Most nights in ninth grade, after the rest of my family was asleep, I snuck into the upstairs game room and turned on the computer, hoping that the loud buzzing and beeping of the dial-up modem wouldn’t wake my parents downstairs. As the blue light of the monitor bathed my face, I logged on to Mplayer, where I gathered with a few dozen others in order to delve into the deepest mysteries of the long ago Battle of Gettysburg. Our medium of study was the 1997 real-time strategy game Sid Meier’s Gettysburg! which distilled the battle into a dozen or so scenarios that we replayed endlessly in infinite combinations.
We organized into rival groups called clans. The Confederate clans were more popular, but I joined the sole Union clan: the Grand Army of the Republic, or GAR for short. Named after the largest post-war Union veterans’ organization, GAR was organized into brigades, divisions, and corps modeled on the actual order of battle at Gettysburg. As a new recruit, I was assigned the persona of one of the junior regimental commanders, Colonel Patrick Kelly of the famed Irish Brigade. When hostilities against the Confederates began, Kelly, who had immigrated to New York City from Ireland following the potato famine in 1846, immediately joined the state militia — then the 88th Volunteer Infantry of the Union Army — and went on to distinguish himself at the battles of Antietam, Chancellorsville, and Fredericksburg. His men knew him as a fine horseman and courageous fighter, and they followed him regardless of the odds against them. When under intense fire at Antietam, bullets whizzing past, he turned to his troops and exaggerated his Irish brogue for humorous effect, smiling and telling them to “lie down, byes [boys], thim little fellows might hurt yez.”
As a skinny Indian kid who’d never fired a gun in my life, I inhabited Kelly’s role surprisingly well. Using a few simple command buttons arrayed at the bottom of the screen, I maneuvered our forces at the Devil’s Den, Little Round Top, and the Wheatfield, sending pixelated men around the map on double-time marches, anticipating opposing flanking actions, and positioning artillery on the high ground. As the sound of rifle fire crackled through the tinny stock speakers stationed on either side of my keyboard, casualties mounted in real time, soldiers falling onscreen, canned sound effects urging us still onward towards victory. Our actions were governed by arcane rules, and the outcomes were graded according to who held the most valuable positions at the end of each scenario. The game would signal a Confederate victory with a series of rebel yells, while a Union triumph would trigger a resonant “Hoo-rah!”
Every time we replayed Pickett’s Charge, I moved our regiments a little more quickly, a little more effectively. The apparent simplicity of the game was alluring, containing within it the promise of perfectibility. We cycled through the handful of default scenarios again and again, chatting after each playthrough, pointing out where and how we could do better. We remained online far into the night, and I had a hard time staying awake in my morning classes after only a few hours of sleep. One night, a close relative in India suddenly passed away, and when our family there finally got through to us to deliver the news, they told my parents they’d tried calling for hours only to find the phone lines busy. That got me banned from playing games online after bedtime, but after the furor died down, I quietly rejoined the ranks.
Between battles, talk in our chatroom sometimes turned to the Civil War reenactments that many of the others in GAR went to on weekends. Firing rifles while running around in the mud sounded exciting, and I badly wanted to join them. But aside from the fact that most of these events occurred hundreds of miles away from Oklahoma, where I lived, there was this: I could not figure out what someone of my skin color would have been doing in the 88th Volunteer Infantry, or any other regiment for that matter. Naturally, there weren’t any other Indian teenagers in GAR to talk to about it. I briefly entertained the idea of wearing a beaded vest and inhabiting the role of a Native American scout, but my skin tone wasn’t right for that, nor were my features. Pretending to be a Native American soldier was just as ridiculous as pretending to be an Irishman; I knew that even then. At the time, I didn’t understand that nostalgia could be racialized, that imagining one’s self backwards was only safe for a certain kind of American — but even if I had, I wouldn’t have known what to make of it.
