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Ta-Nehisi Coates Goes to Gettysburg: The Unmasterable Burden of the Past Department

Grant at Appomattox Courthouse:

U.S. Grant: My own feelings… were sad and depressed. I felt like anything rather than rejoicing at the downfall of a foe who had fought so long and valiantly, and had suffered so much for a cause, though that cause was, I believe, one of the worst for which a people ever fought, and one for which there was the least excuse…

I think that is the answer to the questions Ta-Nehisi Coates is asking at Gettysburg:

A Quick Word On Gettysburg: Beyond my own ignorance of the Civil War, there's also the way Gettysburg exists in the American narrative. I think the frequent invocation of this Faulkner quote, though perhaps not the quote itself, sum up the problem:

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 against that position and those circumstances which made more men than Garnett and Kemper and Armistead and Wilcox look grave yet it's going to begin, we all know that, we have come too far with too much at stake and that moment doesn't need even a fourteen-year-old boy to think This time. Maybe this time with all this much to lose than all this much to gain: Pennsylvania, Maryland, the world, the golden dome of Washington itself to crown with desperate and unbelievable victory the desperate gamble, the cast made two years ago.

No one, in Shelby Foote fashion, should ever earnestly offer up this quote. People who do sound foolish. It's fawning invocation of this quote is almost always racist, and perhaps even sexist…. Racism, in this country, is inevitably tied to sexual violence notions of family and gender. It's inescapable.)

Those Southern boys are all boys, and they are all white. And having tackled Pennsylvania, Maryland, and the world they would have plunged the whole of it into a regime built on black slavery. Their dream is the continued prosecution of a two and half century old war against black people. The dream of the Confederate cause, is the dream of the Ku Klux Klan. There is not a whit of daylight in between. To think otherwise is to think that the battle-flag re-emerged in the South in 1962, the year George Wallace won in Alabama, by mere coincidence. 

I can't go much further, because I risk giving up my article. But the point I'm driving at it's very tough to consider Gettysburg, as its commonly rendered in the American imagination, when you're black. And yet in point of fact, perhaps more than any other battlefield in the country, the folks at Gettysburg have done a really good job in making clear that the war was about slavery…. You really couldn't watch it and think the Civil War was about anything else…

The crux of the issue, I think, is that even in a democracy--especially in a democracy perhaps, for democracies tend to be naive about power--people trust their leaders, and loyalty and trust are virtues along with courage and a willingness to be the sharp end of the spear when the needs of the many require it. The fact that the leaders were evil men and the culture in which the boys--and even the officers--were raised was an evil culture does not completely erase the fact that on June 3, 1863 five thousand young Virginian men risked and lost everything in the sincere belief that the future of Virginia required that they do deeds of violence that day.

As Senator Webb (D-VA) said:

James Webb: our leaders should carry next to their breasts, and contemplate every time they face a crisis... echo in their consciences, from the power of a million graves. It is simply this: You hold our soldiers' lives in sacred trust. When a citizen has sworn to obey you, and follow your judgment, and walk onto a battlefield to defend the interests you define as worthy of his blood, do not abuse that awesome power through careless policy, unclear objectives, or inflexible leadership…

And as President von Weizsacker of Germany said:

Richard von Weizsacker: We need and we have the strength to look truth straight in the eye–without embellishment and without distortion.... The greater honesty we show in commemorating this day, the freer we are to face the consequences with due responsibility.... The vast majority of today's [German] population… cannot profess a guilt of their own for crimes that they did not commit…. But their forefathers have left them a grave legacy. All of us, whether guilty or not, whether old or young, must accept the past. We are all affected by its consequences and liable for it...

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