Besides being one of the best liberal arts educations you can get, the study of history is also quite therapeutic. The ancient Stoics had a technique for helping individuals deal with the vicissitudes of life, called negative visualization. Basically it’s about preparing your mind for the worse by imagining, beforehand, that things could be a lot worse. Well socially speaking the study of history pretty much provides the same therapy. We may think the current coronavirus epidemic and all that’s happening are really bad, but as any good student of history would tell you, “True, these are not the best of times, but believe me our societies have faced situations far far worse.”
It’s only in modern times, with the advances of modern medical science, like vaccinations, antibiotics, and antiviral drugs, that societies have been able to save millions of lives ultimately from deadly bacterias and viruses that regularly emerge within populations. I would say the discovery of the vaccine should be rated the greatest life saving discovery in medical science history. Before vaccines any new toxic bacteria or deadly virus disappeared only after it had burned through a population.
For example, when the bubonic plague (known as “the Black Death”) was ravaging Europe during the 14th century some regions, towns, and cities, had well over 50% of the population whipped out. It’s estimated that two-thirds of the approximately 660,000 deaths of soldiers during the American Civil War were caused by uncontrolled infectious diseases. Upwards of 2 million soldiers died of infectious diseases during WWI. During the 1918-1919 Spanish influenza epidemic, the world’s death toll was somewhere between 50 and 100 million dead. In the United States alone we had about 675,000 deaths caused by the Spanish flu.
History provides something needed by individuals and societies during difficult and challenging times, and that’s perspective.
The current coronavirus epidemic is a very challenging situation. No one should downplay the long term damage and disruption to our society. But while we’re lamenting how bad this situation is we should try to remember that many past generations in history experienced far worse and ultimately recovered, rebuilt, and thrived. We will too.
This book is a portrait of hours in which the politics of fear were prevalent—a reminder that periods of pubic dispiritedness are not new and a reassurance that they are survivable.
I am writing now not because past American presidents have always risen to the occasion but because the incumbent American president so rarely does.
— Jon Meacham
I recently completed Jon Meacham’s new book, The Soul of America: The Battle for our Better Angels. An instant New York Times bestseller, it is, for various reasons, a very timely book for these very challenging—sometimes soul crushing—and chaotic times. As a historian, Meacham takes a look at the past—from the American Civil War to the Civil Rights era—in order to provide an informed (more hopeful) perspective about the possible trajectory of our turbulent times. In some sense, Meacham’s book is mental therapy; it’s meant to talk you off that ledge.
Meacham looks at some of the great American social struggles—i.e. the civil war, rise of the Klan, women’s movement, the civil rights era, etc, etc,—and some of the prominent people who’ve shaped our nation’s slow march toward a more (though not) perfect union. He focuses mostly on Presidents who, while not perfect, usually (until recently) used their office to lead, to unite and heal, not to divide and humiliate, Americans. With that said, Meacham’s goal is to also remind us that “the struggle is real,” that tumultuous times are more the rule than the exception, and that we must participate in our democracy if we expect hope to prevail over fear. He reminds us that the soul of America is no different than the soul of an individual. It’s a battleground of light and darkness, of hope and fear, of order and chaos. “Our fate is contingent upon which element—that of hope or that of fear—emerges triumphant.” What we pray for, and what our history suggests, is that hope will prevail over fear given enough time, visionary leadership, and activism by the people. Visionary and ethical leaders, as if we need reminding, aren’t guaranteed, but a free people who are hopeful and determined, can prevail over the forces of darkness, fear, and reaction.
Also, for those, like me, who collect quotes, I should note, that besides being a great read, Meacham’s book is worth having just for the quotes alone. The book is littered with great quotes, some I’d never seen before, by prominent people in our history.
Here is a sampling:
“Duty” is the operative word in the following quote. Duty requires one to subordinate one’s personal interests to those of the greater good, the nation, the law. Governing as if these two interests seem to always conveniently sync, is often called “corruption.”
