Willoughby Run is a stream too small to be called a creek. Trickling southward through the hills of Adams County, Pennsylvania, it runs between two low ridges and crosses U.S. Highway 30 east of what is now a golf course, but which on the morning of July 1, 1863, was farmland. On the ridge west of Willoughby Run was a tavern owned by Frederick Herr and on that ridge, two brigades of Confederate infantry assembled, having marched some seven miles from Cashtown that morning. These brigades belonged to a division commanded by Maj. Gen. Harry Heth, part of the III Corps of the Army of Northern Virginia, the vanguard of Robert E Lee’s force invading Pennsylvania. They marched that July morning toward a memorable clash near a crossroads town less than a mile east of Willoughby Run, a place called Gettysburg.
Heth and his men had little trouble brushing back the Yankee cavalry that had sought to obstruct their march toward Gettysburg where, it is said, Heth believed he might capture a supply of shoes for his ragged troops. As the Confederate brigades lined up on Herr Ridge west of Willoughby Run, the blue-coated cavalrymen pulled back to the ridge on the east side of the stream, on the farm of a man named McPherson. The Union cavalry, commanded by Brig. Gen. John Buford, kept up a desultory fire with their carbines, with little effect on the Confederate infantry at a distance of nearly a quarter-mile, concealed by trees on Herr Ridge. Buford’s troopers were supported by a six-gun battery of artillery, and Heth brought up his own artillery to return fire, as he reconnoitered the position. The Southerners believed the main Union army was still far from Gettysburg, and that they faced no more than cavalry, perhaps supported by some local Pennsylvania militia. Heth gave the order for an advance, with the two brigades deployed on either side of the road leading east. On the north side of the road was a brigade of Mississippi troops commanded by Brig. Gen. Joseph Davis, nephew of Confederate President Jefferson Davis. South of the road was a brigade of troops from Tennessee and Alabama, commanded by Brig. Gen. James J. Archer, a Maryland native and an alumnus of Princeton University.
Archer’s brigade was one of the best in the Confederate army, having led the charge that broke the Yankee line at the Battle of Chancellorsville. One of Archer’s regiments, the 13th Alabama, was led by Col. Birkett Davenport Fry, a West Point dropout whose career had included volunteer service in the Mexican War and the notorious “filibuster” expedition to Nicaragua. And in the ranks of the 13th Alabama that July morning were two young privates from Randolph County, Winston Wood Bolt and his brother Robert, whose fate is of more than passing interest to me. When Heth ordered the advance from Herr Ridge, Archer’s brigade marched down to Willoughby Run and waded across the shallow stream then up the hillside beyond. The 13th Alabama was near the right flank of the brigade, and their attention was focused toward the woods on their left near the road, where Union troops were putting up a spirited resistance. Someone on the Confederate line noticed that these Yankees were wearing a distinctive style of hat they’d seen in previous battles and called out: “Ain’t no militia. It’s them black-hat fellows again. It’s the Army of the Potomac.”
Indeed, those “black-hat fellows” were Western troops commanded by Brig. Gen. Solomon Meredith, destined to be famous as the Union army’s “Iron Brigade,” and their appearance on the field proved to be a turning point in the Battle of Gettysburg. The Iron Brigade had rushed cross-country to the sound of the guns near Willoughby Run, and they arrived on the field in a somewhat disorderly way. By the time their lead regiment was fighting Archer’s men in the woods near the road, the trailing regiments were just coming over McPherson Ridge further south. This proved decisive in that opening clash at Gettysburg, as the Iron Brigade’s 24th Michigan regiment, the last to arrive on the field, came in at an angle that completely overlapped the right flank of Archer’s brigade. As one Tennessee survivor recalled, the Confederates were suddenly confronted with the choice either to run for the rear or surrender. Archer was among those captured, along with about 75 of his troops, including Pvt. Winston Bolt, my great-grandfather.
My direct personal connection to what Southerners sometimes used to call “The Late Unpleasantness” necessarily informs my opinions of more recent events, including Joe Biden’s insulting and dishonest attack on President Trump. In announcing his candidacy for the Democratic Party’s 2020 presidential nomination, Biden falsely accused Trump of sympathizing with neo-Nazi extremists who helped turn an August 2017 rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, into the site of senseless and deadly violence. Propaganda claims surrounding that episode have obscured the facts behind the wild mob scene in which Heather Heyer, 32, was killed when 20-year-old white supremacist James Fields rammed his car into a crowd of left-wing protesters.
