The Cherokee Foothills Scenic Byway, 118 miles long, is so named because it runs through the foothills at the base of the Blue Ridge Mountains, ancestral home of the Cherokees. This route in South Carolina was originally a trail used by these Native Americans and English and French fur traders, but now I rode on a two-lane blacktop with little traffic through orchards, past parks, waterfalls, and road-side stands. Quaint villages were full of friendly folks who sold me ice cream and coffee while happily relating anecdotes about their daily lives. The road, the landscape, the people, the sunshine, and the beautiful fall leaf color had me at peace in this little nook of American, at least for a little while, despite my troubled disposition hours earlier as I left Virginia.
It was the first week of November. Like most Americans, I was pretty tired of an unprecedented, nasty, and bitter national campaign for president. I figured a few days on the road would clear my head of the campaign “noise” and allow me to reflect on what I believed to be universal American values that were being obscured by a string of personal insults from both presidential candidates.
As I crossed the SC/GA state line after leaving the Scenic Byway, a short diversion from my planned route took me to Cycle World of Athens (GA) to purchase a rain cover for BOXXER. Then it was on to my destination for Day 2: Andersonville Prison Camp, the most notorious prison of the Civil War.
This National Park Service site is maintained as an iconic reminder of the inhumane treatment suffered by Civil War soldiers. During the last year of the War in 1865 the prison was overcrowded to four times its capacity. Of the approximately 45,000 Union soldiers held there, over 13,000 died, mostly from scurvy, diarrhea, and dysentery. The adjacent National Cemetery contains 13,714 prisoner graves of Union soldiers. Today, its current beauty belies the horrible events and conditions that created it.
Due to the significance of Andersonville Prison in U.S. history, the National Prisoner of War Museum was built on the Andersonville site in 1998.
In addition to the Civil War POW history, one of the most poignant displays is about Americans captured in the Vietnam War. Next to a life-size bamboo “tiger cage“ was a mock-up of a grim, barefoot POW sitting on a straw mat enclosed by concrete walls. It could have been my imagination, but the mannequin exhibited a likeness of Senator John McCain, a Navy pilot who was shot down over Vietnam and imprisoned for over 5 years in the infamous Hanoi Hilton Prison.
Most Americans consider John McCain one of our foremost living American war heroes, but, for some, not so much, given the support for one presidential candidate who said: “He’s not a war hero—I like people who weren’t captured.” To my knowledge, John McCain has received no apology for that public statement, so I assume the author’s contention is still believed. As I made my way through the museum reflecting on prisoners of all American wars, the physical torture, mental abuse, and ultimate sacrifice they sustained while volunteering to protect our freedom and values, I wondered how many other “patriotic” Americans “—-like only people who weren’t captured.”
The general ignorance of all things related to war, POWs, and the military suffered by a large segment of the American public, including those running for and currently serving in public office, is largely due, I believe, to a lack of a personal military experience or not having been part of a military family. Tom Brokaw, the renowned NBC TV news journalist who wrote the book The Greatest Generation about WWII, recently stated that “it’s immoral for a democracy to send one percent of its population in a uniform into harm’s way over and over again.” His solution is to re-instate the draft so all Americans have a vested interest in the wars we fight and the ones we choose to avoid. Benefits of required national service might include better citizenship, a broadened world view, exposure to America diversity, greater empathy for all walks of life, appreciation of hardships experienced by military personnel and their families, and the very meaning of POW.
I agree, but until all Americans are motivated to share the sacrifice of securing and defending our way of life, I think it prudent for all of us to at least know better than to belittle those who served, especially POWs and families who lost loved ones.
I took another, slower, and final ride around the Andersonville National Military Cemetery. I studied some unique features such as the closeness of the tombstones and realized that prisoner deaths were so numerous that open trenches were dug and bodies were laid side by side rather than opening individual graves. Having grown up in the Midwest, a large granite pillar with the inscription “Indiana 1908”caught my eye. I was surprised, but shouldn’t have been, that 751 Hoosiers did not escape the prison walls nor the prison’s cemetery.
In 1908, the Indiana General Assembly directed the erection of a monument in commemoration of the heroic suffering and martyrdom of Indiana’s citizen soldiers. The monument’s unveiling and dedication, along with a list of names of all the men buried at Anderson cemetery, are contained in a report submitted to the governor of Indiana by the Andersonville Monument Commission. In it is a description of the prison and its historical aftermath written by Clara Barton, a woman who took it upon herself to spend years identifying and cataloging all 13,000+ POW graves; she was amazing and tells a fascinating story—a concluding excerpt:
“………..let me commend the soldier who has given his strength, the prisoner who has sacrificed his health, the widow who has offered up her husband, the orphan who knows only that its father went out to battle and comes no more forever, and the lonely, distant grave of the martyr who sleeps alone in a stranger soil that freedom and peace might come to ours.”
The early morning of Day 3 was already sunny and warm as I headed further south for the Panhandle of Florida. Andersonville Prison and the POW Museum gave me a lot to think about. Clear in my mind was that we should honor the sacrifices of soldiers that fight our wars, and especially ones who suffered as POWs. I believe that should be a fundamental American value shared by all Americans, including candidates for President.