In a government like ours it is the duty of the Chief magistrate, in order to enable himself to do all the good which his station requires, to endeavor, by all honorable means, to unite in himself the confidence of the whole people. — Thomas Jefferson, 1810
I’d never seen follwing one before, but it’s a damn good one, and without a doubt from my experience a rock solid truth:
Now, look, I happen to know a little about leadership. I’ve had to work with a lot of nations, for that matter, at odds with each other. And I tell you this: you do not lead by hitting people over the head. Any damn fool can do that, but it’s usually called ‘assault’ — not ‘leadership.’ . . . I’ll tell you what leadership is. It’s persuasion—and conciliation—and education—and patience. It’s long, slow, tough work. That’s the only kind of leadership I know—or believe in—or will practice. — Dwight D. Eisenhower
And wow, the following presents a honest sense of humility and the awareness of the responsibilities of power that seem almost devoid in our current President.
Well, I have been President for a year and a quarter, and whatever the future many hold I think I may say that during that year and a quarter I have been a s successful as I had any right to hope or expect. Of course political life in a position such as this one long strain on the temper, one long acceptance of the second best, one long experiment of checking one’s impulses with an iron hand and learning to subordinate one’s own desires to what some hundreds of associates can be forced or cajoled or lead into desiring. Every day, almost every hour, I have to decide very big as well as very little questions, and in almost each of them I must determine just how far it is safe to go in forcing others to accept my views and standards and just how far I must subordinate what I deem expedient, and indeed occasionally what I deem morally desirable, to what it is possible under the given conditions to achieve. . . . Often when dealing with some puzzling affair I find myself thinking what Lincoln would have done. It has been very wearing, but I have thoroughly enjoyed it, for it is fine to feel one’s hand guiding great machinery, with at least the purpose, and I hope the effect, of guiding it for the best interests of the nation as a whole. — Theodore Roosevelt
And here the great transcendentalist nails it. This quote says what the bigger, more challenging, issue really is for America right now:
The form of government which prevails is the expression of what cultivation exists in the population which permits it. — Waldo Emerson . . . Amen to that!
This post is about civil war history, but it’s also written as a memento for my youngest son to remember our trip by.
In great deeds, something abides. On great fields, something stays. Forms change and pass; bodies disappear; but spirits linger, to consecrate ground for the vision-place of souls. And reverent men and women from afar, and generations that know us not and that we know not of, heart-drawn to see where and by whom great things were suffered and done for them, shall come to this deathless field, to ponder and dream.
— Joshua Chamberlain at the Dedication of Maine Monuments, Gettysburg, PA, October 3, 1888
This past October 29, 2016, my friend Rich, my youngest son and I, visited the Gettysburg battlefield. It was a beautiful fall day for being outside. The temperature was perfect and the skies were clear. The autumn colors were near peak. It was a lovely day “to ponder and dream.”
Like with any meaningful place, there’s a unique spirit-of-place to Gettysburg that stills the soul and leaves a lingering presence, haunting the corners of your mind long after you’re gone.
The impetus for this particular trip had three things behind it:
First, my love for history and biography. I’ve read and learned a lot about the Civil War and the leading characters of this epic historical drama. The battle of Gettysburg was the biggest, mostly costliest battle ever fought in this hemisphere. At the end of 3 days of savagely intense fighting, there were upwards of 51,000 casualties between the two armies. Consider that just for a moment. Over an approximately 72 hour period, there were almost as many casualties incurred at the Battle of Gettysburg as there were U.S. troops killed (59,000) in the entire 10 years of the Vietnam War. For any student of American history, you can’t learn enough about the Civil War or what happened at Gettysburg and how it changed the direction of American history and the shape and trajectory of our nation leading up to the present. There are many great books out there, but I suggest you begin with the best. The Civil War historians Bruce Catton, Shelby Foote, and James M. McPherson have produced some of the finest literary histories ever written. Stephen Sears wrote one of the best, most comprehensive histories of the Gettysburg campaign. And who can forget the absolutely absorbing, pulitzer prize winning, historical novel by Michael Shaara, The Killer Angels, and the movie based on it. There’s a lot of great literature about the Civil War. Any aspiring writer can learn his or her craft just by reading Catton, Foote, and McPherson alone.
