If you don’t know where the title of this post comes from, then there’s little hope for you. More seriously, if you don’t know, look it up and really think about what it all means. American history is more than worth the effort of thinking about it.
Some people prefer things like battles. Luckily, I have just the thing: the greatest battle
fought in the Western Hemisphere, the most costly battle in United States history, and the turning point of the great war for America’s soul (“a great civil war testing whether this nation or any nation so conceived and so dedicated can long endure”). There were approximately 50,000 casualties (“those who here gave their lives that that nation might live”, as well as the wounded and captured). For comparison, only about 1,300 men were killed, wounded, or captured at the Battle of the Brandywine during the Revolutionary War. America lost as many men at Gettysburg as France lost at Waterloo. And this was not an isolated event: at Antietam, in one day, there were 23,000 casualties; during the Seven Days, 36,000; at Shiloh, 24,000. And at various engagements in the Eastern and Western (ie, trans-Appalachian) Theaters, hundreds of thousands more were killed outright, wounded, or sent to hellish prison camps. In all, some 620,000 (probably more) men died.
It isn’t simply their deaths that matter, though of course dying for one’s country is noble enough. It’s the effect, the “great work” that they “nobly advanced” that really matters. Although they may not have known it, men on both sides of the war died for the cause of freedom and liberty. Not all men in the Union Army were interested in emancipating the slaves, and many were positively racist. But as time passed, attitudes changed and it was
agreed–slowly–that the loss of hundreds of thousands of lives had to be for something more than putting down a rebellion. It had to be about the idea that is America, the idea that all men (and today, women) are created equal. It’s one hell of an idea and worth fighting for.
Southerners, simply by fighting for it, were–ironically–hastening the end of slavery. There’s no telling what might have happened if war hadn’t broken out. Perhaps the Peculiar Institution would have slowly died away. Southerners were afraid of this, of a slow strangulation. Rather than wait for it, they chose to make an effort to stave it off entirely. They precipitated a crisis rather than see whether events would turn out to their benefit. But they miscalculated. They burned too hot, and with one great conflagration–brought on by themselves, mind you–their society was reduced to ashes. Slavery died because Southerners forced the issue and lost.
I’m not sure these are the sorts of reflections that most people have when they go to Gettysburg, or return from it. But those are some of my thoughts.
These thoughts were prompted by my visit this week to the National Military Park for the 150th anniversary of the battle. Today, July 3rd, 150 years ago was the third day of the great battle. Day 1 had seen the Union and Confederate armies converge on Gettysburg after a Union cavalry unit stumbled upon the entire Rebel army just outside of town. Day 2 saw sustained fighting along Cemetery and Seminary Ridges and the land in between, places like the Wheat Field, the Peach Orchard, Devil’s Den, and Little Round Top. Today, July 3, the third day of battle, saw one of the most famous and ill-advised charges in military history: a line of Confederates a mile long crossed nearly a mile of open ground directly in front of the Union lines and were–predictably–moved down by rifle and artillery fire. When people say that tactics hadn’t caught up to technology in the Civil War, this is what they mean. It’s known as Pickett’s Charge.
I visited Gettysburg over the weekend with some friends. We listened to a Park Ranger’s talk about the Peach Orchard, we heard a talk about Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain, and we viewed the extensive (and visually-appealing) museum. I went back yesterday because
I wanted to see more of the events and hadn’t gotten the chance over the weekend.
First of all, the National Park Service and the town of Gettysburg have gone all out for this enormous anniversary. There was a plethora of talks by Rangers; some were about individual sites, some were overviews. There were shuttles from place to place and into town. There were hydration stations. There were costumed interpreters all over the place. There were talks by historians. There was an illumination ceremony and a reenactment (not on Park grounds). Beyond the park, every Civil War-related or -themed place within a twenty mile radius seemed to have thrown open its doors in welcome. It was, to be honest, overwhelming. I could have spent the entire week–from last Saturday to this coming Sunday–and enjoyed all of it. I kept feeling that, although I was seeing a lot, I was missing even more.