My father came to America from India in 1969, and my mother followed him after their marriage in 1983. Two years later, I was born in Ponca City, Oklahoma, where my father worked for Conoco as a geophysicist. They never talked much about their personal histories, their inheritance of place and caste. Time spent listening to stories about their parents and their parents’ parents was an unnecessary indulgence, they felt — it was time better spent on the math problems my father assigned to my sister and me. American history interested them even less. Once, on a business trip to Virginia, my father’s colleagues brought him along for a visit to the Manassas battlefield. Later, he told us that he couldn’t understand what was so interesting to them about a fenced-off field a few hundred feet from a busy road.
History was for school, where I read about Wild West shootouts, the Boston Tea Party, and the Dust Bowl travails of my Oklahoma home. For Cowboy Day in third grade, my mother dressed me up in jeans and a big belt buckle, packing me what she thought a vegetarian Hindu outlaw might have eaten for lunch a century and a half before. A few years later, I checked out a copy of Oregon Trail II from the local library and played it for hours, naming my party members, buying supplies, and clicking on buffalo and squirrels to slaughter them with a long-range rifle. In high school, I read about the Founding Fathers, and took it for granted that their ideas about the rights of man were premised on the assumption that one day people like me would exist within the same borders as people like them.
Near the peak of my career in GAR, I caught a re-run of the 1993 film Gettysburg, starring Martin Sheen as General Robert E. Lee and Jeff Daniels as the Union hero Colonel Joshua Chamberlain. It was part of that last rank of great epics shot before the advent of computer-generated special effects, and the major set pieces involved thousands of re-enactors charging across the actual battlefield, making real for me what had previously only been a game. Falling artillery shells exploded upwards in showers of dirt and grass, sending bodies flying. Daring officers led the advance with outstretched swords before being shot down by opposing snipers. Most satisfying were the stirring speeches that the colonels and generals on both sides gave before combat, laying out what they believed were this nation’s true ideals. I was particularly taken by Chamberlain’s words to a group of would-be deserters:
This is a different kind of army. If you look back through history you will see men fighting for pay, for women, for some other kind of loot. They fight for land, power, because a king leads them, or just because they like killing. But we are here for something new. This has not happened much, in the history of the world. We are an army out to set other men free. America should be free ground, all of it, not divided by a line between slave states and free — all the way from here to the Pacific Ocean. No man has to bow. No man born to royalty. Here we judge you by what you do, not by who your father was. Here you can be something. Here is the place to build a home. But it’s not the land, there’s always more land. It’s the idea that we all have value — you and me. What we are fighting for, in the end, we’re fighting for each other.
That speech stirred something deep within my teenage heart, articulating better than I ever could what so fascinated me about the war. Chamberlain’s words encapsulated what it meant to be an American, I thought. The mortally wounded Confederate officer Lewis Armistead throwing his head to the heavens in a plaintive cry when he learned his friend from before the war, Union general Winfield Hancock, had been shot down in battle as well — that was the price we had to be willing to pay. Every time I caught the movie on TBS — no matter where it was in its epic run time — I watched to the end in rapt attention. A few years later, when I was earning a little money during college, one of the first things I bought was a DVD copy, which I still have, sitting on a shelf below my television.
America demanded devotion. I’d spent most of my life to that point trying to explain my presence in this country to myself while trying to justify it to everyone else. My father hadn’t come here to escape any profound persecution. He’d come to make a little more money than he could have in India, that was all. I wondered if his desire for just a little more was enough to bind me to this land. Our wars offered a compelling stage, a way to imagine proving myself, to ask what I would have been willing to do in the name of this country that I loved. The Civil War was long over, but I still wanted to see myself as willing to sacrifice everything for the ideals Chamberlain glorified in his speech.
Still, Oklahoma was an unlikely place for my Civil War obsessions. We were of the South, but not quite — not even a state at the time of the war. What was then called Indian Territory had been contested by rebels and federals, Confederate-allied Cherokee and Chickasaw armies battling Union forces coming down from Kansas for control of this ground on the western periphery of the war. A strange footnote, really, that the tribes would ally themselves with a nation that codified racism into its Constitution; but so many of the wealthy chiefs owned slaves themselves, and most of the rest felt that the enemy of their enemy could be an uneasy friend.