The study of war is so much more than a study of strategy, maneuvering, and the calculated application of violence. The history of warfare (as does all history) teaches us many things, but it’s an especially good tool for teaching leadership, whether it’s for the personal or professional domains of our lives. Violence, to be sure, is the shroud of war. But within this covering fabric is the vast interweaving of human qualities, both base and noble. To study and learn from this collision of circumstance and character is one of the best educations in human nature, human excellence, and human folly you’ll ever get. “History is,” Lord Bolingbroke once said, “philosophy teaching by example.” Hopefully this type of liberal education, as it was intended, inspires each of us to emulate the virtuous and the noble; to be guardians of civilization and civilized values. An education in any of the Liberal Arts is ultimately about improving the heart and mind, but historical study in particular provides the best laboratory for examining what human beings have actually done, said, and suffered. Literature, historical or otherwise, has the potential to greatly expand our empathetic and intellectual horizons. It’s a never ending journey of discovery. It has the potential to positively transform your life.
This brings me to a brief aside. I think it’s important to remember the great teachers of our life, those who helped form who we are today. I date the beginning of my lifelong fascination and love for history to my time in Donald Fuller’s history class at Kempsville Junior High School (now Kempsville Middle School) in Virginia Beach, Virginia. Don Fuller was a retired Naval Officer and teaching was his second career. He had a real passion for teaching and he really knew how to make history interesting and relevant to my understanding of the world. I can still remember how I’d approach him after class to get more details about a famous person, battle, or event that he’d discussed during class. He would take his time with me and often draw on the chalkboard to illustrate his point. I can still remember him drawing the details of Hannibal’s “bending bow” strategy at Cannae. He knew so many interesting things about the battle and the characters involved. I remember being fascinated by the depth and breath of his knowledge, and thinking to myself how I’d like to be that knowledgeable about history one day. I can still recall the sound of his unique voice. About a decade or so after attending his class, I visited him at Kempsville Junior HS, where he was still teaching. He remembered me at first sight and was glad to see me. We had a good long talk standing in the hallway. He was still the teacher, and I was still the admiring student. He was a big influence in my early life and certainly a big reason History has been one of the passions of my life. In its original Latin derivation, the word inspire means “to breath into,” and that is what Don Fuller did for me. He inspired me. I really admired him, and I will never forget him.
Secondly, I also wanted to visit Gettysburg because my good friend Rich had never been there, and he wanted to take some pictures (I didn’t know at the time, that another motive for Rich wanting to go was his secret mission to help get me out of the house so my lovely wife could prepare for my surprise birthday party, that afternoon, when we got home!). And lastly, but most importantly, I wanted to go to Gettysburg so I could spend some quality time with my youngest son, Seth. This would be his first trip to Gettysburg and hopefully one among many to historically significant places over his life.
Our first stop that morning, after touring the visitor center (where I bought my son a toy musket and canteen), was the federal army’s position along Cemetery Ridge. Union or federal army troops had retreated to this position (the high ground) and formed defensive lines during the 1st day of battle (It was a 3 day battle, July 1-3, 1863).
The battlefield, especially the federal army side, is replete with monuments and memorials. The largest and most impressive is the Pennsylvania memorial. All around the outer edge of this massive stone structure are large bronze tablets with the memorialized names of approximately 34,000 officers and soldiers from the Pennsylvania regiments that fought in the battle.
While walking around the Penn memorial, Seth and I discovered that it had an upper level for viewing the battlefield, so we headed up. My son was nervous about being up so high. He leaned against me protectively and held my hand tightly, as we climbed the narrow spiraling stairwell. As we continued up I heard his shaky voice, slightly strained with fear, say “I’m afraid of heights dad.” I’d never heard him say this before, so I pulled him closer and we continue up. We emerged onto a circular viewing platform and a magnificent view. From this position we were near the center of the federal army line. To our south the line runs to Little Round Top—the far left end of the federal army line— and then turning our gaze northeasterly, we saw Culp’s Hill, which is the far right end of the federal army line. Directly to our West was the confederate army position in a tree line along Seminary Ridge.
We lingered a little while and I took some pictures. We waved to Rich who was still in the parking lot below getting his camera equipment together. He took a picture of us waving from the top of the memorial. My son didn’t want to linger, so we walked around the memorial dome, taking in the view from all sides, and then headed back down.
