Crossing the Line

Four years ago, I crossed a line. I loaded up my Volvo and made the twelve-hour drive south from Philadelphia to Atlanta. The North had been my home for 51 years; I had never ever imagined living in the South. There were lots of places I had imagined living — New England, New Mexico, California. But the South? Not a chance. The South was a place where everyone moved slowly and played golf. I neither move slow nor golf. Yet there I was a mere four years ago, driving over and far below, the Mason-Dixon line.

During my interviews for the job of President of Oglethorpe University, everyone seemed interested in how I thought I would adjust to life in the South. How could I possibly know? My answer at the time was that Atlanta seemed more like a big city that a southern city and, in many ways, that has turned out to be the case. Most of our faculty members are not southerners. Oglethorpe students come from over 30 states and 30 countries. Atlanta has grown so fast over the last several decades that you meet very few native-born people. Yet, after a few years of living in the South, even Atlanta’s South, I can tell you that life here is very different from life in the North.

In real estate, they say it’s all about location, location, location. When it comes time to select an opportunity to pursue for a college presidency, however, the importance of location tends to be minimized. It’s often more about prestige, institution type, or even institution size. I have found, however, that location matters a great deal. I recall one presidential search that landed me in a small Midwestern town, home to a venerable liberal arts college. Although I had made the final group of three and was incredibly impressed by everyone I had met, when I entered this charming little town in my rental car, I knew that this search had come to an end. Even I, who was not bashful about asking my wife to consider making a sacrifice for my career, knew I could never ask her to move there. I know there are smaller towns, in more remote areas, but we are big-city people and there was nothing big-city about this village. I remember pulling the car over and calling her on my cell phone. I couldn’t stop laughing at the idea of her in this town. She thought I had lost my mind. I knew she would lose hers if we ever moved there. Needless to say, the interview didn’t go all that well.

When I first arrived in Atlanta, I was immediately struck by the southerners’ focus on the Civil War. In the North, the Civil War never comes up in conversation. I mean never. Yet, down here, one could be having a quiet professional lunch and your companion might make a rather caustic comment about Sherman’s burning of Atlanta. I am never quite sure how to respond. At first, I knew very little about the war, other than that we northerners had won. Had Sherman actually burned Atlanta? How big a city was Atlanta in 1864? I understood from high school history that after torching Atlanta, Sherman marched to the sea, burning everything in his path. I knew back then the sea was somewhere east of Atlanta, but I wasn’t sure how far the troops marched or why Sherman even went to the coast. This all seemed charming enough and in fact, I found myself becoming completely charmed by the south.

I am not certain when all my blissful ignorance began to change and when I started crossing that other line. For some unexamined reason, I began to feel like I needed to learn more about the Civil War. All of a sudden, everything about the war fascinated me. Maybe it had to do with my starting to feel like the South was really becoming home for me. Since Southern identity is so closely tied to the Civil War, I had some catching up to do. I wanted to know more. Not just the museum exhibit more, but the Chickamauga Battlefield more, the Kennesaw Battlefield more, the more one gets by reading every book one can lay his hands on. And that’s what I have spent every free moment over the last six months doing in preparation for the first course I will teach at Oglethorpe, on the causes of the Civil War. While I was trained as an historian in college, my particular field of interest was colonial Africa. I majored in history and never even took a single course on American history. The idea of studying southern American history never even crossed my mind. But today, through the exploration of the causes of the Civil War, it’s the history of the south that most intrigues me. One of the places I have read about is Andersonville, about two hours south of Atlanta, the site of the largest prison for Union troops where 13,000 soldiers died in just over a year. A few weeks ago, I went there. And it’s there I finally crossed that second line.

The day of my visit happened to coincide with a re-enactment. I had heard of such a thing, in which anywhere from a few dozen to several hundred men, women and children pretend they are participants in the conflict: dressing the parts, sleeping out of doors, cooking around a campfire. To tell the truth, it all seemed very, very odd. Heck, maybe even a bit deranged. Who were these people and why didn’t they have anything better to do with their weekends? And after 150 years, why are southerners still so obsessed with this war?

And then, seemingly out of nowhere, the switch came on for me. At Andersonville, inside walls designed to hold 10,000 but packed with 33,000 prisoners, there was a so-called “dead line” located about ten yards within the wooden barricade that imprisoned the troops. Any Union soldier who wandered past the dead line was shot to death. After spending hours among these soldiers re-enacting life inside Andersonville – wet, dirty, hungry and terrified, with the common goal of avoiding the dead line and staying alive –I actually began to wish I was in uniform with them.

It was through that experience of empathy and common purpose that I crossed the second line. The first, of course, was the Mason-Dixon Line, but that only got me into the South. While I remain fully committed to the northern agenda accomplished by the war, I have begun to feel – really feel – the immense effect the war had on the south, on my home now. Now I am the one who more often brings the war up in casual lunch conversation. Imagine that! I didn’t cross Andersonville prison’s “dead line,” but I am on the other side of a different kind of line and I lived to tell about it.