Serve Each Other First

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Serve Each Other First

I’m still young enough with regards to the Wisconsin portion of my life — which, unless the both of us land dream jobs in Portland, Oregon, will soon graduate to “permanent portion” — that I go through some measure of culture shock each time I travel to and from Georgia.

I bring this up for a couple of reasons: I’m sort of halfway in between visits to the Land of Peaches and Stipe. We visited for Christmas this past year, and the ensuing months have functioned as not just a detox from the absurd quantities of chocolate and pork products we consumed while there, but as a reintegration into Madison society. It’s more difficult than it sounds; for a week afterward, whenever someone asked me to make a brandy old-fashioned press, I just poured them three shots of Korbel and then asked really intrusive questions about their personal life. Also, my sister’s wedding is in October, and I’m already starting to freak a little bit about… well, most of it, but especially the part where all of my distant relatives and friends assume I’m just going to be an older, skinnier version of the person I was at 14. That’ll be fun.

Oh yeah, reason No. 2: I keep gradually finding out more and more about how Wisconsin and Georgia’s histories are intertwined, and while I’m not quite egocentric enough to claim my experience representative — but, y’know, stay tuned and all that — the whole thing might seem quasi-serendipitous if past events weren’t involved. Said events, though, primarily involve a few particular incidents that occurred during the American Civil War, and I think it sheds a bit of light on what continues to be a sometimes strained relationship between the North and the South.

To say these events were microcosmic with reference to what has emerged since would be disingenuous; the point of starting with a microcosm is to blossom out from a self-contained world, but our two states are not so static, nor is the general relationship between our two regions.

To be specific: I just found out the other day that, when General Sherman lay siege to Atlanta and burned the whole thing to the ground, most of the Union regiments that were involved hailed from Wisconsin. They rode in, set fire to buildings, houses, fields and crops, and are responsible for a fair few of the Confederate dead. At the Milledgeville Historical Society, each regiment is named, for what I presume is a fairly justifiable blend of historical accuracy and residual grudge.

The reminders are here too. Some days, my route to work or on errands takes me right past Forest Ridge Cemetery, one of the state’s largest, which also happens to sit right across from both the very prominent West High School and some of the nicer houses on that side of town. From the road — I’ve pulled over several times, at some points stopping just to look, at others to walk around in it a bit — headstones of all shapes, sizes and states of decay extend to the end of one’s field of vision; you have to crest the hill to see the rest.

In one section of the cemetery, though, there is a group of headstones that indicate the burial place of certain Confederate soldiers who died, either of natural causes or otherwise, while being held as POWs in the Madison area. Their place of internment lies not very far from their onetime place of incarceration: Camp Randall, the site of which is now the home football stadium for the University of Wisconsin Badgers. The stadium also bears the name of that facility, and most weekends in the fall, thousands upon thousands of students, alumni and others “do the Bucky” on the same grounds that no doubt bore witness to hundreds of intimate horrors.

This is, I think, indicative of the differences inherent in Northerners and Southerners, particularly those of us who have lived in one region all of our lives, or whose families are historically based in one or the other. While every schoolchild is obviously aware of the war and, to an extent, the repercussions, it is not just the matter of Winners vs. Losers that determines how each side’s descendants have remembered it.

No, proximity has more to do with it. Northern soldiers died, Northern resources were lost, yes, but very little of the actual fighting took place up here; there was no scorched-earth policy implemented on this land; the blood that was shed soaked into ground a thousand miles away. Life did not change in any major fundamental way, and Reconstruction was wielded by, not against, the North.

Don’t think me 100 percent sympathetic either way; the Confederate Army lost, and deservedly so, considering the economics, to put it PC, they were upholding. And all this “The South shall rise again” nonsense is wishful thinking; the South may possess 95 percent of the nation’s armed pickup trucks, but if the soul-crushingly boring drive through Illinois doesn’t sap their spirits, the mammoth wall of oompah music they encounter as they cross the northern border certainly will.

But this is a call for empathy… maybe, even, sympathy. So much that’s wrong with this country stems from an unwillingness of its citizenry to understand that this is a nation populated by people, by individuals, each with his or her own hopes, dreams, fears, hang-ups and fetishes.

We should serve, yes, what our flag — which contains all of our own personal freak flags — ostensibly represents. But we have to serve each other first. Blood spilt is blood spilt, and it takes a nation to clean it up.