Traveling With A Sense Of History

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The Southern sense of history is scarcely less fervent than that of Boston and Washington, and as we drive south through Virginia, we constantly encounter road signs that evoke the past. I don’t mean Richmond or Williamsburg so much as Chancellorsville and Fredericksburg and that wonderfully rightly named battlefield the Wilderness. I have read many stories about the New South and the Sun Belt, but to me the South is still to some extent the enemy side in the Civil War, the slave state.

My great-grandfather Alva J. Smith (Canada Wait had married a man named Joseph Smith) fought his way across this countryside as a corporal, then lieutenant, then captain, in the 4th New York Artillery Regiment. I thought of him hauling those horse-drawn guns through these gentle hills —hardly more than a boy, really, but trained to fire those cannons against the South.

I was visiting an old friend in Columbia, South Carolina, and he wanted to show me the state capitol. We drove downtown to inspect the building, over which, as my friend observed, local patriots periodically raised the Confederate flag. Then he pointed out the scars inflicted by General Sherman’s invaders, bullet holes surrounded by accusingly commemorative circles of white paint.

“A little more effort, and Sherman could have knocked the whole place down, Confederate flag and all,” I said. I hate nationalism and all forms of extremism, but when I found myself in the South, I suddenly found myself becoming extremely nationalistic, meaning proUnion, anti-Confederate, an abolitionist. Most people north of the Mason-Dixon line hardly have any feelings at all about the Civil War; only in the South do they have such feelings, and the feelings generally are based on the assumption that the South was right or at least misunderstood and ill used. My antagonism derives, 1 suppose, from World War II, the only other American war in which much blood was shed for an essentially moral cause, and I hate the attempts to strip away that moral element and to justify or exonerate the enemy.

“A little more effort, and Sherman could have killed all the rest of the civilians in town too,” my friend said.

“Well, I think Sherman was one of the great heroes,” I said, remembering that splendid statue outside the Plaza. “He would have been elected President if he’d been willing to accept it.”

 

“He wouldn’t have been elected if the South hadn’t been disenfranchised,” my friend retorted. “My grandmother used to get into a rage every time his name was mentioned.”

“The liberator of Georgia.” I couldn’t resist firing a final shot.

“Liberator—hell!” my friend shouted. Even Southern hospitality has some limits.

Heading northward out of the Confederacy, I decided that I wanted to stop at some of the Union shrines—Harpers Ferry, Appomattox Courthouse, Gettysburg—all meticulously restored and preserved by the National Park Service. Then, when I got back to New York, I dug out a list of half-forgotten battles that my great-grandfather had recalled and written down in the quieter years when he worked as a railroad official: Rapidan campaign, Wilderness, Spotsylvania, Po River, North Anna, Cold Harbor, Deep Bottom, Strawberry Plains, White Oak Swamp, Poplar Springs Church, Dabney’s Mills, Peeble’s Farm, Hatcher’s Run, Boydton Plank Road, Sutherland Station, Siege of Petersburg, Andrews Springs, Sailor’s Creek, High Bridge, Appomattox Courthouse. Yes, it is all there.

Out West these things are forgotten, were never known. Colorado, one reads in an account of the state’s history, had not a single white resident before about 1830. A proud guide in the home of the Unsinkable Molly Brown speaks of it as one of the oldest houses in Denver; it much resembles the scores of brick houses lining Commonwealth Avenue in Boston, the new houses built when the Back Bay was filled in after the Civil War.

The best thing about the West, of course, is precisely its lack of history, in the sense of history’s being an encrustation of human occupation, creation, and debris. Yes, I know that Santa Fe boasts of its quaint antiquity and that the Governor’s Palace dates back to 1609, a decade before anyone ever landed at Plymouth Rock, but the West I am talking about is the West of vast forests and vast plains. You can drive for miles and miles along, say, Route 14 across northern Wyoming without ever seeing any evidence (except, of course, for the highway itself) that any human being has ever set foot here. Then you come to a sign announcing the existence of some town with a name like Shawnee Fork and a population of twenty-three. And then you reach the perfection of Jenny Lake in Grand Teton National Park. If Jenny Lake were located in Switzerland, there would at least be a Benedictine monastery with a bell tolling across the meadows; if it were in New York, there would be Jenny condominiums and a Jenny marina. Here there is nothing but the incredible beauty of Jenny Lake itself, exactly as it was when God made it.