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Phil-osophically Speaking

Gettysburg: An American Anniversary

A quarter of a century has now passed since I first set foot on the lush, rolling farmlands of a quaint little town called Gettysburg. My journey to this picaresque destination was not a bucolic rendezvous with nature but a pilgrimage into the vortex of history where a new nation was forged in blood and musket fire. Amid these fairest shades of earth a battle of monumental proportions was fought, an encounter that would decide the fate of a young Republic defined by the loftiest expressions of freedom, yet burdened by the existence of slavery.

 

By July 1, 1863, the country  had been at war with itself for 27 months; a bloody fratricidal conflict over slavery and secession dividing North and South. The perpetuity of the Union was at stake and President Lincoln was committed to the idea of indivisibility:  Physically speaking we cannot separate. We cannot remove our sections from each other, nor build an impassable wall between them.

 

Nevertheless the war came. After winning a series of stunningly brilliant victories in the South, Confederate commander Robert E. Lee now daringly marched north. While the Army of Northern Virginia had performed magnificently, the war on the Western front, with the vital city of Vicksburg under siege, was going poorly.  The South was dramatically disadvantaged in terms of population, factories, railroads (New York State alone had more industrial output than the South) and Lee realized he could no longer fight a war of attrition. As casualties accumulated, political pressure mounted in the North for a peaceful settlement. A successful invasion would yield Lee supplies he desperately needed for his hungry and ill-fitted army and might well put a final nail in the coffin of the warmongers of the North, destroying Lincoln’s prospects for re-election in 1864 and securing nationhood for the Confederacy, a status Lincoln had sedulously denied.

 

So Lee marched north toward Gettysburg. The irony was that neither Lee nor George B. Meade, appointed just 3 days earlier as Commander of the Army of the Potomac, chose this ground of pastoral settings, pocket-sized forests and rocky outcrops to fight upon.  From the beginning of the campaign Lee was blind. His redoubtable cavalry commander Jeb Stuart was supposed to provide intelligence, screening Lee’s advance into Pennsylvania, but fortuitously for the North, the encampment of the Union army lay astride the route Stuart was to follow, forcing the cavalry commander to swing ever farther left. It was more than fate, however that brought Lee, or for that matter, Meade, to Gettysburg. By either chance or design 10 roads radiated out of Gettysburg and beckoned both armies into the bosom of battle.

 

Peering about this hallowed ground, I imagined the horror of this farmland littered not only by dead and dying soldiers, but also horses and beasts of burden. At the Trostle farmhouse, the 9th Massachusetts alone lost 80 out of 88 horses during the fighting on July 2. That was the least of it.  It was said that in the “Wheatfield” of Gettysburg you could walk from one end to the other without touching the ground because of the the twisted human corpses that lay prostrate on the earth. The very topography of the battlefield is dotted with iconic touchstones of heroism and sacrifice that are as sacred to the Civil War buff as the “Stations of the Cross” are to the devout Christian: “Little Round Top,” Cemetery Ridge,” “Culp’s Hill,” “The Peach Orchid,” “Devil’s Den,” and “Bloody Angle” all became part of the sacred real estate of American history and folklore. 

 

For 3 interminable days, 170,000 soldiers clashed repeatedly as the battle seesawed back and forth leaving in its wake an unimaginable 51,000 casualties. No machine guns, air strikes or tanks crashing through the brush: Just boys from Pennsylvania killing boys from North Carolina and vice versa. I will relay briefly, the shifting fortunes of the battle:

The first day boasted Confederate victories but also lost opportunities. Despite Lee’s encouragement, General Ewell decided his troops were too battered and exhausted to take Cemetery Hill, a prominent crest with high strategic value.  

 

Ewell’s declination would have fateful consequences for the outcome of the battle. I’m convinced that if Stonewall Jackson, Lee’s greatest general, had not two months earlier been killed at Chancellorsville, Cemetery Hill would have been seized and the victory would have been a Confederate one.  I never subscribed to Leo Tolstoy’s underlying premise in War and Peace that human beings are captive to fate and larger forces; one man with the right stuff can make a difference. 

 

Obtaining the high ground would also define the fighting on the second day, the pivotal moment occurring when Union General G.K. Warren secured a position called Little Round Top. It would, however, be left to Colonel Joshua Chamberlain, a Bowdoin College professor of rhetoric, to defend it from onrushing Confederates.  His ammunition virtually exhausted after repelling several charges, Chamberlain ordered his badly outnumbered 20th Maine down the slope in a bayonet charge against two Alabama regiments saving the vital far left of the Union line. Ever since, Little Round Top would rank with Bunker Hill, Valley Forge and the Alamo as a ringing symbol of American valor and determination.

