I had wanted to visit this spot since I was in junior high school. The hallowed place where the great civil war came to an end. The very spot where General Ulysses Grant would offer the stately patrician General Robert E Lee a dignified surrender, and where the union would ultimately be preserved.
So here it was, and I found myself with mixed feelings. It is absolutely a beautiful place, and I learned a lot more detail than I ever knew. For example, I did not know that Appomattox was not the end of the war? That would take several more surrenders over the following months. Appomattox was merely the surrender of the Virginia army. Once VA surrendered, those union troops headed to North Carolina and so on. With each state the Union army got stronger so it’s not like the remaining confederate states were going to hold out for long, but it still was a process.
When I got home, I confessed to my wife that I was very hazy on the details surrounding the civil war. I live in Arlington, VA, an easy day trip to Gettysburg, Antietam, Bull Run, Fredericksburg, and many more historic battlefields and yet I only have a broad sense of it all. So, being the good wife that she is, Alice agreed to watch the Ken Burns Civil War documentary with me. It’s 11 hours over 9 episodes, so please don’t ruin the end for me, but we have started it.
And you know what? I already found the first episode sickening…not because people back then were willing to kill each other over their beliefs but rather because they still are! We haven’t learned a goddamned thing! I was born 100 years after the start of the Civil War during the opening years of the Vietnam war…no smarter 100 years later.
Now it is nearly 160 years since the war began and we still have not learned any lessons. All of this “Never forget” stuff, this “those who don’t learn their history are doomed to repeat it.” stuff is just pure foolish bullshit. Learn all the history you want, it’s still going to repeat itself.
Did we learn lessons from the Civil War? Sure! Today far fewer soldiers die of sepsis on the battlefield. We have advanced weaponry, communications, and equipment, but what hasn’t changed in 160 years is what is in people’s hearts. That’s not a lesson to be learned, it simply “is what it is.”
It’s not my nature to be pessimistic, to admit there is no hope, but that is the conclusion to which I have come. 160 years ago a man would kill another man over his right to own a slave. Today we’re fighting and killing each other over religion, abortion, race, and guns! Today we are fighting over wearing a fucking piece of cloth on our mouth! Let’s face it, north vs. south, left vs. right. we are divided and we hate each other! Each side believes it has the moral high ground and the other side is headed straight to hell.
It’s easy to make Donald Trump the villain, but if it were just about one man it would be like a movie with only one villain…over in 90 minutes. Donald Trump has done a brilliant job of tapping into the hearts and fears of 60 million voters who will continue to wear confederate flags, redskins jerseys, and “All lives matter” shirts; but he’s just the part of the iceberg that rises above the water line. The part that will sink a ship is the 60 million people who truly believe what he’s selling.
Electing Joe Biden to be president won’t fix anything either. It might tilt the scale toward the left, but racists, gun nuts, pro-lifers, and climate change-deniers will continue to hate the left, continue to find ways to thwart leftward progress and continue to nurture what is in their hearts. It will be no different than what the left has done for the last four years protesting tax cuts for the rich, children in cages, environmental rollbacks, and overt racism. Change all the laws you want, it won’t change minds, and it won’t change hearts.
What happened at Appomattox, it turns out, was not that different from what will happen on election day. It might settle things for a time, and like Appomattox, election day will take months and additional battles to fully play out. But nothing that happens in this election will change the hearts of our people. Democrats will still say “Black Lives Matter”, Trumpers will still say “All Lives Matter”, and both sides will continue hating each other. Mitch McConnell, Joe Biden, Tea Party, New Green Deal, Coronavirus, fake news, these are all just battles that reflect what is in the hearts of our fellow man. I have never been so disheartened as I am after my visit to Appomattox. To me it will always be the place where I realized that we haven’t learned a goddamned thing.
THE BRIGHT SPOT…
If there is a bright spot, it is that we live in a country that seems durable enough to withstand 300 million people who disagree with each other. Like the institution of family itself, our country enables people who have deep philosophical disagreements to coexist, to love each other, and still make contributions to the greater society. So there’s that. Love, it turns out, does not conquer all, but it manages to exist among disagreement and hatred.
I recently discovered an old song written by Sheryl Crow. It is very Bob Dylanesque, and performed with the late Johnny Cash. It’s called “Redemption Day“. The video is haunting, the lyrics are powerful, and the song is beautifully crafted. It’s a heavy haunting piece and worth a listen but you need to be in the right mood (which may well happen if you’ve read this far!).
It was written over 25 years ago in 1996, but it’s just as timely today as it was then. So timely as to be timeless.
“…Fire rages in the streetsSheryl Crow
And swallows everything it meets
It’s just an image often seen
Come leaders, come ye men of great
Let us hear you pontificate
Your many virtues laid to waste
And we aren’t listening…”
Johnny Cash, in his mid-60’s when he heard this song felt he had to record it. He knew what I am beginning to discover, that there will always be evil in men’s hearts. People will always disagree enough to hurt each other.
I hope President Trump makes a full recovery, even though he will continue to stoke racist and xenophobic sentiment by calling it “China virus”. And I hope the election process is peaceful, however, I am convinced that all we learned from the Civil War is that after the election both the victors and the defeated will go off and nurture their prejudice, contempt and moral superiority to fight another day. History will repeat itself.