Friday, December 5, 2008

Gettysburg

“… we cannot dedicate—we cannot consecrate—we cannot hallow—this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract.…”
---Abraham Lincoln, “the Gettysburg Address.” November 19, 1863

If you have a sense of history, stand at dawnon a summer day, the sun rising, the mist thinning on the well preserved battlefield at a place called Gettysburg, and you may know how it feels to be moved by an awesome and awful event.
It is north of the Mason-Dixon Line. Those two gentlemen surveyed it to settle a land dispute all the way from Ohio to the Atlantic Ocean, which was no mean feat in the early 1800's. Surveyors were a noble breed and a respected profession in the early colonies and states. George Washington started as one. Lincoln did some in Kentucky. George Mason became Governor of Virginia and a University is now named for him.
The line is quite straight making no allowance for natural boundaries. It became, during the Civil War, and since, the division between " hi y'all" and "hello.” It still is the demarcation for "the south" even though it seems quite far from it. Yet during the war, Lincoln declared martial law in Maryland so the state would not secede, leaving the Union with the untenable situation of a Capitol surrounded by states hostile to its existence. The majority of people of Maryland at the time lived in or near Baltimore or fished and farmed the eastern shore of the Chesapeake Bay. Many joined the Confederate Army.
La Coachasita and I had returned to civilization from the Shenandoah Mountains and the Blue Ridge Parkway. I had been to Gettysburg often. It is the only place that a major battle of the Civil War was fought in a northern state. One of the more interesting vacations I took when I was very young was here when my Father brought us to see this place he knew so well. He was a bit more than an amateur Civil War historian. He had read most of the books including those written by Bruce Canton, and in fact knew him and attended round table discussions about the War with him. Canton wrote of the War from the Union point of view without apology. I later inherited those books and many others which replicated the diaries of soldiers who fought here. My father knew many of their fascinating stories .
It started by accident, when Confederate soldiers came to town looking for shoes (not the one they had been sent to, as it happened) and concluded in the long and painful withdrawal of Lee and the Army of Northern Virginia, Three days of carnage in July of 1863 intervened.
There are still houses and working farms in the middle of the battlefield where General Pickett made his famous charge. The battle was never, except for some minor skirmishes on the first day, fought in the town itself.
The battlefield had changed very little from what I remembered. The town had . Like all interesting places there is a desire to become all things to all people. There are outlet stores, The Eisenhower Convention Center, and lots of resort hotels. If the battlefield interests you, fine, it’s over there if you want to go. However, there is a great film you can see for five dollars, so why bother tramping around over there? When we were here, the battlefield was the reason. A chance to buy clothes at a discount was for another time and place.
The "personal tour guides" of my youth survive. They are interesting fellows who will ride along in your car with you. They have a vast storehouse of important information and minutiae, information passed down from the elder men to the younger, some sons of the elders. They can tell you the whole story of the battle and are happy to stop at any of the monuments on the field and tell you what happened there. They make certain you stop at the more significant places. They know many things. They can tell you the distance each type of cannon could fire, and which side had how many. They know many of the stories so strange to this battle and to that war which tore families and friendships apart. The war was personal, the most personal Americans have ever participated in, and this brings ironic, sad, and serendipitous stories. Here at Gettysburg, for example, the only civilian killed was the fiancée of a young officer whose own company fired the shot. A farmer who had remained loyal to the Union lived here. His son enlisted in the Confederate Army. They saw each other here the second day of the battle for the first time since he went south to join two years earlier, spent two hours in the root cellar of the family house before the shelling started that morning, and then the boy went back to his company. They both survived. The house did not. Major Abner Doubleday was here, as he had been at Ft. Sumter the day the war began and he was only a Lieutenant. He had already likely invented at least a form of baseball and would later build the San Francisco cable car system.
There are many, many more. It is part of what haunts the place. Almost 55,000 men died here those first three days of July, nearly as many as in the entire Vietnam War. Yet this was not the bloodiest battle of the War. That many died at Antietam, Virginia on the first day of a three-day battle there a year earlier.
I stood at the monument that marks the place where General Pickett and 12,000 Confederate Troops left to cross 1,000 yards of open field under withering fire to try to breach the Union lines on the higher ground at Cemetery Ridge. It seems insane, yet likely what is best remembered of this battle. At the start, the line of troops stretched for more than a mile. By the time they reached the Emmitsburg Road a bit more than halfway, they were broken and leaderless yet the line was still a half-mile long. Only 200 men actually broke through the Union emplacements and were quickly captured or fell back. General Pickett was not one of them. The charge cost Robert E. Lee not only Pickett, but most of the very best leaders of his Army. All 15 Regimental Commanders, two Brigadier Generals, and six Colonels were killed.
Like many officers who fought for the Confederate States, Pickett had been to West Point and had friends in both armies. Under flags of "truce," which the arcane rules of War allowed in that time, some of those in the Union Army rode through the lines to see him the night before and begged him to try to make General Lee understand that he could not succeed. He seemed to acknowledge that he would not when he spoke in a melancholy way about the human cost. Yet he had his orders and he saw it as his duty to General Lee and the Confederate States to do as he was told. He led the center and right flank.
When he was done, it was nearly over. On the same day that Grant took Vicksburg on the Mississippi in the West, Lee retreated from Gettysburg . The southern troops had no more to give, the force broken, their energy and munitions spent. The Union forces under General Meade were victorious. Yet Meade feared a counter attack at dark and was restrained by what he feared would be the cost in Union troops. He did not press the battle. He did not try to pursue Lee’s army and destroy it as he could have. As a result, the Army of Northern Virginia was allowed to leave. A seventeen-mile long train of wagons re-crossed the Potomac River to regroup and fight again for another two years, at great cost to both sides, and much to the agitation of President Lincoln. General Meade was relieved and General Grant brought east to command the Army of the Potomac. Many historians believe had Meade fought differently it could have ended here. Many lives might have been saved.
It is hard to stand in that early light and look across the fields knowing all of this. It is hallowed ground. The words Lincoln spoken at the cemetery here but three and one-half months later haunt one still.

