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September 11

By Daniel Hubbard | September 11, 2011

Today we look back on a moment when America and much of the world went into shock. Just about everyone old enough to have understood remembers what they were doing and where they were when they heard the news. I was living in Sweden then. Because of the time difference it was late in the work day for me. I happened to walk by the office of one of our project managers. He had heard something on the radio and gone to a newspaper’s website. The report was so sketchy that for all I knew at the time, the pilot of a private plane had suffered a heart attack and hit one of the towers. On the train ride home it became clear that something far worse had happened. My sister called me to make sure that I wasn’t flying around on a business trip somewhere and filled me in both on the details and the uncertainty.

Nations have gone into shock before and undoubtedly will again. So I’ve started to ponder the shocks of the past. The shocks of our ancestors. Every one is different. There is no simple way to compare the events that caused them. Some involve death on an enormous scale, some only a single death. Some are over in an instant. Other events take longer to unfold.

Nothing in my memory compares to September 11th. For Americans, probably the three greatest shocks in living memory are the attack on Pearl Harbor, the JFK assassination and the events of September 11. The first two were before my time. They belong to earlier generations. Perhaps it is time to interview my older relatives again. My father has, after all, experienced all three.

Detail from The Battle of Shiloh by Thure de Thulstrup

What national shocks did our ancestors experience? Where were they and what did they think? Clearly the shock depends on the nation. I have no ancestors who might have felt the national shock of Germany’s collapse in the fall of 1918 but my children do. Perhaps the earliest national shock in American history was the Battle of Shiloh in 1862. A war that was supposed to involve some skirmishing over a few months produced a battle with 23,000 casualties—so out of scale with what was expected or even what had already transpired that it was met with shock, horror and disbelief. Even the victorious general was temporarily relieved of command and was glad of it. I don’t need to wonder what one of my ancestors thought. He was there.

Before Shiloh, the only candidate for an American national shock that comes to mind is the fall of New York in 1776. Yet without up-to-the-minute news reports, was it a truly national shock? Perhaps a shock on so great a scale requires not just a sudden event but a quickness of communication that the 18th century simply lacked.

The first of many funeral processions for Abraham Lincoln

The Lincoln assassination was unquestionably an event that shocked and horrified the nation. The sheer numbers of mourners that met his funeral train as it wound its way across the country make a very clear statement. What my ancestors thought or felt then, I do not know. Though in the case of one ancestor and his immediate family, it is fairly easy to guess. He recollected years later that the first vote he ever cast was for Lincoln in 1864. Like Lincoln, he was from central Illinois and some of his family may very well have heard one of the Lincoln-Douglas debates, held only blocks from their home. When I looked up the early marriages performed by his minister grandfather, a suspicion that I had was confirmed. Many of the licenses were marked “negro” next to the bride and groom. With one exception, they were the earliest such marriages on record in the county. It doesn’t require much of a leap of imagination to make some assumptions about how his family felt.

I wonder what other shocks went through the lives of our ancestors. What events suddenly hit them like tons of falling glass and steel? What events in their lives could no one in their society say were not etched forever upon their minds? What events might an ancestor have had a hand in producing that led to a great shock? These aren’t always pleasant things to ponder yet those events were a part of their lives, shaped their world and are part of our family history.

If we zoom in closer we might find other shocks in our ancestor’s world, felt on a smaller scale but due to events traumatic enough that they are still well known. The Johnstown Flood comes to mind as one American example. Yet though that disaster killed thousands, it lacks something. The shock we feel seems worst when humanity suddenly deals itself a self-inflicted wound.

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