Days 18 to 19 – Chambersburg
At long last we are heading back to Washington to begin the heart of our tour – the Civil War seminars in Chambersburg, Pensylvania.
The trip to Washington airport is without incident this time, except for Imogen doing a big puddle on the floor right outside one of the airport restrooms.
Our experience with picking up the rent-a-car is less pleasant. It takes close to an hour and a half before we can get away, and somehow I get talked in to buying an extra $200 worth of insurance.
The one ‘extra’ I am very glad to pay for is the GPS system, where you enter an address and it tells you exactly where to go. This takes much of the stress out of driving, and I find that, on the first day’s driving, I consequently turn directly into oncoming traffic only once.
When we arrive at Chambersburg, we have to head straight for the evening meal, and it’s then that we discover the profile of the other persons attending the seminar. With some notable exceptions, they are almost all white and male. It is also obvious immediately that they are all significantly older than we are. Indeed, I find out pretty quickly that they are almost all retired military personell.
Most of the people I speak to on the first night know something about Australia because they took some time off there during their tour of duty in Nam. ‘No. I don’t think things have changed much‘ I tell them.
the other thing these people know about Australia is that we have horribly restrictive gun laws. ‘I’d go back to Australia’ one guy tells me ‘if it wasn’t for those gun laws. I don’t want to go round that country if I can’t shoot me somethin’.’
Over the ensuing days it would repeatedly amaze me how naturally the topic of guns kept coming up in conversations . I learnt a great deal about the unfair restrictions that certain goody-goodies (like Hillary Clinton) had put on local shooters, especially when it came to the traditional sport of shooting bears.
Apparently you can’t shoot a bear nowadays, even if it’s attacking you! “Your best bet is just to lie down and let the bear eat you” I’m told. “You’ll get a more humane treatment from the bear than you will from the government if you try to shoot one!” And there is no shortage of vivid stories amongst the lads that reinforce this point.
If there’s one thing though that these guys no more about than they do about bears and guns, it’s the Civil War. I expected to be a junior in this crowd of knowledgable buffs, but I still seriously underestimated just how far behind these guys I would be.
Most of these guys, admittedly retired, would go to a Civil War meeting, seminar or bus tour at least once every other week, if not every week. Their knowledge of Civil War battles and personalities was encyclopeadic, and in-jokes abounded.
The uncontested chief guru in the group was the senior speaker and tour guide, Ed Bearss (pronounced ‘Bars’) – one of the most amazing characters I have ever met.
Ed is 78 years old. He is a Veteran of at least two wars, and he carries a couple of old injuries. Yet Ed is one of the most agile and energetic men I have ever seen in action. I follow Ed around Antietam battlefield on the Friday, and he strides out ahead of the group the whole time, speaking continuously with his megaphhonic voice, and gesticulating wildly with his hands and with his stick, to draw attention to every minute detail of the battle.
If other persons on that weekend seemed to have an encyclopeadic knowledge of the war, Ed was the Brittanica. He clearly had a photographic memory – could tell you the name of every regiment that tramped over any particular spot on the battlefield, could tell you it’s history, who commanded it at every level, and he knew every date that the boys had seen action.
I never once saw Ed refer to a book or to notes. Sometimes he would have to close his eyes and concentrate for a moment before the precise date he was looking for would come to him, but it always came. And he never once failed to answer any of the excruciatingly obscure questions that the partipants kept throwing at him.
On top of all this, Ed turns out to be a very warm and personable man. And he still remembers Australia well from the time he took leave here, during the Korean War I think it was. He wasn’t too keen on our gun laws though.
The legendary Ed Bearss
Day 20 – Gettysburg
It is Saturday, and with the weekend arriving some younger (not-retired) people started joining those already at the seminars. This I found most encouraging. I started to find some people that I could easily relate to.
One such character I meet is a Southerner called Roger, who has an interesting day-job, transporting members of the Amish community to the local shopping malls, as well as taking them interstate to see their relatives. I learn a lot about the Amish from Roger.
The Amish do not believe in modern conveniences such as motor cars, so they refuse to drive them. They have no difficulty in accepting a lift from Roger though, so long as he does all the driving. This strikes me as an odd sort of comprimise, but Roger tells me that he is one of forty three drivers in his area who make a full-time living chauffering the Amish around, and there are a large number of casual part-time drivers on top of that number!
