Politics & Policy

History by Harley

Sharply felt.

On September 25, my wife Karen and I drove out to Sharpsburg, about 60 miles north of Washington, to stay overnight at Antietam Battlefield, in the wonderful old Jacob Rohrbach Inn on Main Street. Karen has had a difficult summer of chemotherapy, but for four days at the end of each period, before a new infusion, she is feeling stronger and able to get out for at least a short evening — until the next scheduled chemo levels her again.

We were up in Sharpsburg to have dinner with old, old friends from Cresco, Iowa, Karen’s hometown. Every autumn since they hit their sixties, lawyer Henry and his wife Carol, an exquisite musician and teacher of music, set out on their Harley Davidson “trike” to take a three-week trip of 1,500 miles or more. A year ago, it was Alaska (a long way from Iowa), and this year it is Civil War battle sites from Tennessee up through Virginia, Maryland, and Pennsylvania.

We love the fact that Henry and Carol bundle themselves up on their Harley Davidson every year, fighting slashing rain, face-cutting winds, and buckets of mud thrown up on their faces by passing trucks, as they roar past on less-developed roads near scenic historic spots. It all seems so unlikely that these two shy people from placid, rural northern Iowa would travel by Harley Davidsons — unlikely, until you learn that Henry’s family goes back in this country before the War of Independence, and one of his ancestors fought with General Washington, lost a leg by amputation, yet insisted after his convalescence on going back into Washington’s service until the war was won. A later ancestor joined the Union forces to fight against slavery and for the Union, and was wounded in Tennessee.

One of Carol’s ancestors fought with Sobieski in the defense of Vienna on September 11-12, 1683, in the battle that saved Europe from being converted by force to Islam, as Constantinople and many other Christian cities had fallen since 660 A.D. (Constantinople fell fewer than 20 years after the dialogue between its emperor and a Persian philosopher friend, which Pope Benedict XVI famously mentioned in his lecture at Regensburg a few days ago. Possibly, the pope told that story as a warning to contemporary Europe. The collapse of a civilization can happen very swiftly. Shortly after its conquest, virtually every Christian church had disappeared, scores of thousands of Christians were killed, driven into captivity, or forced to convert to Islam at sword point. Quite suddenly, there was virtually no Christian presence left in what had been the greatest capital city of Christianity.) Sobieski had prevented that from happening to Vienna. He halted the Muslim attempt to cut Europe into two by severing the south of Europe from the north, and drove them out of central Europe, back to their redoubts in the Balkans.

Our Iowa explorers and we had a surprisingly good gourmet dinner at a new restaurant across the street and down a block, the Antietam Café and Wine Cellar. As more and more upscale people prefer to live in the country, and commute to the distant city or telecommute, the restaurants of small towns like Sharpsburg, in the path of strong tourist demand (in this case from Civil War buffs), are becoming truly extraordinary.

Yet some of our conversation at that good dinner, over two bottles of Merlot, was about the somber facts of the Battle of Antietam (or Sharpsburg) on September 17, 1862. On that one day, over 22,000 Americans fell. More than 4,000 died outright, from fierce fights that lasted through some six intense and bloody hours. It is estimated conservatively that another 3,500 died from their wounds in the weeks thereafter, the low state of medicine being then what it was. Many who recovered from their wounds suffered severe amputations administered without anesthesia. Many listed as missing were probably also among the dead, falling in hidden or inaccessible places.

Besides fallen men, many dead animals were strewn across the cornfields, orchards, and valleys. There was a lot of burying to be done the next week. The stench became horrific as the days passed.

To be in Sharpsburg, along the Antietam Creek, is to stand upon fields in which much writhing suffering took place. One can easily imagine the immense political pressure that fell upon lean Abraham Lincoln, from the impact of such carnage. Unutterable pain touched so many families distant and near. Many loved ones did not have the consolation of burying their dead in nearby, familiar plots. They simply never again saw their husbands or their sons.

Lincoln judged, sometimes almost alone, that Union and Liberty were worth the cost. And he pushed on.

Recklessly, just as the battle had ended, Lincoln made a phaeton trip to the Antietam Creek to prod timid George McClellan (his future bitter rival for the Presidency, in 1864) to hurry after the retreating Confederates, and bring the war to a speedy end. McClellan in effect disobeyed. He dawdled. Lee and his brave, dirty, exhausted men escaped, to return north with greater strength the following year. It did not take long after Sharpsburg for Lincoln to replace McClellan.

One feels in Sharpsburg, on a brisk, glorious sunny day in September, under a sky of windswept blue (perhaps eerily like the day of the battle in 1862), the long loneliness and sometimes inner despair of Lincoln. How badly he wanted a decisive victory! How many times his top commanders failed to fight to their utmost, thus dragging their brave soldiers into ever more carnage.

It is almost inconceivable that citizens of that time were willing to support so bloody a war, by putting so high a price upon Union and Liberty.

Karen and I are very grateful to Henry and Carol for bringing their Harley Davidson east. They gave us a chance to taste again the dull inner pain and high admiration that visits to Sharpsburg, Gettysburg, Manassas, and many places to the south unfailingly induce.

Next day, as we returned to work in Washington, their sleek black Harley Davidson, loaded to the gills with navigation equipment, radio, compass, and satellite position monitor, was tooling up route 15 for three days in Gettysburg. In our good friends, the spirit of the Old West — explorers, adventurers, cowboys, pioneers — is not dead. Their love for history and American tradition burns like glowing coals.

— Michael Novak is the winner of the 1994 Templeton Prize for progress in religion and the George Frederick Jewett Scholar in Religion, Philosophy, and Public Policy at the American Enterprise Institute. Novak’s own website is www.michaelnovak.net.

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