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Hitting Home

Our mistakes may weigh heavy on our children’s heads


I recently finished reading "Gods and Generals," by Jeff Shaara. It is the story of several of the battles in the time period leading up to the Battle of Gettysburg, which was the pivotal battle of the American Civil War. It is a glorious book, as was its predecessor, "The Killer Angels," written by Shaara's father, Michael. I don't feel it quite reaches the artistry of prose of "Angels," but "Gods" is an excellent and necessary companion to the former. Must-reads for anybody even slightly interested in the Civil War or in American history.

And, again, every time I read a Civil War history, I am struck by the degree to which it feels like the war was not so much won by the Union, as it was not lost. In other words, if the Civil War had been a football game, it would have been a 0-0 tie midway through the 4th quarter, with Jay Cutler and Brock Osweiler quarterbacking the two teams: the winner was going to be the one who did not screw up last.

On several occasions, the Union was in a position to strike a decisive blow, and failed to. In some cases, because the general in charge refused to attack until he had more men (even though he had vastly greater numbers already), or until the plan was in perfect order (even if it meant waiting months to attack and losing tactical surprise), or until their intelligence was completely accurate (even if it meant allowing an army in a rout get away). I think it's just dumb lucky for all of us that Robert E. Lee and Jeb Stuart returned the favor and allowed themselves to be sucked into an unfavorable battlefield at Gettysburg. But had the Union acted more decisively sooner, there is the real possibility that the war would have ended much sooner with many, many fewer deaths.

What is fascinating about the way the Shaara tells their stories is that they do so from a revolving first-person perspective, so we hear the (imagined) thoughts and conversations of the central players. As a result, even though it is a fiction based in fact and meticulously constructed from historical records, the readers get a glimpse into the thinking of the characters. And, the way the Southern generals are portrayed is quite sympathetic: these are smart, devoutly religious men who just want to defend their homes (of course, in the process, preserving slavery).

And then I noticed that, from the telling of Lee and Jackson, they saw the whole affair as a matter of God's will, and they did their part, and then accepted His judgment, to the degree they could discern it. As such, I wonder if it ever occurred to them that the unnecessary prolonging of the war, with the thousands of deaths that followed, might have been God's punishment for the "original sin" of slavery. And then I got to thinking, "what sins are we committing today, as a nation, that our grandchildren will end up paying a terrible price for?"

I know there are those reading this who will immediately jump to income and justice disparities as the great stain that will be atoned for in 50 years; I know there are also those who think the great sin is the abandonment of our Judeo-Christian heritage and mores. Personally, I think the widespread and unchecked corruption - the perversion of the rule of law - of the political process is something that will have to be reckoned with someday.

But the terrible truth is that, whatever mistakes we are making today will be paid for, not by us, and certainly not by the D.C.-dwellers codifying  those mistakes, but by our children and by our children's children. I just pray that the next "Sins of the Father" do not leave us with hordes of new people to honor like those who fell at Gettysburg ... or like we just honored on Monday.

Michael Alcorn is a teacher and writer who lives in Arvada with his wife and three children. His novels are available at MichaelJAlcorn.com


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