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PUBLISHED: September 8, 2020

In this way you look out on the perfectly painted sky… with nothing whatever between you & the landscape.

—General John Gibbon, Union army 2nd Corps 



Outside the Visitor Center—patrons queuing up in

khaki camo shorts, baseball caps, Where Big Bucks

Lie, boxes of MoonPies wheeling by—two black

men with rubber gloves, with Windex, on a July

Monday, polish the bronze Lincoln. His massive

hands. A crown of flies. The mothers kneel before

braided girls and deliver unto them their palms of

glistening sunblock. Five boys are pinned with

badges, are aiming their bottles of pop like rifles, at

Laura, quick to dive behind some benevolent skirt.

The fathers. Biceps white and Semper Fi–ed.

Faithful, always, to the easy turning away, the How

about those…. Finally, glass doors shirring wide, a

stream of air, cool as metal, admits the line inside.



Step inside the center. Leave behind the liter-Cokes, boiled hot

dogs, the Skittles melting to a child’s palm. Leave behind the

texts, the seventh-grade history. See with what valor the men

in gray rise toward Pickett’s Charge to be picked from Earth

like ants. The argument is to remove simile from the picture.

To let realism reign. Look closer—the most exact feature is

made from abstract streaks. Blocks of color, blurred

brushstrokes. So faithful, from afar, veterans claimed it was he

who slumped against the oak’s good weight. We laid you / upon

your long bed, and our officers / wept hot tears like rain

and cropped their hair. The bayonets and buckles held a certain

gleam—tinsel. Workers hauled sod by the cartload, fixed the

foreground with relics. Fences, canteens. A shoe. None were

embalmed with honey. Their horses bloated under heavy rain.



You see the horses first. One just fallen, on the dirt path toward Vicksburg,

dappled gray. His soldier crushed. A rebel cuts another from the carriage’s

ropes. Foreground: blood along a tawny neck. One—white, majestic—bucks

his rider, is always bucking his rider, forever, from history. Might it be easy to

look away from the surgeon’s bone saw. From the man slung between two

others like a sack of flour. The barn wall left gaping, red brick exposed around

the edges. Like flesh. The stone wall singed black. Meade holds and holds, but

barely. Cannons bruise the air, the open field (Lt. Col. Franklin Sawyer, Eighth

Ohio) moans. The grey wave crying / unearthly lamentation over the water

of the wheat, the rippling smoke. Never can the low stone become crossable.

Never can the blond youth slump back atop his steed, the saber unstick itself

from the rib-gap, nor the flesh above the knee. It’s hard not to admire the

trees—dwarfing our toy drama. They rise in plumes, toward…some thing.

Three hundred seventy-seven feet of canvas tacked around the room.



When Boston tired of viewing the battle, it took an entire day just to roll up the canvas. Poor

panorama. Poor painted soldiers molding in a vacant lot, history too large to store—all its tons. Poor  

Paul Philippoteaux who chose this moment to paint (tattered gray, death march across the farm’s slow

fences) as if it could have been otherwise.  As if the South hadn’t only overshot  (visibility poor

for smoke, bullets sailing over the high blue caps) here. How art makes its masterpiece regardless, its

illusion. In the round room, a narrator seals us inside our fate. The lights dim. The smoke pours 

through the landscape beautifully (rosy-fingered, almost)—we hear the cannons first. Then dawn

speeds up. We’re flung straight through to lyric. We, astonished readers of history, lean forward. But 

the thick railing holds us back. Denies the moment. We are some shameless wheel, churning clockwise

around the room. Once we spoke respectfully, in the lobby, of grandchildren, two-for-one 

specials, cold beer. It was before these men were born. Before the cotton-boll split its firm seed for

canvas. Before the pines were tapped for turpentine. We ascended the escalator’s soundless por-

tal once, didn’t we? Weren’t we gaping at the wall of ammunition glass-sealed below? Weren’t we

working the restroom’s hand dryers, queuing up for the show, tiring already of our astonishment? 



Georgia vets loved the show

the immutable charge where

they saw a new war a new

way to fix the past as if it

weren’t always lapping back

into chaos In the beginning how

the Heavens and Earth / Rose

out of Chaos how the ads sold

it Glorious Gettysburg in all

the Awful Splendor of Real

War Napoleon desired one

for each of his battles his

battles he called them but

what does art know of chaos



“I know! It’s all so sad…I never could have

done it, march across, like, a wide-open field.

How many stadium lengths did he say? That

sounds right. No, that one’s Little Round Top.

Where we ate our lunch. What? Well, she can

hush! This isn’t church. These men weren’t

gods. I mean, they probably all owned slaves—

we shouldn’t feel that bad. They chose their

side, to fight. There wasn’t some draft. I’m sick

of reading about their valor. Yeah, I heard they

survived on horsemeat. Like, married their

younger cousins. I would have shot the

prisoners instead. Why even paint it, as if

they’re good? That isn’t my past.”



