INDIANAPOLIS – Years ago, on a hot summer day, I took a run among America’s ghosts.
It was 30 years ago in Vicksburg, Mississippi. I was traveling, staying at a pre-Civil War mansion that had been converted into a bed-and-breakfast. A cannonball from a Union gun ship remained lodged in the parlor wall in the same spot where it had landed more than a century and a quarter before, during siege of the small Southern city.
When I was on the road in those days, I liked to log miles in my running shoes. Covering ground on my feet gave me a better sense of a place.
As I took off from the old mansion, the temperature was approaching 90, even though it was still early in the morning. The air was heavy with humidity.
I didn’t care. I was young then, and fit. A good sweat was a great start to the day.
Hills punctuate Vicksburg’s landscape. Some roll. Some rise abruptly.
About four miles into the run, I was climbing a hill that rose abruptly, leaning into it, pushing hard off the balls of my feet, when I spotted an historical marker.
That wasn’t unusual. Such markers in Vicksburg are as common as leaves upon the ground when autumn fades to winter.
Something drew me to this one.
I trotted over to it and stopped, breathing deep, to read it.
It said that three Union soldiers had died on that same spot in the waning days of the Vicksburg siege. They had attempted to take this same hill, running up it as I just had, only with rifles in their hands and packs on their backs.
When they got to the top, they were met with gunfire.
The historical marker said the Union soldiers were from Indiana.
I resumed my run, but I wasn’t really conscious of where the route took me, and my feet fell. Those three Union soldiers – those three Hoosier boys – haunted my thoughts. I wondered what had motivated them to come fight in this land so far from home. Were they believers in the Union cause? Or were they young enough to think that war would be an adventure?
I pondered what it must have been like to scramble and dig their way up that hill, knowing there was a better than even chance that nothing more than a bullet waited for them at the top.
I thought, as I ran over this stretch of tragedy-soaked American soil, that we Americans so often strip our national story of its pain and arduousness. We view it as a march of triumph. We see the American Revolution as an accomplished fact, rather than an ongoing, even unending challenge.
The truth is that our history is a hard scramble up a steep hill. Over and over, we think we’ve reached the top, only to find that we’ve been stopped or even sent tumbling back, as we argue, even fight, again and again and again, over the meaning of the freedom that defines us as a nation.
We’re locked now in another debate about how we should remember the people who killed those three Hoosier boys so long ago.
As valiant warriors?
It’s appropriate, even altogether fitting, that we have that discussion – because it is the one essential American conversation. If we cannot come to terms with our past, we cannot do right by the present.
The founders of this nation were far-from-perfect exemplars of the principles they set forth, but they did establish the terms by which they themselves – and we – could be indicted. America, they said, was to be judged by how far and how completely we Americans extend the blessings of liberty.
In other words, our task, as Americans, is to keep scrambling up that steep hill.
No matter how many times we get stopped.
No matter how many times we get knocked down.
There’s a reason my thoughts these days have drifted back to that long-ago run when the spirits of those long-dead Hoosier boys strode with me.
That run took place on a special day.
It was the anniversary of the day Vicksburg fell and made the Union’s victory all but inevitable.
It was the Fourth of July.