Saturday is the one and only day that I get to attend a full-on Civil War session with my family in tow (well, with Ange and Veronica at any rate). This involves all three of us trying to keep up with Ed Bearss as he walks us around Gettysburg National Battlefield Park, reliving Day 2 of the fateful battle of 1863.
Ed is at his best, recounting one yarn after another dealing with a whole variety of characters who I never knew had anything to do with the battle. This is great for the crowd of experts who are huddling around him, but I am feeling a little disorientated, as he is not bothering to point out the obvious landmarks (that most people on the seminar know better than they know their own back yards) and he is not bothering to say much about the major characters or about the big picture (for the same reason). Ange, of course, is more lost than me, and Veronica has found a large rock to sit upon so that she can gaze into the sky.
Things get a little more interesting for the girls when we reenact a couple of charges. This involves following Ed off the beaten track into the woods, while some of the less physically capable members of the group are bussed to the other end of the charge to wait for us behind a stone wall.
Our storming of the stone wall goes a lot more smoothly than the original charge did apparently, but on the second charge (the counter-charge of the 125th Minnesota, if I remember) Veronica walks directly over a hornets nest and is stung twice. Ange and I are also stung, as are some other members of the group. Ed Bearss continues with the charge at first, but is eventually forced to retreat and attend to the wounded.
The rest of the day for us was dominated by concerns of how to deal wtih these stings, and, let me tell you, hornets pack quite a wallop. Various battlefield employees with little medical kits and good advice soon converged on the scene of the charge. We had a variety of things applied to her wounds including ice, salt, ointment, antiseptic, the sap of one of local trees, and some cigarette tobacco.
My wound was only slight (though I note that four days later, it is still swollen) as was Ange’s. Veronica had been stung once in the hand and once in the leg, and her hand injury was by far the most swollen of any of ours. On account of this she received, the following day, a special ‘Courage Under Fire’award from the rest of the group. This included a postcard featuring the site of the charge, a sew-on battlefield patch, and a military hat insignia.
Despite these memorable trohpies, I do not really expect Veronica to ever look back fondly on these Civil War Seminars. The other members of the group were very supportive though, and Ed Bearss was being quite sincere when he said that he only wished it had happened to him. At 78 years of age though, we were quite happy it didn’t happen to him.
With the Randalls
on Little Round Top
Days 21 to 22 – Farewell to Chambersburg
On our third Sunday in the US, we finally managed to attend a church service. We went to the morning mass at the Episcopal church at Gettysburg – the only church ever built in honour of those who died on the Gettysburg battlefield.
The service is refreshing and the building is fascinating. More exciting still though is the fact that we attend the service with our new-found friends – the Randalls.
We had met up with Richard and Martha (‘Marty’) Randall the day before, as their eldest daughter, Marian, had been minding Imogen while the rest of us were battling with hornets on the battlefield. We had actually become good friends though long before we met in person.
The relationship had developed through my attempts to find a baby-sitter for Imogen, but by the time this actually happened, Marty and I had exchanged about 400 emails. She had turned out to be more of a Civil War buff than I was, and had a great-uncle who fought on Little Round Top, so we had had found plenty to talk about!
By Sunday night we had checked out of the hotel and were staying with the Randalls, who already had a household of four persons, two dogs, two cats, a guinea-pig, and a handful of fish. Even so, the house seemed to be able to absorb the extra load. No one complained at any rate.
In brief, our time with the Randalls will undoubtedly be remembered as one of the highlights of the trip. I enjoyed talking with Marty until late in the night, helping Richard with the reconfiguring of his computer, and both Marian and her younger sister Barbara were lovely.
Of course, the Civil War Seminars also finished up on the Sunday, and I should conclude my commentary on them by noting some highlights:
1. Hearing Colonel Jeb Stuart IV describe Union Cavalry commander Phil Sheriden as ‘the man that killed my great-grand-daddy’.
2. Listening to historian Richard McMurry, who was as witty as he was insightful, challenge everything I thought I did know about the war.
3. Meeting Charles and Cammy Bryan, who were by far the most gracious persons we met at the seminars. Charles is director of the Virginia Historical Society and editor of the recently published ‘Eye of the Storm’ – yet another Civil War book that I’d like to read.
