A Brit Longs to Visit Gettysburg
- The French expulsion of our German mercenaries, quaintly known as the War of Independence, has become a myth. The great conflicts which fascinate us, and fill our literature, are far less important. To my shame, I never made the time to make a proper study of the Civil War.
Years ago, hurrying for a train at Washington’s Union Station, and having nothing to read, I bought a book I’d vaguely heard of, because of its connection with a film I had meant to see but hadn’t. the book was Michael Shaara’s ‘Killer Angels’ , the film ‘Gettysburg’ , is so long I still haven’t found time to see it. But I usually pack the book on any journey to the USA, in case I feel like re-reading it. And, once again, thanks to the poor selection of in-flight films, I found myself doing so last week.
At the book’s opening, the reader is given a marvellous view of the war, as it were from the sky above it. The opposing armies, and the great differences between them, are movingly and lyrically described, in a way that explains the nature of the quarrel better than anything I have ever seen. Shaara cleverly permits himself personal sympathy with the supporters of the Confederacy - a cause he does not share. He makes their motivation and undoubted bravery far easier to understand , as a result.
He also notes, in a brief but surprisingly moving aside, that the countryside in which the decisive struggle of the Civil War developed and resolved itself was (and is) extraordinarily lovely. Why does this seem to matter so? In my experience wars are almost always fought over heartbreakingly beautiful landscapes, but there is something particularly idyllic about the America of the 1860s, modern yet still lost in a Sylvan peace that the Union victory would almost entirely end. Yiou can still find the ghost of it – particularly in Virginia, near Thomas Jefferson’s small but captivating house, Monticello. The eastward view in autumn, of wave after wave of wooded hills pouring towards the Atlantic, was called ‘My Sea View’ by Jefferson himself, and it is possible, while looking at it on a still afternoon, to think yourself in 18th century, when no man’s house was close enough for you to hear his dogs barking.
One of the joys of living in the Washington suburbs was being on the fringe of a far wilder, older America than the mess of malls, cineplexes, mass-produced housing and Beltways which choked the immediate capital area. You could easily escape to the Blue Ridge, that extraordinarily wistful and serene place, where you can still find unself-conscious flag-shaded small towns, white wooden houses amid trees, utterly American in the summer heat yet (beneath all the New World appearances) rather English too. But beyond all this lies the Shenandoah valley, as beautiful as its name, a dreamland of forest and slowly sliding river, the last intimate, small-scale piece of landscape before the country opens up into the great flatness of the Midwest, with the Mississippi beyond. .
The beauty of the Civil War battlefields is a very moving thing. Apart from a fleeting glimpse of Manassas/Bull Run (the South tends to call them by the names of the nearest town, the North by the name of the nearest watercourse, where there’s a choice), I have only properly been to one, at Fredericksburg in Virginia, and it is shocking to see how small the scene is, where so much dreadful death was inflicted, so much courage shown. You can still sometimes find spent bullets, and very ugly things they are too. Once one of those had ripped through you, the butcher-surgeons of 1860 would not be able to do much , except more harm. It’s one of the great tragedies of modern times that people didn’t see, in the industrialised carnage of the 1860s, a warning of the war to come in 1914.