We moved from the Penn memorial to another part of Cemetery Ridge known as the “bloody” Angle. This is the point confederate General Robert E. Lee focused his main attack on the afternoon of July 3rd at about 3 p.m. Known as Pickett’s Charge, it was comprised of between 13,000 and 15,000 men, mostly Virginians, and was ultimately repulsed (with over 50% casualties), but not before a brigade of Virginians led by Brigadier General Lewis Armistead breached the federal line at the Angle. Armstead’s men fought bravely, but there simply wasn’t enough of them to exploit the breakthrough. There’s a plain stone marker at the spot where Armistead was hit and fell during the close quarter fighting. That spot is known as the High Watermark of the Confederacy.
I stood there staring at Armistead’s memorial stone, my glance moving from the stone to the vast distance beyond it, where Armistead’s men would have started out from, and imagined what Armistead must have been thinking and feeling that warm afternoon. Certainly Armistead had talked to his commander, Lieutenant General Pete Longstreet, who’d told General Lee during the planning of the assault, “It is my opinion that no 15,000 men ever arrayed for battle can take that position.”* Longstreet thought the attack was doomed from the start. Those feelings would have been hard to hide. Continue reading “The Ghosts of Gettysburg”→
There are certain aspects in the study of History that are blatantly factual, but Histories and Biographies are primarily interpretations. The examination of historical events and the lives of individuals is more art than science, and the final product is more a tentative argument than a final conclusion. That doesn’t mean we should consider all historical analysis and scholarship as relative. That would be a mistake. Not all arguments are equally valid or probable based on the historical evidence. The tentative nature of historical knowledge doesn’t minimize the edification gained from studying history or biography, because this interpretive process sharpens critical thinking and evaluation skills. It forces us to judge, weigh, and consider. It exercises the very process of thinking that will guide most of the decisions in our lives. This is the core of what a liberal arts education is about: the making of an autonomous and free soul, able to make informed and un-coerced decisions.
Like so many of you, I suspect, my bucket list is getting pretty long. I think I added Charleston, South Carolina, many years ago after listening to a Kempsville High School history teacher talk dramatically about the opening battle of the civil war, which was the bombardment of Fort Sumter in Charleston harbor. The southerners in 1861 had had enough of the tyrant Lincoln, so they started hurling cannon balls at the federal outpost sitting atop an island in the harbor. And so the war was on. Well, being a southerner and a student of history and culture and seeing a good opportunity to travel, I decided last weekend was a good time to explore the city of Charleston with my family.
We visited Charleston over the President’s Day holiday weekend. That was last weekend. So the semitropical heat wasn’t an issue for us. February isn’t typically very cold in Charleston, but during our trip we were accompanied by a massive polar vortex that was sweeping through the south, pushing temperatures below norms for this time of year. While we were there, the temperature ranged from the low 30s (in the morning) to about the mid 50s in the afternoon, to as high as 60 during the peak of the day.
“Lowcountry.” You read this term in brochures, see it on menus and hear people banter it about while talking about various cultural things, especially food in the Charleston area. Well, the term is very fitting and in a lot more than just a culinary or cultural way. The first thing you notice about Charleston, especially from a hotel balcony, is just how low Charleston and the surrounding area really is. It’s marsh land.
My first thought, as I stepped out onto my hotel balcony and began looking out over the Charleston area, was “floods.” My inner geographer couldn’t avoid the obvious. To the naked eye the sea and the land seem to be at the exact same level. Charleston is a city that rests on marsh land, that’s just above sea level — at least for now in geological time — to allow the Holy City to exist. Roughly 40% of the current city sits on landfill that has been used to expand the city’s land mass over its history.
As anthropogenic global warming continues at an unchecked rapid pace, it’s likely the God of the sea has already submitted his plans for reclaiming this marsh land. But sinking is for tomorrow, or decades from now, and there are some people with southern accents who’ll deny that Neptune has such nefarious plans for the holy city. They’re well meaning people with good intentions and good hearts, but by all scientific measure are sadly and mathematically wrong. But bless their heart. I’m sure Neptune will consider the wishes of these polite southerners before he sweeps the city out to sea. It would be the only right thing for him to do. It’s the God of Math I’m worried about. I don’t get the impression he really cares about their feelings.
