Ghosts of High School Past

Some curious news for those of us who graduated from Upper Arlington High School has been reported recently:  the existing school where we went to classes years ago is built on the grounds of a former family cemetery.  (As if going to high school weren’t scary enough already, just on its own!)

pioneer-green-flakeThe back story is really pretty interesting stuff.  In the years before and during the Civil War — long before Upper Arlington became the hoity-toity, McMansion-filled suburb it is now — the land was owned by a former slave named Pleasant Litchford.  He was an leading member of the Perry Township community, a master blacksmith, a founding member of a church, a large property owner, . . . and, notably, a participant in the Underground Railroad that moved escaped slaves from the slaveholding south, through the free states, and north to Canada and freedom.  Mr. Litchford established a school for African-American children on his property — and also a cemetery for his family and descendants.  Mr. Litchford died in 1867, just after the Civil War ended.

Years later, Upper Arlington was founded, and later still, in 1955, the school board was looking for a place to build the new high school.  They bought the Litchford property and discovered that it included the cemetery.  Rather than leave the cemetery be, they exhumed the buried bodies and moved them to Union Cemetery for reinterment, where most of them are listed as “unnamed adults.”  The school then was built on the property and, with the kind of collective amnesia that is all-too-common in American history, people in Upper Arlington promptly forgot about Pleasant Litchford and his family cemetery.  When I started to go to UAHS in the early ’70s, no one told me or my fellow students that we were walking over the ground of a former cemetery.

I don’t think I ever saw a ghost lurking in the halls of UAHS, and the only creepy feeling I got was around the flea-bitten remains of a gigantic standing stuffed bear that was kept in a glass cage near the entrance of the building.  Now the old building is going to be torn down and a new building erected, and the construction crews are going to be mindful, as they dig and build, to keep an eye out for remains that might have been missed in 1955.

And while they’re building a new school, here’s an idea for the school board to consider:  rather than renaming the new building Upper Arlington High School, which is pretty boring, how about celebrating a man whose life epitomized a strong, personal commitment to freedom, family, hard work, and education, and naming the new school Pleasant Litchford High School instead?

Pickett’s Charge

One hundred and fifty-five years ago today, at about 2 o’clock in the afternoon, Confederate forces near Gettysburg, Pennsylvania began to advance toward Union forces perched on Cemetery Ridge.  It was a hot day, with temperatures in the upper 80s, and the troops on both sides were fatigued from two prior days of desperate battle.

913-004-2f9debccExcept, that is, for the Confederate division commanded by Major General George Pickett.  His division had just arrived at the battle, which is why rebel commander Robert E. Lee selected Pickett’s forces to lead the advance.  Lee hoped that the Confederate forces, which greatly outnumbered the Union troops that were defending Cemetery Ridge, could break the Union line and win the battle of Gettysburg.  Confederate general James Longstreet surveyed the ground where the rebel forces would make the advance — about three-quarters of a mile of open ground, broken up by fences, would need to be covered before the entrenched Union forces could be reached — and thought the troops would be slaughtered by cannon fire and massed rifle fire from the Union defenders.  But Lee’s order was obeyed anyway.

Longstreet was right — the assault was devastating to the Confederate forces.  The rebels were mowed down by the Union forces in appalling numbers.  It is estimated that the rebels sustained about 6,000 casualties in the space of about 30 minutes, before they finally retreated.  The disastrous attack became known as Pickett’s Charge, and some historians believe that it marked a crucial turning point of the Civil War.  It not only ended the battle of Gettysburg, it also ended Lee’s second, and last, attempt to invade the North — which he hoped would convince the Union side to negotiate a peace agreement.  It dealt Lee, who had enjoyed success after success against a revolving door of Union commanding generals, a clear defeat, and it put the rebel forces on the defensive.  Although nearly two years of hard fighting still remained before the Civil War would finally end, after the battle of Gettysburg, and the Union victory at Vicksburg in the western theater that happened one day later, on July 4, 1863 — the Union side had the initiative.

The news of the Confederate defeat at Gettysburg, and the Union capture of Vicksburg made July 4, 1863 — the day after Pickett’s forces were bloodily repulsed — a very memorable Independence Day.

Battlefields And Budgets

You may have forgotten that, on the campaign trail, Donald Trump promised that if he became President he would donate his presidential salary — currently, gross income of $400,000 a year — to a worthy cause.    It was a promise that kind of got lost among all of the other promises and pronouncements and insults and boasting that we heard during the awful 2016 presidential campaign.

