Rewriting History

I see lots of stories on FaceBook and elsewhere about renaming schools, getting rid of statues and memorials about Civil War Generals and events. For those who may forget, July 1 is the first day of the bloodiest battle in American history. July 1, 1863 marked the beginning of the Battle of Gettysburg. One Hundred and Fifty Six days ago the Army of Northern Virginia and Army of the Potomac met in the small community in south central Pennsylvania. After three days, there were a total of 51,112 casualties (dead, wounded, and missing from both sides).

Books, movies, a PBS series by Ken Burns, all cover the subject from different points of view. In school back in Central Pennsylvania, a class field trip to Gettysburg was the norm. I think I went there at least twice. The trip would tour the key points of the battlefield: Big and Little Round Top, Devil’s Den, Pickett’s Charge, a number of the monuments and the Gettysburg Cyclorama.

Last summer, I drove through the town of Gettysburg after I took Madison back to Pennsylvania for a two week riding camp. I had my son with me and after a short vacation for him at HersheyPark, I place I worked at during several summers in college, we drove to and through the town of Gettysburg. It has really changed over the 40 years that I was last there. He wasn’t too excited about the park, the cannons, or the history. I tried to trace part of Lee’s travels to Gettysburg, and then his retreat after the battle in our rental car. I really enjoy visiting such places. We were making our way back to the airport in Baltimore to return to New Mexico, so it was my way of trying to have an educational trip as part of the mini vacation. Not interesting to a 10 year old.

Yes, a long way to the airport. However, it was quality time with son. Of course, as he is in 5th grade, the only thing he knows about the Civil War, aside from the fact that it was a war between the North and the South, and that the slaves were freed, Abraham Lincoln and the Gettysburg Address, and the Battle of Glorietta Pass. Yes, there was a Civil War battle fought just east of Santa Fe in March of 1862. Today, parts of the battlefield are part of the Pecos National Historical Park. There are a couple of monuments and signs, but no cannons or cemetery, or things like you find in Gettysburg. You can get a gate code and a map to unlock a gate at the Pecos National Historical Park Visitors Center. This allows you to hike the Glorietta Pass Battlefield trail.

I loved learning history in high school and in college. Sadly, what I see today is lots of people trying to rewrite history, or trying to change things so that we forget it, or to feel like we must understand the feelings of others. We rewrite the textbooks, often without much change in the historical truths. As Orwell pointed out, history can be and often is rewritten to suit the needs of the present. Some say that we rewrite history because the prevailing opinions of the period have changed. I should not be surprised that we also need to rewrite or recreate or reimagine that places where the history was actually made.

Today we rename the elementary school from Robert E Lee Elementary to another Lee who may or may not have contributed anything. We remove statues because a group of people think that they are evil, or that we need to forget the past. To this I say bunk. Robert E Lee was an American general who fought for what he believed in (state’s rights). Arlington National Cemetery now stands on his former homestead. Yes slavery was wrong. We fought a war to end it; and to properly define elements of the rights of the state and the rights of the federal government. We need to understand history so that we do not forget the sins of the past. To forget history is to rewrite history. The fact that we had to fight a war is enough to understand that humanity suffers because of it. That alone should be enough of a reason to not rewrite history. We are seeing failings of remembering the past unfold today in many areas of our political spectrum.

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