Speaking of Civil War books, I must say that, to my shame, I have now collected so many books that I am having to mail a box of them back home, as they are just getting too heavy to lug around with us. Well, you just can’t buy this stuff back in Australia. That’s the excuse I keep giving myself.
The other side of the story though is that I’ll never finish reading this stuff back in Australia. I now have such a collection of Civil War books that I’ll probably have saved up enough money to revisit the Chambersburg seminars by the time I’ve finished reading them!
On the Monday we have the pleasure of doing the ‘Randall tour of Gettysburg’, which was invaluable for all of us I think. We finally got to stroll around the battlefield at our own pace and get our bearings. Things were going real well, at any rate, until Imogen wet per pants on Little Round Top. Perhaps the emotion of the place just got to her.
The great highlight of the visit for me though was my opportunity to remake Pickett’s charge. It took me about ten minutes, going at the double-quick. It was an experience though that I found I didn’t want to talk about much afterwards. Even now, I feel like I need to live with that experience a little bit longer before saying anything much about it.
I had wanted Ange to film me though in my final moments before I reached the stone wall. Strangely, I managed to go over the wall at a spot Ange didn’t expect, and had flanked her before she realised I was there! Retracing my steps, I found that I had in fact crossed the wall at ‘the Angle’, where General Armistead himself had breached the wall. Indeed, I realised that my charge had ended right on the spot where the noble Armistead had fallen!
Along with this semi-mystical experience, a lot of more mundane things happened on that Monday.
I took Veronica to the local GP as her hornet would was still very swollen. We spent about AUS $170 this time to be told that she’d be fine.
Marty and Richard took me to a variety of Civil War trinket shops, with a view to finding me a Confederate Generals jacket. It was probably just as well that stocks were low due to the major reenactment that was taking place. The only jacket in the style I wanted was too big for me. It also carried a price tag of more than US$200!
Going through the trinket shops brought me into contact with some of the craziest and some of the tackiest Civil War memorabilia imagineable. I wil never forget the General Lee cross-stitch or the children’s General Lee dress up set, (featuring cardboard cut-outs of the General and his family in their underwear, to which can be added a variety of cardboard outfits).
My favourite trinket though would have to be the ‘instant Civil War’ pack. ‘Just add water’, it said ‘to create your own Civil War!’ Inside the plastic pack were half a dozen blue capsules, that presumably were meant to expand upon contact with water into fearsome military figures. At $2 per pack I’m kicking myself now that I didn’t get any.
That night I stayed up until 3am going through my email and trying to respond to a few problems from the home-front. I was like an addict finally getting a ‘computer’ fix. It was heavenly.
At the double-quick – crossing
the stone wall at ‘the Angle’
Days 23 to 24 – New York
New York, New York!
Well, that’s not the full story of these days, but the image of the Big Apple certainly dominated.
We began Tuesday with the Randalls in Chambersburg, had lunch with my cousin, Sarah, in Philadelphia, and had hoped to get into New York by late afternoon or early evening. As it was, it was close to midnight before we finallyfound our hotel.
Lunch in ‘Philly‘ with Sarah and her husband Jason was very pleasant. Thing then started to fall apart.
Firstly we got a parking ticket ,which was a bad omen (and which I hope doesn’t stop us leaving the country).
Secondly, the GPS system stopped working. It couldn’t work out where New York was at first, and when it did, it couldn’t get us there. We turned it off. Somehow the whole concept of New York was just too overwhelming for the machine, and the closer we got to Manhattan Island the more understandable this became.
New York was sort of like what I had expected all of America to be like – big and busy and polluted. It is an enormous urban sprawl painted entirely in different shades of grey.
After the GPS system failed, my window stopped working (which made it difficult to pay tolls) and it was then that I realised that the hand-brake had been left half-on for God knows how long.
The traffic in New York is the worst I’ve seen in the world. That’s for certain. Despite the fact that it’s late at night, every street is packed with cars wildly honking at eachother. I am driving around, not having a clue where I am going for the most part, but unable to stop, as there don’t seem to be any quiet streets where one can simply pull over. People are honking, taxis are cutting in in front of me, and Imogen is carrying on continuously with some demonically inspired winging and crying in the back seat.
We reactivate the GPS system, hoping that it has now worked out where we are. It locates us in the middle of a body of water and suggests we do an immediate U-Turn. As it is, we are in a one-way street, so this is a particularly bad idea. We turned it off again.
