Sunday, May 20, 2018
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Marilou Johanek


Ghosts of Gettysburg a grim reminder to today's lost political souls


A Civil War-era cannon is positioned behind a stone wall at the Gettysburg National Military Park in Pennsylvania.


GETTYSBURG, Pa. -- As intransigent partisans battled each other to the brink in Washington, I walked where tenacious opponents once fought each other until the bitter end over the right to own slaves.

Maybe there's no comparing the obdurate idiocy that passes for effective leadership today with the fury that tore up the fields of Gettysburg, Pa. in July, 1863, but ageless similarities lie in the stubborn embrace of absolutes.

The unwillingness of party polar opposites to surrender any ground on the debt ceiling brings the country to the edge of economic crisis. Yet opposing combatants refuse to relent, maintaining their rigid positions regardless of the outcome.

Taken to the extreme, entrenched philosophies have been known to move beyond menacing. Nearly 150 years ago, unyielding Americans faced off with muskets, bayonets, and cannons in an unforgettable summer confrontation.

Over three days, fellow citizen-soldiers, swearing allegiance to different armies, slaughtered each other in Gettysburg on a scale that was unfathomable then and now. To follow the path of their life and death struggle is to comprehend strategic military positions and mistakes.

But to stand where Confederate and Union soldiers clashed in fierce combat, where they died by the tens of thousands defending causes not open to compromise, is mind-boggling.

Surprisingly, much of the notorious battlefield exists as it did when punishing artillery rounds exploded overhead and lead and iron flew over acres of farmland strewn with dead or dying men.

On parts of the rocky Pennsylvania terrain, the boulders that framed Civil War photographer Matthew Brady's gruesome recordings of casualties still pose for modern-day visitors. Long stretches of fortified stone and wood barriers remain as testament at the crucial defense they afforded a century and a half ago.

On a steamy July day, we see what sweltering Union and Confederate brigades saw from the high ground or before a bloody charge that would conclude the battle. We gather on ridges and overlooks where generals stood to survey what lay ahead and to gamble on decisions that could change the course of history.

Everywhere you turn on the vast Gettysburg battlefield, there are elaborate monuments and simple markers to commemorate the resolute bravery of those who were killed, wounded, captured, or missing in battle. The Confederacy lost 23,231 sons between July 1-3. Union troops suffered 23,055 losses.

Put in perspective, the three-day toll in Gettysburg was almost as high as the U.S. casualty count from the entire Vietnam war. It took several months for the small town to account for the dead and wounded blanketing the surrounding landscape.

Dramatic sculptures around every bend are reminders of a defiant past, where irreconcilable differences meant fighting to the death. Memorials from Mississippi, Louisiana, and North Carolina rise as proud tributes to heroic Southern soldiers, unflinching in their loyalty to their home states.

A striking color bearer in bronze calls for his Confederate comrades to push forward. Another carving shows the "Spirit of the Confederacy" above a fallen artilleryman clutching a battle flag close to his chest.

An imposing statue of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee, on his faithful steed, Traveller, gazes forlornly over the futility of it all. It is impossible not to be moved by the enormity of American sacrifice.

Row after row of graves at Gettysburg National Cemetery mark fallen infantry, artillery, and cavalry soldiers buried alongside countless others forever "unknown." The scene is a sad remnant of a tragic chapter in our history when we were acutely polarized and driven to get our way or die trying.

This week, the escalating debt drama between Republicans and Democrats prompted President Obama to give a nationally televised address urging an end to the partisanship that threatens economic upheaval in the country. He allowed that political opponents had "found common ground" before and could do so again.

But minutes later, his appeal was rebuffed by a political rival who reinforced his opposition to Democratic policies and vowed continued resistance, whatever the cost. The hardening of ideological positions on both sides charts a reckless and dangerous course.

After the Battle of Gettysburg, Col. Joshua Chamberlain, an unassuming Union hero, predicted generations hence would be drawn to the "deathless field" where the "shadow of a mighty presence" awaited to pass "the power of vision into their souls."

It seems a field trip is in order to redeem the lost souls in Washington who are intent on fighting a losing battle to no end.

Marilou Johanek is a Blade commentary writer.

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