History repeats: Gettysburg 150 years on
- Date June 29, 2013 – 5:09PM
Written by = Nick O’Mallay
I had planned to meet Robert Lee Hodge somewhere on the fields of Gettysburg, where 150 years ago this week 50,000 soldiers died or were wounded or captured in three days of battle, but he and his unit were held up crossing the Potomac River at Pack Horse Ford and they needed time to tend to their kit and roll more cartridges for the coming campaign.
When I finally caught up with the men of the First Tennessee Infantry they were at Lars Prillaman’s organic farm in West Virginia measuring out grains of gunpowder in a shed while their Confederate uniforms dried in the sun. Chooks pecked around at the door as Hodge sat on the floor sewing captain’s stripes onto his jacket
We started before dark and we had all this fog around us, and it was perfect
Hodge was made famous, after a fashion, by Tony Horwitz’s book Confederates in the Attic, an exploration of how the wounds of the American Civil War never quite healed. Hodge, a particularly dedicated Civil War re-enactor – or as he might prefer it, living historian – had guided Horwitz not only through many of the war’s battlefields, but through the psychology that draws so many people so wholly into the Civil War.
Now, 17 years after Horwitz researched the book and 150 years after the war’s most famous battle there are more re-enactors than ever before, and the division between North and South remains clear and often bitter.
Gettysburg has become the telescope through which the whole war is viewed, says Horwitz, and though the shooting stopped two years the battle, the war was fought in one way or another right through until the 1950s and 1960s, when the civil rights movement forced northern politicians to finally address the unfinished business of the Reconstruction period. On orders issued by the White House the South was desegregated and equal suffrage was imposed, in no small part by the introduction of the Voting Rights Act.
Just last week the Supreme Court repealed a section of that Act in a split decision celebrated by southern states and lamented by the civil rights activists.
And though that decision was well debated in the media, the celebrity chef Paula Deen, known best for her buttery cooking and her thick Southern drawl, managed to attract even more attention.
She had been caught out uttering that word that white Americans can no longer say, and then in one of a series of increasingly catastrophic public apologies lamented to Matt Lauer through a veil of tears, “I is what I is.”
Meanwhile in Florida George Zimmerman’s trial began. He is the self-appointed neighbourhood watch captain accused of murdering the black teenager Trayvon Martin as he walked home through the suburbs grasping a packet of Skittles and a bottle of iced tea.
In evidence given so far at the trial it has been revealed that Zimmerman made many calls to police to complain about suspicious young black men, while Martin told a friend on the phone just before he was shot that he was being followed by a “creepy-ass cracker.”
Even as the National Parks Service at Gettysburg prepares for 40 commemorative events during the coming week, the Civil War festers away, no longer bloody, never quite over.
Gettysburg is popularly remembered in America as the turning point in the Civil War, though many historians would question that. By the time it began the Union and the Confederate States had fighting for two years, and after it they would fight on for two more afterwards.
By mid-1863 General Robert E Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia, though outgunned by the North, was seen as near invincible.
The South decided to invade the Northern states in the hope of breaking morale and forcing a negotiated end to the war. By happenstance Lee’s troops met General George Meade’s Army of the Potomac at the village of Gettysburg in Pennsylvania.
The three-day battle ended with Pickett’s Charge, when 12,500 Confederates advanced across open fields under Northern guns and were only just repulsed despite 50 per cent casualties.
Lee’s army retreated and never fought another offensive battle, which is why that charge is viewed by many as the high-water mark of the Confederacy.
But Horwitz believes the gallant failure of Pickett’s Charge could be another reason that Gettysburg resonates so much in the American imagination. He sees in it a parallel with Australia’s memory of Gallipoli.
Certainly the heroism of that engagement has been thickly woven into Lost Cause mythology.
Lost Causers view the war as a failed struggle for Confederate state’s rights against a tyrannical North. They describe the South as an agrarian idyll. As Horwitz puts it, a place of benign paternal slave owners, belles in hoop skirts, of moonlight and magnolia.
As he prepares his Confederate kit, correct in every detail from the hobnails in his boots to the stationery in his satchel, not even Hodge buys this line.
“People want to say it was about states’ rights. And it was. It was about the states’ rights to own slaves,” he says.
While most historians do not dispute that the South seceded because the North would not agree to the expansion of slavery, Lost Cause language suffuses the modern secessionist movement.
Secessionists remain on the fringe in the former Confederate states, but pandering to them does not harm mainstream politicians.
During a political rally in 2009 addressed by the Texas Governor Rick Perry the crowd starting chanting “secede, secede, secede”, to which the Governor responded, “If Washington continues to thumb their nose at the American people, you know, who knows what might come out of that.”
