For the past three weeks, Tommy Caldwell and Kevin Jorgeson have been free climbing the “Dawn Wall” in Yosemite Park. Today, they finally reached the peak, in an unprecedented display of physical and emotional resilience. Using gear only for safety, they ascended what many in the climbing community consider the hardest climb in the world entirely under their own power, inches hard won by hand and foot. For nearly a week, Jorgeson battled with pitch 15, one of the most difficult sections on the 3,000 foot wall. Caldwell, who had progressed many pitches higher, rejoined Jorgeson rather than continue to the summit alone. Moments like this have led many to see the climb as much more than the ascent of two men up a rock, arguing that it is instead a triumph of the human spirit, and a great inspiration in a time of darkness. Yet, in a way, Caldwell and Jorgensen are not pioneers: the first time that Americans turned to Yosemite for inspiration was 150 years ago.
The Civil War left more than 600,000 Americans dead, and even more wounded. Soldiers returned home missing arms, legs, and eyes. Many also suffered from what we now know as Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. Depression, suicide, and alcoholism ran rampant among men whose wartime experiences had broken them. White southerners, especially, felt the devastation of the war years. In 1861 they had been the nation’s richest and most powerful Americans; by 1865, they were impoverished and powerless. The war had reduced southern cities to rubble and Union soldiers had deliberately targeted livestock, leaving many Southerners homeless, starving, and unable to plant their fields. Somehow, northerners and southerners who had spent four years trying to kill each other had to imagine a way to rebuild a unified nation.
To do that, they turned to the West.
In 1865, Hudson River School artist Albert Bierstadt painted “Passing Storm in Yosemite.” In this epic image, as the storm rolls past, the sun breaks free from the clouds, illuminating a captivating landscape of trees and mountains. Men on horseback calmly move towards the valley, leading the viewer forward.
That Bierstadt chose Yosemite was not an accident. Before the war, it was over the West that the great tensions between North and South exploded. The main point of contention was simple enough: would there be slavery in the West or not? Southern plantation owners, who had gained a political monopoly over the government, feared that the inclusion of western Territories as free states would break their political control and open the doors to restrictions on slavery. Many northerners, including young upstarts such as Abraham Lincoln, loathed the idea that only the wealthiest slave-owners should have a say in civic life, and sought a model for the West in which any hard-working man would have the chance to rise. When Abraham Lincoln won the 1860 election, southern slave owners, foiled at the ballot box, led their states out of the Union. The war followed.
The West continued to be central during the war itself. While less well-known than the massive clashes of Gettysburg and Chancellorsville, a number of important conflicts took place in the western theatre. At the same time, the Republicans, unencumbered by southern opposition in Congress, looked to develop the West for free labor. They passed the Homestead Act, giving land to anyone willing to farm it, and the Pacific Railroad Acts, to move miners and settlers to the Plains and the western mountains. In 1864, concerned that businessmen were monopolizing the resources in California, Congress created a protected park, now known as Yosemite. The implication was clear: should the United States survive the Civil War (and it was not always clear that it would), the future of the nation’s people lay in the West.
Bierstadt, like many Americans, hoped that after the war, the West would be a source of unity. By situating his passing storm in the West, he encouraged Americans, both northerners and southerners, to join together in the new nation, one with seemingly unbridled potential. He hoped that the broken veterans of the Civil War and their families would be able to rebuild their lives, moving calmly towards a new era in which all could thrive. In fact, the years following the war were among the most violent and tumultuous in American history, yet for a brief moment, Americans may have gazed upon Bierstadt’s painting of Yosemite and truly believed that the worst was behind them.
Caldwell and Jorgeson’s climb of the Dawn Wall should indeed be inspiring. It is not only one of the greatest climbing feats in history, it is one of the greatest athletic achievements of any kind. In a twenty-first century world that seems sometimes pummeled by the worst facets of the human experience, the climb is a welcome story. But it is not the first time that we have looked to the park’s iconic cliffs for something more.