So, if only in art, our past is good,

wrapped around us like a flag, if it is

something from which we have all

emerged, gods of no lasting evil, no

certain slur remaining across a

Baptist church, no hung epithet

from a state house, nothing sung

from the pink-faced Sigma Alpha

Epsilons in Norman, OK, en route

to the Azalea Ball, their belles

hoopskirted & waiting to rise, still,

from the South, (You can hang ’em

from a tree…There will never be a

___ at SAE) we are forgetful gods. 



Say the CSA wasn’t all in rags  Say they

would have been in pretty good shape,   in

gray  Say a Gone With the Wind postwar

cliché may have gotten the best of us   

(Say you didn’t swoon, one adolescent

winter day, for Rhett)  Say the derby is

better with a wide brim, a julep refreshed

from a silver tray  Say states’ rights  Say

bellum  Say it’s best to show the enemy a

little frayed  Say a word more lovely than

magnolia  Say we, for our part, will blot out the

memory / of sons and brothers slain  Say Aunt

Jemima’s happy likeness proves the

plantation was okay  Say it straight-faced 



Facing it, the cylindrical room that holds us close

to the past, you might forgive a little. As if,

antebellum, white and wealthy, with your father’s

father’s sprawling fields, you wouldn’t have let the

house staff serve you pheasant. The sold-out

showings prove this—in Atlanta and Pyongyang,

in the Kunstmuseum Thun and Berlin, Ohio—

how we have in us a taste for beauty and for terror.

Nowhere in these scenes—“prisons of paint,” one

patron remarked—is a young mother bending to

slip a child’s foot into a sandal. No expanse of

poppied hills. Vicksburg, Waterloo. We want to

think we are a benevolent kind. That we split the

canvas, stepped through all that past.



“Not at all! That way’s south. It is disorienting at first. Yes, this is my

twenty-ninth visit, so I guess you could say I am. Of course—you

can’t beat Garryowen. I have dreams about their fish-and-chips.

Have you been here for Bike Week? Man, it’s wild. Thousands of

Harleys, the whole town growls. And on the Fourth, you’ll see three

Robert E. Lees sipping Bud Lights at the same bar! Chamberlain

peeling out of the McDonald’s parking lot. No, my wife would never

let me camp out with all those kooks. I only get one night. Why the

Civil War? My great-great uncle fought. Tennessee. I found it out on Oh, sure, let’s see…if you look closely, that soldier

there, he’s painted with Lincoln’s face. Shot dead, dragged—they

won’t tell you that. Why aren’t any of the soldiers Black? I guess I

never noticed. Don’t mention it! Right, just head straight down

Carlisle. And tell them Big Gabe sent you!”



Augusts the coeds march Carlisle for orien-

tation. Their folks have taken the weekend

for an educational vacation, get drunk in

hotel bars. The fathers debate statistics from

their four-hour car-tours (“Lee lost thirteen

thousand five hundred at Chancellorsville,

not here!”) where the sons practiced affect

and yawned. Gathered on the cemetery’s

lawn, the freshmen snap photos of the

unmarked graves. In one, a young woman

waves an Eagles scarf. Another frames a

group of guys mimicking war. Such ease

with the past. Who wouldn’t trade marble

fact for one last night in a dimming dorm?



The problem might be that art outlasts us. That

it casts us for a future eye. That it unmasks us

before a people we never knew. The problem

might be formal. A circle proposes a point at

which it is complete. Where you can meet your

spouse at the egress, step out into a cooling

Pensylvania night. The problem could merely

be some small desire to stand a little longer

inside the comfort of the room. Too, it could be

that, afterward, in bed, it is not the musket shot,

not the blood-soaked scene, the reason these

men fought that survives in your small talk, but

the way the artist so smartly painted himself

among it all, leaning against that tree.



“I don’t see how you can be against it, those men all fought for a way of

life you never knew. Sure, those guys in blue get heaps of praise, but—

what’s that quote about books, and victors? You know what I mean.

That’s easy for you to say. What if some government thug showed up

tomorrow and took your nice job away? I mean, there’s truth to that. You

think Reconstruction was all fun and games? Did every three-year-old

granddaughter in a white bassinet deserve your blame? No, hey. Slow

down. I’m not saying slavery was okay, you’re putting words in my mouth.

I’m just saying that the South did suffer. And I’m not sure any veteran of

our country should be treated like that. Not American? Please. Brothers

fought brothers, and you’re saying one shouldn’t claim a country? That

their mothers didn’t have a right to weep? That we should just sweep away

the fact that Yankees bought up that cotton, that their machines were run

by kids? Lady, I’m not some ignorant hick.”



Sometimes, it’s enough to make you love

your country. The girl’s face lifted to the

cyclorama’s drape of sky. The boy afraid

of the cannon’s noise. The parents

fumbling through a crude guide—they

could have gone to Disney World.

Cancun. But here, they have left their

backpacks, mandatory, at the visitor’s

desk. They obey the lines, hush properly

when the narrator’s recorded voice

unfurls the soldiers’ fates. They will drive

back, late, to Annapolis, to Jersey, the long

minivan haul to Cleveland, taking with

them some vision for future dreams.


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