Jim Szpajcher at Gettysburg
Sunday, April 20, 2008
Jim Szpajcher got out of the TMI program Timeline on Friday morning, then did a PREP session with Skip, and was at my house by noon. We headed out by way of 29 and 3, stopped at the Wilderness visitor center, went on to the Fredericksburg center at Marye’s Heights, saw the movie about the battle, and then walked the trail by the sunken road. Jim paced out, as far as he could, the road leading from the city up to the sunken road, to put a feel for how long the Union boys were walking into that fire.
The next day, Saturday, we went back to Marye’s Heights, and back to the visitors center at the wilderness – where we both bought baseball caps imprinted with the image of the statue of “The Angel of Marye’s Heights.” It was symbolic, Jim and me (and Joseph and Hank) wearing the same caps. We spent an hour walking the trail in the Wilderness, then home and lunch, and he was gone.
Joseph, I can see I don’t have energy, by myself, so to speak, to describe things. And anyway why should I describe secondhand what you experienced? Much of what went on I probably didn’t even know. What I know: tears before we began, a feeling of reconciliation and of things being resolved, and the beginning of a more joking relationship with Hank.
You may be right that I come after you in soul progression, even though before you in time. The work you have been doing has changed you, and that helps change me. You’re right, I don’t have the bitterness you did. But maybe I am helping you, have you thought of that?
When we were at the visitors center at Marye’s Heights, it did come on me some, it is true. It was only a movie, and that voice in your head that is always saying “that can’t be right, that isn’t a good reproduction of how it was, those are just actors”” – who do you suppose it is, saying or feeling all that?
But we were right there, and we were there intending to walk that line, and I knew that. The movie was more effective than it would have been in your home, say. So yes, there were some tears, walking out of there. And your friend Jim may have seen them; anyway he felt ’em. And that means Hank felt ’em secondhand – or third- or fourth-hand, whatever it was, and that helped him.
Of course these things are always all mixed up because there’s you in your century experiencing feelings, and wondering if you are dramatizing things, and it all gets tangled—but the main things get through.
So, we walked that line, as I of course never did in life. There wasn’t a Union man hardly who did in December ’62, and most of them were soon dead. And I saw it from the rebel side and I saw it from the 21st century side, call it, and like you felt, I felt it as “all long ago.” That’s what you were feeling, “it was a long time ago, it’s over now.”
And that walk in the Wilderness where I wasn’t—thank God!—and Hank was, that was the same thing, reversed. There you and I were, honoring what Hank had been through. And it all adds up, you know. You and Jim talking while you walked made it different thing. Hank got it, too—it was a long time ago, it’s over, it was hard for both sides and it wasn’t maybe as open and shut as he had been thinking. You and Jim share things like other wars, and social problems and all—and even your love of buying books and reading them—and it all makes a bridge, like, between Hank and me. I held out my hand to him quite a while ago, your time, but he wasn’t ready to take it. He’s nearer to it now; it’s been healing just the way you have.
Yes, I suppose I should put it on the record. I realized I felt like I had been sick and had recovered. That is, I hated the Confederate soldiers and politicians (not soldiers, mostly; mostly some officers like Jackson) the way Hank hated Yankees. I’d never admitted that there was any valid southern argument because the one main thing — slavery — was so plain to me. But over the past few months — since you came in, in December 05, mostly, Joseph, with your penetrating analysis, I’ve seen that there were two sets of issues entangled, and people didn’t necessarily see that as clearly as we did.
One level — preserve the Union (Elisha Hunt Rhodes) versus states rights (Sam Watkins). On this level there was in a way nothing to choose: it was a productive tension that could have and should have gone on forever and we all have been better off. As long as it was fought on that level, the war offered nothing to make one side morally superior – hence, more worthy of victory — then the other. One could argue, and I would, and Lincoln for instance did, that to allow the Union to be dissolved once was to make it a rope of sand, and that would be the end of our experiment in self-government. Still, maybe not. However, it was to preserve the Union from a small band of aristocrats and slavers who had taken over the state governments – hijacked them – that so many boys like Rhodes, and men like you, Joseph, joined the Army.
But it was the second issue, that gradually emerged, that became decisive, and not just because it provided so many Negro soldiers.
Abolition versus slavery carried the day. Only those who were already captive to that system (as white Southerners were, fully as much as black Southerners) could fail to see that it was wrong for men to own men. The race question muddled it some, but ultimately it came clear.
What I’m getting to in this is that I don’t didn’t used to appreciate that the Southern boys may have been fighting for slavery in effect but in their own minds were fighting for their own self-government.
It doesn’t matter how flawed their analysis of the situation. What matters is that they were mostly good men fighting for what to them was a good cause. Maybe it’s always that way.
The real enemy is hatred, and revenge, and that’s found on all sides of all conflicts. That is the enemy we each need to fight, and that is the enemy that Jim and I, and Joseph and Hank, fought at Gettysburg when we did a joint retrieval for any remaining veterans of either side, and it’s what we fought when we walked Marye’s Heights together, and the wilderness, symbolically wearing a baseball caps with the emblem of that 19-year-old boy who risked his life to give dying men a drink of water.