A local politician in Charlottesville named Wes Bellamy had proposed removing a statue of General Lee from a park in the city, and this sparked a series of protests in opposition to Bellamy’s plan. A local activist named Jason Kessler issued the call for the so-called “Unite the Right” rally and, in the climate of political division following Trump’s 2016 defeat of Hillary Clinton, this rally attracted violence-prone extremists both Left and Right. The night before the rally saw a creepy torchlight march of neo-Nazis through Charlottesville, and on the day of the rally, a massive crowd of left-wing counter-protesters showed up, including dozens of masked “Antifa” thugs looking for a fight. Many have blamed Virginia’s Democratic Gov. Terry McAuliffe for the failure of law enforcement to prevent the violence that predictably erupted that day, but nothing that happened at Charlottesville could fairly be blamed on President Trump.
In last week’s video announcing his third bid for the presidency, however, Biden repeated a smear that left-wing activists have promoted, when he claimed Trump “shocked the conscience of this nation” with his response to the Charlottesville violence. “He said there were, quote, ‘some very fine people on both sides.’ Very fine people?” Biden asked in the video. “With those words, the President of the United States assigned a moral equivalence between those spreading hate and those with the courage to stand against it.”
This is simply false. Trump’s comment about “very fine people on both sides” referred to the controversy over Lee’s statue, and not to anyone “spreading hate.” On the same day the rally happened, Trump made a public statement lamenting “the terrible events unfolding in Charlottesville, Virginia,” and condemning “in the strongest possible terms this egregious display of hatred, bigotry and violence.” He continued: “It has no place in America. What is vital now is a swift restoration of law and order and the protection of innocent lives. No citizen should ever fear for their safety and security in our society.… I just got off the phone with the governor of Virginia, Terry McAuliffe, and we agree that the hate and the division must stop, and must stop right now.” Three days later, when Trump took questions at the White House, reporters repeatedly asked him for further comment. You can read the entire transcript of that press conference, and see that the president specified he was speaking of the Lee statue when he said there were “very fine people on both sides” of the dispute. Furthermore, Trump asked, if memorials to Lee and other Confederates were now subject to destruction, “I wonder, is it George Washington next week? And is it Thomas Jefferson the week after?”
Indeed, such controversies are not moot speculation: Radical students at Hofstra University insist that a statue of Jefferson be removed from their campus, and at George Washington University, campus activists assert that the “Colonials” nickname of the school’s sports teams is “extremely offensive” and “glorifies the act of systemic oppression.” What is apparent from such claims is, first of all, that America’s schools have failed to properly teach history, and second, that we are living in an era of frightening radicalism, in which ignorance and rage walk hand-in-hand. As tragedies like Charlottesville demonstrate, political polarization is dangerous. And as Joe Biden’s remarks demonstrate, there are unscrupulous politicians who seek selfish advantage from this polarization.
We have seen this before. How was it that my great-grandfather, a simple Alabama farm boy, ended up on that hillside in Pennsylvania, captured by farm boys from Michigan? Years of escalating crises, fomented by radicals and exploited by politicians, led finally to the division of America and the deadliest war in our nation’s history. More than 600,000 soldiers died in that four-year war, and when I ponder the fate of my ancestor Winston Wood Bolt, I recognize what a miracle it was that he was not among the dead. Had he not been captured on the first day at Gettysburg, he may well have been killed on the third day, when his brigade took part in the final assault known to history as Pickett’s Charge. His regimental colonel was grievously wounded in that charge; Winston Bolt’s brother Robert, who survived Gettysburg without being captured or killed, lost an arm the next spring in the Battle of the Wilderness. Meanwhile, my great-grandfather spent two years as a prisoner of war at Fort Delaware before being paroled when the war ended.
