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Guestwords: The High Way of History

Wed, 06/02/2021 - 19:05

I’d seen the signs hundreds of times — “Grand Army of the Republic Highway” — posted along Vermont’s Route 15. On this sparkling spring day about a decade ago, I happened to be driving out of Hardwick and noticed one just south of town.

My then college-age daughter and I chatted about this and that, her sneakered feet on the dash of our little diesel VW station wagon. As we whizzed past blooming lilac bushes and farmhouses and barns, their paint peeling, the sign came into view. I read the words out loud: “Grand Army of the Republic Highway,” adding, “I love that about America. You’re never far from our history, and we’re still fighting the Civil War.”

My daughter “hmm-ed,” maybe thinking: There goes Dad again, saying something totally wonky and random.

Silence followed for a few minutes. My mind ran off to the Grand Army of the Republic, a Union Army veterans organization formed the year after the Civil War, and to the Civil War divisions that simmer still. And to the war itself and my own connections to it.

I imagined a Southern friend or two in the car with us, and their reaction to driving along the Grand Army of the Republic Highway.

“Grand, indeed,” they might say. “Not if you’d seen Atlanta after Sherman.”

Civil War memorials elicit mixed responses in the South. Even Memorial Day, which began as a remembrance of Civil War veterans, gets a cool reception in some corners of Dixie, where it’s often called National Memorial Day.

“A day off,” someone once told me, “but no holiday.”

More than a century and a half after the end of the Civil War, some Southerners still bristle at the loss. You hear it called the “War of Northern Aggression”; Monday’s federal Memorial Day holiday is still seen in some parts as a Yankee remembrance started by the victors.

As we all know, Memorial Day has become a day to honor all Americans who gave their lives in service to this nation. But that hasn’t prevented several Southern states from establishing separate Confederate Memorial Days to honor the Southerners who died in the “War Between the States.”

When I was working in South Carolina I would get right into it with my newspaper colleagues. “Confederate Memorial Day? Here’s a story idea: Let’s ask around in the African-American community and see what they have planned.”

As has become so clear, now, as we muddle our way through this long-overdue national reckoning — with this nation’s roots and each region’s role in the abominable economy of slavery — how we choose to view and honor our history has immense meaning and importance. Which is why it is a national disgrace that the horrors of slavery have so often been glossed over in Civil War remembrances. As I see it, the sometimes defiant response of Southern friends when the conversation turns to the war is, deep down, mostly about having lost to the North. That the war was lost for a racist cause doesn’t seem to get in the way of that resentment and pride.

To this day, in the South and, to some extent, in the North, we too often recklessly, malevolently ignore the important truths and lessons from our history by teaching that the Civil War was not fought over slavery.

“It’s more complicated than that,” said a friend who teaches high school history. It’s about states’ rights, he added, echoing the standard apologist’s line. Okay, sure, it was about states’ rights: States’ rights to own slaves.

My own family fought on both sides of the Civil War: Mom’s on the Southern side, Dad’s side both with the Union and the Confederacy. My mother was a “Great-Granddaughter of the Confederacy,” officially inducted into that segment of the United Daughters of the Confederacy as a child, once a great honor in some circles. This is something I would not have known had she not put it down in writing years ago when she began carefully recording her life. Our connections to the Confederacy are not a source of personal pride; they are, quite simply, our history, for ill or good. Being an idealist, I feel that something good must come of it.

Researching her family, my mother found in her ancestral tree a controversial Confederate lieutenant colonel, Daniel T. Chandler. Chandler was a professional soldier who served in the U.S. Army and was jailed by the Union when the war broke out for the crime of being a Southerner. He was released in an exchange and joined the Confederates. Near the end of the war, he was sent by the Confederacy to make an official inspection of its prison at Andersonville, Ga., where thousands of Union soldiers were living in deplorable, subhuman conditions.

As a soldier, by some accounts, Chandler was a sycophant and an opportunist, but his report on Andersonville presented a damning picture of neglect and abuse. He found a 26-acre piece of dirt blocked off by a high pole fence. One fetid stream soiled with cooking and human waste ran through the place, where some 30,000 sun-blistered, emaciated prisoners huddled under shelters patched together from their own clothing.

Impoverished and losing the war, the Confederacy had let Andersonville become hell on earth. Some 14,000 Union prisoners were reported to have died of disease, hunger, and exposure at the prison.

The Confederacy did little in response to Chandler’s reports, but they became key evidence in the trial of the officer who ran the prison. Henry Wirz would be the only Confederate soldier convicted and executed for war crimes during the Civil War. Chandler himself would eventually be captured by the Union and, ironically, died in Northern detention. (Wirz’s trial and conviction were made into a successful Broadway play in the 1950s and a courtroom television movie.)

The Chandler name had been used around the family, handed down through the generations like a familiar portrait of an unknown relative, but I hadn’t known the story of Lieutenant Colonel Chandler, or our family connection to him, until Mom did the research.

A chandler is a provisioner of ships. That initially drew my wife and me to the name. So we made it our daughter’s middle name. But names gather meaning with history. Which is how I came to observe in the flash of a sign by the side of the road on a sunny spring Vermont afternoon years ago that I was traveling the Grand Army of the Republic Highway on the day before Memorial Day with a great-great-great-granddaughter of the Confederacy, named after a Confederate colonel who reported on the atrocities at Andersonville more than 150 years ago.

I found myself later writing about that drive in my journal: “There is no running away from our history, our own and our nation’s. Know it and understand it to learn from it, to be who we believe ourselves to be.” I can’t recall why, but I’d also written down words my mother used to say when I was a kid. They strike me now as being odd, here in my laptop, non sequiturs, but also powerfully relevant: “Tell the truth, count your blessings, treat people as you’d wish to be treated.”

As I looked at the meandering Lamoille River and the craggy and green hillsides, my thoughts went to the many Union soldiers from Vermont after the South fell in the spring of 1865, and their long, arduous walk back to their homes in the hills of wild and remote Vermont. I wondered if any of them had spent any time at Andersonville, and if their own great-great-great-grandchildren lived around Hardwick anymore.

The talk in the car had turned to friends and what to do for the rest of that afternoon, but my own mind had split. I was thinking about our history, with all its lessons we stubbornly resist, fraught with so much darkness and yet with the promise of much light. Then I made a mental note to remember to ask my daughter on another occasion: “Do you know the story of Andersonville?”

Biddle Duke, a writer who lives in Springs, is the founding editor of The Star’s East magazine.

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