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Antietam, Gettysburg, II

Peace Eternal in a Nation United, Gettysburg

A few days ago I wrote about our just-made plan to visit Antietam National Battlefield and Gettysburg National Military Park after business in DC next week. In preparation, I had just downloaded two books for the Kindle by Civil War historian James McPherson, Antietam: the Battle That Changed the Course of the American Civil War and Hallowed Ground: A Walk at Gettysburg. Getting the books electronically had some disadvantages — maps and photographs are difficult to view — but this way Gail and I could read the books in parallel on our separate Kindles. Plus, on the iPad, the maps and photos can be viewed easily, so I was able to go back and forth between the two.

Both books are slim. Very slim. I read the Antietam book two days ago, the Gettysburg book yesterday. (I preferred to read them on the Kindle rather than the iPad, mostly because the Kindle is so much smaller and lighter. And even though initially I didn’t like the Kindle’s page-turning process, clicking a button and waiting for the e-ink to refresh, I prefer that too to the swiping motion one makes in the iPad’s Kindle app in order to turn pages.)

The books are excellent, but they have left me wishing we had allowed more time for our visits. The Antietam book places the battle in context, discussing military, political, and diplomatic developments in the months leading up to it before giving a necessarily brief treatment of the battle itself. A short final chapter discusses the consequences: Emancipation Proclamation, Republican success (or limited losses) in the 1862 mid-term election just weeks later, Britain’s decision not to intervene with an offer to mediate a settlement.

The Gettysburg book, in contrast, begins with the shortest of overviews of the battle’s context and then focuses narrowly on the three days of the battle itself, taking as its basis the on-site walking tours McPherson has often given. Though the balance of the two books is different, the Antietam book leads naturally into the Gettysburg one, since its closing overview takes us essentially through the end of 1862, whereas the Gettysburg book picks up at the beginning of 1863.

What became apparent from following McPherson back and forth across the Gettysburg battlefield is that one could spend days there. And from the Antietam book I realized how close the battlefield is to Harpers Ferry, which I have also long wished to visit. (The proximity of the two is, of course, not surprising to anyone who knows anything about the battle at Antietam, but evidently that didn’t include me.) If we get out of DC early enough in the day, we could drive up the Potomac to Harpers Ferry and then on another 16 miles to the battlefield park. The only problem is, we wouldn’t have enough time to do more than run in and out of Harpers Ferry National Historical Park before moving on. I think we’ll give it a try.

One more thing. In the context of Virginia governor Bob McDonnell’s declaration earlier in the month that April is Confederate History Month, McPherson makes an important point, in passing, in the Gettysburg book. Governor McDonnell’s initial proclamation, as I noted in an earlier post, omitted any reference to slavery, leading to a revised proclamation the next day. As McPherson walks us around the battlefield, he brings us to the monument

dedicated by President Franklin D. Roosevelt to “Peace Eternal in a Nation United” on the seventy-fifth anniversary of the battle, in July 1938. Attended by more than 1,800 actual Civil War veterans (most in their nineties), this four-day event was the last reunion of Blue and Gray. It culminated a half-century in which reconciliation between old foes was the dominant theme in Civil War memory and in the numerous joint reunions of Union and Confederate veterans.

This uniting of North and South in a renewed American nationalism was a fine thing, to be sure, but all too often it was characterized by forgetting what the war had been about. Absent from these reunions were black Union veterans who, with their white brothers in arms, had fought a war not only to preserve the nation as the United States but also to give that nation a new birth of freedom.

Categories: Books, History, Travel
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