Private Bolt signed his parole with an “X.” He was completely illiterate, you see, and it is therefore impossible for me to know what my ancestor’s opinions were on the controversies that led to the Civil War. However, I can form an estimate of his character from knowing his daughter Perlonia, my grandmother, a stern but kindly Christian woman who lived to be 94 years old. It should not be necessary to explain why I bristle at any insult to my grandmother’s family, to hear them smeared as “racists” by people who never knew them. Some people like to display their imagined superiority by impugning my Southern ancestors in this manner, and I’ve learned to restrain my temper about such insults. Had such men as Alabama’s William Lowndes Yancey been better able to restrain their tempers, there might never have been a Civil War, but we must live with the consequences of history as it actually happened, rather than in whatever fictional alternative anyone might fondly imagine. Wishing that slavery or secession never happened is as futile as wishing that J.E.B. Stuart’s cavalry had been present to protect the advance of Lee’s army toward Gettysburg on that fateful July morning in 1863.
Joe Biden seems to imagine that he can rewrite his own history, and that the rest of us are too stupid to notice. As has been pointed out, Biden was still opposing school desegregation efforts in Delaware more than a decade after passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and, in 1975, he was among the senators who voted unanimously to restore Robert E. Lee’s citizenship. Biden’s positions in the 1970s were, arguably, defensible given the political realities of that era. The kind of school busing programs Biden opposed had led to violent riots in Boston and other communities, and he might defend his stance as an effort to avoid such conflicts. Similarly, the Civil War was once understood as resulting from a tragic failure of the democratic process, and the restoration of Lee’s citizenship was a gesture of national unity by statesmen seeking to heal the ancient rift between North and South. It is absurd to imagine that the Biden of 2019 might use a time machine to travel back four decades and advise a younger Biden to adopt a radical posture to serve his future presidential ambitions, because a radical Biden never could have been elected to the Senate in 1972 nor re-elected in 1978. Speaking of elected leaders, what about Jefferson Davis? In 1978, a congressional resolution restoring the Confederate president’s citizenship was signed into law by President Jimmy Carter. And it is also necessary to mention, in this context, that the official celebration of Robert E. Lee’s birthday in Arkansas was signed into law in 1985 by Gov. Bill Clinton.
History cannot be changed according to our wishes, and there is no reason to believe that politicians of the 21st century are morally superior to the politicians of the past, whose faults and failures now seem so easily apparent. Shall we condemn Joe Biden, Bill Clinton or Jimmy Carter as racists for their pro-Confederate past? Or should we instead suspect that Democrats like Biden are now simply seeking political advantage by smearing Trump and other Republicans as racists?
A few months after my great-grandfather was captured at Gettysburg, a Republican politician showed up there to give a speech — perhaps you’ve heard of it — about the importance of preserving “government of the people, by the people, for the people.” In 2016, the people of Adams County, Pennsylvania, voted by more than a 2-to-1 margin to elect Donald Trump president and, much like the election of 1860, many Democrats seem unwilling to recognize this result as legitimate. Hillary Clinton condemned as “deplorables” the nearly 63 million Americans who voted for Trump, and now Joe Biden would seem to be praising the “courage” of violent Antifa thugs who played a significant role in the Charlottesville riot. If there were “very fine people on both sides” that day in August 2017, there were also some dangerously violent people on both sides. Trump did not hesitate to condemn violence by neo-Nazi extremists, but have you seen any reporters asking Biden to condemn the violence of the radical Left? Or would it be “spreading hate” to ask tough questions of a Democrat?
Why are Americans still arguing about a war that ended more than 150 years ago? Shouldn’t we have learned the lessons of history and forgiven our grudges by now? Because my own ancestor was illiterate, I have no direct guidance from him in this matter, but there was another Confederate survivor of Gettysburg who wrote a letter with some useful advice: “My experience of men has neither disposed me to think worse of them nor indisposed me to serve them; nor in spite in spite of failures which I lament, of errors which I now see and acknowledge, or of the present aspect of affairs, do I despair of the future. The truth is this: The march of Providence is so slow and our desires so impatient; the work of progress so immense and our means of aiding it so feeble; the life of humanity is so long, that of the individual so brief, that we often see only the ebb of the advancing wave and are thus discouraged. It is history that teaches us to hope.”
So said Robert E. Lee in 1870 and we ought to heed his advice.