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View from the USA: Let's be civil

A visit to the fabled fields of the American Civil War offers a lesson in how fighting can be avoided if we embrace our shared humanity.

Published 17 Oct 2019, 06:00 BST
Aaron Millar.
Aaron Millar.
Photograph by Jacqui Oakley

In the fields of Manassas, northern Virginia, on 21 July 1861, the men of the American Civil War stood toe to toe, firing into each other’s lines. It was the first major battle of that bloody conflict and, although it was thought Union victory would be swift — rich Northerners brought picnics from Washington to watch the show — the First Battle of Bull Run proved to be merely the first cut in a wound that would eventually tear the country apart.

It’s a strange place to visit. On the one hand, it’s peaceful: forests and lush, rolling fields as far as the eye can see. I hike through groves of white ash and oak to Matthews Hill, where the armies clashed that day. I visit Henry House, where an elderly widow, Judith Carter Henry, earned the dubious honour of becoming the first civilian casualty of the Civil War; killed by cannon fire as she lay in bed. I stand on the spot where General Thomas Jackson earned the nickname ‘Stonewall’, holding out for a Confederate victory despite being outnumbered by Union forces. 

But on the other hand, it’s still haunted by echoes of musket fire, cannon smoke and blood seeping through blades of grass. There are other Civil War attractions: Graffiti House, a former Civil War hospital nearby, where I see soldiers’ original scribbles still intact on the walls; and the white headstones of Arlington National Cemetery, where the dead were laid to rest. 

After that day in Manassas, there could be no going back, no hope of consolidation, no compromise on either side. A line in the sand had been drawn. Sometimes, in America, it feels like that line is still here. According to a 2018 poll, 31% of voters think another civil war is likely. Now, admittedly, a sizeable percentage probably also think Elvis is alive, the world is flat and the US government has been taken over by alien lizards disguised as human beings (that last one may be true). The survey findings have been met with a mixture of exasperation and gallows humour: a meme recently went around on the internet of a man made out of red states punching a man made out of blue states in the stomach. Underneath, it read: ‘Folks keep talking about a civil war. One side has about eight trillion bullets, the other doesn’t know which bathroom to use. Wonder who’d win?’ To be fair, if you’re going to incite revolution, you might as well make people chuckle in the process.

Sometimes fighting seems like the only way; there are things we shouldn’t tolerate. There are lines in the sand. 

But then, standing there on the fields of Manassas, I remember the past three years, and change my mind. After 30 issues of travelling across this great and beautiful country, View From the USA is winding down to a natural close. For those of you that have followed this column, thank you for letting me share some star-spangled banter. 

It’s the differences I remember most fondly: stomping my feet to bluegrass in the backwoods of Tennessee and never having felt more alien or more welcome in my life; lassoing steers in the badlands of Nevada with Cowboy Clay, wanting to feel that freedom of the Old West. I remember a dust storm of wild mustangs galloping through the Goshute Valley; the hands of a Cajun faith healer in the bayous of Louisiana, the heat from the medicine man’s fire. Those worlds are as alien to me as my privileged urban existence is to them. 

Travelling is all about opening your mind. And what those cowboys and prairies and banjos taught me is that, red or blue, people are different only in wide view. Zoom in and they’re good and kind, and if you’re lucky they’ll teach you to lasso steers and ride wild horses. Zoom in and people — all of us — are fundamentally the same. 

That’s the idea that the United States was founded on: all are welcome, all ideas matter. We’re an ‘imperfect union’ — something that’s written in the constitution. But we’re meant to be. Our job is not to be perfect right now, this instant, but to always strive towards something better.

If the men of Manassas teach us one thing, it’s that some things aren’t worth fighting for. They’re worth listening to instead.

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Travel writer Aaron Millar is the host of the podcast Armchair Explorer.

Follow @AaronMWriter

Published in the November 2019 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)

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