Thankfully, we remembered that my cousin had insisted on giving us a map of New York before we left Philadelphia, and by the grace of God, and with the help of some good map-work from Ange, we eventually find our hotel. It turns out not to have a parking lot, and we have to pay AUS $160 to put the car in a parking lot around the corner, but this is really a small price to pay, all things considered.
We filled the following day with as much of New York as was feasibly possible – a bus tour of the downtown area, a ride up the Empire State building, and a tour of the Statue of Liberty. In each case I find the experiences disappointing.
The downtown tour guide points out repeatedly that everything in New York is the biggest and best of its kind in the world – the biggest department store, the largest financial centre, the biggest DVD shop, etc, In truth, the biggest and best turns out to be a little smaller and less interesting than I had imagined.
The biggest department store is just another department store, even if it is bigger. The Empire State building does not really appear to be all that tall, and the Statue of Liberty is actually much smaller than I had imagined. I think I had it confused with the Colossus of Rhodes. Besides that, they won’t allow us to climb up into the head of the statue. Very disappointing.
The evening was certainly the highlight though. Ange and Veronica procured half price tickets to a Broadway musical and I walked Imogen home through Central Park at dusk without getting mugged.
While Ange and Veronica enjoyed ‘Kiss Me Kate’, I relaxed in a bath. It was the first bath I’d had time for on the trip. Indeed, it was the first time I’d felt I had time for a bath in a good few years. In the bath I read the remainder of the memoirs of Confederate General John Bell Hood – moving beyond words!
Ange says she enjoyed New York. I was never happier than when I had left it behind. She found it vibrant and exciting. I found it dishevelled and chaotic. Perhaps she expected less of it and I expected too much.
If so, at least I am in good company. The quote we were given from one early immigrant stayed with me:
“I had been told that in New York the streets were paved with gold. When I got there I found that they hadn’t even been paved. And I had to do the paving.”
New York, New York –
colour & chaos
Days 25 to 26 – Manassas
One positive I should mention about New York – the Manhattan Diner on Broadway (near 75th street). We enjoyed the cheapest and most decent breakfast I think we’d had on the whole trip up to this point. And to think that everyone had warned us how expensive things would be in New York!
That will remain my only positive memory of New York, about which I have nothing more to say.
The GPS system started to recover once we got a good distance from the big city, and my car window magically started working again too! I could feel my own muscles relaxing along with the car’s as we entered Virginia again.
We enjoyed a simple dinner at a local diner and things boded well for the big 1st Manassas reenactment scheduled for the morrow.
Unfortunately, things did not turn out as well as I had envisaged. We got up late. Everyone seemed grumpy or in pain by the time we had breakfast. Compounded with lengthy the delays in the traffic, we didn’t reach Leesburg (where the reenactment was to take place) until about 2 in the afternoon. Within an hour or so of getting there Imogen had wet not one but two sets of pants, and it was obvious that we would have to head home again.
That was more or less it for our family reenactment adventure. I resolved the next day to come back by myself. This was not going to be the highlight of our family holiday as I had somehow imagined it to be.
some good ol’ boys relaxing
Days 27 to 28- Still in Manassas
I left the hotel in the morning while the rest of the family were still in bed. I didn’t feel at all good about heading off by myself, but there were no other options. As it was, Saturday turned out to be an excellent day for all of us.
Ange and the girls spent a quiet day in the pool and lolling around the local shops. It seemed that the girls needed the rest. I, on the other hand, returned to the Manassas reenactment, to spend a day in the unrelenting sun.
I stayed for most of the day, got a bit sunburnt, and had an excellent time. What made it so great?
1. I picked up the Confederate ‘grey coat‘ that I had been looking for. Technically, it was a VMI jacket (Virginia Military Institute), but it seemed to be of a far better cut than some of the ones I had seen on the previous days, and at US $90, it was less than half the price of similar ones I had seen.
2. I struck up many an interesting conversation with some some fascinating people:
- A long-bearded Confederate fellow who has written five books on topics such as ‘the Truth about Slavery’ and‘Attrocities Committed by the North’.
- His red-necked friend who was a Veteran of Korea and Vietnam, had a patch over one eye that was evidence of one of many injuries, who raised Bison for a living, and who would like to visit Australia if it wasn’t for our damn gun laws.
