SHARPSBURG, Md.-Just past dawn on a brisk September morning, a couple in their 30s walked along the sunken road known as "Bloody Lane" with a toddler sleeping soundly in her stroller and a newborn snuggled against his father.
"Just think about this — we’re standing here at the exact moment the battle began," the husband said as his wife nodded, smiled and reached down to hug her sleeping daughter. Both parents then sat in the grass along the crushed-limestone lane.
They were among thousands who converged before sunrise on this small Maryland town for the 150th anniversary of Antietam — the bloodiest single day of the Civil War and still the bloodiest in American history, a day that left more than 23,000 men dead, maimed or missing.
"Never in a million years did I expect this many people," said a National Park Service ranger directing cars to park on a sloping muddy field; the license plates reflected visitors from as far north as Maine and as far west as Oregon.
Americans seem to be drawn to solemn moments in our history, especially when they believe the times they live in are tumultuous, the ranger said. "It’s almost like a pilgrimage."
In doing so, they create simple yet surprising moments such as the one that unfolded on this battlefield, commemorating a battle and a war that former U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice has said "made us a more perfect union."
It is a very different America that exists beyond the astonishing narrowness of social media, beyond the group-think that forms in the press pools covering political campaigns, in political parties’ convention halls or in the bubble of Washington, D.C.
Despite all the advantages of instant communication and news access found in video clips streaming over the Internet, what happens on websites such as Twitter or on campaign buses never seems to adequately capture what is happening on Main Street.
Since boarding a jetliner on Christmas night last year, this reporter has logged more than 8,600 miles in 21 states and has interviewed more than 1,200 people registered as or identifying with Democrats, all in an attempt to tell the stories of their pocketbooks, their families and their America.
Reality is like gravity: It can pull you down in an instant. From a distance, pundits and reporters hail President Barack Obama’s accomplishments and the ideology of his first term. Yet many voters who supported him in 2008 now face strikingly different realities.
Kelly Foote, a waitress at the Moonlight Diner, a classic old-time eatery on Tower Road in Denver, said she had a home, a car and a savings account in 2008 but "lost everything. Every bad economic condition … converged at the same time, and by 2010 I had lost it all."
The 40-year-old said business dropped by more than half "and I just couldn’t keep up. I tried juggling but, in the end, I had to surrender everything."
Foote has not given up "on the possibility of what I can achieve" but won’t vote for Obama.
As the president makes his case for four more years, he does so without emphasizing what he has accomplished or what he intends to do. Instead, he concentrates on the culture of personal celebrity.
When backed into a corner, as in Wednesday’s debate with Republican challenger Mitt Romney, he defaults to class warfare.
If Obama wins re-election, he may claim a mandate to advance a class-based, redistributionist agenda — because that is exactly what he has run on.
Romney sees the country in a different way. In a recent interview with the Trib, he said contending that America is exceptional is simply a matter of extolling its virtues rather than reveling in its defects: "It is to cherish the belief in liberty, equality, constitutionalism and the well-being of ordinary folks."
Mannie Gentile, a park ranger at Antietam, said he understood why an overwhelming number of people came to honor the battle’s anniversary: They felt a need to connect.
"You could see tangibly that people came because they wanted to honor service and sacrifice and their history," he said.
"Clearly, Americans still believe we have a unique destiny to fulfill."
Pittsburgh Tribune-Review Political Reporter