The Civil War had always been portrayed as a moral clash between a divided America. I did not know what I would see when I arrived at the battle field of Gettysburg. Nothing I knew about the Civil War had prepared me for what I saw and felt there. I had always imagined the battle field to be about the size of a football field with steep hilly inclines of hundreds of feet. In every movie about the Civil War I had ever seen, the politically incorrect Southern Army, sabers raised, proudly entered the battle field “to defend their way of life.” The Northern Army, “the moral compass of America” would march through a hail of cannon fire and struggle to take a hill where the heavily armed South was perched.
No where in any history class or law school did I ever learn about the real forces that led to the Civil War. No, it was not initially about abolishing slavery, that did not become so until two years into the war, in 1863 when slavery became the cause that ignited the North who up until that point had been losing the war. In January of 1863 Lincoln, under pressure from northern abolitionists signed the Emancipation Proclamation.What the Emancipation Proclamation did besides ignite the North, was that it lured 200,000 slaves into the Northern Army. 40,000 of those slaves died during the course of the war where the war’s total death toll was 650,000.
As I walked the ridge which must have been a half a mile, and not a football field, every 20 feet there stood a cannon. The ridge that I thought was hundreds of feet in the air was at its steepest, maybe 12 feet high, but 12 feet is a huge length to climb when cannon fire is raining down on one’s head. I wondered how this heavily armed Southern Army had lost this battle.
Feeling conspicuous as the only woman of color and driving a luxury foreign car, I drove the two miles, yes two miles, to where the North would have been encamped. To my surprise there were no more than a dozen cannons spread atop a hill that was hundreds of feet in the air.
It was another reminder that my mental imaging of the battle of Gettysburg was completely wrong.
I read on one of the information plaques that the Northern Army had utilized the physical terrain to protect them. Because they were out numbered and out gunned the Northern Army used sharpshooters to pick off the Southern Army as it engaged on the battlefield below. Below is a picture of me imagining what it must be like to fire a weapon from behind a rock:
The battle of Gettysburg began on July 1, 1863, three days later on July 4, 1863 the Southern Army retreated to Gaithersburg, Maryland. 7,800 men lay dead on that day. The Battle of Gettysburg did not end the war which would continue for another 2 years, but Gettysburg marked the beginning of the defeat of the South which occurred at the Appomattox courthouse in Richmond, Virginia on April 9, 1865. Six days later President Lincoln would die of a gunshot wound to his head.
What might have happened after the end of the Civil War had Lincoln not been assassinated has been the subject of much intellectual speculation. What did happen would encumber the right to vote for 3 milion newly freed slaves and impoverish many poor non-land owning white people who became sharecroppers along side the newly freed slaves.
Today’s racial animosity of America’s poor white rural working class which led to a Trump presidency finds it roots in the years after the Civil War. Over the next months I intend to study the Reconstruction and how the ruling 1 percent pitted poor rural whites against 3 million freed slaves of which 90 percent were illiterate, but somehow would create a system of historically black colleges and universities. I will wrap these facts in a modern day novel, tentatively entitled Twisted”, where the story will take place in Baltimore. My intent is to entertain while I teach. I think understanding how America got the way it is today might shrink the racial gap when people realize that the issues of poverty have been hidden under the guise of race. Stay tuned.