- An inane Yankee woman who I shared a food line with, who stopped every passing reenactor to ask them which side they were on and then to take their picture. I also heard all about her family from Minnesotta.
- An even more ignorant woman from Kentucky who knew very little about the Civil War, but, as it turned out, knew even less about Australia. “You speak good English for someone from Australia” she said. “Do many people in Australia speak English?”
- A man who was as overweight as we was knowledgeable, and who also shared the food line with the first woman. His great grandfather had fought in the Virginia cavalry and was apparently captured four times, but escaped three times.
3. I got to meet Robert Lee Hodge.
I was fast finding out that the people I had been looking forward to meeting on this trip were not turning out like I had expected..
I had been looking forward to meeting Dean Regan for example – the organiser of the Manassas event. Big disappointment.
I had been looking forward to meeting Robert Lee Hodge, but envisaged him as being the epitome of a hard-nosed red-neck. The man I met was warm, passionate and humble – a very decent human being indeed.
Bob Hodge spontaneously gave me half an hour of his time, introduced me to his friends, and shared with me much about his passion for preserving battlefields as national parks. He was well-reasoned and articulate, and much younger than I had imagined too.
It took me quite literally an hour and a half to get out of the battlefield parking lot, which indicates how many people were there that day. Even so, I managed to have a quiet dinner with the family, which topped off perfectly a great day.
Sunday in many ways was even better. Unfortunately we missed the beginning of the historic-style church service at the reenactment site, but got there for a good half hour of sermonising from a Baptist preacher dressed in Civil War attire.
Pastor Ed, it turns out, runs the ‘Mission to Reenactors’ full-time along with his wife. He holds worship services and preaches 47 weekends out of 52 each year – travelling to reenactments all over the country. He also runs a little sutler’s tent at the reenacments which sells Civil War paraphenalia. Putting the proceeds together with offerories, this keeps the family going.
At a book signing after the service we got to meet Tony Horwitz, author of ‘Confederates in the Attic’ – the book that, more than anything else, had inspired this trip in the first place.
This was unbelievable. I had spent many sleepless nights before embarking on this trip trying to track down Tony Horwitz. Tony was one of the top two guys I really wanted to meet while in the US, the other being Shelby Foote. I had written to Shelby but got no reply. I had only been able to get an email portal for Tony – wherein you can send an email to someone without knowing their actual email address. This meant that I had no idea whether my emails had really been reaching him. I had certainly had no reply. and had given up all hope of hearing from him. And here he was!
It turned out that the reason I hadn’t been able to reach him was because he had been in Australia the whole time. Indeed, he had been living all that time in Balmain – all of fifteen minutes from where we live!
It turns out that his wife is from Ashfield, and that he had been in Balmain for more than a year. There’s a sermon illlustration in there somewhere!
The highlight of the day really though was having the whole family meet Robert Lee Hodge. He was as gracious to the rest of the family as he had been to me, as were his friends. Bob was actualy busy with a whole crew of persons filming some reenactors, but he still took time out for us. What a guy!
I exchanged business cards with Bob and he was keen to keep in contact. I promised him a room if he ever came to Sydney, which he would indeed be welcome to. God bless him.
We didn’t stay for the actual battle reenactment. Imogen was just getting too restless, and she didn’t improve much over the rest of the day. It didn’t feel right, leaving while everyone else was arriving, but it did mean that there were no hour and a half long traffic jams this time!
The rest of the day was a bit of a blur. I wandered around the real Manassas battlefield for part of the afternoon, and was very impressed with the efforts they had made to preserve the park. It helped me to appreciate Bob Hodge’s passion for battlefield preservation. And the best thing about the park was that there was only one monument (Jackson on a horse), unlike Gettysburg, which is so littered with monuments that it looks a little more like a shop than a battlefield.
Tomorrow we head off for Lexington, which will be the final leg of our journey. I’m starting to see the green, green grass of home on the horizon, which could be paprticularly green at the moment, as I didn’t organise anybody to do the moving while we were away.
Bob Hodge & Me
Days 29 to 30 – Lexington
We enjoy our first continental breakfast at the hotel before leaving, which I find out now (after three days) was compimentary to all hotel guests. This is the first time we have taken advantage of the free breakfast, and if I weren’t in better spirits, this might have ruined my entire week. It’s the Scott in me.