Yesterday, though, President Trump followed through on that one promise:  he is contributing his after-tax presidential salary income from the first quarter of 2017 — $78,333.32 — to the Interior Department, where it will be used to fund restoration projects at Antietam National Battlefield in Sharpsburg, Maryland.

thirteenth-amendment-passes1_Antietam was a pivotal battle in the eastern theater of the Civil War.  Like other Civil War battles, it was unbelievably bloody, with thousands of casualties, but after a series of losses to Robert E. Lee and his Confederate army, Antietam was one of the few battles where the North could plausibly claim a victory.  And that is where the true significance of the Battle of Antietam lies:  President Lincoln had resolved not to issue the Emancipation Proclamation until after a military victory by the North, because he didn’t want the Proclamation to look like a desperate act in a losing cause.  Antietam gave him the ability to issue the Proclamation, which forever changed the focus and nature of the Civil War and American history as well.  President Trump’s contribution will be used to help restore the exterior of a house where injured soldiers were treated during the battle.

Some groups seized upon the announcement to contrast the President’s contribution with the budget cuts he is proposing for the Interior Department and the National Parks Service.  The Sierra Club stated that “America’s parks, and the people and economies they support, need real funding, not a giant fake check.”   An official with the Center for Western Priorities commented:  “Honoring military sacrifice and conserving battlefields are things that all Americans can get behind. But this publicity stunt must be taken in context: President Trump and Secretary Zinke are proposing a crippling $1.6 billion budget cut to our national parks, battlefields, and other public lands.”

It’s a sign, perhaps, of the state of our modern political world that President Trump’s contribution can’t simply be graciously accepted as a generous act.  I’ve been a critic of the President in the past, and no doubt will be again, but this is an instance where he deserves credit for doing something that is all too rare in American politics — satisfying a campaign promise.  And if, like me, you believe that it’s well past time to bring our federal budget, and federal spending, under control, you can’t simply treat every proposed budget cut as an unmitigated disaster.  That’s how we got into our current federal debt predicament in the first place.

Tearing Down The Confederate Past

Early Thursday morning, masked workers, operating under a significant police guard, removed a statue of Jefferson Davis, the former president of the Confederacy, that had stood in New Orleans for 106 years.  The statute, located at the end of a park, shows Davis standing next to a pedestal, with one hand on the pedestal and the other outstretched, as if Davis were gesturing during some important speech.

220px-jefferson_davis2c_slave_ownerThe workers who took down the statue were masked and wore dark clothing, and there was a heavy police presence, because there had been anonymous threats to harm the people involved in the removal.  Others in New Orleans simply oppose the removal of the Jefferson Davis statue — which is one of four statues that honor the “lost cause of the Confederacy” in New Orleans that are slated for removal — on the grounds that the Mayor of New Orleans is trying to sanitize history.  The President of a group called the “Monumental Task Committee,” for example, said:  “Another historic monument was removed under the cover of darkness using amateur, masked workers in armor, unmarked vehicles and equipment with a heavy police presence.  [New Orleans Mayor] Landrieu cannot be inclusive, tolerant or diverse when he is erasing a very specific and undeniable part of New Orleans’ history.”  According to a city spokesman, New Orleans is now looking for a “more appropriate” place to put the statues — like a museum.

As far as I’m concerned, the “more appropriate” fate of the statues would be to melt them down for scrap metal value.  I don’t agree with the notion that removing statues of Confederate leaders in heroic poses from public spaces is trying to “sanitize” our past.  History is history, and whether such statues are kept around, or are removed, isn’t going to change that.  In fact, if anything, the design and construction of the Davis monument represented the effort to whitewash the past, not its removal.  When New Orleans decided to erect a statue of Davis nearly than 50 years after the Civil War ended, why didn’t they create a statue that showed Davis scurrying away from Richmond just before Union forces entered the city, or show Davis behind bars after being captured?  It would have been more accurate, because the South — thank goodness! — lost the Civil War.  The fact that some people in New Orleans more than 100 years ago had the bad judgment to erect an heroic statue of Davis doesn’t mean that the people of New Orleans must be stuck with that embarrassing mistake forever.

It makes perfectly good sense to remove a statue that offends many people because it celebrates a rebellion and a government that was created largely because racists wanted to preserve the immoral and brutal practice of slavery, and that was defeated only at the cost of millions of American lives.  The Confederacy should be remembered, but it should be remembered not as some honorable “lost cause,” but as the last gasp of a shameful chapter in American history.  Removing heroic statues of Confederate leaders is a good step toward putting the Confederacy into its true historical context.

Better Late Than Never

On November 19, 1863, President Abraham Lincoln delivered his address at the commemoration of the National Cemetery in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, where a decisive battle of the American Civil War had been fought months earlier.

On November 24, the Harrisburg Patriot & Union published a editorial that dismissed the President’s remarks as “silly.”  The editorial stated:  “We pass over the silly remarks of the President. For the credit of the nation we are willing that the veil of oblivion shall be dropped over them, and that they shall be no more repeated or thought of.”

150 years later, the newspaper — which is still around, now operating under the name Patriot-News — has retracted that scathing judgment about the Gettysburg Address.  Speculating that the writer of the earlier editorial may have been under the influence of partisanship or strong drink, the Patriot-News editorial board writes that its prior judgment was “so flawed, so tainted by hubris, so lacking in the perspective history would bring, that it cannot remain unaddressed in our archives.”  The newspaper’s correction states:  “In the editorial about President Abraham Lincoln’s speech delivered Nov. 19, 1863, in Gettysburg, the Patriot & Union failed to recognize its momentous importance, timeless eloquence, and lasting significance. The Patriot-News regrets the error.”

