Stories From the Civil War

Bad blogger. I took a break from writing this month to treat myself to a li’l novel called Moby Dick. I’m an imaginative but embarrassingly slow reader, and have to put time aside for substantial novels. Then I even got distracted from that, since I had plans last weekend to visit a festival of new theater in Shepardstown, West Virginia, where my friend the actor Alex Podulke was winning fans with his performance in Jane Martin’s new play.

Not that you can’t put your feet in a creek and read Melville in West Virginia, but I saw on a map that Shepardstown is just minutes from both Harpers Ferry and the battlefield of Antietam. Since I’m the only person among my friends who enjoys reading a history book, I feel like I’m letting them down if we ever pass an historical marker and I can’t extemporaneously break it down for them. So I couldn’t go without first reading up on John Brown’s raid and the military history of the Civil War.

The junction of the Shenandoah and Potomac River valleys is where America found its soul.

When John Brown seized Harpers Ferry in October, 1859 he was already infamous – and wanted for murder –  for fighting in the anti-slavery militia in Kansas. He proved so adept at defending himself rhetorically during his trial that Northern sympathy started swinging behind military action, if necessary, to destroy slavery in the South.

The short book I found about him told a few extra delicious anecdotes, one of them about Brown’s meeting with his friend Frederick Douglass in 1859. Someone should write a three-person play about this encounter, in which Douglass traveled from his home in Rochester to Chambersburg, Pennsylvania for a secret meeting in a quarry with Brown. Brown was already renting a farm in nearby Maryland, drilling his small force for the the raid at the end of the summer. He made a case to Douglass for why he should join him and start the slave revolt. Douglass thought it was suicidal, but Brown was so charismatic that Douglass’ traveling companion, the abolitionist and former slave Shields Green, chose to go with Brown instead of back home with Douglass, and ended up on the gallows with Brown by the end of the year.

The Harpers Ferry National Historic Park does a superb job of telling the story via video and artifacts.

Also nearby is Antietam Creek, and the battle named after it is often called the single deadliest day in U.S. military history. As someone who grew up going to Washington’s Crossing and Pennsbury Manor for family picnics, I have a soft spot for historic parks, but these Civil War battlefields are altogether different. They’re all about death, and second-guessing the tactics of military commanders, and honoring the sacrifices of soldiers who held or tried to take specific chunks of terrain under horrifying conditions. And since the story of the Civil War is our unpreparedness for the scale of industrial era war, it’s no surprise that the national parks where the major battles happened are so vast, you can’t just show up and make any sense of it. They’re too big to walk across without taking hiking precautions. They’re just fields where you find a statue every once in a while.

Antietam - a small part of it.

Antietam – a small part of it.

One of my traveling companions in Shepardstown told me she wouldn’t go to Antietam since she still lived by the lyrics she used to sing in the ’60s, “I ain’t gonna study war no more,” and I had no stomach to argue with her. Having been to several, I find that all kinds of people go to Civil War battlefields, but they’re predominantly a destination for fathers and sons to see together, to witness the dreadful things men do to one another and to try making sense of it in their own way.

Still, Antietam was the military victory that Lincoln needed to provide political cover for the Emancipation Proclamation, so that freeing the slaves in the Confederacy would be perceived as a logical next step and not a desperate maneuver of a losing cause. If you asked me in 1861 to join the Union cause, to invade the South since it didn’t want to be in the Union any longer, I’m not sure how I’d react. If you asked in 1863, to join the battle to end slavery, I like to think I’d join, at least in the way that Whitman joined.

I’ve written before about why every screenplay needs a good “Holy shit!” moment, and the Civil War was certainly full of them. It has the makings of a good story since the journey was so much harder than the hero figured it would be when it started. And most importantly – and this feeling is hanging in the air in the Shepardstown region –  as the hero is finding out how much nastier he has to be in order to survive – a killer, in fact – he is simultaneously discovering a new moral core inside of himself.