As a side note, I would have blogged about this someplace else, but I had a recent conversation with Ryan Beaumont, and when he suggested a mini-blog chain on this day in history, I was thrilled to participate. Check out the thoughts from Ryan and Red Shoes. Thanks to Ryan for the idea, and for coordinating. And if you're here looking for sex or erotica, I'm sure I'll return there in my next post.
I was very fortunate in that I had an eighth-grade Social Studies teacher who made our unit on the Civil War a riveting experience. Before that, I only knew that barest essentials of the war (i.e., the North won, Abraham Lincoln was the President who saved the Union.) My teacher brought the subject to life, and I remember walking out of class every day excited to hear how the story would continue the next day. He sparked a life-long interest in the Civil War that has never abated.
On a personal note, some of my in-laws are from a distant and exotic country, and when they were visiting a few years ago, we talked about possible day trips, and they very much wanted to tour Gettysburg. I was hesitant, and wondered if they'd really be interested, but they insisted they were interested - and we ended up having the best time. We did all the Visitor's Center exhibits and did a driving tour of the battlefield, and they wanted to know everything. It was a very fun day.
It's interesting because it's one of the only significant defeats of Robert E. Lee, the greatest battlefield commander in U.S. history. Before the war, he was recognized as the finest soldier of his day, and when the South seceded in 1861, he was offered command of both the Union and Confederate armies. As a Virginia native, he went with his home state and the Confederacy. Lee won one smashing victory after another against a Union army 2-3 times bigger in manpower and vastly better equipped.
Why is Gettysburg important? Because the defeat there was the final nail in the Southern hope that they could win independence from the North by victory on the battlefield. It's easy to forget that Lee's goal wasn't the capture of Gettysburg - it was to continue the war on Northern soil, possibly taking Harrisburg, PA (the state capital and a vital railroad hub), or even Philadelphia. After the defeat at Gettysburg, that was no longer possible. The South could still have won the war if the North had tired of the fighting (which was still a very real possibility until Sherman's capture of Atlanta in July, 1864), but Southern independence through victory on the battlefield was no longer a realistic possibility after Gettysburg.
For every Southern boy fourteen years old, not once but whenever he wants it, there is the instant when it's still not yet two o’clock on that July afternoon in 1863, the brigades are in position behind the rail fence, the guns are laid and ready in the woods and the furled flags are already loosened to break out and Pickett himself with his long oiled ringlets and his hat in one hand probably and his sword in the other looking up the hill waiting for Longstreet to give the word and it's all in the balance, it hasn't happened yet, it hasn't even begun yet, it not only hasn't begun yet but there is still time for it not to begin against that position and those circumstances which made more men than Garnett and Kemper and Armistead and Wilcox look grave yet it's going to begin, we all know that, we have come too far with too much at stake and that moment doesn't need even a fourteen-year-old boy to think This time. Maybe this time with all this much to lose and all this much to gain: Pennsylvania, Maryland, the world, the golden dome of Washington itself to crown with desperate and unbelievable victory the desperate gamble, the cast made two years ago....So it was a turning point in history. And it happened here in Pennsylvania, in the beautiful rolling hills surrounding a little crossroads country town, 150 years ago today. That's worth remembering.