We had determined to go to Lexington via Richmond, but I persuaded the family to stop off at Fredericksburg on the way too, and, personally, I was very glad we did.
Right next to the parking lot at the Battlefield Visitors’ Centre is the famous stone wall, against which Federal General Burnside hurled charge after charge of Union troops. Some two thousand Federal troops felll before that wall. The very spot where our car was parked was probably once bathed in blood.
This was a very sacred place. Sadly, there was no time to visit the battlefields of Fredericksburg, Chancellorsville, the Wilderness, or Spotsylvania – all of which were accessible from this point. If we ever return to the US, I must spend a few days in Fredericksburg.
We make it to Richmond by early afternoon, and get lost almost immediately. We’re searching for the Virginia Historical Society, which I know is associated with some sort of museum. We’re also overdue for lunch.
Our GPS helps us track down a street which has three Italian resteraunts in it, all in healthy competition with each other. We get some budget-priced Italian food from an Indian famiily with heavy Southern accents. It’s a strange world.
We then track down the Historical Society, which turns out to be an enormous and prestigious museum.
In our country an historical society is a group that meets in somebody’s kitchen about once a month. Things are different here. This is one of the best museums I’ve ever seen and features such priceless artifacts as Robert E. Lee’s desk set, Jeb Stuart’s blood-stained sash that he was wearing when he was killed, various things once belonging to Stonewall Jackson, and a sword that I think belonged to Colonel John Mosby.
We had the privelage of being escorted around the museum by Charles Bryan, the director of the Historical Society, who we had met in Chambersburg. He was as gracious towards us as ever, and even the girls seemed to enjoy themselves.
We left Richmond via Monument Avenue, featuring enormous sculptures of Jackson, Jefferson Davis, the marble man (Lee), and (perhaps surprisingly) Arthur Ashe – famous black tennis player.
Ashe had been a local too, but the erection of his monument had been the cause of some unfortunate controversy at the time. Certainly the monument makes a statement.
We arrive at Lavender Hill Farm, Lexington, later than we had intended of course, but the hosts – Sarah and John – are very gracious. This looks like it will be the perfect place to conclude our holiday.
John and Sarah serve us a lovely home-cooked breakfast the next morning, and the large portrait of Robert E. Lee that overlooks the table makes for a particularly fine meal.
We chat with the young couple for some time after the meal, discover that they are Episcopalians of sorts, know a fair bit about the Civil War, and that John used to attend the Virginia Military Institute (VMI).
This is a bonus for me, as John is able to show me the proper way to wear my VMI jacket, purchased at the Manassas reenactment. Further, he thinks that the $90 I paid for it was a real bargain, which more than compensates for the missed breakfasts in Manassas.
John and Sarah strike me as the sort of patriotic Americans that I had expected a great many more Americans to be like. They have a US flag hanging over their front porch. They are positive and optimistic about their country’s future. They feel good about who they are and about where they’ve come from.
John thinks that Lee and Jackson were great guys, but that they were on the wrong side. He admits though that his grandmother would turn over in her grave if she could hear him saying this.
As we talk some more, it becomes clear that John’s patriotism is not linked particularly to the past, but is far more focused on the present and the future. ‘This is the land of opportunity’ he says.‘Anybody in this country can become rich or even a movie star if they work at it hard enough.’ And there is no doubt that he and Sarah are working hard. Good luck to both of them.
In the afternoon we journeyed into Lexington and visited the two places that had drawn me to this town – VMI, which had a Stonewall Jackson museum, and Lee Chapel, the fnal resting place of Robert E. Lee.
The Jackson museum was fine, and featured the raincoat Jackson was wearing when he was shot (complete with bullet hole) and the authentic Little Sorrel (his horse) – stuffed and looking as bright as ever. But the focal point was always going to be Lee Chapel – originally the chapel for the Washington-Lee University, and now the final resting place for the great man and his entire family.
It was a beautiful place that left me feeling somewhat teary. Lee’s tomb was there, and alongside him were his wife and children, and only a few metres away, outside the door of the crypt was the tomb of Traveller, Lee’s horse.
Inside the chapel there was a plaque marking the spot where Lee sat for chapel (front row on the far left). I sat there for a while, and have never felt closer to the great man.