4 comments:

  1. "Four score and seven years ago ...."

    Historical and moving words. I have never been to Gettysburg, but have always wanted to. My sister lives in Penn. and she and her husband have visited many times.
    Very good blog. One can almost feel and see the battle through your eyes.
    Please continue to blog. I check your site every day.

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  2. Thanks for the kind words. I'll try to get something up now and then, but this will get more use when I start traveling again in early spring. My novel is in the middle of proofreading (ugh!) at the moment, so I am a little low on inspiration.

    Thanks again!

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  3. I remember standing at a wooden rail fence at the site of Pickett's Charge, more than 40 years ago. And pretty much the same thoughts went through my head, having read all of Bruce Catton's books, too.

    But being a Southerner, I had a tendency to romanticize the Southern cause. What's a little slavery when you've got Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson? It seems the war is still fought in some parts of the South, but more and more it looks like they're letting go of it. That's for the best.

    Just finished reading McPherson's Tried by War: Abraham Lincoln as Commander in Chief, which made me go down to the basement for a yellowing paperback last opened 30 years ago, T. Harry Williams' Lincoln and His Generals. I prefer the Williams book, though both would be improved by better maps.

    Speaking of which, I liked this from the Williams book:

    One of the most ironic examples of American military unreadiness was the spectacle of Northern -- and Southern -- generals fight in their own country and not knowing where they were going or how to get there. Before the war the government had collected no topographical information about neighboring countries or even the United States, except for the West. No accurate military maps existed. General Henry W. Halleck was running a campaign in the western theater in 1862 with maps he got from a book store.

    It was a brutal war (name one that wasn't) but maybe it's surprising more men weren't killed.

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  4. Interesting post! My older son enjoys Civil War history. We've never been to Gettysburg, but we have the movie with Jeff Daniels and Martin Sheen. For many years, we watched it every 4th of July. Hopefully, its fairly accurate.

    We watched a Civil War battle re-enactment once in Wisconsin. There was even a field hospital in operation on the side. It was a fascinating afternoon.

    I had never heard of Abner Doubleday before....interesting info you included about him.

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