Monday, September 5, 2011

They Turned Right

It's been a long, hot summer here in central Oklahoma. We had a record number of days in triple digits; the highs hovered around 105 degrees for two months, when we're used to an average of about 95. I got used to the heat, of course, but it made my morning reading walks a little less than pleasant; I tried all summer to get out before the temperature hit 90, but I didn't always make it. During the last couple of weeks the inevitable change started, though; the thermometer has been closer to 80 in the morning, sometimes even in the 70s.

But this morning represented a decisive break in the pattern. I wore a jacket. The temperature was 62 degrees, and it felt wonderful. The physics of the thing have been working toward this moment for weeks. I know that, even though I haven't sensed it. As the tilted earth continues its journey around the sun, the energy that has bombarded the northern hemisphere for the last few months inevitably moves south; by the end of this month, Australia will be seeing more daily light than Oklahoma. But from my perspective it seems like a sudden change that changes everything. A cool walk means an invigorating start to the day that makes everything else that happens seem more enjoyable (or at least more tolerable).

Maybe human perception is just geared for seeing turning points, these instants in time that seem to change everything. History is full of them. In his account of his travels to China, Marco Polo relates that, in response to the Khan's request that the Pope send one hundred scholars who could teach Christianity all around the empire, the Pope said his teachers were too busy. I read that twenty-five years ago and haven't stopped pondering what the world would be like today if the leader of western Christendom had sent the requested teachers. The book What If? has essays by professional historians on several turning points. For instance, what if Alexander's lieutenant hadn't taken an arrow for him one day early in his career? No Greek empire. No use of the Greek language for trade all around the eastern Mediterranean. No rapid spread of the New Testament.

Civil War historians love to locate decisive moments, actions or decisions that seem to condense the whole history of the war and the fate of the nation(s) down to an instant. One of the most common involves the Union signal corps stationed on Little Round Top, just south of Gettysburg, on the morning of July 2, 1863. If Longstreet's corps of Confederates had taken the hill that morning, his artillery could have fired straight down the line of the northern army. The Meade of the imagination would have had to retreat, and the Lee of the imagination would have had on open path to Washington, Baltimore, and Philadelphia, and the C.S.A. would be a nation today. But, says the human mind looking for decisive moments, none of this happened because the signal corps saw Longstreet's men coming, waved semaphores to ask for reinforcements, and -- more importantly -- waved false signals that Longstreet could see making the defenders look like a much larger group than they actually were. As a result, Longstreet waited, his eventual attack failed, the Federals won the battle, Lee went back to Virginia, and the north took the initiative and didn't let go until the surrender at Appomattox.

Bruce Catton loves to bring out these decisive crossroads of Civil War history, even while he makes the ultimate outcome sound like a matter of fate. Like a good theologian, he holds to both predestination and free will. The other day, I read in A Stillness at Appomattox about some miscommunication in Hancock's Union division as they deployed around Petersburg. "Altogether," Catton comments, "these mistakes added up to nothing much except faulty staff work, and they would not be worth mentioning except that they helped to prolong the war by eight months."

In a variation on the theme, Catton tells earlier about an instant, not perhaps when everything changed, but when the soldiers in the Army of the Potomac knew that everything had changed. After the battle of the Wilderness, in which the men in blue were surprised, shaken, and humiliated for the umpteenth time, their new commander, Grant, had them withdraw east, toward the north-south road that had borne this army several times before advancing into Virginia and then retreating. Expecting to turn left, or north, to find a place closer to home where they could nurse their wounds, physical and temperamental, the troops found to their surprise and delight that Grant had them turning right, deeper into the Confederacy and closer to Richmond. Suddenly a sound licking wasn't cause for brooding humiliation anymore but simply part of the price paid for ultimate victory. The soldiers cheered as they hadn't cheered for years and found new depths of determination within themselves on that southward march. Whether single events really change everything or not, changes in outlook certainly do.

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