themselves conservative Evangelical or Catholic Christians use similar terminology not just to describe their racial superiority, but their religious superiority over others. Hearing those words spoken, reminded me of the fact that those who proclaim them are in fact attacking the very foundation, the very e proposition that the founders stated, and which Abraham Lincoln reiterated and universalized, “the proposition that all men are created equal.”
That proposition is at the heart of the Bill of Rights and if we say that this is wrong, and we attempt to marginalize, disenfranchise, and otherwise discriminate against people based on their race, nationality, skim color, religion, gender, or sexual orientation, then we have forgotten the most important part of who we are as Americans. Thankfully, a number of rooms later I entered a room which dealt with the Gettysburg Address. In it there was a display of that text, with the voice of an actor portraying Abraham Lincoln speaking it. I paused, listened and reflected on the difference of Lincoln’s words and those of Stephens. Truthfully, hearing the words of Stephens and Lincoln being spoke felt like how I reacted the differences between the Trump convention, and the Democratic National Convention.
The fact is that the United States was founded on that simple proposition that all men are created equal. While we haven’t always practiced it, in this country or abroad, it does not take away the power that simple truth to set people free. In this country it has been an at times grueling task to bring freedom to slaves, to women, to other immigrants, and to the LGBTQ community. It has been 240 years and there are still people trying to roll back the rights of those they think are inferior, or who they believe that their religion condemns. That my friends is not an American concept, it a throwback to the old world, a world which only exists in the Cloud-Cukoo land of ideologues.
So today we finished up the Staff Ride going to Culp’s Hill and East Cemetery Hill prior to retracing the route take by Pickett’s troops as they made their ill-fated charge into the center of the Federal line. The last past is particularly powerful as I quote from the words of the soldiers who observed the attack and the human carnage inflicted by the Federal guns and infantry. As much as I despised the cause of those brave soldiers, I cannot help but to admire their courage in making that attack, call it the common humanity and compassion that I feel towards soldiers who are ordered to do the impossible. When we got to the Angle where Lieutenant William Cushing was killed firing his last rounds of canister at the advancing Confederates, and where the Irishmen of the 69th Pennsylvania joined with others to drive the Confedates back, I am equally amazed by the courage of those Union men.
As always we finished up at the Soldier’s Cemetery where we talked about the human cost of war, and the moves on to talk about the importance of the Gettysburg Address, in particular its relationship to the Declaration of Indpendence and that proposition that is the heart and soul of what makes America different than any other country. The proposition that all men are created equal, and that we are not a nation founded on race, ethnicity, or religion, but on a proposition that most of the world envies, and which we ourselves so often neglect out of fear, of others, much to our detriment.
So I will write more later to post tomorrow. But for now I am yours.