 

On July 3, the third day, Lee remained confident of victory. Convinced Meade had strengthened his flanks at the expense of his center, Lee ordered a frontal assault forever immortalized as Pickett’s charge. It would be Lee’s greatest mistake and it cost him the battle if not the war. Like boiling water, the controversial order percolates as hotly now as it did then. General James Longstreet, Lee’s superb second in command, counseled Lee against the assault: “General, I’ve been a soldier all my life. I’ve fought from the ranks up, you know my service. But sir, I must tell you now, I believe this attack will fail. No 15,000 men ever made could take that ridge.

 

Nevertheless, the charge was made in what’s been called “the high water mark of the Confederacy.” Incredibly, the plan almost succeeded. But if nothing quite succeeds like success, then nothing quite fails like failure. Fewer than half of the Confederate soldiers from its three divisions returned. Meade, believing his own troops too battered from the strife did not counterattack. A torrential rain soaked the earth as Lee retreated back to Virginia, his wagon train stretching 17 miles and carrying more than 8,000 wounded, but leaving many thousands of wounded behind.

 

On a chilly November morning in 1994, my wife and I stood where the famous charge was made, which is now memorialized by a magnificent statue of Lee on his horse Traveller. With the morning mist hanging over the landscape like a heavy sigh, I tried to imagine the Confederate line, almost a mile and a half long, making the charge over nearly a mile of open ground. Suddenly, riding out of the vaporous moisture I espied, to my disbelief, 3 Confederate soldiers on horseback galloping toward us. I half expected

Rod Serling, with his ever present cigarette, to appear out of the shadows and introduce another episode from the Twilight Zone. But it was no apparition as the three horsemen from Virginia (re-enactors) halted before the statue, unsheathed their sabers and saluted this son of the Confederacy in an act of filial devotion. Though he killed more Americans than Adolph Hitler and Imperial Japan combined, Robert E. Lee is perhaps the most beloved general in American history. Just another paradox in a paradoxical war.   

 

Pondering these killing fields of 5,000 acres and 1,400 monuments touches the very depths of human emotion: The vast armies, the battle strategies and lost opportunities.

Most poignant of all are those gripping human interest stories. Abner Doubleday, the reputed inventor of baseball, fought there, so did George Nixon, Richard Nixon’s great-grandfather. The only civilian to fight at Gettysburg was 69-year old John Burns, the town’s former constable, who was enraged that the invading Confederate army had scattered his cows. Grabbing his flintlock he fought with the Union troops until wounded. There is a statue of him at the Gettysburg battlefield. Or the nationwide search that was undertaken when a dead, unidentified Union soldier was found clutching a small photograph of his three young children. Who was this father? The photo was widely publicized and New York’s Sgt. Amos Humiston’s children were finally identified by his grieving widow. He too has his own monument, the only enlisted man so honored.

 

Then there are those mute witnesses: Photographs of the dead, stark and silent, taken in the pioneering era of photography by Alexander Gardner and Matthew Brady which flooded the newspapers, brought home for the first time the cruelty and horror of the war. Only one civilian out of the 2,400 townspeople of Gettysburg was killed. Jennie Wade, 20 years old, engaged to be married, was baking biscuits in her older sister’s kitchen on Baltimore Street when a bullet crashed through the door and struck her in the back. She died instantly. There’s a legend that any young woman who puts her ring finger through that bullet hole will be engaged in a year.

 

The searing description of the young Union soldier whose arm was torn off by a shell becomes grafted into to the mind: Like a squirrel half run over in the road, the youth sprung up and ran in circles as blood spurted from his stump: “I won’t die, I won’t die” he cried until he kneeled over and died. So many had died that the stench of death lingered for weeks in the torrential summer heat; residents of Gettysburg were overburdened in burying the dead and caring for the wounded. It is believed that there are as many as 1,200 unmarked and unknown Confederate graves on the battlefield; one was accidentally disinterred as recently as 1996. 

 

The little town that had been a welcome stopover for weary travelers had become a gigantic graveyard. Thoughts of a national cemetery and a ceremony officially dedicating it soon surfaced. The story is well known of how Abraham Lincoln, with just 272 words, defined the struggle and gave meaning to the war’s terrible carnage. Literary scholars have long pondered its mysterious power. It’s the closest thing we have to an American psalm; a miracle of compression and profundity. It will live as long as the nation endures and as we solemnly observe its 150th anniversary, so will Gettysburg.