In the low light, the severely faded parchment is barely recognisable. Framed within protective glass, the familiar words; “In Congress, July 4th 1776” reaffirms that it is indeed the Declaration of Independence. An inquisitive child holds a light to the precious document only to be quickly regulated by two guards and all those around him. Americans value their history.
My previous visits to the United States have centred on its National Parks; its grand vistas and valleys serve as life enhancing natural cathedrals, shedding the acedia of modern life. I had now returned at the sesquicentennial anniversary of the Civil War (1861-1865) to gain an understanding of a chapter that has unquestionably defined its character.
Unlike other capital cities I have visited, Washington is impeccably planned and laid out. With the luxury of being built on a ‘blank’ slate, it is uncluttered by commercialism, with a distinct neoclassical architectural influence. At its centre, the Washington monument rises from a windy hilltop surrounded by a crown of fluttering flags, each representing a state. Like rings in a tree, a change in hue of the majestic stone obelisk tells of a nation asunder from when construction was suspended during wartime. From here the National Mall extends towards Capitol Hill, so called to emulate Capitoline Hill of ancient Rome. The U.S. Senate, housed in its right wing, was where the discontent of a divided nation was at times violently expressed in the run up to war.
By the mid 19th century, complex incompatibilities had formed between a wage paying industrialised north, and a largely slave owning agrarian south. Constitutional questions relating to federal power over state’s rights and a southern way of life, generated years of growing enmity which would eventually lead to secession from the Union and war.
Leaving the rush hour traffic of the capital behind, we cross the Potomac into Virginia where a weathered farmhouse stands guarded by cumbersome split rail fences. But for the rows of decaying bronze cannons stationed amidst the long swaying grass, it is difficult to imagine the dramatic scenes that took place at what is today Manassas National Battlefield. An admirable, if slightly exaggerated statue of Confederate General Thomas “Stone Wall” Jackson, faces west to oppose the Union advance. The inscription, “There stands Jackson, like a stone wall”, recounts his legendary relaxed demeanour in the face of enemy fire, having fully accepted the will of God. The ensuing Union defeat would conclude the first of many costly battles to come.
A brief stop at the N.R.A. museum displays an understanding and freedom sadly lost in Britain. In an inexhaustible debate, it is hard to imagine rioters, squatters and other brazen home intruders in a society willing and able to defend itself and its property.
Venturing further south, a misguided navigation system routes us from asphalt highway onto dirt back roads where the road signs are decorated with bullet holes. An unofficial roadblock beside a foliage-enveloped caravan, declaring “no trespassers”, prompts us to consult a map to continue. Our route brings us over the magnificent Blue Ridge Mountains, with the rolling hills of the Virginia Piedmont to the east, and the Shenandoah Valley to the west. Using these mountains as cover, an 1863 Confederate offensive advanced north towards a pivotal confrontation at the small town of Gettysburg, Pennsylvania.
The magnitude of Gettysburg National Military Park is overwhelming. Memorials of all sizes and splendour commemorate extraordinary peoples and their actions, as hundreds of cannon and lines of fortified parapets induce an immersion into an incomprehensible human intensity. Immortalised in history, the grey rain swept summit of Little Roundtop looks out onto a monotone scene strewn with craggy boulders with haunting names such as “Devils Den”. A secluded memorial to the 20th Maine honours an awe-inspiring downhill bayonet charge that saved the Union line from being flanked and defeated. Further north, an unassuming copse of trees marks the convergence point of the audacious Pickett’s Charge where over 12,000 brave Confederate infantrymen advanced into the centre of the Union line. Their sacrifice was never to be recovered from.
Returning to Washington, the timeless words of the Gettysburg Address are inscribed upon the southern chamber of the Lincoln memorial. A father sits with his young family as he patiently guides them through, line by line.
The Civil War in many ways defines America; an imperfect but ever-evolving “grand experiment of democracy”. But perhaps above all, it stands testament to its infinite resolve and the price that it is willing to pay, even upon its own, to defend its land and to ensure its survival and freedom, however paradoxical.
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