That the apparent harmonious homogeneity of life in suburban Tulsa obscured a more turbulent history was not something I learned from my parents, nor from my high school history textbooks, which still described the violent destruction of the city’s Black community in 1921 as the “Tulsa Race Riot.” Jim Crow remained the law in Oklahoma for decades after, just as in Mississippi and Tennessee. But the families of most of my white friends had moved to Oklahoma decades after the South’s surrender. Civil War remembrance in Oklahoma, such as it was, didn’t take on the brutal sentimentality of the Lost Cause — in Oklahoma, there was no antebellum to falsely idolize. It was more neutral ground, and, already unaccounted for in our racial dichotomy, I felt freer to continue making my own kind of remembrance of an imagined American past.
In the years after college, the long-running Antiques Roadshow became one of my favorite programs on television. Whenever I came across a rerun, I’d sit captivated as elderly white folks in loose khakis and Hawaiian shirts explained the provenance of a dusty piece of furniture or forgotten painting. They’d explain how their great-grandfather brought back an ancient vase from a trip to Shanghai in the 1930s, or how their distant relatives had passed down a Shaker table as a precious family heirloom. A grinning appraiser in a nice suit would look the forgotten object up and down before revealing its secret history. The owner would feign surprise as the real value of their youth was quantified in dollars and cents, then smile at learning some new part of their past. For the span of an hour-long episode, history was knowable, quantifiable, tangible, its mysteries sitting in a closet somewhere waiting to be pieced together. For the price of an entry ticket and a few hours in line, someone would even do it for you.
I began to attend estate sales. I eagerly perused online listings, carefully looking through photos for hidden treasure. At least one Saturday a month, I joined a line outside the best sale of the week, waiting my turn to enter after the doors opened at eight. Jewelry and old porcelain brought the greatest frenzy, but I was drawn to colorful artwork, trinkets from abroad, mid-century barware — I sought ballast.
My parents had come here with nearly nothing and threw out or gave away most of what little they’d accumulated each time we moved to a new rental house. They told me my inheritance was spiritual — accumulated wisdom, not a few useless antiques. Still, I wished for my own heirlooms. Rummaging through dusty attics on hot summer weekends, I was inventing my American roots, collaging together others’ belongings and ideas into a story that made sense — what Cathy Park Hong has called “an origin myth of the self.”
My father immigrated to the US much earlier than most of my Indian friends’ parents, and I took it for granted that he had been among the first of his kind. But as the years passed and my historical scavenging went beyond the confines of estate sales, it became clear that there had been Indians here for decades prior to his arrival. During my fellowship in medical oncology, I learned about the life and work of the biochemist Yellapragada Subbarow, who developed new antibiotics, streamlined methods for synthesizing important vitamins, and discovered the crucial chemotherapy drug methotrexate. My interest in his pioneering work in the 1920s and ’30s turned into an obsession: months of research about his life, hunting down obscure articles and an out-of-print biography. As I read on, I learned about the Ghadar Movement, a group of San Francisco-based Indian revolutionaries who advocated for the violent overthrow of British rule in the years before World War I. I read and I read: one book about Bengali peddlers making a life in Black communities from Harlem to New Orleans, another about Punjabi farmers intermarrying with Mexican American women in Depression-era California.
Yet I wanted something deeper, earlier. I wanted brown people in cravats and frock coats. I wanted brown abolitionists, railroad tycoons, and transcontinental explorers. I wanted brown people in uniform firing relentlessly at this nation’s enemies, foreign and domestic. I wanted us in every corner of America’s history, all the good and the bad, hidden somewhere in the background like we always were. I found a book that contained a drawing from a century and a half old issue of Harper’s depicting a turbaned “adventurer” from India who’d come to California for the 1848 Gold Rush, but there weren’t any more details. Searching through nineteenth century newspaper archives I uncovered the odd “Hindoo” exhibition or traveling speaker, but there was never more than a paragraph or two on these perceived oddities. I thought I’d have to content myself with the imagined outlines of nonexistent ancestors and the echoes of the Gita in Emerson and Thoreau — until, one busy weekday morning, absent-mindedly clicking through the Washington Post headlines, I saw a headline about Aaron Burr’s “secret family of color.”
