Saturday, January 11, 2020

Tim Rowland Tells A Lengthy, Somewhat Irrelevant Story

General Joshua L ChamberlainI 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.

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Tim Rowland is a humor columnist for Herald-Mail Media in Hagerstown, Md., and a New York Times bestselling author. His books include High Peaks; A History of Hiking the Adirondacks from Noah to Neoprene and Strange and Unusual Stories of New York City. He has climbed the 46 high peaks, is an avid bicyclist, and trout tremble with fear when they see his approaching shadow. He and his wife Beth are residents of Jay, N.Y.

21 Responses

  1. Jim Fox says:

    I enjoy an irrelevancy with a 46er-sized segue.

  2. JohnL says:

    Joshua Chamberlain is one of my all time heroes. He was (is) arguably the greatest citizen-soldier our country has ever produced. What he did at Little Round Top on 2 Jul 1863 and throughout the war is truly hard to believe for someone trained as a professor of rhetoric. For all his actions, General Chamberlain was honored by General Grant to command the Union Armies in the surrender ceremony at Appomattox. At this ceremony he was both praised and castigated for ordering his troops to give the defeated armies of General Lee a soldiers’ salute in passing. Truly a poignant moment and one that no-one that was there ever forgot.
    Not sure why I’m commenting here except to say that I think your experiences are probably not quite as stressful or momentous as what Gen’l Chamberlain lived through.

    • Balian the Cat says:

      We’re certainly on the same page for this topic, JohnL. Killer Angels is one of my all time favorite books. I have stood on Little Round Top and walked all over Brunswick & Bowdin College. JLC was, as you say, a momentous character.

  3. terry says:

    Funny that traitors to the Union; should they be Pickett in the civil war( no explanation needed) or a congresswomen from the impeachment hearings ( who questioned why the hearings were being conducted as they were, after her side hammered out a deal for the hearings), somehow become a “star”
    of the Conservatives.
    Are the conservatives stupid or traitors?

  4. geogymn says:

    Jeff Daniels portrayal as Chamberlain was quite entertaining in the movie.

  5. John Marona says:

    One of the most enjoyable pieces Iv’e read in a long time..
    My favorite definition of politics is from Teddy Roosevelt,. Poli is many and tics are blood sucking leaches

  6. Steve B. says:

    “Throughout the war he was wounded more often than Taylor Swift’s heart”

    That’s a funny line !

  7. Boreas says:

    I always felt bad for Pickett and his men – being forced to use a tactic from the Napoleonic wars against a superior, “modern” force. The courage it must have taken to cross that field is not often seen today. And that is my segue back to Congress…

    • JohnL says:

      I attended a weekend seminar in Gettysburg specifically dealing with the 3rd day, highlighting Pickett’s Charge. As part of it, we walked the ground from Seminary Ridge to ‘the little copse of trees’ and I can’t for the life of me figure out how they could entice men to make that almost mile long walk, TOTALLY IN THE OPEN, with all that infantry and artillery arrayed against them. Courage doesn’t begin to explain it. It goes well beyond that. A very sobering experience indeed.

      • Boreas says:

        Perhaps it was more spirituality? Or simply, the outright fatigue of war. I would assume these Confederate soldiers had that “1000 yard stare”.

      • Marty says:

        I’ve also walked that walk in July and wondered with each step “what were they thinking” they had to know from the beginning that things were going to go bad very quickly. And yet in WWI we were still crossing open ground into heavily fortified positions and today we keep sending troops down the same roads that had blown them up the day before – tactics are always behind current technology

  8. Richard says:

    Great essay.

  9. Right now I’d vote for Joseph Chamberlain. He was a man of thoughtful action as revealed in “The Killer Angels.” When in doubt use your brain and knowledge of history. His decisions as Gettysburg are still taught at West Point. Our politicians would do well to understand the history of our country and the sacred offices they hold.

  10. Wayno says:

    Comparing today’s partisan polarization to the breach that precipitated the Civil War is overly dramatic (I recognize that Mr Rowland did not do this directly but it has been a theme of many political diatribes). In 1860 we were forced to resolve a divide that the US had struggled with since our founding, slavery. This became a moral issue which put the southern commitment to an economy built on white supremacy against a Northern position that slavery could not be allowed to spread any further. There is no such unresolvable issue dividing the current nation.

    What we have is a conservative and a liberal alignment that has always existed within the parties now aligned to where one party has become the conservative to moderate party and the other has various camps of moderates, liberals and and progressives. The biggest obstacle is the loss of the ability to compromise and address the major issues such as climate change, health care, class stratification, infrastructure the debt etc. Having a hyper-partisan, self centered president further handicaps the entire process. The foreign influence being infused into the internet by foreign agents trying to amplify the differences and bent on ripping open that divide has been well documented and is likely a larger part of the problem than we are even aware of.

    Questions regarding the proper roll of government, taxation, separation of church and state, the environment etc have always existed. For most of the 20th century we were able to deal with them through the messy, imperfect but mostly effective workings of our democracy. It is now time for us to once again recognize we are all citizens of the same country with basically all the same hopes and desires and start accepting our civic duty to promote compromise and conciliation in the true American spirit.

    • Boreas says:


      Great points.

    • JohnL says:

      I’m reading a great book on the Impeachment……..of President Andrew Johnson! You’re right Wayno. Compared to the dark days of the Civil War, and immediately after, todays issues seem much more manageable. Thanks for the reminder.

  11. Steve Phelps says:

    Tim Rowland! As Robert Heinlein once said of another writer, “The boy writes a good stick.”


    Pickett’s target on July 3, 1963…. ? Very modern history!

  13. Ralph Slater says:

    Nobody gives a shit about the ” Mason Dixon so called freaken line! I’m a Yankee threw& true! The south can kiss my freaking ass!

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