After President Barack Obama 2012 election victory secessionist talk back radio and attendant bumper stickers re-emerged in parts of the South and hundreds of thousands signed petitions advocating secession.
The secessionist muttering annoyed Chuck Thompson so much that he ended up writing the book Better Off Without ‘Em, A Northern Manifesto for Southern Secession.
In it he details the benefits to the Union should the Confederacy make good on its threats, describing how “with time, Americans would start thinking of the South as another Mexico, only with an even more corrupt government.”
Thompson says the catalyst for the book was George W. Bush’s presidency. “He would not have been elected dog catcher if it wasn’t for the f—ing South,” he tells me on the phone from his home in Oregon. And though he admits the book is at heart Swiftian, he does believe that the former Confederate states remain a unified and fundamentally different society from the rest of the nation.
“Republican loonies” like Sarah Palin (who comes from Alaska) and Michele Bachmann (Minnesota) can pop up anywhere, says Thompson, but they only thrive and receive national attention due to the South.
He says only in the South can a politician address an audience in expressly religious terms and declare that his or her prime concerns are gay marriage and abortion and still expect electoral success.
Only in the South, he says, could a man like Jake Knotts, a South Carolinian state senator, even think of saying in a public forum, “We already got one raghead in the White House, we don’t need a raghead in the governor’s mansion.”
He argues that Southern states spend less per capita on education and are addicted to cut-rate labour provided by companies lured by subsidies and tax cuts, that its politics is warped by cronyism and religion. “It is a third world economy.”
Asked how the book was received in the South he says many told him, “You are an ignorant Yankee atheist prick who is going to burn in hell.” Others thought he made some good points.
Horwitz believes the Southern states are achieving secessionist goals by introducing states legislation to nullify federal programs and laws they do not like, particularly in regards to Obamacare and abortion.
One historian who was appalled by Thompson’s book is Michael Lind, a policy director at the New America Foundation a Washington think tank.
He told Thompson “I disapprove of your project, which seems terribly snobbish, to judge by your nasty title. The last thing we need at this moment is one group of Americans suggesting others belong in a different country. … Even as a joke, it is not funny.”
Nonetheless Lind appears to agree with parts of Thompson’s thesis, if not his savage approach.
He wrote as far back as 2011 that the Tea Party was in essence a Southern movement that was responsible for the “latest of a series of attacks on American democracy by the white Southern minority, which for more than two centuries has not hesitated to paralyse, sabotage or, in the case of the Civil War, destroy American democracy in order to get their way.”
At the time, Lind calculated that 39 Tea Partiers in Congress came from the South compared with only one from the north-east. Another 22 came from the West and Midwest combined.
Lind writes not only about extreme neo-Confederate groups such as the League of the South, that to this day campaigns for secession from “the Yankee empire”, but of how the South has voted in a bloc since the war – first for Democratic, until that party embraced the civil rights movement, then for Republicans, which developed the “Southern Strategy” which made the old Confederacy a conservative Republican stronghold.
That voting pattern remains in place, with only Virginia and Florida breaking away, and those two only due to massive immigration from the North.
Back in West Virginia I ask Hodge why it is that this war attracts the re-enactors rather than others, and why so many more people want to play Rebs than Yankees. Prillaman jumps in at this point, “There’s a group that does the Battle of the Bulge every year just up the road,” he says, referring to the World War II battle. “They’ve even got tanks. God Bless America,” he adds with a laugh.
Hodge is more considered. There is always an attraction to rebels and underdogs, he says. For re-enactors it is about the beauty of the moment, about trying to get everything just right, trying to go back in time, about perfection of detail.
He shakes his head sadly when I told him about the hefty Rebel soldier I saw using the portable toilets at Gettysburg earlier in the day.
“I have a problem with weight thing. It looks ridiculous man. I lost 15 pounds for this,” he says.
He can pinpoint the greatest few minutes of his 32 years of re-enacting – last year during the battle of Sharpsville.
“In the morning we started before dark and we had all this fog around us, and it was perfect,” he says quietly. “It was this moment that lasted and lasted and lasted. It lasted about 20 minutes which is a lifetime in re-enacting, 20 minutes in this visual time warp.”
Horwitz suspects that among the 200,000 people expected to visit Gettysburg over the coming days many will simply be dutiful families dragging their children through their nation’s history.
A few, perhaps at the sites of key actions like the jumping off point for Pickett’s or at Little Round Top, the hill where a Southern attack was broken in hand-to-hand combat, will be considering the battlelines between the Union and the Confederacy.
Some might even view the world the way they did when Winston Churchill visited Virginia in 1929 and wrote in a Southerner’s voice, “We had a quiet life and culture of our own . . . We were knocked out of the world seventy years ago. We are not so very keen on going back.”