Have you ever been in a battle? I have not. Although I have been to battlefields. Rolling prairies where memorials, carved chunks of rock, mark the places where great armies once faced off. High mountain tops where desperate men tried to dislodge the enemy encamped above. And forest thickets where you could not see yards in front of you. How harrowing these places must have been!
Angry feelings are warranted, and you have my empathy. Two-hundred years of varying forms of discrimination cannot be atoned for, and any person who experienced this would carry the emotions of a group so poorly treated.
Battlefields. That is what we have made.
The places I have seen in particular are marked to tell the story of the Civil War. The Confederates separated from the Union, emblazoned over states-rights. Their principle is agreeable in my mind, we must stave off the villainy that comes with large Federal government. Indeed, they had only freed themselves from one such governing body nearly a hundred years before. The ideals they wanted to defend, on the other hand, were wrong. We are slaves enough to our sins…so to be held a human slave to another human must be a wholly terrible thing.
The country broke down like this: First they talked. Then they argued. Soon enough they stopped talking. Then followed a war that destroyed much, and took even more lives.
The battlefields are quiet now, and the good side won. Somewhere General Lee was sitting in his tent, sighed, and stood to go tell his men the war is lost. We have paid in enough lives.
Few people pay attention to what the top, Confederate, General Lee did after the war. He turned his focus, he switched gears and acknowledged the world must change and the only path forward was to rebuild the connection between the North and the South. And so his efforts turned to repairing the damages and fixing the bonds of friendship between the states. In fact, there is a whole museum that discusses this turn behind his home in Arlington.
When I see a memorial to the Union army, I see brave men who fought for an ideal. When I see a Confederate memorial, I also see this.
I see our battlefields and memorials as a chance to reconcile the past by learning from it.
Someday I will walk my children across the fields near Chattanooga and say, “There is where the Rock of Chickamauga defended the Union retreat.” Later, on Lookout Mountain, I will say, “Here is where the Confederates fought their last in this battle, but did so bravely.” I will make them read the casualty lists on the sacred stones in those places, especially the ones from Indiana. Then I will take them to a nearby museum and show them two sets of letters written by blood brothers who fought both sides of the war, one against the other.
Modern society does disfavor to itself by judging historical norms against its own ideals. Granted, some memorials could probably go. Sour and tasteless, some memorials are to truly vile men. Most others, however, were put up to recognize the terrible war that ripped a country in two. After the last shots went silent, and we looked around, we saw what had really been lost. Can you imagine? I think if we are honest we must admit few have seen the gore and inhumane deeds we did to one another on our own land in that awful time. No, after the war, veterans from both sides did not come together to memorialize leaders or battlefields to remember fighting for slavery. Men from both sides DID come together and say, “History must learn from the great and terrible, good and bad, deeds committed during this time.” And so, they preserved lands and places so we would not forget and do it again.
I suppose it is not the same, seeing a statue in the middle of a city. When I walk on the grass, still damp with dew, and gaze out over a canon line, I feel proud my state stood valiantly with the Union, and I feel tragedy for the Confederates who sold their lives dearly for a war they did not win.
I always remove my hat in these places. Respect for both sides. Our countrymen who fought our countrymen. Half the casualties in all U.S. wars, up to the Persian Gulf, died in our own war on this very soil.
They both lost something, so let us not forget them all…lest we lose sight of what they really won…or worse, we lose sight of what they both lost and find ourselves having made battlefields again.
Gettysburg in Pennsylvania
Chickamauga Creek, Chattanooga, and Lookout Mountain in Georgia and Tennessee