The article described new research by Sherri Burr, a Black professor of law at the University of New Mexico and herself a descendent of the third vice president of the United States. Professor Burr had found clear evidence that Aaron Burr had two illegitimate children with his Indian servant Mary Emmons, who was born in Calcutta, and that these children — Louisa Charlotte and John Pierre Burr — were his only progeny to survive past the age of 30. Half-Indian, half-white, both of Burr’s children married into Pennsylvania’s free Black community and eventually became ardent abolitionists; John Pierre even hid escaped slaves in his barbershop as a conductor on the Underground Railroad. At the outbreak of the Civil War, near the end of a lifetime of political activism, he signed a petition along with Frederick Douglass and others, encouraging free Black men to join the Union army.
His eldest son John Emery Burr heeded that call, mustering into the United States Colored Troops. Even though they typically served at the rear, these regiments suffered some of the highest casualties of the war, dying at a 35 percent higher rate than their white counterparts. Regardless of their place of residence prior to the war, Confederates deemed them all guilty of “servile insurrection” and often summarily executed them following capture on the battlefield. Still, they served bravely when called upon, most notably at the Battle of the Crater in Virginia and the Battle of Fort Wagner, later dramatized in the 1989 film Glory. John Emery, it seemed, was the Union soldier of Indian descent I’d wished for ever since my time in GAR all those years ago.
I wondered whether John Pierre or Louisa Charlotte saw themselves as different from the freedmen among whom they made their lives. I wondered whether Mary had ever furtively given them some nearly-forgotten words of Bengali, a verse from the Vedas, or a recipe for one of those delicacies that would have recalled a world now lost to her forever. And, though I know it can’t be true, I like to imagine John Emery Burr, at his campfire the night before some tremendous battle, conflicted, thinking about what his grandmother might have taught him about the first scenes of the Bhagavad Gita when Arjuna surveys his own battlefield, unwilling to fight and kill those that shared some part of his blood.
A couple of years ago, my wife and I went to see a production of Hamilton in Chicago. We sat in excellent seats, my wife crying through most of the songs, while I marveled at this feat of historical imagination. We could imagine ourselves backwards anywhere, Lin Manuel Miranda seemed to be telling us: a Puerto Rican man could be Alexander Hamilton, a half-Asian woman could be Elizabeth Schuyler, and a Black man could be George Washington. It wasn’t until later that I read Miranda had cast the Indian actor Utkarsh Ambudkar as Aaron Burr in his initial workshop productions of Hamilton at Vassar College in 2013. An Indian man could be Aaron Burr, who’d impregnated an Indian woman and had a secret Indian family that turned into a secret Black family that accepted histories had ignored.
Yet Toni Morrison and others criticized Miranda’s sleight of hand, erasing humble people of color who actually existed in the background of the heroic scenes of national self-determination he’d dramatized in his musical — making me wonder if my own backwards imagination should place me with Aaron Burr or with Mary Emmons.
I wanted to be in two places at the same time.
I wanted to be everywhere at once.
In March of 2015, when my wife was still only my girlfriend and we were living in Philadelphia, we went to the hallowed ground of Gettysburg on our drive home from a vacation on the Delaware shore. It had been nearly twenty years since my fascination with the Civil War began, but before that day, I’d never managed to make the trip. We arrived late on that early spring Sunday, the sun already beginning its downward journey over the rolling brown fields. As we made our way through the narrow streets of Gettysburg towards the battlefield, I regretted tacking our visit onto another vacation rather than dedicating all the time it deserved. We rushed through the official museum, spending a few seconds in front of each display, then ran back to the car to drive through the battlefield before the sun set. As we approached, we saw the domes, obelisks, and statues placed by various regiments after the war as memorials to their fallen brethren, gleaming in the chill light. The scene was appropriately somber, the landscape in its eerie emptiness a fitting reminder of all who had once died here. The topography itself seemed muted, the hills less steep than I had imagined when sending my regiments charging up their slopes back in the GAR.
