Try to follow my reasoning here, but remember it came from thoughts of myself when I was 20.
The summer of 1962 found me working on the Rouge River near Agness, Ore. Thirty miles downriver at Gold Beach, the river empties into the Pacific Ocean. So it made perfect sense to get a job the following summer right on the Atlantic Ocean at Pemaquid Point, Maine. If you are hitchhiking to Maine, youthful logic told me, you might as well go through Pennsylvania and see the battlefield at Gettysburg.
All of this explains how I found myself sleeping in the woods west of Gettysburg. I woke up after dawn on the morning of June 3, 1963. With the sleeping bag rolled up under my arm and my duffle perched on my shoulder, I started down from the hill toward the road. Across a wide and flat plain, the mist was slowing rising. As it did so, it revealed a corresponding series of hills to the east.
As I reached the road, I realized where I was. I had slept on Seminary Ridge, and those hills to the east were Cemetery Ridge. On that very day, 100 years ago less one month, a Confederate general named George Pickett ordered his men to charge the Union forces across that flat land to those eastern hills.
It was not a sound decision. The rebels fired their artillery, and when the northerners stopped firing back they assumed they had quieted the northern guns. But Union forces had stopped for two different reasons: first, they were short of ammunition and, secondly, they wanted to save rounds to repel the anticipated charge of the Confederates.
I still remember to this day looking across that incredibly flat terrain toward where the Yankees had positioned themselves. It is more than a mile across those fields to the base of Cemetery Ridge. Twelve thousand men from the South attempted to traverse that ground. Although they almost reached the Union lines, at the end of the day, more than 50 percent of them were either captured, wounded or dead.
Can anyone question their bravery was any different than young lads from the North? Their blood the same color as their adversary? When the widow was informed of her young husband’s death and then received two weeks later the last letter he wrote, her grief was the same regardless of whether she lived in New York or Virginia.
Courage was not a commodity limited to one side. Yes, the rebels’ cause was bad, and slavery had to end, but I am not certain we can preserve the memory of the courage of that battlefield if now we pretend only the winning army was there.
Removing the symbols of the Confederacy, like the flag, is appropriate. Striking down racism wherever it is found is mandatory. But statutes were not always erected as a monument to slavery. Some simply reflect the South remembering the valor of their fathers, husbands and sons.
I know white extremists have appropriated the Confederate Army’s memory as a testament to their perceived notion of racial superiority. But that doesn’t mean the rest of us have to follow their lead and engage in a rush of destruction of that chapter of our nation’s history. Further, to me it implies we are still there, ignoring the progress made by North and South.
When I was young I went seeking two oceans. I think I found a third.
At the outbreak of the Civil War, President James Buchanan, Lincoln’s predecessor, was “floating in a sea of perplexity.” On this issue, I am in the raft right next to him. I want to honor their valor, but they fought for the wrong cause.
Columnists are supposed to tell you what to think. This one you will have to sort out for yourself.
I still can’t get over, as the sun rose and chased away the mist, how flat that land was between the hills on that July 3rd morning in 1863.