The Daily

Independence Day

Well Papa go to bed now, it’s getting late
Nothing we can say can change anything now
Because there’s just different people coming down here now and they see things in different ways
And soon everything we’ve known will just be swept away

Bruce Springsteen, Independence Day

Facebook flagged the Declaration of Independence as Hate Speech but couldn’t stop foreign adversaries from interfering in our 2016 elections. Which is to say we have a lot of work to do in order to live up to the hopes of our Founders. The self-evident truths of centuries ago are in regular dispute today, including the equality of all men. John Adams predicted that July 2 would be the date remembered in history but the Declaration was voted on and approved by Congress on July 4th – my Mother’s birthday. We all try to get together at her home in West Virginia to celebrate her fireworks.

This year, I’ve been thinking a lot about our tumultuous political season and the history of disruptions and violence in our politics. I don’t know if there’s anything useful to be found there, it just feels helpful to remember our history. When it feels like we’re drinking from a firehose with this Administration, history has a calming effect for me. Things never seem as good or bad when viewed from the point of view of those who experienced real struggle for the liberties we share and sometimes mistreat.

Which brings me to the 4th of July story of the Wilkersons in the Battle of Gettysburg, which famously was marked by Abraham Lincoln using the Declaration of Indpendence in a short but stirring benediction on that sacred battleground – known in American history as maybe the greatest speech ever given.

After the fighting at Gettysburg concluded on July 3, Mr. Wilkeson (a New York Times reporter covering the Battle of Gettysburg) had gone searching for his son, Lt. Bayard Wilkeson, a 19-year-old Union officer in charge of an artillery unit of six cannons. Mr. Wilkeson likely interviewed other soldiers, asking for word of where his son had last been seen — and followed the trail of battle to the young man’s corpse.

He learned that Lt. Wilkeson had died from injuries he received two days before, on July 1.
Despite his wounded soul, the elder Wilkeson maintained his sharp reporter’s eye in his dispatch, which was dated July 4. Those observations — that the artillery battery should never have been deployed to that spot and that his wounded son was taken to a building from which military surgeons had fled — were crisply recorded in just the first hours after the three-day battle ended.
The commander overseeing Lt. Wilkeson’s unit in the XI Corps, Brig. Gen. Francis C. Barlow, had surveyed the landscape and decided to abandon the position he had been assigned by his superiors. Instead, on the first day of the battle, he ordered troops, including Lt. Wilkeson and his unit, to move to higher ground, which would normally be a sound tactical maneuver.
In this case — given the Union forces available, this particular piece of higher ground and the Confederate units arrayed against them — it was a fatal choice. The position was exposed, and Union fire was returned by an overmatching number of Confederate artillery pieces. The Union unit was wiped out at a spot now known as Barlow’s Knoll, and Confederate troops took the rise.
His leg blown apart by a cannonball or shrapnel, Lt. Wilkeson was taken nearby to a community poor house serving as an ad hoc Union medical center, but the surgeons retreated from the site under the Confederate advance. There the young lieutenant died.

This story makes me think of how our current President likes to deride the press as “the enemy of the American people,” mocking the stories about how his campaign took in tens of millions of dollars and help cutting off his political opponents at the knees from Russian Oligarchs and Vladimir Putin – all in the hope of bringing us down a peg or two to their level. Stay tuned on whether and to what degree that succeeds. Rockets’ red glare, indeed.