The Patriot & Union was not alone in questioning the value of Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address in the days after it was spoken to the world.  Its extreme brevity in a day when important speeches often were hours long, and its conceptual approach, which linked the Civil War to the Declaration of Independence, looked forward rather than backward at the great battle, and declined to directly criticize the Confederacy by name, made it stand out as radically different.  Lincoln himself is said to have remarked, after the speech was over, that his remarks “won’t scour.”

Lincoln was wrong, of course, and so was the Harrisburg Patriot & Union in dismissing his profound remarks as “silly.”  To its credit, the newspaper has finally, a century and a half later, corrected its error.  Sometimes it just takes time to recognize what has truly happened and to appreciate its significance.  The heated passions and glib remarks of the day often seem silly when viewed with the cool judgment of history.

Remembering Congressional Medal of Honor Winners On Veterans Day

Today is Veterans Day, when every American should be grateful for the sacrifices of all of those who have served in the military.  What better way to appreciate the true meaning of their service than to recall those whose service was so extraordinary — so conspicuous for its courage, gallantry, and selflessness — that they received the Congressional Medal of Honor, our nation’s highest military award?

The Congressional Medal of Honor was established in 1862, during the early days of the Civil War.  Its first recipient was Private Jacob Parrott, who penetrated deep into Confederate territory to destroy railroad tracks and seize a train.  The Civil War also saw the first award of the Medal of Honor to an African-American — Sergeant William Carney of the famed 54th Massachusetts Infantry, who participated in the assault on Fort Wagner, planted the flag on the parapet, and kept the flag from touching the ground despite twice being severely wounded.

The only award of the Medal of Honor to a woman, Dr. Mary Walker, also occurred during the Civil War.  Dr. Walker received the Medal for her service throughout the Civil War, which included caring for the wounded at the battles of Bull Run, Chickamauga, Chattanooga, and Atlanta, and then spending four months as a prisoner of war after being captured.

In the 150 years since its establishment, the Congressional Medal of Honor has been awarded to 3,463 people, of whom 78 are still living.  The most recent recipient is Captain William D. Swenson, who received his Medal on October 15, 2013 for his actions in Afghanistan in 2009.  Captain Swenson led his men under fire during a six-hour firefight against enemy forces who surrounded them on three sides, refused to surrender, provided medical aid to a wounded fellow soldier, and then twice exposed himself to heavy enemy fire to rescue wounded soldiers and recover fallen soldiers.

The Congressional Medal of Honor is awarded to those who service has been extraordinary, but the qualities of courage, self-sacrifice, and service that it commemorates are shared by all of the men and women who serve honorably in our armed forces.  On this Veterans Day, a heartfelt thank you to all of our veterans and active duty personnel!

Gettysburg, July 4, 1863

It was the Glorious Fourth, but to the soldiers of both armies it was just the fourth day of a brutal, bloody battle.  The fighting had stopped, but the terrible signs of the battle were all around them:  the bodies of dead and dying soldiers, the desperate cries of the wounded, the carcasses of horses, fields littered with bodies and debris, trees clipped and gouged and splintered by minie balls and cannon shot.

On the Confederate side, commander Robert E. Lee was beset by regret about the decimation of Pickett’s brigade during the charge that Lee had ordered — but Lee could not waste time in recrimination.  Having made the gamble to invade the North, Lee faced the predicament of extricating his army from hostile territory and retreating in the face of a victorious enemy.

Lee’s problems were intensified by the enormity of the Confederate casualties.  The retreat was not merely a matter of ordering able-bodied soldiers to march; the Confederates had thousands of wounded to attend to, and every expectation that the Army of the Potomac would attack their retreating army as it fled southward.  Lee gave orders that the train of wagons and wounded had to move at a steady pace and, if a breakdown occurred, the vehicle must simply be abandoned at the side of the road.  The retreating Confederate column reportedly was 14 miles long as it headed first west, and then south, to cross the Potomac River and return to Virginia.

On the Union side, the Army of the Potomac celebrated their victory over the rebel forces — but also had to attend to thousands of its own dead and wounded.  In the North, the Fourth of July was celebrated with special zeal that year, as newspapers reported both Lee’s retreat from Gettysburg and the surrender of long-besieged Confederate stronghold Vicksburg to Union forces far to the west.

After more than two years of hard, bloody fighting, the news finally was good for the North:  a rebel invasion has been repulsed, and with the fall of Vicksburg the entirety of the Mississippi River was under Union control.  Northerners could be forgiven if they hoped that the good news on July 4, 1863 meant that the war would soon be over — but it was not to be.  Almost two more years of blood and death lay ahead.