We pulled over at the parking lot for Little Round Top and rushed up the marked path to its summit. The trees were still bare, and fallen leaves crunched under our feet. It was here that Colonel Joshua Chamberlain, holding the far-left flank of the Union line, had made his fateful stand against wave after wave of rebel troops. Looking down the wooded slope. I imagined Jeff Daniels as Col. Chamberlain, delivering his dramatic speech before the battle to the men under his command. Late in the afternoon of July 2, having been told by his superiors that no retreat was possible, his ammunition exhausted, most of his men now dead or wounded, his troops reduced to a single thin line atop the low mountain, he saw the Confederate units massing for yet another assault. Convinced this was the end, he asked his exhausted troops to fix bayonets and countercharge right into the teeth of their advance. The crazed courage of the 20th Maine sent the rebels scattering, averting disaster and perhaps turning the tide of the war itself. Now, so many years later, it was hard to believe that such carnage could have once occurred in this bucolic landscape, but if I closed my eyes, I could almost hear the faint echoes of those long ago rebel yells.
We moved on to the Wheatfield, where I took a picture of a cannon looking out over the open expanse and posted it to my Instagram. While Chamberlain was repulsing the rebel attacks on his flank, Patrick Kelly and his men were receiving final absolutions from their Catholic chaplain before heading here to play their own role in the proceedings. Gettysburg guide T.L. Murphy writes that Kelly led his Irishmen into the waving wheat that fateful morning holding their regimental flags high, repeating their Gaelic battle cry “Faugh a Ballagh!” Their initial momentum would soon be halted by a hail of bullets, and by the end of the fighting they would be forced backwards to where they’d started, losing nearly half of their men to the battlefield. Still, Kelly’s commanding officer would recognize his continued bravery, writing to the president with a recommendation for his promotion to brigadier general. Perhaps due to ongoing discrimination against Irish officers in the ranks, the recommendation never came to fruition, and Kelly would remain a colonel until the end of his war a year later at Petersburg, where he was unceremoniously cut down by a Confederate bullet.
In his famous address, Abraham Lincoln spoke of how the dead had given their “last full measure of devotion” to the ideal that this “government of the people, by the people, and for the people” would not “perish from this Earth.” I looked out over the empty landscape where over fifty thousand soldiers had been killed or wounded, most of them now forgotten. The armies quickly moved on following the decisive battle, leaving the few residents of the town of Gettysburg to struggle with the thousands of bodies left behind. Already decomposing in the searing summer heat, the bodies were buried in shallow trenches only to be uncovered by the next rain, after which wild animals tore the limbs free. The carcasses of the thousands of horses killed in the fighting were burned in a giant bonfire near town, the fumes of which violently sickened town residents for days afterwards.
I wondered if the American identity I’d spent decades crafting could stand up to what this battlefield seemed to silently demand. In 1923, after fighting in the American army during World War I, Bhagat Singh Thind was denied citizenship because he “would not be considered white in the understanding of the common man.” Nearly a century later, Captain Humayun Khan was killed while fighting in Iraq, and when his father spoke of his sacrifice at the Democratic National Convention in 2016, the eventual winner of that year’s election spoke of him flippantly, denigrating his mother’s silence. I hadn’t risked everything like Thind or lost everything like Khan, but despite what they and their families had endured, the ideals for which they had fought still meant something to me. As the sun continued its descent at Gettysburg that day, the line between those ideals and the lives we lived by them continued to blur. All Patrick Kelly had wanted when he had emigrated from Ireland was a wife and a small store that he could call his own. Instead, he’d found himself drawn into a war, fighting for a country that never fully accepted him. He’d died for that country. Our country.
In his 1961 book The Legacy of the Civil War, Robert Penn Warren wrote, “a high proportion of our population was not even in this country when the War was being fought. Not that this disqualifies the grandson from experiencing to the full the imaginative appeal of the Civil War. To experience this appeal may be, in fact, the very ritual of being American.” What was a nation but a collective conjuring born of such ritual? The mysterious attraction of that war had once seemed comprehensible to me, written in the subtle movements of pixels on a screen. Yet in the years since my first and only visit to Gettysburg, its truth had become more elusive, muddied by all that had come into our nation’s politics. Still, I searched on in my own way, finding my imagination returning again and again to those bloodlands, as if I hoped to find in the sacrifice there some means to renew my belief in the myths that had once sustained me, some way back to the collective history I still held dear.