Why is Charleston called “the holy city”? Well, if you’re up high enough and you’re looking out across the cityscape you’ll notice a lot of church steeples and spires. The city was established, according to our tour guide, on two principles: business freedom and religious freedom. (After hearing some of Charleston’s history you can see these two principles were approached in this order too. Business is always before pleasure or religion.) The city has a large number of beautiful churches. As we toured the holy city’s old town area it seemed at just about every turn there was another church in view.
Besides churches, we were constantly finding graveyards during our walk around the holy city. There seemed to be little graveyards everywhere. And they’re not always part of a churchyard either. Many times while walking down one of the old streets, we’d come across a small graveyard, maybe 5 or 6 tombstones, tucked tightly between two old homes. In old town Charleston, like most old cities, the homes are built very close together. Space is a premium. And because of this, throughout Charleston’s history, fires have ravaged the city. The fire of 1861, which had nothing to do with the War of Northern Aggression, destroyed much of the city. The fire was so intense from being fueled by so many buildings ablaze, that confederate troops 14 miles away could see the flames. And because of these purging fires and restless growth in general, the city has been rebuilt, reorganized and shifted many times. The graveyards were collateral damage in this process.
Our guide informed us that Charleston’s history includes many stories of mass graves, I don’t recall all the reasons, probably war and disease, but many of these mass graves now have structures built over top of them. One of the reasons, our ghost tour guide informed us one evening, that Charleston is so haunted. There is a historical debate as to whether Memorial Day may have begun with the discovery of a mass grave in Charleston at the end of the civil war. The confederate army had a prison in Charleston. When the war ended a mass grave of union troops was found. The local population, mostly freed black slaves by then, put together a tribute and parade to honor the sacrifice of these union troops.
Downtown Charleston is very charming. Beautiful old hotels, old southern homes, churches, old cobblestone streets in some areas, and a well developed business and restaurant section. The homes have a distinctive look to them. Typically the homes sit with the side of the house abutting the road. There is what most of us would call “a porch” along the lower and upper levels of the house that extends the entire length of the house, and faces the back of the house directly next to them. These side porches are actually called a “piazza” by Charlestonians. An official “porch,” as I was informed, is on the front of the house only. A piazza extends outside along the side of the home. And a veranda is a porch that wraps around the house.
Of course if you visit Charleston you must go to the city market on market street. There you’ll find a unique shopping market or bazaar. The market is housed inside a long building stretching up market street. Its filled with vendors, who must set up their entire little store counter and displays every morning before the market opens. I would suggest taking your time shopping at the city market and the stores along market street and then I recommend you have lunch at Tbonz Gill & Grill where you can taste the best Old Fashioned in the city, if not the entire south. After this, you can head for King Street where you’ll find a lot of upscale shopping. And when dinner time arrives, a lot of great dining choices too.
As a southern port city the food, at least at the restaurants in the old town area, have a lot of seafood on the menus. And of course being southern just about everything, it seems, is fried. At one place, I’m not joking, they had “fried mac-and-cheese” on the menu. I can report that while there’s a lot of seafood and fried food on the menus there is usually enough variety for the non-seafood eater like my wife and I. We’re basically vegetarians and we had no problem finding something we liked. Which brings me to mine and my wife’s favorite culinary experience in Charleston, and that’s at Magnolias.
For a date night my wife and I decided we’d have dinner at the famous Magnolias restaurant on East Bay Street in old town Charleston. The restaurant is polite southern charm and cuisine at its very best. The staff, the food, and environment, and the wine of course, were first class. And if you go you must try the fried green tomatoes as an appetizer. They are served with a spicy sauce on a bed of garlic mash potatoes. Absolute southern deliciousness.
As for the people of Charleston, we experienced nothing but friendliness and southern hospitality. The southern accent of some of the natives had a melodious drawl that made me want to keep asking them questions just to hear them speak.
I really liked Charleston, it’s a great place to visit for so many reasons. We definitely plan on going back one day. There is so much more to see and do.