Even from that corner though my eyes were drawn to the monument that lies at centre stage, a lifesize image of Lee lying in state, or at least that’s what it appears to be.
It’s actually a statue of Lee resting during battle. He is in full uniform, with his eyes closed but his hand resting on his sword, ready to rise as soon as his country needs him.
I don’t know how Lee would have felt about this monument, which was obviously not envisaged until well after his death. There he lies, the eternal warrior, ready to rise as soon as the bugle calls. It is a grand image, but of course Lee, in his later years, was keen to put the war behind him, and he wanted his countrymen to do the same.
Lee was quoted, towards the end of his life, as saying that the only mistake he ever made with his life was to choose a military career. Evidently he went to his grave with a fair degree of regret about his days as a soldier. I wonder how he would feel about the way he has been immortalised.
Even so, for me, Lee stands for more than that particular war, which of course had very little to do with me directly. For me he symbolises the courage it takes to stand by your convictions and to give your all for the things you believe in. The image of the man at peace, yet with his hand ever on his sword, is a powerful one to me. I can think of nothing grander than to be remembered like that.
Day 31 – Heading Home
From this point on our remaining time in the US could only be anti-climactic. The visit to Lee Chapel was the fitting conclusion to my Civil War pilgrimage, and we just seemed to be treading water for the remaining two days.
We went to Appomattox Court House, the place of Lee’s surrender, and saw a thoroughly professional performance by some reenactors talking about the closing of the war.
Veronica and I took the Lexington Ghost Tour in the evening, which concluded with a moonlit visit to the Stonewall Jackson memorial cemetery. There participants were encouraged to stand before the statue of Jackson which adorned his grave, take a series of deep breaths and then look up at his face to see if he said anything. Not surprisingly, we were told that quite a number of those who had stood hyperventilating in front of that tomb in the middle of the night had seen Jackson reanimated.
As it was, even if Jackson had jumped down from his podium and started to ‘sweep the field with the bayonet’, I don’t think it would have affected me too deeply. I was still sitting there in the chapel with Lee.
Our trip home was a mess. At the time our internal flight to L.A. was supposed to be leaving, the United Airlines staff were making frustrated announcements about how if everybody stopped crowding around the departure gate, they might be able to beginning boarding within half an hour.
During that half hour my entire collection of Civil War prints and posters that I had collected over the trip disappeared. Presumably some overly industrious cleaner had picked up the rolled-up tube of prints, assuming it to be rubbish. I assume that they found their way to the garbage compactor. The United woman said ‘well, I don’t know what to say to you sir, but we won’t take responsibility’. Thanks a lot United.
It’s probably fitting to conclude my travel diary with some broad impressions that the trip has left me with:
1. The US road system is terrific. Australia is moving in the right direction, but has a long way to go before you can travel so easily by road all over the country, always travelling on four-lane highways and bypassing all minor and major cities when you want to.
2. The US medical system is terrible. Thank God for the Labor government who brought in public health care in Australia. Not only does the US’s reliance on private health cover discriminate against the poor, but the complexity of the private health-care system seems to increase the overheads of medical care significantly. Every doctor seemed to have a vast staff of office workers. I assume that it is this, along with the American tendency to sue your doctor, that makes a medical check-up cost two to three times what it does in Oz, even without taking the exchange rate into account.
3. America has way too many choices. You can’t buy a salad in the US without being confronted with ten choices of dressing. If you want a beer, you’re given a long list of options. Even McDonalds and other fast-food outlets build so much flexibility into their menus that it takes a novice more time to choose the meal than it does to eat it. It must tap into something deep in the culture – a native pride in freedom of choice. I just found it frustrating.
4. America is a big place. I assume that this is why so few Americans bother travelling overseas. It’s not just that they don’t think the rest of the world matters. It’s also because there’s so much variety across the American continent, Why bother going to the extra trouble and expense of going overseas when there’s so much happening within driving distance.
5. There’s also a lot of green space – certainly a lot more than I had imaged. I envisaged driving betwen American cities as being something like trying to get from Sydney to Newcastle – hours of traffic lights and traffic jams before you eventually reach a highway and some green stuff. No. Within a few minutes of leaving the centre of Washington, you seem to be in rural America. And rural America just goes on and on. There seems to be plenty of room to fit more Americans yet.
