I was raised just south of the Mason-Dixon Line, or as we knew it, the IHOP-Waffle House Line. That means two things, one that I was heavily influenced by the American Civil War, and two, that to illustrate my opinions, I tell lengthy, somewhat irrelevant stories.
George Pickett was a moon-faced division commander for the Confederacy, a man who finished last in his class in West Point, and were it not for an oppressively humid summer morning in Gettysburg, Pa., might be best known today for his participation in the Pig War of 1859. He was one of those guys who could probably fix your truck, but you wouldn’t want doing your taxes, if you know what I’m saying.
To the South, he was a tragic hero who was asked by the war’s greatest general to throw one final haymaker at the Yankees. Pickett’s target on July 3, 1863, was a slight depression in a ridge in the center of the Union line. This was unusual. Armies had better success attacking the flanks, where you could fire down the enemy line, and if you missed the chap you’re aiming at, you would fetch up someone else.
Pickett’s Charge is viewed today as a blunder, but two years into the war, the South was whipped, economically if not militarily, and Robert E. Lee knew it. Gettysburg was the rebel’s last great chance to do something drastic and unexpected and, just maybe, change the course of history. The attack might have had only a snowball’s chance of success, but it was better than no chance at all. Lee would more or less expend every last man, every last shell, every last bullet and every last grain of gunpowder in a mad rush to the point they’d least expect it — smack dab in the middle of the Union’s defenses — and see what happened.
The Civil War pressed a broad kaleidoscope of people into uniform, and West Pointers who stayed loyal to the Union must have wondered what to make of a Phi Beta Kappa college professor from the State of Maine named Joshua Chamberlain. A bookworm, perhaps, but tough? Throughout the war he was wounded more often than Taylor Swift’s heart, and his men were as cussed and stubborn as any band of muleskinners that could be mustered by the South. So the day prior to Pickett’s Charge, Chamberlain’s boys were positioned like a castle on a chessboard, at the eastern end of the Union defenses, which was the last scrap of contested ground between the rebel army and Washington, D.C.
On July 2, 1863, the volunteers from the 20th Maine somehow withstood an appalling drubbing. They battled until their ammunition was gone, then fixed their bayonets and came screaming down the mountain into the teeth of the Confederate gunfire, swinging their rifles like clubs, kicking, biting, throwing rocks, doing anything they could think of to hold that strategic piece of ground, which they did.
After that day’s fighting, Chamberlain spoke for his bleeding, exhausted men, telling his superiors that they had nothing left with which to fight. “Don’t worry Chamberlain,” his commanding officer (supposedly) said. “I’m sending you to the safest place on the battlefield — right in the center of the line.”
Today I feel like Joshua Chamberlain. Having spent my career, such as it is, in Washington D.C.’s sphere of influence, many was the time I would retreat from the political mayhem of the nation’s capital to the sanctuary of the Adirondacks. From the summit of a High Peak, Clinton’s peccadilloes and Cheney’s hare-brained schemes seemed so very far away. So did the polling, the political ads, the 24-hour news cycle and the doublespeak, hypocrisy, lies and attacks. For me, it was truly a political-free zone — the center of the line, if you will — devoid of the bottomless chum bucket of our nation’s capital.
And then came the House impeachment hearings, where a congresswoman no one had ever heard of suddenly became a conservative star, and that conservative stardom became a flashpoint for Democrats nationwide who flooded the campaign war chest of her 2020 opponent with cash. This response created an equal and opposite reaction of Republican benefactors, and here we sit, as the two candidates stand armed with better than $5.5 million that is about to be unleashed in a cavalcade of ads, mailings, signage and other political guano as the forces that divide our country play out in miniature in the remote forests and ponds of our beloved mountains.
Schenectady’s Daily Gazette reported this week that “With the large war chests both candidates have, voters can expect a sustained onslaught of TV and digital advertising across numerous platforms, from Facebook to YouTube.”
Worse, we will be under a national microscope of my brothers and sisters in the chattering class, who will fashion NY 21 into an ill-fitting allegory for the nation. Already, one has predicted that this will be another congressional race that “plays out in the suburbs.” Like what suburbs is he talking about, Upper Jay?
I bear no malice toward either candidate. By standing up for their beliefs and absorbing fire because of same, they are both more honorable and brave than I. But the Adirondacks is, or should be, a place of peace, where those of all views and orientations can find beauty and tranquility. If I could whisper in the candidates’ ears I would ask, don’t spoil it. Don’t bring Washington’s spittle-flying angers and deceptions to such a rare spot of nonpartisan natural grandeur and spirit. You can disagree and still be civil and honest, really you can.
But I’m not holding my breath — all I can do is vote for whichever candidate plays the nicest. George Pickett, asked years later why he failed, replied, “I think the Yankees had something to do with it.” Replace “Yankees” with “politics” and you will find apt words for my tombstone.
Portrait of General Joshua L. Chamberlain courtesy Library of Congress.