As self-de­feat­ing as Pick­ett’s Charge

Rappahannock News - - COMMENT - Wal­ter Nick­lin is pub­lisher emer­i­tus of the Rap­pa­han­nock News

Grow­ing up dur­ing the Fifties and Six­ties in seg­re­gated, still ru­ral Fauquier County, I would shud­der when friends pep­pered their con­ver­sa­tions with the “N-word,” even some­times teas­ing me: “Is your fa­ther a N-lover?”

Un­like other doc­tors they knew, my fa­ther wel­comed black pa­tients, and I was never em­bar­rassed to be his son. That’s a con­vo­luted way of say­ing there’s cred­i­ble per­sonal his­tory when I as­sert, "I am not a racist." Rather, I’m a proud lib­eral who be­lieves the Trump pres­i­dency is the worst thing to hap­pen to this coun­try since the Civil War. And yet….

And yet the heroic fig­ures of my youth in­cluded Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jack­son. As I’ve grown older than ei­ther when they died, these haunt­ing words lament­ing Con­fed­er­ate de­feat, from Wil­liam Faulkner’s “In­truder in the Dust,” still send a chill up my spine:

For every South­ern boy four­teen years old, not once but when­ever he wants it, there is the in­stant when it's still not yet two o'clock on that July af­ter­noon in 1863, the brigades are in po­si­tion be­hind the rail fence, the guns are laid and ready in the woods and the furled flags are al­ready loos­ened to break out and Pick­ett him­self with his long oiled ringlets and his hat in one hand prob­a­bly and his sword in the other look­ing up the hill wait­ing for Longstreet to give the word and it's all in the bal­ance, it hasn't hap­pened yet, it hasn't even be­gun yet, it not only hasn't be­gun yet but there is still time for it not to be­gin . . . .

What Faulkner so elo­quently evokes is the start of Pick­ett’s Charge at the Bat­tle of Get­tys­burg, fre­quently called “the high wa­ter mark of the Con­fed­er­acy.” From this point on­ward Gen­eral Robert E. Lee’s al­ways-out­num­bered Army of North­ern Vir­ginia, pre­vi­ously so bril­liant on the bat­tle­field, would in­evitably suc­cumb to a grind­ing war of at­tri­tion.

But was it in­evitable? Is any­thing in­evitable?

Al­though the Civil War was fun­da­men­tally about slav­ery, Faulkner’s words have noth­ing di­rectly to do with slav­ery. Rather, they speak to the univer­sal hu­man con­di­tion of pon­der­ing the past, its hinges of his­tory, and won­der­ing what might have been: es­sen­tial to a tragic sen­si­bil­ity, in­deed any kind of wis­dom.

Noth­ing can cre­ate a tragic sense quite like los­ing a war, and the United States had never lost a war un­til Viet­nam. But the South had — ar­guably the rea­son that it pro­duced such a dis­pro­por­tion­ate num­ber of great writ­ers, like Faulkner.

Per­haps not co­in­ci­den­tally, the South’s con­tri­bu­tion to U.S. mil­i­tary man­power has also been tra­di­tion­ally dis­pro­por­tion­ate; if Amer­ica can be said to have a “warrior class,” it is pre­dom­i­nantly South­ern. While sus­pi­cion of the fed­eral gov­ern­ment is a South­ern legacy of the Civil War, the mil­i­tary is con­sid­ered some­how sep­a­rate from that gov­ern­ment, with the virtue and honor of sol­diers and sailors per­ceived to be un­blem­ished by hyp­o­crit­i­cal politi­cians and lib­erty-starv­ing bu­reau­crats.

To fight, to be de­feated and hon­or­ably die for rea­sons quickly for­got­ten in the heat of bat­tle — as dur­ing Pick­ett’s Charge — is a story no doubt told around fires by the ear­li­est hu­mans. With Homer, it be­comes the ur­text for Western civ­i­liza­tion’s nar­ra­tive tra­di­tions. Achilles, Ajax, Hec­tor, and Odysseus are memo­ri­al­ized for their heroic ac­tions not for any cause for which they were pre­sum­ably fight­ing: who gets to call He­len his wife?

So it is that the memo­ri­als to the Con­fed­er­ate dead and their lead­ers should not be seen only through the re­duc­tion­ist prism of race. True, many, if not most, of these mon­u­ments were put in place as racist re­ac­tion to Re­con­struc­tion, but to erase

what­ever other pow­er­ful mean­ings they may hold is to play into white su­prem­a­cists’ hands in the coun­try’s seem­ingly never-end­ing ”cul­ture war.”

It’s a per­verse ex­pres­sion of the po­lit­i­cally cor­rect no­tion of “cul­tural ap­pro­pri­a­tion” that the Con­fed­er­ate stat­ues and mon­u­ments have now be­come the sym­bols of the KKK, neo-Nazis and the so-called alt-right or alt-re­ich.

To en­gage white na­tion­al­ists on this bat­tle­ground of their own choos­ing is as sui­ci­dal as Pick­ett’s Charge. For they, to­gether with Trump’s loyal vot­ers, can now lay false claim to the high ground of “his­tory and her­itage.”

Steve Ban­non could be a Union gen­eral dug in on Ceme­tery Ridge just wait­ing to mow down Con­fed­er­ates as they charge across the open field of fire when he said, “The longer they (the Democrats) talk about iden­tity pol­i­tics, I got ’em . . . . I want them to talk about racism every day.”

Tear­ing down the Con­fed­er­ate stat­ues is ex­actly what Ban­non wants.

PICK­ETT'S CHARGE, AS PAINTED BY ED­WIN FORBES (LI­BRARY OF CONGRESS)

Wal­ter Nick­liN

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