6. Spirituality and patriotism are much more deeply linked than in Australia. Perhaps that’s the wrong way of putting it, as it suggests that there is some level of patriotism on Australian soil. Let’s say rather that American spirituality has a more obvious national corporate dimension.
Reading something of their church history helped to make sense of this. Large parts of the country had been colonised by those seeking religious freedom, and so much of the early legislation had been bound in with faith issues.
The pietistic legacy of these founding fathers seems to be a deep-seated belief in the link between national righteousness and prosperity. You wouldn’t find any Australian Prime Minister calling the nation to their knees for a day of prayer and fasting. Indeed, the idea is laughable, but American history is full of this sort of thing.
Of course, the prayer and fasting tradition doesn’t get much truck in the present day. Perhaps the legacy of the spiritual fathers is gradually evaporating. Yet I have a feeling that this might still be at the basis of the faith US citizens seem to place in their political leaders too. Again, one can’t imagine anything more inimical to Australian culutre.
7. The ‘tacky but sincere’ label that seemed to sum up the West coast certainly had it’s place in the East as well. Certainly the way the South treated some of the great Civil War leaders had elements of Disneyland all through it.
Where else could you find something like ‘Stonewall Jackson, the musical’ – now in its 17th season in Lexington. Indeed, the amount of merchandising that has been created to celebrate the Civil War’s great leaders undoubtedlly rivals the industry generated by Mickey Mouse and his friends.
In addition to things already mentioned, I saw numerous Jackson and Lee badges and fridge magnets,toy dolls, T-shirts, coffee cups, calenders and hats. And the trinket I couldn’t resist buying – the ready-for-bed cuddle-me General Lee, complete with bendable cloth sword. – soon to take pride of place at my bed-head (replacing the cudldle-me Jawa (from Star Wars).
This raises an important question for me course. Does the American interest in General Lee and the Civil War have anything to do with the reasons I’m interested in them?
I discovered Lee as a spiritual mentor at a time when I was really ‘in the wars’ (so to say). To me he is still my ideal model of integrity and tennacity under pressure. It occurs to me now though that I have had very few discussions with American Civil War afficionados about exactly these things. Certainly the strength of character of the mable man is taken for granted by everyone, but it is not at all clear that it is those same qualities that I see in Lee that have elevated him to the position of a national icon.
When I think of those I met at the Civil War Seminar, it seems that many buffs have just naturally fallen into Civil War interest. They had ancestors who fought and died in the war and/or they had a natural interest in military matters.
Judging from those I met at the Manassas reenactment, many reenactors fall in love with the Civil War for nostalgic reasons. It represents a time when men were really men and women were truly feminine. Those were days when there were clear values, when you knew who you were and what your role was in the community. Life was simpler back then. Of course life was also often short and brutal back then, but, given the choice, many, it seems, would still accept the trade off.
If I took my lead from some of the less savoury characters I’ve met, I would have to say that for some people the Civil War is still tied in with scape-goating the damn Yankees (and, to a lesser extent, the blacks) for all their problems.
And then again, in the gift-shop culture, it seems that Southerners elevate their local Generals in the way they might support their local football team.
In all these instances I don’t doubt that there is some awareness of the sort of human qualities that make a man like Lee worth admiring, but I suspect that in most cases, the assessment is pretty shallow.
I combine this thought with the other most suprising insight I gained in the US – that American patriotism seems to be less rooted in the past than it is in the present and in hopes for the future – and I am able to give expression to one final impression:
8. That there seems to be something a bit brittle about the American psyche.
Naturally I’m generalising, but I’m haunted by images of bell hops, waiters and airport employees who have barely been able to conceal the contempt they have for the work they are doing. I think of the panic at the aiport terminal when things were running late, and that woman who stared blankly at me saying ‘I don’t know what to say to you sir, but we won’t take responsibility’.
I’d seen that look before in the faces of a great number of menial workers here. It was more than that obsessive ‘public service mentaility’ we’re used to in Australia. Could it be that here I was dealing with people who had lost their American dream?
If American patriotism and idealism are built upon dreams for the future rather than reverence for the past, then what happens when things don’t work out and the dream shatters? Could there be a large sub-culture of Americans who feel that they’ve been duped by their country?
If American pride is loosing its roots in faith and in history, what will that mean for the future of the country? I’ll have to give this some more thought.