And even though I was pleased to see the enormous–almost overwhelming–turn out for the events, I did feel like it was all a bit too much. Not that I begrudge the many other
tourists who came to see the place; I was one myself. Nor do I think the events in any way trivialized or commercialized the battle. Everything was respectful and well-done. Every form of interpretation–from plaques to living historians to Park Rangers–was excellent. But I would very much like to go back at some quieter time and get a better feeling for the place and what happened there. I had very little time–or space–for that kind of reflection when the battlefield was swarmed with visitors. A sense of perspective was hard to find in the midst of such a carnival atmosphere.
So what did I see? Yesterday, I began by stopping by the Confederate encampment of reenactors. They were in Pitzer’s Woods, an area that, a hundred and fifty years ago, was part of the Confederate line. I listened to the sutler talk about provisioning the army, and the medic talk about Civil War medicine (hint: improvements were being made all the time, but
it was still brutal). I headed off to see an artillery demonstration nearby. It was in the field by Pitzer’s Woods, and the canons were pointed roughly towards the Pennsylvania Memorial, where the Union lines would have been. Of course, they were shooting blanks and using a half charge, but it was still pretty impressive.
Next, I drove (because it was oppressively humid) to Little Round Top, which was thronged with people. At the crest of the hill is a great rocky outcropping which I clambered up to reach the Ranger talk, which was in progress. That particular point has a fantastic view of the surrounding area. Directly across a kind of valley is Devil’s Den, a great embrasure of
craggy rocks that proved particularly deadly. But that rocky crest is not the most famous part of the hill. That would be around the side of the hill, where it meets up with the Big Round Top next door. There’s a valley between the two hills. The Union was on Little Round Top; it was the extreme left of the entire Union line. The Confederates attempted to storm across the valley between the hills, overwhelm Joshua Chamberlain’s men, and take Little Round Top. By crushing the end of the Union line, the Confederates might have been able to drive the entire Union army back off its position. But Chamberlain was made of sterner stuff than that. He ordered his 20th Maine to fix bayonets and charge down the side of the hill, a bit like a door on a hinge. It worked, and Little Round Top held.
My next stop was Devil’s Den, which was absolutely overrun by visitors (is it uncharitable to call them tourists when I was one, too?). People were relaxing amongst the great boulders and fissures. Mothers were yelling at their children to get off the rocky edges. A few uniformed Union soldiers dangled their legs over the side and made calls on their cell phones. Practically a playground, and yet it was, one hundred fifty years ago, a very bloody spot on the battlefield. It’s difficult to keep that in mind when there’s so much life there now.
I joined one of the overview walks, which took us up and behind Devil’s Den to look out over the Triangular Field and the Valley of Death, areas between the two lines. The group was enormous–perhaps four or five hundred people trying to hear one Ranger. Even with his mic and amplifier, it was tough for everyone to hear. I was getting hungry and worn out from the heat, and besides didn’t like being part of the massive herd, so I headed off to the visitor’s center for food and AC.
From there, I walked over to the High Water Mark, the furthest point the Confederates reached during the battle. It’s on a ridge-line not far from General Meade’s headquarters. It was here, on July 3rd, 1863 (a hundred and fifty years ago today) that General Longstreet
sent his men across the open field–Pickett’s Charge. It was here that they almost succeeded. Under heavy fire, they reached the Union line at an angle in a stone wall. Lewis Armistead and his men nearly broke through the line, but were quickly surrounded by men in blue. Armistead was killed on the spot.
Looking out over the broad land that the charge came across, it looks like suicide.
Alas, by this time it was actually nearing the end of the day. Time has a funny way of slipping away. I wish I could have done more, but the crowds and my own human frailties (damn you, hunger and thirst!) made it impossible to do more.
The best thing about the entire experience: I discovered that, from where I live outside DC, I can get to Gettysburg in less than an hour and a half. (By the way, it’s no accident that it’s so easy to get to Gettysburg and Antietam from Washington DC; the Confederates wanted to keep Washington within easy marching distance, and the Union wanted to stay between them and the capital.) So, have no fear: I shall be back to Gettysburg.