Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Traveling south

With apologies to Tony Hurwitz and Sarah Vowell . . .

We went down to Fredericksburg on Saturday. There's some colonial history, George Washington's mother was born there, and his boyhood home, Ferry Farm, is nearby. And beautiful homes, some ante, most postbellum. Apart from some cute shops, for tourists its' mostly The War Between the States.

We had Zorro with us, and folks down there sure love dogs, so we got lots of smiles and he was much admired and petted. One gentleman came over and ended up with Zorro licking his whole face (as he will do, if you let him), after he left Liz said that at first she thought he was speaking another language, but no, it was just the combination of a drawl and maybe a few less than a full complement of teeth. Nice fella.

So we walked around the town, did some window shopping and spent just enough time retracing the battles of Fredericksburg (December 1862, Confederate victory, due mainly to bureaucratic hangups that delayed the arrival of pontoon bridges needed to cross the Rappahannock--I guess the federal government hasn't changed all that much) and Chancellorsville (May 1863, Confederate victory, due mainly to "Fighting Joe" Hooker's failure to live up to his nickname; known best as the battle in which Stonewall Jackson fell to friendly fire). We left the battles of the Wilderness and Spotsylvania Courthouse (Grant v. Lee in 1864, bloody but inconclusive) for another day. The National Park Service does a good job of helping you to imagine what it must have been like to fight over that ground, where so many gave their last true measure of devotion or were maimed for live. There's a genuine Confederate uniform with the leg cut off due to the amputation the man who wore it endured.

All very interesting and noble, but I can't help but wonder why one of the main roads is called the Jefferson Davis Highway, and why the Park Service memorializes Lee and Jackson, both of whom went to West Point, wore the uniform of the United States and fought for their country before raising arms against it. The guy who leaked information to Wikileaks is called a traitor, some are calling for him to be executed, and he will undoubtedly spend some years in prison. Somehow I don't think they'll be naming state highways after him. So why do we have statues honoring Confederate generals? Why wasn't Lee taken out and shot as a traitor?

Liz says that this reconciliation is part of what preserved the Union and is a testament to America's strength. But didn't it also help preserve a Jim Crow way of life that persisted into the 1960s? Maybe a little more shock and awe after the Civil War was over would have been a good thing. Of course I know my history, Lincoln was assassinated, Andrew Johnson became President and radical reconstruction came to an end. But that still doesn't explain why we continue to glorify a society that was built on the idea that one person can own another. I'm not sure why my tax dollars are going to honor those who fought to continue that barbarism and cruelty.

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